Inside The New Mapping Of Hawaii Exhibit At The Bailey House Museum

The name of the island is spelled “MOWEE,” though that’s not even close to the most unusual feature of the map laid out before me. The shape of the island is distorted–West Maui is too small, South Maui too small and Hana is too pointy. This isn’t too surprising, considering that the map, drawn in 1798, is based on an earlier 1784 map used by Captain Cook (Hawaii’s pre-contact lack of a written language meant early explorers spelled things out phonetically–hence island names like “Mowee,” “Woahoo” and Owhyhee”).

Though the 1798 map is a product of the Italian cartographer Cassini, Cook himself appears in the lower left hand corner. Dressed as an Italian naval officer, Cook is about to meet a rather painful demise at the hands of Hawaiians, clad in garb more suitable to Native American tribes than the natives of “Le Isole Di Sandwich.”

There is something undeniably sublime–and yet fascinating–that comes from staring at Cassini’s map. Drawn when Hawaii was something new and alien to European explorers and the royals who funded them, the map exudes adventure and wonder. Don’t all maps, really? Maps are for explorers looking for treasure chests and hoping to evade monsters.

We should remember that there were great dangers in Hawaii to the men who crewed the sailing ships that found their way here back then. Partly the threat came from the Hawaiians, as the illustration of Cook shows, who weren’t too happy about newcomers bringing trouble, but it was equally risky for any navigator to think the craggy lines on the old maps represented a realistic portrayal of the island’s actual shorelines.

This map, along with dozens of others of equally important historical and cultural importance, are now on display at the Bailey House Museum in Wailuku. They’re there as part of the traveling Mapping of Hawaii exhibit that runs from Oct. 1-15.

“Even the Bishop Museum doesn’t have all these maps on display,” said exhibit curator Bryant Neal, who with his partner Richard Mickelsen runs Gallery Oceanica on Front Street in Lahaina (Wailuku resident and activist Susan Halas also helped promote the exhibit).
Bailey House Museum executive director Nicole McMullen agreed. “This is a really interesting topic,” she said. “It’s exactly the kind of program we’d like to have. We have a nice collection of historic maps that we’d like to have people take more advantage of.”

For Neal, producing the exhibit is the culmination of 20 years selling maps as a partner in Lahaina Printsellers. “To sell maps, you have to educate people,” Neal said. “The maps I found were a great storyboard to the story of Hawaii. I found that a lot of native people were interested in Polynesians, where they came from when they first came to Hawaii, while transplants were interested in the Europeans who first came here. But no one had done the complete thing. With this, from school kids on up, people will get a big picture grasp of [Hawaiian history]. I hope it’ll be a catalyst to spark their own intellectual pursuit.”

The maps that are part of the exhibit were drawn by very different people for very different reasons. Those used by Cook and Cassini were for Europeans traveling to Hawaii for exploration (which often, if not always, led to commercial exploitation and military plunder).

“The first maps were used by foreign explorers who just wanted to know safe anchorages,” said Riley Moffat, senior librarian at BYU-Hawaii in Laie. “The creators were all pretty much self-taught, both in terms of surveying and cartography. They are great historical documents: you see the landscape through the eyes of the creators.”

Of course, the Hawaiian government drew up its own maps. One very distinctive world map–the Palapala Honua map, printed at Lahainaluna in 1839–shows the world splayed out with two major differences from other such maps: the Hawaiian archipelago appears in the center, and all place names are written in Hawaiian.

The 1876 map of the Hawaiian Kingdom, which was exhibited in Philadelphia at that year’s American Centennial, is even more impressive. Stretching six feet across and four feet wide, the map shows the islands with stunning clarity and even includes volcanic craters and other topographical features.

“Everyone’s favorite map of Maui is the Alexander map,” said Neal, referring to the 1885 Hawaii government survey map drawn up by W.D. Alexander. Drawn a few decades after the Mahele, which ended the old semi-feudal ahupua‘a system of dividing up lands in favor of more Western allocation, the map shows Maui as a surrealist collage of pastel pink, green, yellow and orange.

The first true cartographer was probably the ancient Greek Claudius Ptolemy, though his Geographia most likely contained no true maps until its 1453 printing. “Ptolemy systematized cartography by insisting that maps be drawn to scale and that they be oriented to the north,” wrote historian Miles Harvey in his 2000 book The Island of Lost Maps: A True Story of Cartographic Crime. “He was one of the first to offer a projection by which a spherical earth could be rendered on a flat surface.”

