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Hawaiian Feathered Helmet

Hawaiian Feathered Helmet

Hawaiian Feathered Helmet

This Hawaiian feather helmet, known as ‘mahiole’ in the Hawaiian language, was worn together with a feather cloak by the chiefly class of Hawaii. These helmets are made from a woven basketry frame structure decorated with bird feathers and featured a central crest running from the centre of the forehead to the nape of the neck. There were significant variations, in the design of the Hawaiian helmets, with colour and the arrangement of the feather patterns as well as the crest varying in height and thickness. The feathered garments were reserved exclusively for use by royalty symbolising their divinity, rank and power.

As this style of helmet was associated with chiefs of the island of Hawaii, it is likely that it was collected during Cook’s third voyage (1776-1780), which included visits to the islands of Kauai, Maui and Hawaii. Sixteen of these helmets were collected during the travels of Captain Cook. When Captain James Cook visited Hawaii in 1778, he was received by a high chief, and at the end of the meeting, the high chief placed the feathered helmet and cloak he had been wearing on Cook. The Hawaiians also laid several other cloaks at Cook’s feet as well as other offerings of food.

Captain Cook and his crew were the first Europeans ever to visit Hawaii. Cook’s arrival was seen as auspicious because it coincided with an annual festival and he was welcomed with high honour. Unfortunately over the following week’s misunderstandings developed, and in an attempted forced negotiation Captain Cook was killed by the Hawaiians, as Cook was trying to help launch a boat from the shore to return to his ship with the high chief. The Hawaiians then took Cook’s body as Cook’s crew retreated to their vessels.

James Cook

Captain James Cook (1728 – 1779) was an explorer, navigator, cartographer, and captain in the Royal Navy. Cook made three voyages to the Pacific Ocean, during which he achieved the first recorded European contact with the eastern coastline of Australia and the Hawaiian Islands, and the first European circumnavigation of New Zealand. He left a legacy of new knowledge which was to influence all his successors and there are many memorials worldwide dedicated to his achievements.

Cook joined the British merchant navy as a teenager and then the Royal Navy where he saw action in the Seven Years’ War, and subsequently surveyed and mapped much of the entrance to the Saint Lawrence River, Canada. He was commissioned in 1766 as commander of HM Bark Endeavour for the first of three Pacific voyages. In three voyages Cook sailed thousands of miles across mostly uncharted areas of the globe. Cook mapped lands from New Zealand to Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean in greater detail and on a scale not previously achieved. He displayed physical courage and an ability to lead men in adverse conditions.

Cook was attacked and killed in 1779 during his third exploratory voyage in the Pacific while attempting to kidnap a Hawaiian chief, to reclaim stolen items.

Hawaiian Feather Helmets

Hawaiian feather helmets, known as mahiole, were worn with feather cloaks. These were symbols of the highest rank reserved for the men of the chiefly class of Hawaii. At least sixteen of these helmets were collected during Captain Cook’s voyages. These helmets are made from a woven frame structure decorated with bird feathers and are examples of excellent featherwork techniques. Although birds were exploited for their feathers, they were not killed, a few feathers harvested and then the birds were released.



  • How did Cook with his vast experience, allow relationships to deteriorate to the point that the Hawaiians attacked him?
  • How has our world been affected by James Cook’s discoveries?
  • Why do the Hawaiian feather helmets, that the first Europeans saw, look like classic Greek war helmets?
  • Hawaiian feather helmets were symbols of the highest class in Hawaii. What symbols do we use in our society and culture?
  • What happened to Cook’s body?

Hawaiian Feathered Helmet

  • Title:              Hawaiian Feathered Helmet
  • Created:       18thC (before 1780)
  • Culture:        Hawaiian
  • Place:            Hawaii
  • Materials:     Vine, fibre, honeyeater and other bird feathers
  • Dimensions: H: 37 cm; W: 17 cm D: 30 cm
  • Museum:      The British Museum

Collections of the British Museum

Ancient Egypt and Sudan Collection

The Middle East Collection

Ancient Greece and Rome Collection

The Britain, Europe and Prehistory Collection

The Asian Collection

The Africa, Oceania and the Americas Collection

The Prints and Drawings Collection


“No kind deed has ever lacked its reward.”
– Hawaiian Proverbs


Photo Credit: 1)By Geni (Photo by user:geni) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons;  Content: Content from Wikipedia articles on the above subjects is licensed under CC-BY-SA