Issue 15.6: Dec. 2012 / Jan. 2013

Carving Copper

Story by Paul Wood 

Images courtesy Hawaiian Mission Children's Society

 

In 1836 the USS Peacock anchored off Lahaina, Maui, tucked amid a throng of whaling ships. On board, a naval surgeon wrote in his journal about a marvelous local product— an atlas of the world, every page an intricately detailed map created by copper engraving, the entire book fashioned, printed and bound there in Lahaina.

 

He must have glanced from the book to the shore with some astonishment. Along the little town’s mile of shoreline he saw mostly thatched hale (houses). Just about the only Western-style structures he could see were a fort with twenty-foot-high coral block walls, which served as a hoosegow for sailors on shore leave, and an unfinished “palace” that the young king refused to sleep in. Near those was the town’s only church, Waine‘e, established thirteen years earlier by the king’s mother, Keopuolani, who had then very rapidly received the first ali‘i baptism and Western-style burial. As she expired, she commanded her people to embrace Christianity and gave her young children into the custody of the missionaries.

 

The surgeon could also see a dirt track that ascended the steep mountainside behind the town and stopped a few miles beyond on a high, parched, isolated ledge where a random collection of thatched hale clustered around a couple of plastered two-story buildings. That was Lahainaluna Seminary, established just five years prior by the Congregational mission to be a “high school for raising up school teachers.” That simple encampment on that barren knob had produced the refined little atlas that the surgeon held in his hand. And it had done so without suitable copper, using tools knocked together by the local blacksmith and carpenter, and (most admirably of all) by people without any prior training in the art of copper engraving. The work was propelled somehow by the native skills and industry of certain young Hawaiian men and the raw determination of a brawny American visionary who was named Lorrin Andrews.

 

That atlas no longer exists, not a single known copy. But before the decade-long engraving project dissolved in 1844, Lorrin Andrews’ press yielded thousands of maps, landscape views and detailed portraits, some of which still exist scattered across the United States and other Englishspeaking countries. Historian David W. Forbes has just cataloged those relics and tells their story in Engraved at Lahainaluna, a new book published by the Hawaiian Mission Children’s Society— and speaking of masterful book production, the design work on Forbes’ book by Honolulu’s Barbara Pope makes the volume an art piece in itself. The full-size 1838 map of the Hawaiian Islands, folded into a neat back-cover pocket, feels and looks like the real deal.

 


 

 

The odds against success at that raw hillside print shop were as steep as the hillside itself. The founding scholars — twenty-five young Hawaiian men, all married, for the Congregational mission considered traditional Western marriage a “civilizing” tool — first had to build their own shelters. One early instructor called the campus “rude and barren” and described the schoolhouse as “a temporary shed, constructed of poles and grass by the scholars.” One might wonder why the missionaries chose such a site, far from the water and food and the shade and companionship of Lahaina. When I put that question to Maui historian Linda Decker, she offered the following theory: “I would guess they were keeping the darling little boys away from trouble.”

 

Certainly the challenge of engraving copper plates kept the students’ hands occupied. This technology was the Xerox machine of its day, but today it is a rare discipline practiced by the most exacting antiquarians. An engraver copies an existing work—say, a map of Africa or a hand-drawn view of Honolulu from Punchbowl—by scratching and gouging its lines precisely into a sheet of super-smooth metal. Then the engraver crams ink into those grooves, wipes the plate’s surface clean, lays paper on top and runs that sandwich between rollers, crushing ink into paper. In that way he can copy a drawing a few hundred times until the copper plate gets flat and blurry.

 

It’s not an easy process: The paper can slip going through the rollers, resulting in double lines on the print. The plate itself might have irregularities that leave blank streaks on the print. The Lahainaluna engravings have plenty of those flaws— understandable, for the scholars at first knew as little about their craft as they knew about the faraway lands depicted in their maps. But they had had plenty of exposure to artistic tasks that were exacting and repetitive—chipping stone adzes, for example, or polishing outriggers with coral blocks. They were familiar, too, in this post-Kamehameha era, with big chiefs who had outsize ambitions.

 

The leader of the engraving venture, Lorrin Andrews, was founding principal of Lahainaluna and had arrived as part of the third mission contingent in 1828. A late-in-life photograph of Andrews depicts a hefty man with an eagle-sharp gaze. His mouth is tipped up slightly at each end, suggesting that he could laugh, but the straight line through the middle indicates that he probably didn’t. He’s Knute Rockne crossed with Johnny Appleseed—very modern-looking but for his lifelong affectation, a thin beard that shoots like a waterfall from his chin.

