In the spring of 1824, a stately two-masted sailing ship named Haaheo o Hawaii dropped anchor in Hanalei bay on Kaua‘i. Eighty-three feet at the waterline and one hundred feet on deck, she was the private yacht of King Kamehameha II, a.k.a. Liholiho.
As beautiful as the royal vessel was, the residents of Kaua‘i were probably not pleased by the sight of it. Three years earlier, in a move to consolidate his authority over Kaua‘i, Liholiho had sailed away in this ship with the island’s chief aboard, effectively kidnapping him. Now the Haaheo was back. This time it would never leave.
On April 6 of that year, Haaheo somehow broke loose from her anchor, struck a reef and sank. The contemporary accounts differ as to the cause of the wreck; a drunken crew, a parted anchor cable and a violent squall have all been blamed. Of course, it may have been a combination of these factors. Given Kaua‘i’s well-known and long-lasting animosity to the Kamehameha reign, a vengeful human hand might also have been a factor.
Liholiho was not aboard his yacht when it went down. He was thousands of miles away, on a trip to meet the ruler of another group of islands, Britain’s King George IV. Liholiho never learned of Haaheo’s fate. Three months after the sinking, both he and his favorite wife, Kamāmalu, died in London from measles.
Attempts to raise the ship failed, and after Kaua‘i residents salvaged what they could, Haaheo was left to settle into the shifting sands of Hanalei bay. In the mid-1850s a local Hawaiian man salvaged two cannons from the wreck, and occasionally storms washed sections of rotten hull onto the beach. But for the most part the wreckage lay undisturbed at the bottom of the bay. That was until 1995, when I led a team of Smithsonian archeologists on a series of excavations spanning six summers.
Shipwrecks conjure images of treasure, and before our ﬁrst dive we wondered whether there might have been treasure aboard Haaheo o Hawaii when she sank. Missionary correspondence from the time raised the possibility. If there had been treasure, was it recovered by the people who salvaged the vessel? Or was it still on the bottom of the bay, awaiting our discovery? We were determined to ﬁnd out.
The year 2016 marks the two-hundredth anniversary of the construction of the ship, which was originally named Cleopatra’s Barge. Built in Salem, Massachusetts, by wealthy shipowner and merchant George Crowninshield Jr., the Barge was America’s ﬁrst oceangoing yacht, a ship intended not for trade or battle but simply for the pleasure of sailing. At a time when a common brig cost around $6,000 to build, the Barge cost $50,000, with an additional $50,000 put into outﬁtting her. Her opulence was unprecedented.
Crowninshield died after a single voyage to the Mediterranean, and his ship was sold to Boston China traders Bryant & Sturgis. The company sent the Barge to Hawai‘i with the hope of selling it to the Hawaiian king, who was known for his love of Western ships. It arrived at Lahaina, Maui, in November 1820, and Liholiho stepped aboard the day after she dropped anchor. Within ten days he purchased the craft for a bit more than a million pounds of sandalwood, then abundant in Hawai‘i and highly prized in China as a fragrance, incense and for various decorative arts.
Liholiho put his new ship to a variety of uses. These included political visits to meet with the chiefs of other islands, entertaining foreign dignitaries, racing other Western vessels in Hawaiian waters and generally getting away from it all. In addition, Liholiho used the ship to ferry Christian missionaries around the kingdom and to transport their cargo, including the ﬁrst edition of Hawaiian-language hymnals.
Liholiho’s enthusiasm for the royal yacht was likely dampened in 1822, when during a routine overhaul the Barge was found to be completely rotten behind the mainmast. Liholiho immediately ceased sandalwood payments to Bryant & Sturgis, claiming the company had deceived him. He also set about rebuilding the ship, christening the refurbished vessel Haaheo o Hawaii, which means “pride of Hawai‘i.”
I ﬁrst learned of this famous ship in the early 1980s at my initial job after graduate school. Hired as maritime curator at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, I was introduced to Cleopatra’s Barge through all the relics and artifacts that had been collected by Crowninshield descendants and donated to the museum located in the town where the ship had been built. The Salem end of the tale was one of the most unusual—even bizarre—sea stories I’d ever heard. But the later Hawai‘i chapter of the story had never been fully investigated. The Hawaiian king had owned the Barge for four years. What had she done in the Islands, and where had she gone? Who had trod her decks and enjoyed her luxurious accommodations in the second chapter of her life? As an archeologist I was intrigued.
