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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, October 6, 2004

1822 letter describes shipwreck

By Bob Krauss
Advertiser Columnist

News that divers may have found the wrecks of the British whaleships Pearl and Hermes in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands prompted kama'aina Bill Paty to send me a letter. It was written 182 years ago this month by one of the survivors to his mother in London.

He was James Robinson, a ship carpenter, who turned the disaster into a new industry for Our Honolulu. His descendants became a well-known family and his fortune founded the Robinson Estate.

Robinson wrote the letter at age 22 as soon as he landed in Honolulu after he and 11 other survivors sailed about 1,000 miles in a small schooner they had built from timbers of the wrecked ships. The voyage took 10 weeks. Their navigation equipment consisted of an old quadrant and a pinchbeck watch. They had 2 gallons of water left on arrival.

"Dear Mother, It is with great pleasure that I embrace this most favorable opportunity of informing you of the sad incident that has befallen (my) vessel. ... On the 8th of April, 1822, we left Waohoo (O'ahu), one of the Sandwich Islands, in company with the Pearl, Capt. Clark ...

"On the morning of the 26th of April at four in the morning we unfortunately struck upon an undiscovered reef which blasted our hopes and dampened our joys. ... When the vessel struck she was thrown on her beams (side) and being endangered by the mast falling — but God ordained it otherwise.

"We lowered down the boats and lay off till daylight ... (when) we perceived a few small islands inside of the reef ... (and) were enabled to get water and provisions landed to drag out a lingering existence.

"There being three carpenters ... the (crew) were employed in collecting material from the wreck ... (the carpenters using the timbers to build a schooner under my direction). ... The spot where she was building was about 100 yards in length and 30 wide — being greatly endanger of being overflowed.

"There was nothing to cheer our spirits but screaming of birds and the rolling of waves. ... On the 1st of July a ship 'Earl of Morby' very liberally came to our rescue. ... There were no lives lost being 57 in number. Forty-five went on board the 'Morby' (and returned to England). ... Twelve stayed to go on the schooner, myself being one."

Robinson and another survivor, Bobby Lawrence, also a carpenter, stayed in Honolulu after the others sailed for home. The two castaways sold the schooner for $2,000 and set themselves up in the ship repair business.

Pakaka Point, a sandy beach in the harbor near where Aloha Tower is now, became their shipyard. There they careened ships for painting their bottoms and making repairs. Robinson became so wealthy, he lent money to the government. Hawaiians called him Kimo (James) Pakaka as Honolulu Harbor grew up around his primitive shipyard.

Reach Bob Krauss at 525-8073.