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Art In Motion
Vol. 6, No. 3
June/July 2003


"Noble Islander"  

by John W. Perry
art courtesy John W. Perry Archival Images

In November 1816, during an around-the-world voyage of scientific exploration, a brilliant French-born writer-naturalist sailed into Hawaiian waters aboard the Russian naval vessel Rurik. Author of a famous novel, Adelbert von Chamisso (1781-1838) served on board the eight-gun Rurik as a seagoing "honorary scientist" interested in island plants, South Seas languages and, being of aristocratic birth himself, the alii (royalty) of the "Sandwich Islands," Hawaii’s European name at the time.

As soon as the Rurik entered Kailua Bay on Hawaii Island, Chamisso gathered his botanical collecting gear and eagerly went ashore to explore the seaside village, home of the famed warrior-king Kamehameha, who had forged the Islands into a single kingdom. Slowly, he walked through a crowd of armed Hawaiians guarding the king and stood before a raised terrace occupied by Kamehameha, who sat dressed in a red malo (loincloth), a cape of black kapa (bark-cloth) and a European-made straw hat. For a moment, Chamisso eyed the king’s shadow, unaware that the shadow of a high-ranking alii was traditionally considered kapu (sacred), and could prove fatal to any careless commoner who allowed it to touch them.

But Chamisso had been fascinated by the human shadow since childhood. In 1814, he had published Peter Schlemiel, a fictional tale about a man who sells his shadow for a never-ending source of wealth, only to discover that a man without a shadow is rejected by human society. Today, the book is still read worldwide. After his Rurik voyage, Chamisso won acclaim in Europe as a poet and a naturalist, serving as custodian of Berlin’s Royal Botanical Gardens. In 1836, two years before his death, he published Reise um die Welt, or "voyage around the world," a nostalgic memoir of his travels to Hawaii and other Pacific landfalls.

Chamisso, writes Henry Kratz, English translator of Reise um die Welt, "combines the interest of the humanist with the sharp eye of the scientist. He couches what he has to say in the smooth, flowing and idiomatic style of a master of literary style."

When the Rurik’s captain arrived on shore in Kailua, Kamehameha treated him, Chamisso and the ship’s officers to a meal of roasted pig, served European-style—that is, on a table with knives and forks. He watched them eat, then they watched him eat a meal of Hawaiian food: broiled fish, served on banana leaves, and taro, eaten with the fingers. As gifts, Chamisso noted, the expedition gave the king a mortar filled with grenades and powder, a cask of European wine, and apples from San Francisco. Then Kamehameha shook hands with each haole (foreigner). In Reise um die Welt, Chamisso proudly recorded that he had shaken hands with three outstanding men of the "old world," the English botanist Sir Joseph Banks, the Marquis de Lafayette (a French military leader) and Kamehameha.