In 1994 I applied to the State of Hawai‘i for permission to look for the shipwreck. A year later I emerged with ﬁve permits listing forty-four conditions—the only underwater archeology permits ever issued by the state. I was ready to begin. But where in mile-wide Hanalei bay was the wreck? I had one good clue: New England missionary Hiram Bingham visited Kaua‘i just a month after Haaheo sank, and he rushed up to Hanalei to inspect the remains. While using the dramatic shipwreck as illustration for a sermon to the Native Hawaiians on the evils of drink, Bingham noted that the yacht had gone down against a reef at the mouth of the Wai‘oli stream. That assertion in the memoir of a man of the cloth was the X on my treasure map. A very accurate X. The Barge turned out to be precisely where Bingham said it was. We found it almost immediately at the start of that ﬁrst dive season.
Over the following summers we excavated the shipwreck scientiﬁcally and methodically. The dig yielded 1,250 lots of artifacts, including rope, wood, glass, ceramics, stone, lead, copper and bone. There was no treasure. Or at least there was no silver and gold. The artifacts we recovered, however, are the only material objects ever found that are known to have belonged to Liholiho, a king who played a pivotal role in Hawaiian history. By ﬁrst abolishing the kapu (taboo) system and then allowing the Christian missionaries from Boston into his kingdom, he altered old Hawaiian society and culture forever. The artifacts shed some light on the period of his rule, from 1819 to 1824. They also help to tell the story of one of the most famous ships ever built in New England. Therein lies the wreck’s real treasure.
The many fragments we found of early nineteenth-century Dutch gin bottles, for instance, lend weight to the missionaries’ assertion that alcohol played a role in the loss of the ship. In fact alcoholic beverage containers from that period through the mid-nineteenth century, when the cannons were salvaged, and right up to the present day, attest to the long-term enjoyment of alcohol around Hanalei bay.
Other artifacts reﬂect the cultural overlap and transition underway in the 1820s. An ‘ulu maika stone, used for a traditional Hawaiian bowling game, contrasts with a crimson wooden checker from a Western board game. A gunstock, lead musket balls and an exploding iron shell provide a Western military counterpart to stone canoe breakers of varying sizes, which the Hawaiians used in naval warfare. A Western knife and fork are countered by a shellﬁsh meat pick carved from the rib of a cow. A bronze furniture mount portraying Cupid sharpening his arrow on a pedal-operated grindstone faintly echoes a pair of actual Hawaiian grindstones.
But the two stone adzes we found are among the most important contrasting artifacts from the wreck. These were the tools with which pre-contact Hawaiians carved wooden objects, including canoes. Also recovered were dozens of short pieces of what we had cataloged in the ﬁeld as broken pieces of barrel hoop. Back in the archeological lab in Washington, however, a different picture of these artifacts emerged. So many of these four- to six-inch-long curved pieces of iron were found, with both ends intact, that another interpretation was needed. This was provided in an unpublished paper by Hawai‘i archeologist Susan Lebo, who had investigated similar objects in the collections of Bishop Museum in Honolulu. These weren’t barrel hoops; they were actually iron adzes, and Haaheo had the largest cache of them ever found in the Hawaiian Islands—literally dozens.
Why were they so important? Old Hawai‘i had no metal; it was a lithic and organic culture until the arrival of Westerners. The foreigners’ iron could be shaped very quickly into ﬁshhooks, adzes and other tools that were formerly and painstakingly made from stone, bone or ivory over long periods of time. These new iron tools could take and keep a sharp point or edge. In fact, the desire for iron may have led to the death of British explorer Captain James Cook. Well into the nineteenth century, anything of iron was incredibly valuable to Hawaiians, and iron adzes such as those carried aboard the royal yacht would have been worth a fortune to the local inhabitants.
Artifacts from the ship itself also told stories of its innovative and costly construction by Crowninshield in 1816. The ship had been sheathed in thin sheets of copper below the waterline, a recent innovation on naval vessels to prevent the voracious Teredo navalis clam from boring into and weakening ships’ wooden hulls. A round glass deck light admitted sunlight into the ship’s cabin areas, and a patented bronze bilge pump with leather clappers also attested to the Barge’s spendy breakthrough technology.
As for the rumored treasure? The missionaries had mentioned a box of specie, or coins, loaded aboard Haaheo for what turned out to be its last voyage. After the sinking there had been some correspondence among missionaries wondering whether the treasure had gone down with the ship. It wasn’t until 1999, while doing archival research, that I found a note from the missionary’s business agent recording that the specie had been removed from the ship before it left Maui for Kaua‘i. All that the missionaries lost was a shipment of bricks, some barrels and some beef.
The State of Hawai‘i permitted us to bring the artifacts from the wreck back to the Smithsonian for stabilization, conservation and study. As of last year, however, all of the artifacts have been returned to Kaua‘i, where they are permanently housed at the Kaua‘i Museum in Līhu‘e. Many of them are on display for all to see and enjoy for generations to come. They are all that’s left from our nation’s ﬁrst oceangoing yacht and the short but intense reign of King Kamehameha II. HH
Story by Paul Johnston.