A Mourning Dress brought back from Tahiti by Captain James Cook

A Mourning Dress brought back from Tahiti by Captain James Cook

Contributor: Barbara Schaff

Location: Göttingen, Germany

Description: This elaborate mourning dress, or heva, stands out as a particularly magnificent example of Tahitian artisanship among the approximately 2000 ethnographical objects which were either received as presents or tokens of exchange by Cook or members of his crew during Cook’s three Pacific voyages. It is one of only six complete surviving mourning costumes of its kind and testifies to an elaborate mourning practice, also called a heva, which would, with the coming of Christianity, soon become a thing of the past on Tahiti. Brought back to England, it was purchased by the British Crown from the London dealer in ethnographic specimens, George Humphrey, in 1782. It was then sent on to the ethnographic collection of Göttingen University, where it remains. As the only German university founded by a British king in the context of the Personal Union between Hanover and Britain, the scientific contacts between Göttingen, the Royal Society and the British Crown in the eighteenth century were excellent, as this handsome gift evidences. Its passage from Tahiti through London and on to Germany was also marked by the impression it made upon the late eighteenth-century cultural imagination. The heva was to become one of the most widely circulated images of Tahitian culture in late eighteenth-century Europe.

The more than 2m long costume consists of a feather headdress and a glimmering mother-of-pearl mask which covered the face and allowed the bearer to see through a slit with his right eye, as well as a crescent-shaped mother-of-pearl breast adornment and a robe made of barkcloth. It would have been worn only by a priest or a principal mourner for a deceased person of high rank, leading a procession of grieving relatives through the dead person’s district and carrying a weapon studded with shark’s teeth and a pearl shell clapper in his hands. The head mourner was believed to be inspired by the spirit of the deceased to take revenge on any person who had done him injustice during his lifetime. A heva ritual could last for weeks, often involving self-mutilation by mourners, as Cook records in his journal. Cook and his crew had been able to observe such a mourning ceremony during their first voyage and he acquired this mourning dress on Tahiti during his second voyage (1772-1775).

An object of considerable symbolic and material value, a heva would not have been traded lightly – Joseph Banks, who participated in Cook’s first voyage, failed to exchange a heva for any kind of European object. By the time Cook reached Tahiti in 1774, his stock in trade had already been depleted and he could only manage to acquire this heva by offering the Tahitians some red parrot feathers from the Tonga islands. These feathers were a highly valuable currency, because they were regarded as sacred by the Tahitians. They played a vital part in their religious practices, especially the cult of the war-god ‘Oro and served as ceremonial offerings or adornments for sacred vestments. As a trader of red feathers, Cook became an important agent within the local South Pacific economy.

Back in Europe, material objects from the South Pacific were not just deployed as constituents in ethnographic narratives and taxonomies, but also fuelled the literary imagination. John Hawkesworth’s An Account of the Voyages Undertaken by the Order of His Present Majesty for Making Discoveries in the Southern Hemisphere (1773), one of the most popular travel books of the eighteenth century, gives a graphic description of a heva based on Cook’s journal: “The chief mourner carries in his hand a long flat stick, the edge of which is set with shark’s teeth, and in a phrenzy, which his grief is supposed to have inspired, he runs at all he sees, and if any of them happen to be overtaken, he strikes them most unmercifully with this indented cudgel, which cannot fail to wound them in a dangerous manner.” The heva also found its way also into a hugely popular Covent Garden production in 1785, when playwright John O’Keefe, set designer Philippe de Loutherbourg, musician William Shield and artist John Webber (who, as a crew member on Cook’s third voyage had first-hand knowledge of the Pacific islands) joined forces in creating the pantomime Omai. Or, A Trip Round the World. They included a king’s burial scene and capitalised not just on the ethnographic but the Gothic thrill of the Tahitian funeral rites. Within the Romantic literary imagination, such objects were often misinterpreted as they were translated, remediated, and adapted to a European notion of Pacific cultures. But as a tangible object from the eighteenth century, the heva retains its aura as a sacred object and keeps a sense of origin and material authenticity which still challenges these appropriations.

Date: eighteenth century

Creator: unkown

Subject: Cook’s Voyages Round the World

Media rights: © Ethnographic Collection of Georg-August-Universität Göttingen (Oz 1522). Photographer: Harry Haase.

Object type: clothes

Format: shell, barkcloth, tortoiseshell, feathers, mother-of-pearl, coconut string

Publisher:  Ethnographic Collection of Georg-August-Universität Göttingen (Oz 1522)


Frings, Jutta (ed.), James Cook und die Entdeckung der Südsee, München 2009.

Hauser-Schäublin, Britta and Krüger, Gundolf (ed.), James Cook. Gifts and Treasures from the South Seas, 1998.

Little, Stephen and Ruthenberg, Peter (ed.), Life in the Pacific of the 1700s. Honolulu Academy of Arts, 2006.