This majestic feather cloak is a trophy from a bloody battle, fought two centuries ago by two cousins with opposing views, a conflict that decided forever the cultural fate of Hawai‘i. One cousin, Liholiho—Kamehameha II—was determined to end the ancient kapu system that regulated traditional customs, the veneration of gods, the conduct of eating and much else. The other cousin, Kekuaokalani, was a traditionalist; to him, it is said, even a chief’s shadow was sacred and anyone who stepped into it must be killed. The ai kapu—the eating taboo—was also severe; women were forbidden to eat bananas, for example, among other things. But the kapu had endured for centuries. It ordered Hawai‘i society, it conferred respect, it is related to our word “taboo.”
The dispute over this belief system became a battle that was fought at Kuamo’o, near Kona on the Big Island of Hawai‘i, toward the end of December 1819. Kekuaokalani was wearing the feather cloak, a sanctified symbol of his prestige. He was mortally wounded, and at his death on the battlefield the cloak was stripped from him by the victors. His wife, Manono, fought furiously and died beside him.
But even decisive battles are never so simple. This one would probably never have been fought in the way it was if foreigners from America, England, France and Russia had not gone to Hawai‘i as plunderers, advisers and traders—influential, not to say subversive, in their habits, swaggering through the islands, questioning the kapu, indifferent toward the gods, boasting of their firepower and their ironmongery. Most of these foreigners were in search of sandalwood, the fragrant timber that they sold for high prices to Chinese traders in Canton.
Money did not figure in these sandalwood transactions; firepower and iron took its place. Capt. James Cook had established the tradition. In February 1779, when Cook took a fancy to an extravagant red feather cloak that Liholiho’s father, Kamehameha the Great, was wearing, the king handed it over to the English voyager in exchange for seven iron daggers.
The sandalwood traders offered “Brown Bess” muskets, pistols, ammunition, swords, powder and flints. According to the British Royal Navy explorer George Vancouver, who would visit the islands in the 1790s, and others, the rifles were of inferior quality, antiquated and unreliable. But clashes in the islands, among rival clans and chieftains, boosted the trade in armaments, turning Hawaiian society into a gun culture.
“In view of the strife of contending chieftains,” Ralph Kuykendall writes in his definitive work, The Hawaiian Kingdom, “it is not strange to find in the contemporary literature of the period repeated references to the efforts of the chiefs to obtain cannons, muskets, and ammunition....Captain Douglas in the spring of 1789 supplied Kamehameha with a quantity of arms and ammunition, including a swivel gun mounted on the platform of a large double canoe.”
Kamehameha’s son Liholiho inherited a substantial arsenal, as did Kekuaokalani. So it’s not surprising that the battle of Kuamo’o was a bloody one, blazing with cannon fire and the crack of pistols and muskets, as well as the thump of sling stones, and spears, the clash of iron daggers and undoubtedly on the traditionalist’s Kekuaokalani’s side, the consecrated leiomano, the shark-toothed club favored by the god of war.
The battle itself was waged over a number of days in a series of skirmishes, both in Kuamo’o and on the nearby sea, warriors fighting from their canoes with firearms, spears and stones—including a swivel-gun on a double-hulled canoe, possibly the one acquired in trade 30 years earlier. Historians estimate the dead in the hundreds. Today, the Hawaiian cultural preservation group Aloha Kuamo’o Aina, steward of the historic battlefield, promotes the view that, “With her dying breath, Chiefess Manono is said to have uttered Malama ko aloha—keep your love—a plea to both sides that no matter what obstacles come to Hawaii, keep your love for one another.”
The cloak was taken, and the bodies of Kekuaokalani and Manono and their fallen piled with stones. The old gods were overthrown, there was no veneration. But—behold!—three months after this battle, in March 1820, the first missionaries arrived from New England, with Holy Bibles and a new god to worship.
The cloak, donated to the Smithsonian in 1947 by Princess Kawananakoa, bears exquisite feathers plucked from fabulous birds that were prolific all over Hawai‘i. The black feathers are possibly from the black O’o, the red perhaps from the Scarlet Hawaiian honeycreeper, but in any case the O’o, and scores of other Hawaiian birds, are extinct, the most melancholy feature of this beautiful thing.