“What pinched-in bodies!”

man
Petroglyph at Pohue Bay, Ka’u, photograph by W. S. Chillingworth

Anchoring off Kawaihae, north of Kona, the captain of the brig Thaddeus, bearing the First Company (1819) of Congregationalist missionaries from New England, sent a boat ashore with one of his officers, who returned with the astonishing news that the great Kamehameha was dead, kapu abolished, idols destroyed, and temples demolished. The new king, Liholiho (Kamehameha II), was living thirty miles down the coast at Kailua. The high chief Kalanimoku, a cousin of Queen Ka’ahumanu’s, sent presents to the Thaddeus of coconuts, bananas, breadfruit, sweet potatoes, and two hogs. Men in canoes bartered fruit for knives, a pair of scissors, and some fishhooks. Kalanimoku, whom the English had nicknamed Billy Pitt for his skillful statesmanship, soon arrived on a canopied double canoe with his wife, Likelike, and Namahana and Kaheiheimālie, two of Kamehameha’s widows. Perhaps out of respect to the foreigners, the women, who were close to three hundred pounds each, wore shifts of Indian cotton over their pā’ū.

High chiefess Lydia Namahana Pi’ia, L. Massard, 1815
High chiefess Lydia Namahana Pi’ia, L. Massard, 1815

 

The missionaries may have been frightened and disgusted by what they saw, but the Hawaiians were curious, and even amused. They had never seen a white woman. “Crowds gathered, and one and another exclaimed, ‘What bright-colored eyes!’ ‘What strange hats, not at all like the tall hats of the men!’ ‘What long necks! but pleasing to look at!’ ‘What pinched-in bodies!’ ‘What tight clothing above and wide below!’” They asked the haole women to loosen their hair, so that they could comb and braid it, and some of the women obliged them. When the chiefesses asked the women to join them in cards, however, the missionaries explained that in America, ladies did not play cards, causing the Hawaiians to wonder that such a kapu could be imposed on white women.

Accustomed to the smiling faces of amorous sailors, the Hawaiians were bewildered by the solemnity of the strangers, while the missionaries, irritated by the constant chatter and laughter of the Hawaiians, were suspicious of the sudden explosions of laughter, convinced that native translators were deliberately altering their words.

At the invitation of the Americans, Kalanimoku and several of the royal women came on board the Thaddeus. Lucy Thurston described the queens in her journal:

Trammeled with clothes and seated on chairs, the queens were out of their element. They divested themselves of their outer dresses. Then the one stretched herself full length upon a bench, and the others sat down upon the deck. Mattresses were then brought for them to recline in their own way. After reaching the cabin…one of the queens divested herself of her only remaining dress, simply retaining her pa-u. While we were opening wide our eyes, she looked as self-possessed and easy as though sitting in the shades of Eden.

The Thaddeus sailed south from Kawaihae to Kona with the chiefs, numerous queens, and attendants on board, some of whom slept on deck. One of Liholiho’s wives demanded that the women make her a white cambric dress like they themselves wore, insisting that they finish it before reaching Kona, as she wished to wear it to surprise her husband. It took the women two days of stitching (they did not sew on the Sabbath), but when the Thaddeus arrived in Kona, the queen wore her new dress ashore to the screams and cheers of hundreds of her subjects. The women also gave her a lace cap and scarf, which they had brought from America as gifts.

 

Ahuena_heiau_1816

‘Ahu’ena heiau in Kona, print after a drawing by Louis Choris, before its destruction in 1819, ca. 1816

Shortly after their arrival in Kona, Lucia Holman visited what remained of ‘Ahu’ena, the heiau used for human sacrifice by Kamehameha I when he lived at Kamakahonu, and which had been destroyed by order of Ka’ahumanu:

It was sure enough in ruins, and such a scene of devastation, I never before beheld. There appeared to me to have been stone (solid lava) enough among the ruins of the temple, to build a city — 4 of the wooden gods are left for curiosity…In a large ohale (or house) near by lies buried the bones of the Great Tamahamaah (sic) — with a cross on each side, signifying Tarboo, (or no admittance). Upon this sacred ground was no common person allowed to step his foot.

