cloak of Kamehameha I

Bishop Museum

After hiking Diamond Head we visited the Bishop Museum in the afternoon. According to the website, “the Bishop Museum is the premier place to experience the history, arts and culture of the Hawaiian people”.

We saw a planetarium show about the stars and techniques used by the Polynesians to navigate the 2,600+ miles between Tahiti and Hawaii. Amazing when you consider how small the islands are and the vast ocean that allows little room for error. And the Polynesians did this centuries before the chronometer, sextant, and GPS were invented.

Hawaii is the only part of the United States that had royalty. Here’s the cloak of the first Hawaiian king, Kamehameha I. It’s about 200 years old, and the colors are still vibrant.

cloak of Kamehameha I
cloak of Kamehameha I

Even more interesting is the story behind the feathered cloak. The yellow part of the cloak has feathers from the mamo bird, where each bird has only 6-8 yellow feathers. The 500K feathers in this cloak required about 60,000 birds!

mamo cloak sign
mamo cloak sign

Not surprisingly, the mamo went extinct by the end of the 19th century. The Bishop Museum also displays the cloaks of the Hawaiian monarchs succeeding Kamehameha I. The cloaks dwindle in size and quality with each successive monarch, showing the extinction of the mamo and the dwindling fortune of the monarchy as it lost control of Hawaii to Americans and British.

A cloak from 1823 has the feathers from 250,000 mamo birds. Made for the king’s sister to celebrate the return of the king from a visit to the British monarch, she instead wore it when the bodies of the king and queen returned to Hawaii. They had died of measles while waiting in vain to see King George IV. Unlike Europeans and Asians, Polynesians have no natural resistance to measles and smallpox, so these diseases killed much of the Hawaiian population.

The Bishop Museum covers a sad part of Hawaiian history, when armed US Marines went ashore to help overthrow the Hawaiian monarchy. There was a bill for the US to annex Hawaii, but President Cleveland withdrew it, stating “the military demonstration upon the soil of Honolulu was of itself an act of war“. However, his successor, President McKinley, approved the annexation, so Hawaii became part of the US.

For a fuller history of Hawaii, I recommend reading Hawaii Pono by Lawrence Fuchs.


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I enjoy travel, art, food, photography, nature, California native plants, history, and yoga. I am a retired software engineer. The gravatar is a Nuttall's woodpecker that visited our backyard.

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