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Reviewed by:
  • Shipwrecked in Paradise: Cleopatra’s Barge in Hawai‘i by Paul F. Johnston
  • Peter Mills, Professor, Anthropology
Shipwrecked in Paradise: Cleopatra’s Barge in Hawai‘i. By Paul F. Johnston. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2015. x + 204 pp. Illustrated. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $39.95 cloth

Paul Johnston has compiled a beautifully illustrated and fascinating account of the vessel Ha‘aheo o Hawai‘i (Pride of Hawai‘i), formerly known as “Cleopatra’s Barge” that was owned by the Hawaiian monarchy and wrecked in 1824 on the reef at Hanalei Bay, Kaua‘i. Most Hawai‘i residents, even many who consider themselves well informed on Hawaiian history, are often unaware of the multitude of Western-style sailing vessels that Hawaiian chiefs acquired in the late 1700s and early 1800s (approximately 80 of them before 1830)1. Johnston’s sustained and focused work on the most expensive and best known of these vessels is a testament to what could be learned about the earliest days of the unified Hawaiian nation with continued efforts in this subject area, and Johnston has set a high bar in this pioneering book.

The first chapter opens with an autobiographical narrative that covers the author’s career as a maritime archaeologist and historian and how that led to his interest in Cleopatra’s Barge. The chapter leads from his plans to relocate the wreck to season-by-season accounts of his controlled underwater excavations (1995-1999). Johnston weaves childbirths, family deaths, crew weddings, and local school presentations into the narrative, with much attention paid to moments of crisis and discovery. The writing style makes it implicitly clear how much of the author’s life and crew members’ lives have been committed to the fieldwork, and the personal style pays credit to many people who worked with Johnston on the completion of this tremendous task. His nuanced account of conducting this large field project draws the reader into many experiences of exhilaration and frustration, which makes the subsequent presentation of historical and archaeological data all the more intimate.

Chapter 2 titled “A Million Pounds of Sandalwood” begins with the known history of the vessel, which involves the eccentric first owner, George Crowningshield Jr., a wealthy, short, and portly son of a maritime merchant who was known to speed around Salem, Massachusetts in his bright yellow 2 -horse carriage, wearing clothes of his own design. George commissioned the construction of Cleopatra’s Barge as the first ever pleasure yacht built in New England. In March of 1817, he sailed in her with a crew of 14 (p. 47) to the Mediterranean. Over 8,000 people visited the vessel in a single day in Barcelona, but despite the attention garnered by the vessel, Crowningshield, who had hoped to find a European princess to return with him back to Salem, did not find a willing partner. He sailed back to the United States in August where he died of a heart attack in November 1817. George’s younger brother, Richard, [End Page 170] purchased the vessel (stripped of many interior fittings) for a mere $15,400 during the auction for his late brother’s estate in August 1818, and then sold the vessel to the merchant firm of Bryant & Sturgis in 1820. Shortly thereafter, Bryant & Sturgis outfitted the vessel for a voyage to Hawai‘i with the specific intent of selling her to the monarchy, where Liholiho quickly agreed to purchase the vessel for $80,000. Shortly thereafter, Liholiho renamed her Ha‘aheo o Hawai ‘i. As has been noted in several former Hawaiian histories, and also by Johnston, one Honolulu merchant of the era quipped about Hawaiian religion that “All sects are tolerated but the King worships the Barge” (p. 68).

This much has been told many times over in scattered references. But hereafter, Johnston sails for new horizons by compiling a detailed history—largely derived from unpublished Protestant missionary letters—of what the monarchy did with the vessel in the following four years before she was wrecked. In Chapter 3, Johnston presents new details on the ship’s construction garnered from intact portions of the ship’s hull, deck, sternpost, and keelson. In 1822...


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