The Kidnapping of King Kaumuali‘i

At Kaua‘i Museum, artifacts from King Kamehameha II’s luxury yacht, Ha‘aheo o Hawai‘i, tell a Hawaiian tale of abduction and retribution.

Text by Coco Zickos | Images by Bryce Johnson

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 Wai‘oli 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 uprighting the vessel, also known as the “Pride of Hawai‘i,” under the direction of one of Kaua‘i’s chiefs, Kia‘imakani, 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 (birth name 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 O‘ahu, 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 reigning king of Kaua‘i, succumbed to a serious illness only a few years later.

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Kamehameha II had purchased the yacht, formerly known as “Cleopatra’s Barge,” in 1820 for around one million pounds of sandalwood, which was valued at about $90,000 at that time (equal to around $15 million today). It was America’s 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’s 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 fit 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 mens’ united strength cracked its mast like a twig, and the almighty Ha‘aheo o Hawai‘i quickly sank below the water’s surface.

To this day, no one knows exactly what caused the wreck upon the yacht’s 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 also 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 (though its location was not a total secret, considering its cannons were taken sometime before the excavation). The thousands of items of Hawaiian and Western influence recovered from the ship by archaeologists were taken to the Smithsonian’s headquarters, where they were evaluated. In 2015, the items made their way back to the Garden Isle, safely nestled in 10 hefty crates.

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Today, these artifacts are permanently housed at Kaua‘i Museum in Līhu‘e, where visitors can view a portion of the collection. 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. Paintings 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 his prevailing power, which some say was even more grand than King Kamehameha the Great’s (Liholiho’s 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.

In 2015, The Smithsonian sent all the artifacts from the Ha‘aheo o Hawai‘i to the Kaua‘i Museum in Līhue, where for a year, staff  documented them and prepared them for display.

In 2015, The Smithsonian sent all the artifacts from the Ha‘aheo o Hawai‘i to the Kaua‘i Museum in Līhue, where for a year, staff documented them and prepared them for display.

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

No treasure chests 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 remains 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, a physical trace of yesteryear and historic Hawaiian adventures.

The museum, located at 4428 Rice St., is open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. General admission is $15. For more information, call 808-245-6931 or visit kauaimuseum.org.

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