Hoa Hakananai'a lives in the British Museum; he eyes his lodgings with distaste. His clavicle is very defined; the curvature of his nostrils, particularly fine. His ears are remarkably long. The top of his head is flat. His back is crazed with the curlicue designs of the worshippers of bird-men. His flesh is basalt. His name in English is »Stolen or hidden friend«. That's not »Stolen Friend or Hidden Friend, we don't really know«; his actual name has the conjunction in it.
Hoa Hakananai'a is a moai, an Easter Island statue; one of the first two to be brought off the island. He used to stand in a long stone house in Orongo, on that island, where he was the focal object of a bird-man cult. They were the ones who cut the pattern into his back; they had gained him, it is believed, by theft, and this is one explanation for his name. The other is less likely and much better, as is so often the case: as you just read, he was the first to be taken off the island, but, despite the novelty of his robbery, the islanders, when the British came, already had their measure. So, when the British ask them, What is this statue's name, they say, Hey, this is our pal whom you're going to steal, and hide away, far from us.
Well, damn right.¹
So, in 1868, in a blistering December summer, casts off the proud shell Topaze, a three-master, a screw frigate of thirty guns and one, from Rapa Nui, with their basalt brothers aboard. Home, boys, home. In August 1869 it is summer still, when the Topaze attains the docks at Portsmouth, and Hoa Hakananai'a sets his disdainful eyes on his new home country. No wonder either he should glare; everywhere is worse where one didn't go willingly. In November he was set up in the portico of the British Museum, there to cast his aspersions on those who would only stare back instead of worship, and to that institution he has since belonged. A century and a half has not appreciably mildened his expression; basalt is hard.
It's also rare, actually, in moai; the two statues in the British Museum supposedly comprise fully 20% of all known Easter Island statuary cut out of basalt. Normally the statues would be carved from a much softer volcanic rock, tuff — just as were the catacombs of Rome. It is not known what caused the islanders to work the basalt instead, which is much harder in both senses, but it allows us to conclude that the statue was cut from the rock of Rano Kau, the southern volcano, near where it was found. Since this is far from the main statue quarry at Rano Raraku, it may be that dragging it halfway across the island was simply considered even more difficult. Nevertheless the carving seems to me unusually well-done, and is certainly better preserved than most thanks to the harder rock; supposedly the detached disdain on his square face is a depiction of the epitome of chiefly dignity.
In any case all this was done by the adherents of the old, original religion of the island, but as for the back, it was much later that the bird-man cult appropriated him and cut its tattoo-like patterns: pictures of a bird and of bird-men, of sacred oars, of vulva, and also, a belt for Hoa himself, which may have been there all along; unlike the other carvings it is quite common to find on moai.
Am I going anywhere with this? No. But you should be: Hoa Hakananai'a is currently placed front and center in the Wellcome Trust Gallery of the British Museum. Go visit him, it's free.
1: The map I am looking at right now, drawn apparently in 2004, still marks where Hoa Hakananai'a was found. Found, like, finders keepers, this statue of Peter was just lying around in your basilica, do you really expect us to believe you were using it? There isn't even any sign of human presence here, the whole church is just full of dagos! No, sir, an object of this cultural significance belongs in Disney World.
I'm not a man to agitate in favor of just returning everything, I doubt that many Easter Islanders swim now to Motu Nui to collect the sacred Egg before all others and be crowned Bird-Man for a year, but some sort of honesty about how you got all this stuff might be in order.