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Hawaii Artifacts Featured in National Museum of American History Website

New Book, Shipwrecked in Paradise explores Story of Cleopatra’s Barge in Hawai‘i
October 2, 2015

Hawaiian artifacts on loan to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History from the ship Ha‘aheo‘o Hawai‘i for research and conservation have returned to the state and some are on view at the Kauai Museum in Lihu‘e. The knowledge gleaned from underwater exploration of the ship last owned by King Kamehameha II (Liholiho) is now in a new book, Shipwrecked in Paradise: Cleopatra’s Barge in Hawai‘i, by Paul F. Johnston, the museum’s maritime history curator. The book, published by Texas A&M University Press, traces the story of the yacht’s life in Hawai‘i, from her 1820 sale to Liholiho to her 1995 to 2000 discovery and excavation. In addition to the book, Johnston has created a comprehensive website containing the full artifact catalog and a chronology of the ship’s life and movements between 1820 and 1826: https://americanhistory.si.edu/cleopatrasbarge

Johnston led a team of divers who located, surveyed and excavated the wrecked ship, after receiving the only underwater archaeological permits ever issued by the state of Hawai‘i. The artifacts from the excavation shed light on the little-documented transitional period from Old Hawai‘i to foreign influence and culture. Although Liholiho ruled Hawai‘i for only a few short years, his abolition of taboos and admission of the Boston Christian missionaries into his kingdom planted the seeds for profound changes in Hawaiian culture.

 The 1,250 lots of artifacts from the wreck contain the only known material culture from Kamehameha II’s monarchy, shedding light on the poorly documented transitional period from Old Hawai‘i to the modern age of intense foreign influence. Johnston’s account also covers the stark logistical realities of fieldwork in underwater archaeology, the bureaucratic frustrations of obtaining permits, the mix of tensions and camaraderie among crewmembers and the background presence of landmark family events.

 Cleopatra’s Barge, built in Salem, Mass., in 1816, was the first oceangoing yacht built in America. After the death of its owner, the yacht was stripped of its finery and sold at auction in 1818. In 1820, Liholiho purchased it for more than a million pounds of sandalwood, a commodity prized in the China trade. He changed the name in 1822 to Ha‘aheo‘o Hawai‘i, (Pride of Hawai'i). Two years later, it wrecked on a reef in Hanalei Bay. It sat on the ocean floor for 170 years, its exact whereabouts a mystery until the 1990s.

In addition to his curatorial duties at the museum, Johnston is secretary of the Council of American Maritime Museums and serves on the board of directors for 10 other archaeological organizations. Shipwrecked in Paradise: Cleopatra’s Barge in Hawai‘i will be available beginning Oct. 14, and the richly illustrated book retails for $39.95. More information is available from Texas A&M University Press at: www.tamupress.com                                  

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