The Climax of Queer Sensations

It had once been acceptable, even pragmatic for haole seamen and traders to keep Hawaiian mistresses, not unlike the domestic arrangements and love matches of the British merchants and company officials of the East India Company in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century India. A liaison or marriage to a Hawaiian woman was considered advantageous, particularly if a woman had ali’i blood and the land that often accompanied rank.

W’s great, great grandfather, Archibald S. Cleghorn, and his wife, Princess Likelike. From the left, his daughters Rose, Helen, and Annie. Rose is W’s great grandmother. (1870, Hawaiʻi S tate Archives)
W’s great great grandfather, Archibald S. Cleghorn, and his wife, Princess Likelike. From the left, his daughters Rose, Helen, and Annie. Rose is W’s great grandmother. 1870.  Hawaiʻi State Archives.

It was only with the coming of the missionaries in the early nineteenth-century that it became disreputable for a haole to live with a native woman who was not an aliʻi. The disapproval of the missionaries did little, however, to affect the small group of local white and, later, Asian men, who were regarded with hostility by the missionaries for their drinking and general bad morals, which presumably meant their relationships with Hawaiian women, with whom they lived openly, and sired children.

The chiefess Kaenoo, watercolor by Jacques Arago, 1819. Honolulu Museum of Art.
The chiefess Kaenoo, watercolor by Jacques Arago, 1819. Honolulu Museum of Art.

For the young Christian men of the mission, many of them fresh from the schoolrooms of New England seminaries, the physical ease and freedom of Hawaiian woman must have been very disturbing, even if the men were afforded protection by a sense of their own superiority, and their fear and mistrust of pleasure, which helped to turn any latent desire into disgust. It is no surprise that in missionary families, marriages with Hawaiians or Asians were rare. Exceptions were the marriage in 1866 of Rufus Lyman, the son of David and Sarah Lyman, to Hualani Ahung, who had a Chinese father and Cherokee-Hawaiian mother (in many records, her Chinese name is replaced with the name Rebecca Brickwood, thanks to her mother’s second marriage to the postmaster of Honolulu), and the son of the Hawai’i Island missionary John D. Paris married a woman descended from the ruling chiefs of Maui, named Kailikolamaikapaliokaukini.

A young woman of the Sandwich Islands, engraving after a drawing by John Webber, ship’s artist with Captain Cook, 1779
A young woman of the Sandwich Islands, engraving after a drawing by John Webber, ship’s artist with Captain Cook, 1779

When a visiting male friend of Clarissa Armstrong, wife of the Reverend Richard Armstrong, announced that he was marrying a Hawaiian woman and staying in the Islands, Mrs. Armstrong was horrified:

O what feelings of sorrow, contempt etc filled my breast. I have done nothing scarcely this P.M. but sorry, and weep for the folly, of one I watched over as a brother. A member of our family, and we keeping him from temptations, and the[n] without asking even our advice, is going headlong into folly, and I fear what is worse!! What will his poor mother say when she hears he is married to a heathen, who like the rest, regards not the truth, or the 7th commandment.

The Reverend George Rowell, stationed at Waimea on Kaua’i, was accused of adultery with his female parishioners by a Hawaiian woman in his church. His wife remained loyal to him, despite his dismissal and the efforts of the missionaries to turn her against him. In 1852, the Reverend Samuel G. Dwight, who had kept a school on Moloka’i for six years, was accused of lewd behavior with his young female students, and expelled from the church by unanimous vote. He married a Hawaiian girl named Anna, and became a dairy farmer.

The dashing high chief Ka’iana, lover of Ka’ahumanu, lithograph after a drawing by Captain John Meares of the Nootka , 1787. Hawaiian Historical Society
The dashing high chief Ka’iana, lover of Ka’ahumanu, lithograph after a drawing by John Webber, 1787. Hawaiian Historical Society.

If the missionary men were disturbed by the sight of naked Hawaiians, what can the missionary women have made of them? One would think, reading their letters and journals, that they did not, could not, at least at first, see them at all, although the newly-arrived Lucy Thurston, upon finding barely-clothed chiefs stretched on mattresses on the deck of the Thaddeus, admitted to feeling “the climax of queer sensations.”

