"A Quest for a Feather Cloak and for Cannibals"
“On the wall of a massive stone museum just outside the city of Honolulu, there once hung a famous golden cloak of an island king. This cloak, valuable beyond price, could not be duplicated if all the gold in the world was offered as reward, for it is composed of the yellow feathers of the Mamo, a small Hawaiian bird that is now extinct.
The Mamo, to its utter destruction, hoarded a portion of the islands’ golden sunlight in its feathers.”
Thus opens the adventurous memoir Quest for the Golden Cloak, written by the Steinhart Aquarium’s founding superintendant, the famous ichthyologist Alvin Seale. Recently several members of his extended family visited the Research Library of the California Academy of Sciences in order to look through his manuscript collection, composed of his papers, memoirs, photographs and news clippings, which gave our staff here the opportunity to learn more about this scientific pioneer.
Alvin Seale was an extraordinary man - a real-life Indiana Jones of Ichthyology - whose contributions to science go beyond his efforts towards the founding of the Steinhart Aquarium. His adventures began early in life; as an undergraduate student in 1892 he traveled from Indiana to California by bicycle (a journey of three months) to study under the prestigious David Starr Jordan at Stanford University. While he did go on in time to complete his education, he took frequent sabbaticals to collect animal specimens in Alaska and to try and find Klondike gold, with his adventures taking him as far north as Point Barrow – the northernmost point in the United States (or in his time, U.S. territory).
After trying Alaska (and completing his Stanford degree), he ventured to warmer climes: the South Pacific, and a commission as a field agent for the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, Hawaii at the turn of the century. It is this assignment that forms the basis of Quest for the Golden Cloak. With King Kamehameha I’s famed golden cloak serving as one of the museum’s most prized possessions, museum officials assigned him the duty to scour the South Seas for more great garments of worked feathers – and to keep a passing eye out for vestigial cannibalism. As Seale wrote, “thus was assigned to me a quest for a feather cloak and for cannibals, a quest that would lead me from island to island in the tropical seas.”
Featherwork he would find, and cannibals as well; he had the distinct displeasure of seeing a man consume part of a human leg. But in his adventures he also came across high cliffside caves strewn with ancestral bones, went diving on a forgotten island searching for oysters with golden pearls, and even had a chance to shoot the devil himself (as part of a rare native ceremony he took part in on the Solomon Islands, where he fired his revolver at a massive effigy - the only time during his exotic travels he used his sidearm).
Seale’s quickly paced Golden Cloak was popular when it was published in 1946, four decades after the events it describes took place. It is an easy, exciting read, though of course it is relayed from the occidental point of view of its author and betrays occasional imperialistic impulses. Still, because of Seale’s humble Quaker roots his journeys remain grounded in peacefulness, and he frequently writes of the admiration he felt for many of the Polynesian and Melanesian peoples he encountered.
Seale in his office at the Academy of Sciences
And for all of Seale’s adventures, he was also a serious scientist: by the end of his career he was credited for naming 343 new species of fish (frequently in conjunction with David Starr Jordan, his mentor). His own name is memorialized as well: one type of tropical fish is named for Seale in both its scientific (Apagon sealei) and common name (Seale’s Cardinalfish).
The Academy Research Library has two copies of The Quest for the Golden Cloak available for circulation to staff, as well as Seale’s manuscript collection. Copies of Golden Cloak also exist in a number of local academic libraries, including the libraries of UC-Berkeley, Stanford, CSU-East Bay as well as the Santa Cruz Public Library. Stanford University’s archives include his extensive professional diaries.
Daniel Ransom – Archives and Digital Production Assistant