Foreigners who visited the Sandwich Islands in the early nineteenth century were treated by the Hawaiians with great care, particularly by the far-seeing king, Kamehameha I, who perhaps did not wish to antagonize or threaten them after the death of Captain James Cook at Kealakekua Bay in 1799. It is little wonder that the English explorer, Captain George Vancouver, like other early travelers, found much to admire in the Hawaiians:
They [the Hawaiians] had been constantly with [the astronomer] Mr. Whidby in the marquee, and had acquired such a taste for our mode of living, that their utmost endeavors were expended to imitate our ways…Their attachment was by no means of a childish nature, or arising from novelty, it was the effect of reflection; and a consciousness of their own comparative inferiority. This directed their minds to the acquisition of useful instruction…Their conversation had always for its object useful information, not frivolous inquiry…and the pains they took to become acquainted with our language, and to be instructed in reading and writing, bespoke them to have not only a genius to acquire, but abilities to profit by instruction.
When Captain Vancouver, who had sailed as a young seaman with Cook in 1772, arrived in Kona in 1793, he was distressed to learn that Kamehameha, whom he greatly admired, had separated from his favorite wife, Ka’ahumanu, because of her suspected liaison with the high chief Kaʻiana. Vancouver considered Kaʻiana and his brother to be “turbulent, treacherous, and ungrateful,” and believed them responsible for the massacre of the sailors on the Fair American, in which Isaac Davis, the only survivor, had been taken captive by Kamehameha.
King Kalākaua in his 1888 study of Kaʻiana claimed that an angry Kamehameha had sent Ka’ahumanu to live with her parents in Kealakekua. Archibald Menzies believed that Ka’ahumanu’s infidelity was not with Kaʻiana, but one of her attendants or another handsome young chief, who was not killed by Kamehameha for his disloyalty, but deprived of his rank and his lands. Menzies claimed that Ka’ahumanu had been left in disgrace in Hilo, while her parents were in Kona at the bedside of a young son who was dying of wounds suffered in a mock spear fight. Samuel Kamakau wrote that Kaʻiana was not the lover of Ka’ahumanu, but of her mother, Namahana, and the father of two of Namahana’s sons. As there was no written history in the Islands until 1825, it is impossible to know.
It is known, however, thanks to the journals of the foreigners, that in February 1793, Ka’ahumanu was in Kealakekua when her brother died from wounds received in a sham fight, and Vancouver secretly arranged for her to visit his ship to surprise Kamehameha, who was already on board. When Ka’ahumanu arrived, Vancouver led her to Kamehameha and placed her hand in the king’s hand. Kamehameha relented at the sight of her, and embraced her, both of them weeping. Before she left the ship, however, Ka’ahumanu asked Vancouver if he would make Kamehameha promise to stop beating her. Kamehameha was, by many accounts, a violent man.
The traveler James Jarves, who spent the years 1840 to 1848 in Honolulu as the editor of a weekly newspaper, later described Kamehameha I in his book, Scenes and Scenery in the Hawaiian Islands (1844):
The savage look…ascribed to him, had lost much of its expression of stern ferocity, while it retained its natural dignity and firmness. His carriage was majestic, and every action bespoke a mind which, under any circumstances, would have distinguished its possessor. His eyes were dark and piercing, in the words of one who not long after was well acquainted with him, he seemed capable of penetrating the designs and reading the thoughts of those about him, before his glance the most courageous quailed. His general deportment was frank, cheerful and generous…His sagacious mind seized upon every opportunity of improvement and aggrandizement…Cook’s narrative presented him as a wonderful savage, ambitious, brave and resolute, Vancouver’s intercourse showed him in the dawn of a ripened intellect, as possessing all the latter qualities, yet humane and thoughtful.
