Mourner's costume


British Museum

British Museum

This dramatic costume was worn during a violent expression of grief when a Tahitian chief died. The chief’s family would enlist a group of mourners, and the leader wore a costume such as this. Rampaging through the district, where the deceased had held authority, sounding pearlshell clappers in warning, the chief mourner wielded a long-handled weapon set with sharks’ teeth. He and his soot-blackened attendants would attack anyone who got in their way. When Captain James Cook’s ship anchored at Tahiti for the first time in 1769, Joseph Banks took part in one of these heva tu-pa-pa’u ceremonies as an attendant.

However, attempts to collect a costume failed. It was not until Cook’s second voyage that chiefs agreed to part with them when the voyagers were able to offer sacred red feathers from Tonga in exchange. This is probably the costume a chiefly family gave to Cook in 1774. These costumes were expensive to make. Each pearl shell could cost as much as a pig. The shimmering chest ‘apron’ (‘ahu pa-rau) was made of tiny drilled rectangles of pearl shell. A small hole in one of the shells of the face mask allowed the wearer to see. Some of the coconut-shell pendants attached to the barkcloth apron have notched motifs, a design that refers to ancestral genealogies.

The British Museum acknowledges contemporary cultural perspectives associated with the objects in its collection. Please note: cultural rights may apply to this object.

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  • Title: Mourner's costume
  • Date Created: 1750/1799
  • Physical Dimensions: Height: 214.00cm; Width: 93.00cm (approx); Width: 116.00cm (crate); Height: 254.00cm (crate); Depth: 91.00cm (crate)
  • External Link: British Museum collection online
  • Technique: sewn; bound; carved; beaten
  • Registration number: Oc,TAH.78
  • Production place: Made in Society Islands
  • Place: Found/Acquired Tahiti
  • Peoples: Made by Tahitian
  • Other information: Cultural rights may apply.
  • Material: bark; tropic bird feather; pearlshell; wood; coconut; turtle-shell; hair; fibre; coir
  • Copyright: Photo: © Trustees of the British Museum
  • Acquisition: From Cook, James
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