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News and Events

The Kidnapping of King Kaumuali`i

Lee Lacocca - Wednesday, January 30, 2019

By Coco Zickos

The current edition of Kikaha by Island Air (no longer running)

Hundreds of pairs of men`s feet dug deep into the soft sand at Hanalei Bay. They were playing tug-of-war with a ship that had run aground where the Waioli river meets the sea. Kaua`i`s north shore looked as beautiful as always-waves lapping the shoreline, mountains hugging the cove. But in this crisis moment, the year was 1824, and the vessel in distress was King Kamehameha II`s notorious luxury yacht Ha`aheo o Hawai`i.

The men, dressed in malo (loincloths) and lined up in steady formation, pulled in unison on three thick, handmade hau ropes tied to the ship’s mainmast. Their muscles bulged as they strained against the weight of the 192-ton ship. They had been tasked with writing the vessel, also known as the “Pride of Hawaii”, under the direction of one of Kaua`i`s chiefs, Kiaimakahi who sang to the men as they pulled.

It was a job they weren’t likely thrilled to undertake. Three years earlier, King Kamehameha II (birthname Liholiho) had stealthily kidnapped the beloved King Kaumuali`i, who ruled Kaua`i and Ni`ihau, Aboard this very same brig Kaumuali`i was taken to Oahu, where he was forced to marry Ka`ahumanu the widow and favorite wife of King Kamehameha I. This new union was brief since Kaumuali`i, the last king of Kaua`i, succumbed to a serious illness only a few days later.

Kamehameha II had purchased the yacht, formally known as “Cleopatra’s barge,” in 1820 for around one million pounds of sandalwood, which was valued about $90,000 at that time (equal to around $15 million today). It was Americas fastest and first deepwater luxury yacht, built in 1816 in Massachusetts. He threw lavish celebrations at sea aboard the vessel, wining and dining dignitaries from around the world. It’s easy to see why Kaumuali`i was enticed on board by Kamehameha II, only to be secretly swept away during the night, unbeknownst to anyone on land.

The Ha`aheo o Hawai`i return to Kaua`i three years later was speculated to be part of a quest to plan a revolt against King Kaumuali`i`s son Humehume since Kaua`i and Ni`ihau were the only islands that remained unconquered by the Kamehameha regime. Whatever the reason for its return, the ship would never set sail again. The ostentatious vessel, decked in glitz and glam, a craft for ali`i (royalty) met its demise that day in the most undignified way. instead of salvaging King Kaumuali`i`s former makeshift prison, the men’s united strength cracked its mast like a twig, and the almighty Ha`aheo o Hawai`i quickly sank below the waters surface.

To this day, no one knows exactly what caused the wreck upon the yachts return. Considering the spiritual nature of the people of Kaua`i, the casualty could have been karmic retribution for holding King Kaumuali`i hostage. the ship may have purposely been sabotaged by retaliating residents who had tired of the many attempts of the Kamehameha dynasty to conquer their island. Or, it has also been speculated to be the fault of an intoxicated royal crew, which was manning the vessel without King Kamehameha II aboard.

The latter seemed more likely after an excavation of the vessel by the Smithsonian almost 200 years later, starting in 1995, uncovered many fragments of antique gin bottles. Until this project, the Ha`aheo o Hawai`i had rested in the bay, buried under water and sand (through its location was not a total secret, considering its canons were taken sometime before the excavation). the thousands of items of Hawaiian and Western influence recovered from the ship by archeologists were taken to the Smithsonian headquarters, where they were evaluated in 2015, the gems made their way back to the Garden Isle, safely nestled in 10 hefty crates.

Today these artifacts are permanently housed at the Kaua`i Museum in Lihu`e, where visitors can view a portion of the election. What sets this little repository on Rice Street apart besides this assemblage of seaside history and additional Hawaiian artifacts is the impressive homage it pays to King Kaumuali`i. Painting featuring major moments of his life, created by artist Evelyn Ritter, line the walls of the recently renovated museum, including some canvases depicting the Ha`aheo o Hawai`i. “People should hear these stories,” says Charles “Chucky Boy” Chock, Kaua`i Museum`s executive director.

While Kaumuali`i only governed Kaua`i for a short period, he was honored and revered, “[H]e was compassionate, kind, loving and just caring and sweet,” Chock says. The ruler was also humble, despite this prevailing power, which some say was even more grand then King Kamehameha the Great`s (Liholihos father). “He never flaunted his royalty lineage,” Chock says.

A self-guided tour reaches a denouement amidst the relics recovered from the Ha`aheo o Hawai`i. The artifacts are displayed front and center in protective cases lined with red velvet. Each piece has a story. A bilge pump, for example, indicates that indoor plumbing was present on the ship. “I didn’t realize that they had modern conveniences,” says Zenon Wong. Kaua`i Museum`s historian, who took a year to inventory all of the keepsakes upon their arrival.

Other items include a tampion – a cylindrical wooden pin used to pin cannons. The device prevented sea spray from infiltrating heavy arbitrating heavy artillery, which was likely used for ceremonial purposes to depict the ship`s arrivals and departures.

No treasure chest of gold or silver were discovered, but visitors can see many other signs of affluence, like hand-painted cobalt blue porcelain bowls from the Chinese Ming Dynasty, and an ornamental copper relief of Cupid, likely used to adorn furniture.

Lead musket balls, a powder flask silverware, and a folding pocket knife are among the objects from Ha`aheo o Hawai`i that promise to escort visitors on a journey to the past – right back to those men heaving away at Hanalei Bay in 1824. Today, the Ha`aheo o Hawai`i remain in its final resting place in this bay, reburied deep within the sand by excavators. On clear days, its shape can be seen from the air,  physical trace of yesteryear and historic Hawaiian adventures.

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