The Reverend Hiram Bingham, writing twenty years after Kamehameha’s death, was told of the king’s temper by his wife Kaheiheimālie, sister of Kaʻahumanu and later a governess of Maui. Bingham seems to commiserate with the king as to the difficulties inherent in possessing more than one wife:
How it would be possible for a barbarian warrior to manage from one to two dozen wives — some young, and some old — some handsome, and some ugly — some of high rank, and some low, without martial law among them, or without resorting to despotic violence…it would be…extremely difficult to conceive. Kalakua [Kaheiheimālie], the late governess of Maui, who gave me much of Kamehameha’s domestic history, says of him, “He kanaka pepehi no ia; aole mea e ana ai kona inaina. He was a man of violence,—nothing could pacify his wrath.” She said she was once beaten by him, with a stone, upon her head, till she bled profusely, when in circumstances demanding his kindest indulgence and care, as a husband…An English resident, who enjoyed his confidence as fully and long as any foreigners, says, he has seen him beat Kaahumanu with severity for the simple offence of speaking of a young man as “handsome”…Captain Douglass (sic) speaks of his violent temper and rashness, judging that “those about him feared rather than loved him;” and says, “Conceiving himself affronted, one day, by the chiefs who were on board, he kicked them all by turns, without mercy, and without resistance.”
It is not surprising, although disappointing, that Hiram Bingham could not allow himself to see fully and clearly the people amongst whom he had chosen to spend his life. It was inconceivable to him, for example, that Ka’ahumanu might have lived happily with Kamehameha: “The amount and the kind of attention which a young wife, among many, could, in the circumstance of Kaahumanu, receive from such a pagan polygamist warrior, and his heathen family, must have failed of producing much domestic happiness as her share.” Bingham wrote with ill-concealed admiration that the queen had run away from her husband when they were living at Waikīkī, “determined on making the passage to Kauai, by herself,—[she] embarked in a beautiful single canoe, and nearly accomplished her design. She was, however, brought back to Honolulu, where she complimented Captain Broughton, of the Providence, with the present of the canoe in which she had made the bold attempt.”
Kamehameha and Ka’ahumanu later accompanied Vancouver to the site of Cook’s death fourteen years earlier. Vancouver had been in one of the guard boats when Cook was killed, and Kamehameha took pains to assure him that he himself had not been present the morning of Cook’s death, which was not true. Kamehameha was well-aware of the rich and powerful kingdoms beyond the Pacific, having been visited by the armed merchant ships of the United States, Portugal, Spain, Russia, and Britain. Mindful that at any moment, one of these powers could take possession of the Islands, he wished to cede his kingdom to the British, in the hope that they would help to repel any future foreign aggression, while retaining for the Islands the right of self-government, according to the kingdom’s own laws. Observing that these powerful and wealthy nations worshipped a Christian god, he also asked Vancouver to send religious instructors from England. It has never been clear if the well-meaning Vancouver promised Kamehameha the protection that he sought, as such an agreement would have required the ratification of the English Parliament, which was never given, or whether Kamehameha and his chiefs (although one might presume that John Young understood the terms and requirements of such a treaty) did not fully comprehend the meaning of cession. Andrew Bloxam, who in 1824 was a botanist on board H.M.S. Blonde, wrote:
This singular cession of the country to a power nearly at the Antipodes was not, of course, followed by any act of authority, or any apparent change in the conduct of the English to Hawaii, but it was proof of the anxious desire of Tamehameha (sic) for the advantage of his kingdom. His intelligent mind was aware of the incalculable superiority possessed by the Europeans and others, whose ships visited him, over his own poor Islanders. The circumstances, that the English were the first to touch there; that their vessels were the largest and most powerful; that, besides the advantages sought for themselves in procuring provisions of all kinds, they had endeavoured to improve the Islands by carrying thither new and profitable animals and vegetables; all let him to look on the British as not only the most powerful but the most friendly of the new nations they had learned to know; and he might reasonably hope that we should be as willing as able to protect them against the insults and injuries that some of the traders had offered them.
When Vancouver left the Islands, Kamehameha, Ka’ahumanu, and her brother, Kalanimoku, were so upset that they traveled alongside his ships in canoes, following him up the coast, although Kamehameha had to return to shore before dark to conduct a religious ceremony to cleanse himself from the pollution of eating with men who had eaten with women. During these ceremonies, it was customary for the gifts that had been received from the foreigners, many of them given to women, to be laid at Kamehameha’s feet so that he could claim his share. These presents accounted for much of the booty — cloth, mirrors, nails, and trinkets — that Kamehameha was rapidly accumulating in his treasure houses.