In 1870, Isabella Bird, an Englishwoman advised by her doctor to travel abroad when she suffered complaints of hysteria, arrived in Hawai’i from Australia. She was not distressed by the beauty and grace of Hawaiian women, but enchanted by them. Bird, who would write Six Months in the Sandwich Islands (1875), as well as numerous books describing her adventures in the Rocky Mountains, Kurdistan, Nepal, Japan, Morocco, and Manchuria, among other places, described the enticing walk of native women:

A majestic wahine with small, bare feet, a grand, swinging, deliberate gait, hibiscus blossoms in her flowing hair, and a lei of yellow flowers falling over her holoku [fitted long dress with train], marching through these streets, has a tragic grandeur of appearance…There were hundreds of native horsemen and horsewomen…The women seemed perfectly at home in their gay, brass- bossed, high peaked saddles, flying along astride, bare-footed, with their orange and scarlet riding dresses streaming on each side beyond their horses’ tails, a bright kaleidoscopic flash of bright eyes, white teeth, shining hair, garlands of flowers and many coloured dresses…

Hawaiian women riding in pa'u, illustration by Emile Bayard, 1871
Hawaiian women riding in pa’u, illustration by Emile Bayard, 1871

For those men not encumbered by a rigid religious faith, the women of the Islands were fairly irresistible. Captain George Vancouver was captivated by the hula, sometimes performed by six hundred men and women at a time (the only objection he ever made was to the lively hula ma‘ i, a dance in honor of the genitals). “Such perfect unison of voice and actions, that it were impossible, even to the bend of a finger, to have discovered the least variation.” When the dancers collapsed into a heap on the ground in front of Vancouver and covered their heads with their kapa, “the idea of a boisterous ocean . . . [was] tranquillized by an instant calm.” Archibald Menzies, the English botanist on board the Discovery with Vancouver, was also entranced, if not aroused by the dancers. “Every joint of [the dancer’s] limbs, every finger of her hand, every muscle of her body, partook unitedly of the varied sympathetic impulses. . . . The motion of her eyes transferring their transient glances and the harmony of her features were beyond description.”

The bewitchment was not limited to the heterosexual. Charles Warren Stoddard, in his 1905 book of travel essays, The Island of Tranquil Delights, took the brave and somewhat reckless step of writing about a boy whose Hawaiian name, Kāne‘aloha, translates as Man of Love:

Kane-Aloha had been shedding garments by the way all the blessed afternoon. It was evident that presently there would not be a solitary stitch left for propriety’s sake. Nobody seemed to care in the least. . . .Is there anything more soothing, more cleansing, more ennobling and refining than the caress of the pure, cool air when it comes in immediate contact with the human body as God created it? . . . We slept the sleep of the just made perfect by the realization of our wildest dreams; meanwhile at the Mission House . . . [they were] joining in the prayer of the Family Circle, that we, the unregenerated, might be delivered from evil.


2 thoughts on “The Climax of Queer Sensations

  1. Cathleen Rickard April 9, 2015 / 11:07 pm

    Susanna’s writing makes me believe that she was actually there, sensing, feeling, perceiving the various circumstances and situations. She seems to have a keen awareness of human nature in its many guises. It is doubly delicious to have W’s family photos and heritage included in the mix. So rare to have such access to these stories. I will continue to enjoy her writings, and look forward to the next blog.


  2. Peter Davis April 10, 2015 / 3:41 am

    Dear Susanna,

    These are all so seductively beautiful. I feel I haven’t truly lived a whole life because I’ve never seen those dances you and the others you quote describe The arrangements people make in the name of love —  those European seamen who came ashore to start new families, and of course the women they started these with: People make adjustments, don’t they, or as you would say there’s a great malleability in determining one’s identity. It’s all intriguing, every piece of the life you tell about.. I love each of the dance descriptions including the one where Capt. Vancouver is offended by “the dance in honor of the genitals.”

    One question — where did the horses come from? I guess I doubt horses were native to the islands any more than they were to England.

    Soon there will be a book of what you’re doing. The illustrations, incidentally, are perfect complements to your writing. Please keep these illuminations flowing out across the world.

    Love, Peter


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