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The Story of Ha’aheo o Hawaii – Cleopatra’s Barge


Nowadays, people want to come back with a story about the place they visited. They want authenticity. The island of Kaua’i not only offers incredible boating destinations, its historical wonder set it far apart from all the other Hawaiian Islands. Holo Holo Charters would like to share a true story about the first American deep-sea luxury yacht and its connection with Kaumuali’i, the last reigning king of Kaua’i and Ni’ihau.

Visitors from the mainland United States might know this highly distinguished yacht as Cleopatra’s Barge, out of Salem, Massachusetts, the first deep-water, luxury yacht ever built in America.

In late July 1821, Liholiho (Kamehameha II), made a surprise and dangerous crossing of the Kaua’i Channel from Honolulu. The young king made a hasty decision to sail on the voyage, apparently to shore up his control of Kaua’i and to direct its future by meeting with Kaumuali’i, King of Kaua’i and Ni’ihau. Liholiho invited Kaumuali’i on board Ha’aheo o Hawaii for an hour one morning; and as soon as they were well-seated in the cabin, Liholiho secretly gave orders to have the anchor hoisted and to sail away for O’ahu, thus making a captive of his royal guest!  This was seen as a royal kidnapping of Kaumuali’i. Thus, ending the ancient rule of Kaua’i by a resident ali’i nui (supreme ruler of the island). Now the island of Kaua’i, along with neighboring Ni’ihau, were in the firm grip of the Kamehameha kingdom, ruled from the far away Hawaiian Island of O’ahu.

In 1815, George Crowninsheild commissioned Retire Becket, a well-known Salem shipbuilder, to build the first deep-water yacht in the history of the United States. Retire Becket’s ships were masterpieces and usually attributed with being the first to accomplish great feats. Cleopatra’s Barge was considered the first American yacht. Just a year later, Cleopatra’s Barge, is completed and launched, attracting thousands of spectators.
In 1818, the ship was dismantled, interior furnishing removed, re-rigged as a brig (a two-masted, square-rigged ship with an additional gaff sail on the mainmast) and sold at auction.

In November 1820, the ship arrives in Hawaii via Captain John Sutter. Liloliho purchases the brig and cargo for piculs of sandalwood weighing over one million pounds (a picul is an East Asian measurement of 133.33 pounds used in the absence of Hawaiian money). The value would be close to $80,000 at the time. Sandalwood was the Kingdom Chiefs largest trade export. Liholiho gives the ship its new name “Ha’aheo o Hawaii” (Pride of Hawaii).

July 1821 Ha’aheo o Hawaii sails to Waimea, Kaua’i, with intent to take possession of Kaua’i.
September 1821, Kaumuali’i is taken away by Liholiho aboard Ha’aheo o Hawai’i, into exile in O’ahu, ending the rule of Kaua’i by Kaua’i ali’i.

April 1824Ha’aheo o Hawai’i is anchored on the east side of Hanalei Bay. It loses anchor in a strong wind current and drifts across the bay to the mouth of Waioli Stream on the west side of Kaua’i’s Hanalei Bay. It slides into the surrounding reef. Days later several hundred native Hawaiians attempt to free the ship using several thousand yards of hau (a variety of hibiscus) rope cable. The main mast ends up breaking and the quest to salvage the ship ends, however cannons and other items were managed to be taken off Ha’aeho o Hawai’i. It was reported in the Hae Hawaii (Hawaiian-language newspaper) that the “Pride of Hawai’i, was wrecked, the circumstances attending which may not be amiss to relate here. The wreck is supposed to have occurred solely through the incompetency or negligence of the master, a foreigner.”
The wreck of Ha’aeho o Hawai’i, or Cleopatra’s Barge, still lies buried under a deep layer of sand just outside of the mouth of Waioli Stream in Hanalei Bay.

In 1994, Paul Johnston, the maritime curator at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History in Washington D.C., was issued the only underwater archaeology permits ever issued by the State of Hawaii. Johnston’s excavation began in Hanalei Bay in 1995 and continued through the year 2000. Johnston was able to bring up artifacts from Ha’aheo o Hawai’i.

In 2015, Paul Johnston’s illustrated book, Shipwrecked in Paradise: Cleopatra’s Barge in Hawaii, is published.

The Kauai Museum is proud to join the Smithsonian Institute in displaying in their main hall artifacts from the 1824 shipwreck at Hanalei Bay of the brig Ha’aheo o Hawai’i, the royal yacht of Liholiho (Kamehameha II), and ruler of the Kingdom of Hawai’i. The Ha’aheo o Hawai’i exhibit is a significant addition to the Kauai Museum. Each artifact is a treasure, each piece tells a great story, visit the Kauai Museum in Lihue to view pieces of history.

We hope you will be sure to explore the Kaua’i Museum the next time you visit Kaua’i!

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