Preserving Kona's Stories

Maile's Meanderings

Kailua Bay ~ Scene of Tragedy in 1874


Isn’t this the most wonderful photograph of Kailua in North Kona, once the capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom? A big thank you to the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum for giving Kona Historical Society permission to use this image on our KHS website. How can we date this photo? Clearly it has been taken after King Kalakaua plastered the exterior of Hulihe`e Hale to transform its stone and mortar roughness to regal elegance. There is no confining seawall, no asphalt highway, no barrier between horseback riders and the retreating waves. From Kaiakeakua Beach in the foreground to the sands of Niumalu Beach near Hulihe`e, the water offers an open invitation to come on in! Strangely, no one appears to be in the ocean today. In fact, Kailua seems all but deserted except for two riders, a few dozing horses, and one solitary donkey..

In so many ways, Kailua is the same now as it was then. Mokuaikaua Church dominates the landscape with its original ungainly steeple which was transformed by architect Charles Dickey into a more graceful design in the 20th century. Although Kalakaua’s breezy pavilion is long gone, Hulihe`e has held up well, thanks in large part to the unending efforts of the Daughters of Hawaii and the Calabash Cousins. The lovely line of gauzy kiawe trees flourishing makai of Mokuaikaua is long gone, but should be replaced. The graceful coconuts still exist. Surely these lovely trees bore silent witness to events of 1874, events now all but forgotten in the rush of 21st century shopping and tsunami evacuation.

This June, Kona is abuzz with thoughts of the upcoming June 5th Transit of Venus which will be clearly seen from West Hawaii. This rare celestial event, the passing of planet Venus between Earth and the Sun, takes place at infrequent intervals. During the entire 20th Century, there was not a single Transit of Venus event. In the 19th Century, two Transits took place, one in December of 1874 and the other during December of 1882, pretty much exactly eight years apart. This is the usual scenario, two Transit events occurring in pairs, first predicted by an astronomical whiz kid back in 1631. The first 21st Century Transit was in June of 2004, and now we have another chance in 2012, exactly eight years later. If this topic fascinates you in any way, you should read Michael Chauvin’s wonderful book Hokuloa, The British 1874 Transit of Venus Expedition to Hawaii, printed by the Bishop Museum Press.

If you have ever wandered through the graveyard of Christ Church Episcopal on the Konawaena High School Road, you may have noticed a large and imposing dark pink granite cross marking the grave of a young Englishman who died far from home on November 20th, 1874. His name was Charles Lambert and he drowned while attempting to learn how to surf in Kailua Bay. His companion in this ill-starred venture was twenty-five year old George Forbes, an aspiring Scottish astronomer who was in charge of the observatory erected on the grounds of Hulihe`e Hale to record the December, 1874, Transit of Venus. Forbes and Lambert had formed a fast friendship during the voyage of HMS Scout from Valparaiso, Chile to the Hawaiian Islands. Lambert, no astronomer, had joined the British expedition at the invitation of Captain Cator, who wished to see his young friend improve his health with invigorating sea breezes.

Forbes and Lambert ended up living in Kailua in the fall of 1874, enduring an environment which Forbes thought was “unfit for Europeans.” One pleasure they shared in Kailua was bathing each morning in the waters of the Bay. The following is taken from the Hawaiian Gazette, Dec. 2, 1874: “On Friday morning (Nov. 20th) a little before 8 A.M., Professor Forbes and Mr. Lambert went to bathe as usual. During three days previously a Kona had been blowing into the bay, and having on Thursday seen the natives using the surf-board, Mr. Forbes and his friend thought of trying their hands at it. They were furnished by the Hon. Simon Kaai, Sheriff and Representative of the District, with surf-boards, he not considering that there was any danger in so doing.”

“Professor Forbes entered the water first. When it was up to his chest, being about thirty yards from the shore, he began to look out for a good wave to try to ride in upon. Not having been successful and happening to look round he found he was a hundred and fifty yards from the shore, having been carried out by the undercurrent. He did not however at that time apprehend any danger. A small native boy, an adopted son of Simon Kaai, now shouted to him, gesticulating and pointing to Mr. Lambert, who was about fifty yards nearer the shore than himself. He saw that Mr. Lambert had let go of his surf-board, and was in difficulty. He then swam with all his strength towards Mr. Lambert, making, however, but little progress against the current. Mr. Lambert was drifted towards him. He was feebly striking out, every wave submerging him.”

A ghastly battle to save young Charles’ life ensued, with Professor Forbes struggling against the waves and current to reach his young friend and hold his head above water. As the minutes ticked by, it became clearer and clearer to the rescuer that Charles was dead and that soon he would be as well. Help was slow in coming: Simon Kaai had only one arm. The only canoe on shore had a hole in it. Mr. Weeks tried to assist but felt he would drown if he stayed out too long in the now raging waters. At last, “The canoe, which took twenty minutes to come out, then reached them, although a hole was broken in it while being launched. The Professor with the dead body of his friend was put into it, and reached the shore in safety.”

“Mr. Lambert’s body was taken to a house and laid on his back with his head on a pillow. His jaws though slightly open were firmly locked, and it was found impossible to get his tongue out. Hot water was applied to his feet, his limbs were rubbed by the native women to excite circulation, but all to no purpose, and brandy was poured down his throat.”

Charles Lambert was carried to Christ Church cemetery and the Rev. Samuel Davis buried his body on the 21st of November. “There, in the little English Church Yard belonging to the mission, with his country’s flag for a pall – a fitting canopy for one who had met his end with the courage of an English gentleman, - the mortal remains of Charles Lambert found their last resting place.” Mrs. Davis cared for this young man’s grave for seven years until a proper grave stone could be sent out from England.

In Henry N. Greenwell’s diary of 1881, he wrote down how he had assisted the Lambert family in putting their son’s grave marker in place, finding a wagon to haul the heavy stones from Kaawaloa up to Onouli. The Lamberts themselves wrote about this event in their own diary which was published a few years later after they had returned to England from their Around the World Tour aboard the RYS Wanderer. How many people who visit Christ Church’s graveyard have any idea that the Transit of Venus in 1874 added the first impressive stone to the peaceful cemetery?

So, when I see this wonderful photograph of Kailua Bay, with the black lava of Pa o `Umi emerging from the water’s edge, I am reminded of the passage of time, the briefness of each human life, and the importance of history. In some cases, the answers may truly lie in the heavens, but for much of time, the real stories are here on earth in our own back yards if we just knew where to look. And, in case you wanted to know if Professor Forbes had any luck in watching the Transit from the grounds of Hulihe`e Hale that sad December, the answer is No. Clouds obliterated the view and all his months of preparation and worry were for naught. And Charles Lambert was dead and gone, accidentally drowned at Kailua.

“Life’s sunshine fell about his way

Loves closest ties were round his heart

No change foretold the closing day

Nor sunset warned him to depart.

But in his youthful manhood’s pride

In all the strength of untried powers

While hope shone warm and bright, he died

And gained higher life than ours.

O Happy Soul, Death’s hand for thee

Did but unlock the Golden Gate

And thou hast passed within while we

Outside in tears and sadness wait.”

Oct. 24, 1881

Aloha no.