Kuakini, a younger brother of Ka’ahumanu, was the first person to greet the missionaries in Kona. He was very tall and very big, and wore a traditional malo with a short cloak, known as a kihei, thrown around his huge shoulders. He invited the foreigners to his house, but they refused his invitation. Thomas Hopu, surprised by their rudeness, advised them to reconsider, and they reluctantly agreed to attend a feast given by Kuakini, who was notorious even amongst the generous Hawaiians for his extravagance. Kuakini had earlier written to the president of the United States in the hope of exchanging names with him, and although Adams did not trouble to answer him, Kuakini had begun to refer to himself as John Adams (according to Kamakau, Kuakini was also a notorious patron of thieves, keeping men solely to plunder ships and the stores of foreign merchants). There was ample and varied food at the feast, but the missionaries refused to eat. Kuakini even had wine for them, which they declined, taking only coconut water. He was an accomplished dancer and kept the finest troupe of dancers in the kingdom, but the missionaries refused his invitation to watch the dance. Hiram Bingham and Asa Thurston left the feast early, announcing that in future they only wished to meet with the king.

With Hopu serving as intermediary and with the help of Kamehameha’s counselor, the English sailor John Young, the two men at last met Liholiho. They arrived while he was eating dinner with his five wives, two of whom were his sisters, and one of whom had been married to his father. Refusing to be seated, the missionaries read aloud formal letters from the board in Boston. One can imagine — or perhaps not — the reaction of the king and his queens to the dry and somewhat naive instructions of the board. A private Missionary Album with confidential advice for the First Company, which was not read aloud, contains surprisingly benign, although ultimately ineffective instructions, particularly concerning involvement in the kingdom’s politics:

Your views are to be limited to the low, narrow scale, but you are to open your hearts wide and set your goals high. You are to aim at nothing short of covering these islands with fruitful fields, and pleasant dwellings and schools and churches, and of raising up the whole people to an elevated state of Christian civilization. You are to obtain an adequate language of the people; to make them acquainted with letters, to give them the Bible, with skill to read it…to introduce and get into extended operation and influence among them, the arts and institutions and usages of civilized life and society; and you are to abstain from all interference with local and political interests of the people and to inculcate the duties of justice, moderation, forbearance, truth and universal kindness. Do all in your power to make men of every class good, wise and happy.

Out of fear of Ka’ahumanu, or perhaps an instinctive foreboding, Liholiho refused to give the missionaries an answer as to whether they would be permitted to stay in the Islands. Although his father had asked Vancouver to send religious instructors, it had been in the interest of increasing the wealth of his kingdom, not his chances of salvation. Liholiho told Bingham that Ka’ahumanu was away fishing, and he could not make a decision without her. Lucy Thurston wrote in her journal that the missionaries then invited the king and his family to dinner on the Thaddeus. The king came to the ship in a double canoe of twenty paddlers and a large number of attendants:

The king was introduced to the first white women, and they to the first king, that each had ever seen. His dress on the occasion was a girdle, a green silk scarf put on under the left arm, brought up and knotted over the right shoulder, a chain of gold around his neck and over his chest, and a wreath of yellow flowers upon his head. The next day several of the brothers and sisters of the Mission went ashore, hoping that social intercourse might give weight to the scale that was then poising (sic). They visited the palace. Ten or fifteen armed soldiers stood without, and although it was ten or eleven o’clock in the forenoon, we found him on whom devolved the government of a nation, three or four of his chiefs, and five or six of his attendants, prostrate on their mats, wrapped in deep slumbers.

 

Advertisements

3 thoughts on ““What pinched-in bodies!”

  1. Toni Withinton January 1, 2016 / 10:20 pm

    What a beautiful essay on Hawaiian women meeting western women for the first time. All those pre-conceived social notions on both sides toching, shrinking back, touching again with a smile. As a sewer, I so much appreciate that the first act of kindness of the American women was to sew a dress for one of Liholiho’s wives. Sewing continued to be an activity that bound women together up to today. Thanks, Susanna. Very beautiful. toni

    Like

  2. Flora Biddle January 2, 2016 / 12:24 am

    Lovely, I feel as if I’d been there–your account is so vivid, the details so gripping. Do you wonder that the missionary wives made all these clothes with not a murmur of complaint? So much work, and in the heat they weren’t used to!
    Happy New Year!

    Like

  3. Jill & John January 2, 2016 / 1:11 am

    Welcome home!

    Sent from my iPad

    >

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s