“In the early dawn of the second day out, the steamer rounds Kalae Point, the extreme southern cape of Hawaiʻi – a locality noted for the wreckage and drift logs occasionally thrown ashore, and which often line the beach for miles, consisting mostly of timber and trunks of trees and occasionally wreckage of vessels.”
“It was here that … one of the masts of the United States sloop-of-war Levant, which was lost in the winter of 1860, while on the passage from Hilo to the mainland (was found.) After leaving Hilo the ship was never heard from.” (Hawaiian Planters Monthly, January 1900)
“A ship’s mast has drifted ashore, just below the harbor of Kawalunalu (Kaʻaluʻalu,) in Kaʻu (near Kamilo.) It is seventy-six feet long. The lower part of the mast, which was in between decks, is squared and finished, as if it had been used as a rack for guns, while on one side are large spikes driven in, as though it had been used for a raft.” (New York Times, August 4, 1861)
“… the fact of the entire mast having been used as a raft would go far to sustain the belief that the ship had been wrecked on some shoal, reef, rock or island, and not foundered, as is more generally believed; and in the former case there is still a chance that some of the ill-fated crew may yet survive or be heard of.” (New York Times, August 4, 1861)
Let’s look back a bit.
By the 1850s, both Honolulu and Lāhainā, on the island of Maui, had become the busiest ports for American whaling ships sailing in the Pacific Ocean. Hilo, on the Island of Hawaiʻi, was another important port.
Before the widespread use of petroleum oil, whale oil was the main source of fuel oil for illumination. At the time, it was also the best industrial lubricant for machinery.
Most whaling ships regularly sailed between New England and the Sea of Japan off the coast of Asia, then the prime hunting ground for sperm whales. Sperm oil was considered the finest whale oil and it often sold double or triple the value of other whale oils.
At the Hawaiian ports, incapacitated or sick sailors and whalers would disembark to recover. It was the duty of a Consul or an Agent to provide for their care or to send a destitute seaman home to America. (US Archives)
Hospitals had been established to serve sick and destitute sailors. The US Commercial Agent was responsible for recommending seamen to the hospital, keeping necessary papers and books, and handling the financial transactions.
A physician of the hospital had a contract with the US States Government which guaranteed him exclusive treatment of American seamen at US expense. The purveyor supplied food, clothing, shelter, maid service, laundry service and assorted other necessities. All of these services were charged to the US government. (Pyle)
The Levant, an 18-gun second-class sloop-of-war, had been sent to Hawaiʻi at the request of the State Department. Commodore William E Hunt, the ship’s captain, had been appointed to serve as a special commissioner to investigate charges of fraud among the US consular service and its employees at the US seamen’s hospitals in Hawaiʻi. (US Archives)
In addition, the US Commissioner in Hawaiʻi, James W Borden, participated in the investigations of the workings of the US hospital and consular system in Honolulu, Lāhainā and Hilo.
The investigators were blunt in terms of specific charges of fraud that were alleged to have taken place at the Honolulu consulate.
In part, Borden reported, “A careful examination of the evidence will, I believe, satisfy you that the Physician as well as the Purveyor, in this respect, and also in that of obtaining from the seamen blank receipts, have been engaged in defrauding the Government, and I have therefore no hesitation in recommending the removal of them both …” (Borden, April 27, 1860; US Archives)
After Hunt and Borden concluded their investigation, their reports were sent to the State Department. Hunt’s official report to the Secretary of State never arrived in Washington.
After spending four months in the Hawaiian Islands investigating at Honolulu, Lahaina and Hilo and receiving a state visit by King Kamehameha IV at Honolulu on May 7, 1860, Levant sailed for Panama on September 18, 1860, about 4,500 miles away to the south and east.
Unfortunately, that was the last day anyone ever saw the 23-year-old sailing ship intact or any of its 150 crew members alive. The ship never arrived at its destination.
The US Navy conducted a search for the vessel in early 1861, but no trace of the ship or its crew was found at that time. “The disaster must have been so sudden that no time was given to save the lives of those on board by taking to the boats or building a raft.” (US Archives)
Meantime, shortly after the failure of the Levant to arrive at Panama, and long before the finding of the above wreckage, two vessels of the US Navy (Saranac and Wyoming) had been sent from that port to the Hawaiian Islands.
But these and all similar efforts to solve the fatal mystery proving fruitless, Congress, by resolution duly adopted, fixed the date of June 30, 1861 to be reckoned as the day on which the Levant had foundered at sea, with the loss of all on board. (National Geographic Magazine, December, 1904, and March, 1907)
All ships that vanish at sea gather rumors in death as they collect barnacles afloat. But since Levant disappeared just prior to the outbreak of the Civil War, an unusual number of intriguing yarns surround her last voyage. Bits of evidence, too scanty to solve her mystery, have multiplied the myths. ((navy-mil)
Commodore Montgomery reported that a violent hurricane had occurred in September in a part of the Pacific Ocean which Levant was to cross. Some rumors had her running aground on an uncharted reef off California (or some other doubtful island of the Pacific.)
Others had her defecting to the Confederacy. Whatever her real fate, this ghostly heroine of colorful episodes in American naval history still sails the seas of imagination and legend. (navy-mil)
The disappearance of the Levant, with 210 aboard, was the second worst marine disaster in Hawaiian history. The greatest marine disaster in Island history was the loss of the Kamehameha, in 1829 or 1830, with High Chief Boki, Governor of Oʻahu, and 250 others that went down in a storm seeking sandalwood.
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