A Feather Cloak for Friedrich Wilhelm III

Divinity in Polynesia

The ‘Divinity in Polynesia’ display tells of relationships between objects, people and deities, of the life-giving and life-taking power ‘mana’ and of the sacred status known as ‘tapu’: Until the 19th century, Polynesian societies were strictly hierarchical. At the top, the rulers came from the hereditary nobility.

The ruling men and women were regarded as having divine origins: through them, the gods and divine ancestors could make contact with the people. They guaranteed and watched over the health, success and prosperity of the people, and were honoured and appeased with offerings, ceremonies and tributes.

At the centre of these relationships between rulers and gods stood some particularly impressive objects, one of which can now be admired at the Humboldt Forum: a feather cloak from Hawai’i. Feather cloaks (‘ahu ‘ula) are among the most fascinating items from Hawai’i. The feathers were prepared by the women, and the men then attached thousands of feathers to a kind of fishing net to create these unique garments. The cloaks were a symbol of the rulers’ power and divinity, and would usually be worn by high-ranking persons on ceremonial occasions. Together with a headpiece, they protected the most sacred parts of the ruler’s body: the head and the spine. The cloaks were extremely rare items, inherited by high-ranking people.

Until the 19th century, feather cloaks were also exchanged in Hawai’i to establish important relationships, or to honour a particular person. Honolulu was a centre for German trade, serving as a stopping point for Prussian merchant ships on their way to East Asia. This cloak, which was said to have been worn by King Kamehameha I (reign 1795–1819) was gifted by his son, King Kamehameha III (reign 1824–1854) in 1828 to King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia. He gave the cloak to Wilhelm Oswald on board the Prussian merchant ship Princess Louise, to be taken to Berlin to be presented, along with other objects, to Friedrich Wilhelm III. In return, in 1831, the Prussian king sent Kamehameha III gifts including a guard’s uniform, a portrait in oils of King Friedrich Wilhelm III, a portrait of General Blücher, saddle, sword and pistols, as well as Prussian industrial goods such as an armchair, hat, dress and jewellery.

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Room 219 – Oceania: Rituals and Beliefs