"King of Laysan"
Written by Carlos
by Jim Watt
September 17, 2002
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 Hawaii.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.