Story by Paul Wood
Built in 1816 at the Crowninshield Shipyard in Salem, Massachusetts, she was famous well before she touched water. On December 6, the day she opened to visits by the general public, nine hundred people came to inspect her rigging and her late-model windlass and rudder, and 1,900 came to gawk at her gorgeous furnishings—the custom silver, glass and china services, the mahogany furniture upholstered in red velvet, the gold leaf, the chandelier and the plumbing. She was America’s first yacht (that is, a sailing ship built entirely for personal pleasure), and the newspapers called her “the fastest and finest yacht the world has ever seen.”
Construction cost $50,000, and some say that her furnishings cost that much again. This total figure exceeded the price of a decent US trading vessel by tenfold. Critics laughed at the extravagance, and the builder—George Crowninshield Jr., wealthy heir to his family’s fortune— responded in true up-yours style by naming the vessel Cleopatra’s Barge, after the opulent barge upon which Cleopatra seduced Mark Antony in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. Crowninshield had the hull painted different patterns on either side (starboard, colorful horizontal stripes; port, herringbone) and had her repainted so often it’s said that the paint was never dry.
In March 1817 Cleopatra’s Barge left Salem for the Mediterranean. To captain the ship the owner hired his cousin Benjamin, a veteran of Bunker Hill who would later serve as US secretary of the Navy. At every port the ship was mobbed by visitors, at Barcelona no fewer than eight thousand a day. Sometimes the push of the crowd forced men and women right off the deck into the sea. One pregnant woman was so overcome by the experience that she went into labor. The vessel returned from Europe with many important artifacts (including a pair of Napoleon Bonaparte’s boots) on October 3. Six weeks later, while planning his next pleasure cruise, Crowninshield died of a heart attack.
The surviving family stripped the vessel of its luxury items and sold the ship at auction, where a brother nabbed it for a mere $15,400. Now what? Cleopatra’s Barge was not much good as a merchant ship. (Imagine starting a trucking company with the family’s Porsche.) So the vessel’s ownership was transferred to Boston-based traders Bryant & Sturgis, who were shipping numerous goods (including tea, opium and lumber) between the Pacific Northwest and China. B&S had a great idea: Let’s sell Cleopatra’s Barge to the king of Hawai‘i. The year was 1820.