 

Born on a New England farm in 1795, Andrews was eight when his family westered into the country’s ever-opening territories. As a boy he felled Ohio’s first-growth trees. His education was earnest but incomplete—mostly, he wrote, “obtained not in the literal way but as a Peripatetic, for in getting it, I traveled on different routes from Ohio and Kentucky to New England six times, three times on foot, besides smaller journeys of two and three hundred miles — always on foot. My rule was to keep my eyes and ears open and my mouth shut as much as possible.” A brief stint with a regional newspaper was his only claim for having “learned the printer’s trade.” At age 32 he caught the missionary fever, married a Kentucky girl and sailed out of Boston for the Islands.

 

“I think of this in terms of the Peace Corps,” says Decker. She recently published the biography of another Maui missionary, Edward Bailey, a contemporary of Andrews who sketched many of the views engraved at Lahainaluna. Men like Andrews and Bailey, says Decker, were cut from a different cloth than what she terms “the Michener stereotype”; for them and many of their contemporaries, missionarying was in many ways a fad: “There was a whole culture—going on an adventure, looking for a way that they, especially the women, could change their lives.”

 


As principal of the new seminary, Andrews fixated on the mission’s need for textbooks, especially maps. Though the mission intended to buy maps from China, Andrews insisted that his students could do a better job producing the maps themselves, and he proved it. His letters to the mission authorities suggest that he was polite but unbudging, perhaps a pest. He pulled together a group of Hawaiian students, most teenagers, and taught them to do something he actually didn’t know how to do: engrave copper. In his 1836 annual report to the mission, which included news of the atlas, he reminded the mission that “both teacher and pupils have groped their way in the dark to arrive at even the commencement of the business.”

 

Andrews was fortunate to have real talent in his artisans. Simon Peter Kalama was one of the best. Nineteen when he became a scholar, Kalama arrived at Lahainaluna with a recognized skill in drafting. He executed most of the “views,” which are the only record we have of the true island landscape at a time when two-story buildings were still freakish. (Kalama also created the map of Hawai‘i that’s reproduced in the book’s back pocket.) Around this time he’s also known to have saved the life of Dr. Gerrit Judd by pulling the doctor back from an attempt to scoop molten lava with a frying pan. Later, as the Western concept of landownership began to alter the Hawaiian landscape, Kalama enjoyed a lucrative career as a surveyor. He served as konohiki (overseer) of the Kalihi Kai district on O‘ahu, as a member of the House of Representatives and eventually as privy councilor to two kings.

 

Another Lahainaluna engraver who went on to high accomplishment was ali‘i-born George Kapeau. After his student years he sat with the House of Nobles, then was appointed to the king’s Privy Council. After five years in the role of governor of Hawai‘i Island, he became a judge of the Third Circuit Court in Hilo.

 

Other scholar-engravers are remembered— in the records, at least—for less heralded reasons: one dismissed “for the crime of adultery,” another for “direct willful disobedience” and two for using the seminary’s press to counterfeit currency.

 

Perhaps the greatest talent of all wasn’t a scholar, but rather a Lahaina street kid. His name, Kepohoni, the Hawaiianized version of “Cape Horn,” suggests he may have been the offspring of a sailor. Kepohoni was fascinated with map-making, and his innate poetry also yielded a stippled portrait of Kamehameha II’s wife Kamamalu, certainly the most sensual work ever produced at Lahainaluna. There is no record of Kepohoni’s later life: The last known word of him comes from three years after the school’s engraving operations ceased, from a letter he wrote to William Richards, the missionary turned kingdom policy-maker, requesting employment. “If you would have pity Mr. Richards,” says the letter. “I can do this work, but nothing has been given to me to do.”

 

In 1844 the mission pulled its textbook-making operation out of Lahaina and brought an experienced engraver to Honolulu from the Mainland. By that point the seminary had produced numerous atlases (some of them in print-runs of a thousand volumes), over eighty wall maps and charts and many historically precious landscape views. Engraved at Lahainaluna doesn’t quite explain what caused the mission and Lorrin Andrews to part ways. Apparently they simply agreed to disagree, and Andrews formally withdrew in 1841 though he kept producing maps. Money— which Andrews with seven children needed and the mission lacked—was certainly an issue. Throughout these engraving years a financial depression hobbled the United States, triggered by the collapse of a Dutch cotton-trading company and fueled by a real estate bubble due to land speculation in the West. The missionaries to Hawai‘i really had no budget until the later 1840s. When Andrews tried to start a business selling his maps and textbooks to Hawai‘i’s schools, the mission refused to pay.

 

Andrews—like many of Lahainaluna’s skilled engravers—ultimately shifted away from a life tied to copper plates: He moved to Honolulu and, despite his complete lack of legal training, became a judge and then a justice of the kingdom’s first Supreme Court. Now, almost two centuries later, the images that he and others produced at Lahainaluna are once again astonishing the people of Hawai‘i.