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You are here: /main/research/NOWRAMP 2002/journals/King of Laysan/


Ship Logs

The "King of Laysan"
Written by Carlos Eyles
Photography by Jim Watt
September 17, 2002

Laysan Island Sunrise.In the early morning, the ship stopped running and when we awoke, it was in the lee of a low flat island with a white sand beach and green vegetation that with a few palm trees and a little sunshine, would have looked like an ideal tropical island. However on this morning, such is not the case, everything feels flat, and compressed. There is no depth to the sky and horizon; both sky and sea blend together from an unseen light source into a gun metal gray reflecting a weather mood that I have not witnessed in my two years in Hawai‘i. The wind is cold and hard, as if this ship has wandered into San Francisco Bay. The chill forces me off the bow and to my bunk for a long sleeve shirt, all the while guessing in which direction we are pointed. Without the sun, I have neither bearing, nor sense of where we are. I ask around and no knows our heading. Finally Greg McFall consults a compass and reports to me that we are heading into the SE. Those early rising souls in the salon move as zombies, the weather has a depressing affect, through breakfast it begins to pour rain.

Masked Booby and Brown Noddys on Laysan.I suppose the grand irony of this shift in weather is that we have arrived at Laysan Island, labeled from a terrestrial point of view as the 'Crown Jewel' of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Everyone is anxious to go ashore and see for themselves the extraordinary bird life that exists here. Several teams, despite the driving rain make ready to do just that, some intend on spending the night. We of the Documentation team are scheduled to go on tomorrow morning for half a day.

The attraction here is really twofold. One is the bird life; the other in many ways is the history of this island, so near total destruction and then the Herculean efforts to restore it to its natural state. Today I will try and impart some of the history and tomorrow a first hand account of my walkabout on the island

To tell the whole story of Laysan is, in and of itself, a book, so I have chosen to focus on a single individual who seemed to embrace the entire scope of human folly when it comes to man and the environment. One Maximilian Joseph August Schlemmer. Max arrived on Laysan in 1894 as foreman of a Japanese labor force there to mine the bird guano off the island (for which the Hawaiian Kingdom was paid a royalty of fifty cents a ton). In 1896, he was appointed superintendent of guano operations, but for reasons unknown he left temporarily before some of the laborers were murdered. Returning six years later, in 1902, he gained the attention of the newspaper for punching up Count Albert von Gravemeyer, who was trying to stir up the work force. Nothing mentioned as to why a Count would visit a guano filled island in the middle of the Pacific in the first place. The Count sued for damages but lost the case. Max then bought the rights to mine guano deposits, only after 450,000 tons of it had been removed. One in a series of environmental miss-steps that severely altered the perfect countenance of this pristine sanctuary.

Max, the self-proclaimed Governor, soon-to-be-made King cut a deal with the millinery trade to export feathers and in 1909 removed a ton of feathers, and two tons of bird wings representing some 64,000 birds. His activities eventually became illegal with the establishment of the federal Bird Reservation, and ostensibly put him out of business. Not quite trusting old Max a team was sent to investigate his shenanigans and found twenty-three Japanese on the island, guano sheds filled with sixty-five bales of bird wings, thirteen bales of carcasses, netting a ton of feathers and 119,00 bird wings

Everyone was arrested, except Max who was partying it up in Honolulu at the time and eventually talked his way out of an indictment. In his absence, the rabbits he had set free on Laysan had gone out of control as rabbits will, and in a few years their appetites out-stripped the vegetation growth. The island, once again was permanently altered forever. Eventually a biological team was sent in to destroy the rabbits but they ran out of ammunition leaving several thousand to continue to 'wreak havoc' on the vegetation. (Unbeknownst to Max, feather hunters returned and when investigators returned they found two hundred thousand birds lying in heaps all over the island, most with only their breast feathers missing. Along with hundreds of eggs with young chicks that has never hatched).

Max could not stay away from the island, and though the Government denied his appointment as a federal game warden, (one can only wonder how his resume read for this job), they somehow agreed to let him live on the island. While laying in supplies for the winter, he slaughtered three monk seals, fifteen turtles, and pickled 350 albatross eggs, yet he and his family Unhatched Albatross egg.nearly starved to death. They got by when a schooner sunk en route to San Francisco running aground in, surprise of, surprises, Maro Reef, and some of the food and survivors made the 70 miles in lifeboats. Max loaned them his prized sloop to get aid and it promptly sank in a storm in Midway Harbor. Max, a patriot of the first order hoisted the American flag regularly and waited for help. He and his boys were rescued in the nick of time by the USS Nereus and taken to Honolulu. There, soon after World War I broke out he was accused of being a German spy using Laysan as a listening post. One can only wonder what in the world they thought he was listening to, here on the far edge of nowhere. Thereafter, Max quit the sea and never saw Laysan again, and became a janitor until is retirement. The "King of Laysan" died in 1935.

One man did not destroy this island, but he made a heck of a dent in it. In contrast, it takes many people willing to work endless hours, and sums of money to restore what has been so severely damaged. Laysan, thanks to concerted efforts of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service, has been on the mend for the last twenty years. Tomorrow, I will be one of the fortunate few to see it for myself.

P.S The Max Schlemmer story was, for the most part extrapolated from Mark J. Rauzon's book, Isles of Refuge.

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