Kava Bowl, 18th century AD (before 1778)
Pearl shell, kou wood, boars’ tusks
49.8 (length) x 30 (width) x 24.5 (height) cm
Kaua’i, Hawaiian Islands


This striking bowl, with two carved figure supports, is made from kou, a highly valued wood from the Hawaiian Islands. It would have been used to hold kava, an intoxicating drink prepared from the roots of the pepper bush. Kava was consumed by people of high rank at ceremonies and its use spanned the Polynesian region, with the exception of New Zealand where it did not grow. In concentrated form, kava could lead to trance and was used by priests and chiefs to communicate with the gods. The mouth of each figure contains teeth cut from boars’ tusks. Their grimaced expressions are a sign of strength and defiance, used to convey disrespect to enemies.
In 1778, during Captain Cook’s third voyage, the ships called at the Hawaiian island of Kaua’i. There, an important chief sought out Charles Clerke, who was in charge of HMS Discovery, and presented him with the bowl. In return, Clerke gave the chief a piece of red cloth, a desirable trade item for Hawaiians for whom red was a sacred colour. After Cook’s death in 1779, Clerke took control of the voyage, before he himself died from tuberculosis five months later.


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