Captain Cook in the Holophusikon 1: ‘Ahu ‘ula (eighteenth-century feather cloak from Hawaii)


(This is the first of a two-part post on material objects  in the 18th century.)

Holophusikon Cloak (Photo courtesy Te Papa Tongarewa/ Museum of New Zealand)

Holophusikon Cloak (Photo courtesy Te Papa Tongarewa/ Museum of New Zealand)

Sir Ashton Lever’s Museum […] has a whole Room ornamented with instruments and articles of dress, of the Inhabitants of those Countries alone, which were discovered in the last voyage of the unfortunate Captain Cook. The dress is entirely made of birds feathers, and their warlike instruments, of stone, besides some necklaces, and a kind of Coat of mail, of dogs teeth.[1]

As an American tourist in England in the 1780s, John Quincy Adams wrote letters home describing his London sightseeing trips. He was especially enthused about Sir Ashton Lever’s Museum or “Holophusikon,” an exhibition of curiosities housed in a large, cluttered house in what is now Leicester Square. One of the Holophusikon’s most popular collections, as Adams noted, had been brought to England in James Cook’s ships Resolution and Discovery when they returned in 1780 from Cook’s third voyage to the Pacific. This voyage had seen two especially newsworthy events: the first European encounter with Hawaii (which Cook named the Sandwich Islands), and the violent death of Cook in those islands in 1779. By buying up Hawaiian artefacts, Lever capitalised on the popular European fascination with these two events, and with the mysterious new land of “Owhyhee.”

Featherwork items – including mahiole (helmets), ‘ahu ‘ula (cloaks)and akua hulu manu (sculptural images of gods) – were piled on the floor of the Holophusikon, arranged in glass and mahogany cases, and hung on the walls. They were made from a plant fibre mesh, into which craftsmen had painstakingly woven thousands of tiny bundles of red and yellow feathers. The feathers came from honeycreeper birds, each individually trapped and plucked. The scarcity and sacred power of their materials, and the extraordinary labour intensity of their production, made featherwork objects powerful symbols of chiefly status in Hawaii. The Hawaiian chief Kalani’opu’u had presented Cook with a magnificent ‘ahu ‘ula at a ceremony a few weeks before he was killed. This cloak was acquired by Lever for his museum. At the break up of the Holophusikon in 1806, it was sold. It is now held by Te Papa Tongarewa/ Museum of New Zealand in Wellington.

Detached from its original political and religious context, in the Holophusikon the cloak became an embodiment of the glamour of Hawaii in the eighteenth-century London imagination. Its dazzling colours and soft texture were alien and exotic in this damp, somewhat grubby city. Contemporary British accounts struggle to compare Hawaiian featherwork to more familiar materials, or, like Adams, simply give up and declare it “curious.” One guide to the museum instructed its readers to admire “the colours of the feathers – red, yellow, and brown, and with […] much art disposed” – the cloaks must be, it concluded, a Hawaiian version of European coronation robes and crown jewels.[2] Another speculated that the “curious manufacture” of this “superb cloak” (and the other “elegant and singularly beautiful cloaks” displayed around it) “would no doubt be found a work of considerable time and expence in the hands of the most ingenious European artist.” Its “delicate softness and glossy appearance” could only be likened to “the thickest and richest velvets.”[3]

Language like this easily slipped into the baroque flourishes of contemporary advertisements, which sold luxuries like silks and feathers through elaborate hyperbole and name-dropping. Unlike the British Museum – which also held a collection of Pacific artefacts – the Holophusikon was a thoroughly commercial institution. It attracted visitors through intensive newspaper campaigns, and prioritised consumer amusement over education (one of its other popular exhibits was a room of taxidermied monkeys dressed up and posed in tableaux). Its publicity materials emphasise an comfortable and elegant building appropriate for “people of the first fashion.”[4] Other establishments turned similar Pacific artefacts into Western commodities. At Daniel Boulter’s shop-museum in Yarmouth, for example, a “Beautiful Feathered Cloak, worn by the Chiefs of Owhyhee,” cost 1l.1s.[5] Imitations were available: Mr Berrow’s Feather and Flower Manufactory on Pall Mall offered ladies “a pleasing variety of his new invented Feather Hats,” copying the techniques of Lever’s “feather dresses.”[6] Other versions appeared in paintings at the Royal Academy, at masquerade balls, and as stage costumes at Covent Garden. When Elizabeth Montagu wanted to demonstrate her wealth and taste in 1781, she designed a set of huge featherwork wall panels for her London townhouse.[7]

The Holophusikon’s exhibition of Hawaiian artefacts reinforced existing associations in the British imagination between Pacific islands and luxury, urban entertainment and exotic glamour. As an evangelical movement hostile to these forms of metropolitan pleasure emerged in the 1790s, this kind of appeal was often reframed as mere decadence and barbarity, making Hawaii a particular target for missionary discourse. The craftsmanship and beauty of the featherwork in the Holophusikon, for the Baptist writer John Evans, in 1798, suggested only the wasteful extravagance of “the ingenuity of savages” when misdirected towards the worship of “hideous monsters” instead of the Christian god. “In the contemplation […] of these exhibitions,” he concluded, “we cannot help pitying the ignorance of those deluded creatures.” Both pagan Hawaiians, and British pleasure-seekers, he argued, were equally diverted from real virtue by the pursuit of the sensual luxury represented by the cloak.[8] These attacks were intensified by the other association which made Lever’s Pacific artefacts a metropolitan sensation in the 1780s: their links (real or imagined) with the famous Captain Cook, increasingly regarded as a reforming colonial hero, and particularly with his violent death. This, and the continuing celebrity status of Cook in museums today, will be explored in my next post.



[1] John Quincy Adams, in letter to Elizabeth Cranch (18 April 1784), Founding Families: Digital Editions of the Papers of the Winthrops and the Adamses, edited by C. James Taylor (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 2007).

[2] The School-Room Party, Out of School Hours (London: T. Hurst, 1800), pp. 11-12.

[3] A Companion to the Museum, (Late Sir Ashton Lever’s) (London: n.p., 1790), pp. 18-19

[4] London Courant (11 February 1782)

[5] Daniel Boulter, Museum Boulterianum (Yarmouth: n.p., c. 1794), p. 77

[6] Morning Herald and Daily Advertiser (6 November 1781)

[7] See Ruth Scobie, “To dress a room for Montagu”: Pacific cosmopolitanism and Elizabeth Montagu’s feather hangings” in Lumen: Selected Proceedings from the Canadian Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies 33 (forthcoming).

[8] John Evans, “A Visit to Sir Ashton Lever’s Museum, near Black Friars Bridge” in Monthly Visitor and Pocket Companion 5 (September 1798): 53-62.

Ruth Scobie is an Early Career Research Fellow at The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH). She is also a member of the Celebrity Research Network .



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