AN EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY HAWAIIAN PETROGLYPH
There is in Nu`uanu Valley a site famed for petroglyphs. Their subject and style mark them as prehistoric, in Hawaiian archeology a rough equivalent of prediscovery. Now enclosed behind bars meant to keep nonspecialists out, once this was a lovely spot where, as a family, we combined the pleasure of a picnic with casual research into Hawai`iÕs past.
It was while making rubbings from the rock to transfer to muslin some of these ancient designs that I stumbled upon a pictograph drastically different from the rest. Long ago, perhaps in geological times, a large boulder had split clean into halves. They fell apart, opening between them a corridor some two feet wide. Despite the cramped space and difficult access, its walls tempted petroglyph makers, who chipped thereon humans and dogs. One day at noon, a ray of sunlight filtering between the boulders overhead brought into focus a few engraved lines. These proved to be part of a complex image: postdiscovery in its subject matter, it represents a ship anchored off a shore with a palm tree. A man in outlandish uniform fires a gun landwards, over an uncertain scrawl that reads Discovery.
The unobtrusive position, the substantial weathering of the incised lines, the time and care that went into their making, preclude the idea of a hoax. Can a date be assigned to this puzzling work, the ship identified, an interpretation attempted of the scene?
Two Discovery ships are famous in the history of Hawai`i: Captain CookÕs and VancouverÕs. Both anchored off O`ahu, where they could have been observed and drawn. CookÕs stopped only briefly in March 1779 to look for water; VancouverÕs anchored at length in March 1793.
CookÕs ship was a collier, a type normally used for coastwise coal traffic. Sturdy rather than elegant, capacious rather than speedy, it was chosen to resist the pressure of ice flows on the trip to the arctic Northwest. CookÕs Discovery is one of the ships engraved by John Webber at anchor in the bay of Kealakekua. She is a three-master with bulging hull. The bowsprit enters the ship well abaft the stem, which adds to the sturdiness of the stocky silhouette. In the 1770s, functional fitness was slowly displacing the ornamental features of old galleons: carved mouldings and figures, lanterns and balustrades. CookÕs Discovery illustrates the trend with its simplified stern gallery. Rising above the level of the upper deck, the scalloped pediment suggests a sea-going piece of Baroque architecture, but it is a mere reminder of ancient redundancies. The same ship is the subject of a romantic lithograph dated 1828: a beached carcass, disfigured by a shabby superstructure, become a navy prison.
The streamlining of cumbrous features gathered speed at the end of the eighteenth century. There exist substantial differences between CookÕs ship in the l770s and the standard silhouette of the l790s. VancouverÕs Discovery was not, as in a popular belief, CookÕs ship reused. In VancouverÕs own words she was Ņa sloop of war...copper-fastened, sheathed with planks, and coppered over...[she] mounted ten four-pounders and ten swivels.Ó Vancouver himself gives her pedigree: ŅIn the yard of Mssrs. Randall and Brent, on the banks of the Thames, a vessel of 340 tons burthens was nearly finished; and as she would demand but few alterations to make her in every respect fit for the purpose, she was purchased; and, on being launched, was named The Discovery.Ó
The shipbuilderÕs hull lines still exist. There also is an engraving, published in VancouverÕs official report, of the Discovery foundering on the shoals of Queen CharlotteÕs Sound. Unlike CookÕs ship, VancouverÕs was built for speed. Its lines prefigure those of the clippers of the coming nineteenth century. Extending directly from the stem, the bowsprit juts out boldly. The quarter galleries are but a shriveled token of the past. Shorn of most paraphernalia, they are built lower than the poop deck, whose balustrade runs over them unimpeded.
A comparison of the petroglyph with the two ships points to more than casual conformity with VancouverÕs. Even the figurehead seen in the engraving of the foundered ship is marked in the rock drawing by a few evocative curves.
What episode that included the firing of guns links VancouverÕs Discovery with O`ahu?
It is rather a chain of events. In March 1792, Vancouver anchored off the island for two uneventful days. After his departure, his storage boat, the Daedalus, touched at Waimea. Her landing party was attacked while reconnoitering for water, and two sailors, a lieutenant and the shipÕs astronomer, were killed. The following March, 1793, Vancouver returned, this time in the guise of an avenging god. O`ahuÕs ruler, Kahekili, volunteered human victims to appease the angry sea captain. It was after all the accepted pagan etiquette, to which end racial untouchables, political dissenters, taboo breakers were expendable when need arose. But Vancouver righteously demanded legal proof of their guilt as well as ˇclat to enhance the pomp of an English court martial. Sighing, Kahekili provided it all. Confessions were recorded thanks to the political acumen of an interpreter. People at large assembled on shore to view the spectacle. The Ņchosen onesÓ were literally hogtied and thrust into canoes, where lesser chiefs, with borrowed firearms, blew their brains out.
Though this episode links O`ahu, VancouverÕs Discovery, and some bloody and notable doings, the details of the pictograph only loosely fit the recital. The men were sacrificed at sea; their executioners used pistols. They could hardly have been decked in the bizarre uniform that combines English features with a dubiously native one: the cylindrical helmet, seemingly of basketry work, topped with plumes.