Maps were some of the earliest works published on Guttenberg’s first printing press. This, according to Harvey, ushered in a true Information Age: “For the first time the whole world is able to see the world as a whole.”

The word “map” dates to the Middle Ages Latin term mappa mundi, though with some clarification. “[I]t does not mean ‘map of the world,” wrote Harvey. “It more accurately translates as ‘napkin of the world,’ a reference to the fact that mappae mundi were often painted on cloth.”

According to Harvey, the first maps drawn used during the Middle Ages served very different purposes than those found today. “The mappae mundi were intended more to diagram history and anthropology, myth and scripture, dreams and nightmares, than to provide geometrically precise representations of the physical world,” Harvey wrote. “Not surprisingly, they can look bizarre to modern eyes.”

The earliest maps were full of vibrant color and startling imagery–aspects that continue to this day. Indeed, true map-making is an art.

“Maps are visually fascinated,” said Moffat. “They are objects of art. Look at a map: we should ask if it is accurate, but also if it is visually a piece of art. Some maps are like photos, while others are drawn with lines and shapes.”

Indeed, the act of map-making is actually quite difficult, and depends on a lot more than simply getting accurate topographical features and coordinates.

“It may take you months, even years, to draft a single map,” Harvey wrote. “It’s not just the continents, oceans, mountains, lakes, rivers, and political borders you have to worry about. There’s also the cartouche (a decorative box containing printed information, such as the title and the cartographer’s name) and an array of other adornments–distance scales, compass roses, wind-heads, ships, sea monsters, important personages, characters from the Scriptures, quaint natives, menacing cannibal natives, sexy topless natives, planets, wonders of the ancient world, flora, fauna, rainbows, whirlpools, sphinxes, sirens, cherubs, heraldic emblems, strapwork, rollwork, and/or clusters of fruit.”

That artwork is by no means limited to maps printed during the Renaissance and Age of Exploration. Maps of Hawaii produced by the Dole Pineapple Company in 1937 and 1950–both of which are part of the Mapping of Hawaii exhibit–are lavishly illustrated with bright and colorful Matson liners, Pan Am clippers, whales, steaming volcanoes, voyaging canoes, reef fish, drift net fishermen and, of course, pineapples.

Old maps are also very valuable–some worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. So much so that collectors have taken to slicing them out of centuries-old Atlases found in libraries (a practice known as “book-breaking”) and selling them to underground dealers. It’s a practice as disturbing as it is lucrative.

But book-breaking is hardly universal among map enthusiasts. One of those who doesn’t go in for it at all is Riley Moffat.

It’s hard to imagine anyone knows more about Maui maps than Moffat. The highest ranking librarian at BYU-Hawaii, Moffat co-authored (with Gary L. Fitzpatrick) the Palapala‘aina series of books: The Early Mapping of Hawaii (1986), Surveying the Mahele (1995) and Mapping the Lands and Waters of Hawaii (2004). To put it mildly, Moffat knows maps.

“It’s always been an interest since I was a little kid,” Moffat said. “I’ve been fortunate to have had a career as a map librarian, going on 40 years. I just like to know where I am, where others have been and where I’ve been.”

On Oct. 8, the soft-spoken Moffat will present a special “The Mapping of Maui” exhibit at the Bailey House, a special presentation–complete with maps–on how cartographers viewed the Valley Isle over the past few centuries.

“I hope people will appreciate the historical development of Maui, and the role maps played in that,” Moffat said of his up-coming talk. “Not just the problems that were caused, but also the problems that were solved.”

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The Mapping of Hawaii Exhibit runs at the Bailey House Museum (2375-A Main St., Wailuku) through Oct. 15. Museum hours are Mon-Sat, 10am-4pm. Museum admission is $7, though the exhibit during October’s First Friday is free.

Celebration (Oct. 7, 5:30-8pm) will be FREE.
The Mapping of Maui event featuring Riley Moffat takes place at the Bailey House on Saturday, Oct. 8 at 4pm. The talk is free to Maui Historical Society members, $10 for non-members.

Those wanting more information or information on special tours for classes or groups should contact the Bailey House at 244-3326 or visit