A 1818 painting by George Ropes depicts Cleopatra's Barge (later called Haaheo o Hawaii). Image: Wikipedia Commons.

Hawaiian king’s shipwrecked treasure returned to the Islands, to be displayed at the Kauai Museum

Artifacts from the Haaheo o Hawaii (Pride of Hawaii), a yacht owned by Hawaii’s King Kamehameha II that wrecked off Kauai in 1824, have been returned to the Island after decades of possession by the Smithsonian Institution and the Peabody Essex Museum.

The Kauai Museum in Lihue is planning to display the artifacts in a new exhibit that could open as soon as the middle of next month.

The museum received four crates from the Smithsonian on April 1—each weighing over 400 lbs. and some the size of large floor freezers. The crates contain over 1000 individual items including stone poi pounders, bricks (likely used as ballast), ship adornments and personal artifacts of King Kamehameha II such as a conch shell horn, ivory and coins. Two or three more crates are expected in the coming weeks.

The artifacts were gift to the museum, and are arriving after years of discussions between the institutions to repatriate the items to Kauai.

Museum staff and volunteers carefully unload the crates of artifacts from the Smithsonian. Photo: Kauai Museum.

According to Kauai Museum Director of Exhibits Charles “Chucky Boy” Chock, museum staff have been busy carefully unloading and cataloging their new treasures.

“We’ve had a lot of people calling from all over the world wanting to know when our exhibit will open. The phone hasn’t stopped ringing,” said Chock. “We want to make sure we have everything ready… We are such a small museum, smaller than the [Bernice Pauahi] Bishop Museum [in Honolulu]… We want to display it [the artifacts] correctly and with integrity.”

The new exhibit will open after custom koa wood cases, ordered to house the artifacts, have been built and delivered and after a complete inventory of the ship's artifacts have been taken. “Our target date is in a month,” says Chock.

The ill-fated ship ran aground off the north shore of Kauai near where the Waioli River meets Hanalei Bay in April 1824. Buried by sand and lost after early attempts to salvage the wreck failed, the Haaheo spent more than 170 years at the bottom of Hanalei Bay until it was rediscovered by a representative of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History in the late 1990s.

The ship, a three-sailed 100-ft. hermaphrodite brig originally called Cleopatra’s Barge, was built in Salem, Massachusetts in 1816. It was the first U.S.-built ocean-going yacht created solely for recreational purposes; its five staterooms were nattily appointed with red velvet and inlaid mahogany.

A replica of the interior of Haaheo o Hawaii as it looked prior to its acquisition by King Kamehameha II. Photo: Judith Fernandez.

In addition to being an important part of U.S. maritime history, the ship also played an important role in Hawaiian history. King Kamehameha II acquired the ship from the Boston merchant firm Bryant and Sturgis for roughly $80,000 worth of Hawaiian sandalwood that the company then sold to China. The king renamed the ship Haaheo o Hawaii and used it as a royal pleasure craft and for interisland travel.

A passage from a letter now housed in the Peabody Museum and written by Charles B. Bullard, a representative of Bryant and Sturgis, illuminates just how much the king cherished his ship: If you want to know how Religion stands at the Islands I can tell you — All sects are tolerated but the King worships the Barge."

During the three short years of Kamehameha’s ownership of Haaheo, he entertained local alii (chiefs) and visiting dignitaries, taking them on pleasure cruises around the Islands. In 1821, the ship was even used to kidnap Kauai’s ruler, Kaumualii, sailing him to Honolulu where Kamehameha II forced him to marry the queen regent, Kaahumanu, in an attempt strengthen Islands' unification.

Kamehameha II and his wife, Queen Kamamalu, were on an official visit to England when a royal crew wrecked the boat on a reef April 5, 1824—some accounts indicate alcohol could have played a role in the ship's grounding. Both monarchs contracted the measels while abroad and died within days of one another in London; they never learned the fate of the beloved ship.

Chock says discussions to return the artifacts to Kauai have been in the works for 30 years and that museum staff and local volunteers are overjoyed with their new acquisition.

“There were no strings, it really was Christmas in April,” said Chock. “The Smithsonian really took good care of these things. They were so honorable to this treasure…. The whole thing is very emblematic to our Hawaiian heritage, our maritime history. [Now] it’s where it belongs.”