To guess at what the petroglyph meant to contemporaries, one needs a refresher course in Hawaiian history. For the chiefs, the apparition of CookÕs ships was a terrifying revelation. Warfare between islands was perforce a sea-going affair, involving the vital logistics of transport and supply. Even giant war canoes were little more than scooped out logs. In addition to oarsmen, they loaded only what could be lashed on the narrow bridge between the twin hulls. A haole ship, a floating island manned with guns, swift, capacious enough to hide an army, meant to the warring Hawaiians much what the H-bomb means today––victory.
Through much of the period of exploration, the Hawaiian chiefs were engrossed in interisland warfare. It was even more vital to them than discovery was to the English. The universe Hawaiians had known for close to a thousand years was afire, being forcefully racked into unity by the intolerable genius of Kamehameha. As the explorers anchored their coveted ships by this or that island, warfare was held in abeyance, and offerings piled upon shipsÕ owners. Return gifts were at first meager: an ax, a hammer, a handful of nails. Native awe soon wore off, and ships at anchor were intelligently scanned from the native canoes that old prints show us crowding picturesquely close. They were examined even more closely when beached for repairs or caulking. Chiefs now boldly asked for the loan of a seasoned carpenter, a trained smith; then for lessons in shipbuilding. Craftiest of all ali`i, Kamehameha clamped a near exclusive on ship deals. For him, peace-loving Vancouver imprudently laid the keel of the first island-built ship, the thirty-six foot long Britannia. A greed born of despair impelled rival chiefs to bloody deeds to own ships in their turn.
When new, the drawings of the Discovery meant to natives the equivalent of our present-day blueprints of atomic gadgets––which may account for the hiding place where the record was tucked.
This unusual petroglyph thus bears witness to a world in impetuous transition. Its subject matter is English and eighteenth-century; its technique is prehistoric, of the stone age to which the IslandsÕ culture still belonged. Its author could have been either an Englishman or a native-born Hawaiian. That single English word scrawled in can hardly rule out a native. Certainly, when he chose to add his own to this hallowed saturation of petroglyphs, our man catered to island tradition.
At first glance, the style of the work is un-Hawaiian. Native esthetic achievements, generalized and abstract, shun the anecdotical. Yet Hawaiians could at will dabble in realism. In 1817, Adelbert von Chamisso observed: ŅWe were very much surprised to see, at Titalua, some children drawing ships with a switch in the sand on the beach. Two- and three-masted vessels were drawn with the greatest accuracy, and provided with the most minute parts of tackling.Ó If children could do this as a game, in more heroic times a spy with quick eye and retentive memory may well have jotted down the visual essentials of such a desirable prize as VancouverÕs Discovery.
To compare the plate of the foundering ship with its pictograph brings out a striking difference of approach. Though not a work of supreme artistry, the book illustration is nevertheless from the hand of a trained artist: hull, sea and sky––mass and space––build up a unified composition. Whoever did the pictograph would not have known, or cared to know, the meaning of art for art. This brings to mind other ship models, whittled or limned, made by men who knew ships from the inside, having for a lifetime scrubbed decks, spliced rope, furled sails, climbed ladders, and stood lookout watch in crowsÕ nests. In our Discovery, each mast, each sail, each rope is expressed singly, with care as to where it is attached, what it does, and where it leads.
Simple as it is, the drawing of the ship appears sophisticated when compared with that of the man firing the gun. That would be but a childish scrawl if the action of fingers on gun barrel and trigger was not felt so keenly and if the one mechanical detail, the flintlock hammer, was not rendered with such sharp accuracy.
To sum up what esthetic imponderables teach us, the man who did this pictograph was no artist. He knew ships, or at least this ship, intimately––felt in his own arm and fingers what it feels like to fire a gun. He was a mechanic of sorts, and judging from the detail of the gun hammer, he may have been a smith.
With this analysis of style, the scales tip to an English man familiar by birthright with ships and guns, and one that would be equally aware of native ways. We should look for his like among the specialists––gunsmiths, shipwrights, sail makers––who were a crucial complement of the military machine of contending chiefs. Adventurers of this type, like Isaac Davis and John Young, entered history with the victory of Kamehameha the Great. Others as loyal and perhaps as able went down with the ali`i of their choice.
Chief Kaeo was one of the losers in the battle royal sparked by Kamehameha. Claimant to O`ahu, he died in battle soon after VancouverÕs departure, killed by a rival claimant, Kalanikupule. KaeoÕs men may have hid after that in the rocky wilds of Nu`uanu, as KalanikupuleÕs were to do after his own disastrous rout at the Pali. A plausible choice for the petroglyph maker would be KaeoÕs Scottish smith, Murray the armorer, known to Hawaiians as Male Amole.
Commodore F. G. Reinicke, U.S. Navy (Ret.), who was kind enough to coach me on the use of nautical terms, wholeheartedly endorses the theory of an English hand. In his opinion, no one but a sailor could rig this sketch with such professional competence. As he puts it, ŅGive this drawing to copy to anyone today, chance is that he will go wrong somewhere, as each line, however slight, answers a set function and defined purpose.Ó