Smithsonian To Excavate
King Kamehameha II's Sunken Yacht

The Team Leader Says Artifacts Could Offer Insight
Into Hawaiian Culture In The Early 1800s

by Pete Pichaske
Phillips News Service
Reposted from Honolulu Star Bulletin

WASHINGTON: (5/9/96)
Armed with the first underwater archaeological permits issued in Hawai`i, a team of Smithsonian divers is planning to excavate "Cleopatra's Barge," a yacht owned by King Kamehameha II that sank off Hanalei, Kaua`i in 1824.

They say artifacts could reveal much about Hawaiian culture in the early 1800s.

The team, from the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, discovered priceless treasures from the yacht last July. They plan to further excavate the site at a depth of about 30feet, in Hanalei Bay, this July.

"This is a terrific opportunity to learn more about that period in Hawaiian history and the monarchy itself," said Paul F. Johnston, curator of maritime history at the Museum of Natural History and leader of the archaeological team.

"There's virtually no material culture preserved from the early Hawaiian monarchy."

Maritime historians have long been fascinated by Cleopatra's Barge. It was the first ocean-going yacht built in the United States, completed in 1816 in Salem, Mass., for an eye-popping $100,000 at a time when most ships of its size were being built for about $4,000.

The ship was built by George Crowninshield Jr., who was, according to Johnston, something of an eccentric. Chinese traders bought the ship when Crowninshield died a few years later, and in 1820, they sold it to an enthralled King Kamehameha II for $80,000 worth of sandalwood.

The king renamed the ship Ha`aheo o Hawai`i (Pride of Hawai`i) and used it as a diplomatic ship of state and pleasure craft. But on April 5, 1824, while the Hawaiian king and queen were in London, the ship sank off the coast of Kaua`i.

The cause of the shipwreck is unclear. Some reports blamed a drunken crew or captain, others a storm. In any event, parts of the ship were salvaged shortly after the wreck, but much of it lay undiscovered.

Johnston became intrigued by the ship while serving as curator for a maritime museum in Salem, Massachusetts.

"Three books have been written about the ship, but all from the New England end," Johnston said. "Virtually every day of the ship's life in New England has been documented. What I'm hoping to do is make a contribution from the Hawaiian end."

In July 1995, Johnston and his team returned home with what Smithsonian officials describe as "an astonishing wealth of artifacts" from the sunken vessel.

They included bones, Chinese and American ceramics and fittingly, a sample of smithsonite, the mineral named after James Smithson, founder of the Smithsonian Institution.

All of the artifacts will be returned to Kaua`i, said Johnston, probably to the Kaua`i Museum.

Hawai`i Marine Reporter

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