“What Pinched-In Bodies!” Part II

Tattooed chief, lithograph after a drawing by Jacques Arago, 1819

The Reverend Hiram Bingham was shocked that Liholiho, who had become Kamehameha II with the death of his father the previous year, wore no shoes, stockings, pants, or gloves, although Thomas Hopu, the young Hawaiian missionary who had traveled with the Americans on the Thaddeus from New England,  had warned the chiefs and chiefesses to dress with modesty when they called on the missionaries. As the aliʻi were accustomed to wearing Western clothes (merchants had long supplied them with shoes and suits, and bolts of cloth for gowns), most of them obligingly appeared for their daily visits in gowns of Chinese silk and striped taffeta, brocade jackets, and heavy velvet waistcoats, which were stifling to wear in the heat. Some of the ali’i, hoping to please the haoles, evoked instead their private ridicule by their odd assortment of clothes — one of many melancholy ironies that was to ensure that the Hawaiians and the missionaries remained unknown to one another.

Over the next week, the missionaries waited patiently for the king’s decision, confident of the sanctity of their mission (to their irritation, the chiefs were easily distracted, at one point by a troupe of musicians) as they made excursions on shore, sailed up and down the coast on the Thaddeus, and visited with the Hawaiians. As the moon rose one evening, Asa Thurston and Hiram Bingham climbed to the maintop of the Thaddeus, and while their wives, the captain and crew, and the ali’i of Hawai’i Island watched in silence, loudly shouted the hymn they had sung at their ordainment in New England and again at Park Street Church when they left Boston.

The Reverend  Hiram Bingham, photograph  from his book, A Residence of Twenty-One Years in the Sandwich Islands, published in 1848
The Reverend Hiram Bingham, photograph from his book, A Residence of Twenty-One Years in the Sandwich Islands, published in 1848

Head of the Church Triumphant,
We joyfully adore thee:
Till thou appear,
The members here,
Shall sing like those in glory:
We lift our hearts and voices,
In blest anticipation,
And cry aloud,
And give to God
The praise of our salvation.

The royal women and their chiefs and attendants arrived at the ship each morning, seated under Chinese silk umbrellas on the platforms of large double canoes as they were fanned by a dozen men. The redoubtable Hiram Bingham was impressed by the agility and physical grace of the paddlers, if little else:

Ten athletic men in each of the coupled canoes making regular, rapid, and effective strokes, all on one side for a while then, changing at a signal in exact time, all on the other. Each raising his head erect and lifting one hand high to throw the paddle forward…dipping their blades and bowing simultaneously…making the brine boil and giving great speed to their novel seacraft. These grandees and their ambitious rowers gave us a pleasing indication of the physical capacity, at least, of the people whom we were desirous to enlighten.

View of Ka’awaloa, Kealakekua Bay, drawn by Persis, daughter of Lucy and Asa Thurston, 1835
View of Ka’awaloa, Kealakekua Bay, drawn by Persis, daughter of Lucy and Asa Thurston, 1835

The missionary wives sewed a dress for the queen mother, Keōpūolani, that so delighted her that she ordered more for her attendants and herself, waiting as the foreign women, unused to the dry heat of Kona, dazedly cut and stitched her a wardrobe. The chiefesses and queens were particularly taken with the Chamberlain’s young daughter and decided to adopt her, or hana’i, a practice common in Hawaiian families. To their surprise, the Chamberlains refused, but reluctantly agreed to let the child be taken ashore for the night, a gesture that helped to convince the queens that the missionaries meant them no harm. Lucia Holman, the prettiest of the missionary wives, wrote that one of the queens, “got me into her lap, and felt me from head to foot and said I must cow-cow and be nooe-nooe, i.e., I must eat and grow larger.” When Lucia walked with Nancy Ruggles and Maria Loomis on shore, the Hawaiians surrounded them, touching and poking them with curiosity.

They are white and have hats with a spout. Their faces are round and far in. Their necks are long. They look well.” The Hawaiians’ nickname for the women was Long Necks, in the tradition of awarding people — natives and foreigners alike —- with apt and perceptive names…The women…enjoyed their loudest transports of merriment at our expense, quizzing us without mercy, but never with ill-nature, while the singers honoured us occasionally with a place in their extemporaneous compositions.

“Reine Cahoumanou,” Plate III in Louis Choris’ Voyage Pittoresque Autour du Monde, Paris, 1822. Hawaii State Archives.
“Reine Cahoumanou,” Plate III in Louis Choris’ Voyage Pittoresque Autour du Monde, Paris, 1822, Hawaii State Archives.

When the missionaries learned that Ka’ahumanu had at last returned from fishing, they went on shore to discover the chiefs at a feast to welcome her home. Ka’ahumanu lay on a large mat in a yellow satin pā’ū (skirt of kapa, or barkcloth) with a purple satin kihei (capelet) over her shoulders, wearing a lei of maile leaves, and a band of yellow feathers low on her forehead. Her attendants fanned her and scratched her back, while the chiefs waited in line to greet her. It was the first time that the missionaries saw the hula — hundreds of dancing men and women, shouting and clapping, the men in anklets of rattling dog’s teeth. The women dancers were bare-breasted, wearing pā’ū and feather anklets. Daniel Chamberlain wrote that he had never in his life seen anything so Satanic.

Dancer in kapa skirt, with tattoos and bleached fringe of hair, colored lithograph after Jacques Arago


“What pinched-in bodies!”

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.



‘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.


“Sprightly, and beautiful for a Polynesian” (Part III)

 Liholiho, Kamehameha II, lithograph after a watercolor by John H ayter, painted in London shortly before the kingʻs death from measles, 1824

Liholiho, Kamehameha II, lithograph after a watercolor by John Hayter, painted in London shortly before the kingʻs death from measles, 1824

In the summer of 1821, King Liholiho sailed from Honolulu in a state of drunkenness to visit the windward side of the island. Once at sea, however, he ordered his captain to take the small and crowded boat across the dangerous channel to Kaua’i, arriving after a night of high seas at Waimea, the village where Captain Cook had first landed more than forty years earlier.

The Kaua’i chiefs were not surprised to see Liholiho. They were well aware of his late father’s long desire to conquer the island, the only kingdom to remain independent through generations of warfare, and there had been reports that Liholiho and his chiefs had set out on other occasions for Kaua’i, without ever making it across the channel. Ten years earlier, at the instigation of foreign merchants who wished to increase trade between the islands, the ali’i nui of Kaua’i, Kaumuali’i, and Kamehameha had at last come to an agreement in which the Kaua’i king relinquished his sovereignty, paying a yearly tribute of kapa, fruit, hogs, and calabashes in return for retaining control of the island. As a vassal state, Kaua’i no longer presented a military threat to the unified kingdom that Liholiho had inherited from his father.

Mahiole, or feather helmet belonging to King Kaumualiʻi of Kauaʻi, 1899, Bernice P. Bishop Museum
Mahiole or feather helmet belonging to Kaumualiʻi, 1899, Bernice P. Bishop Museum

As the king arrived without cannon or soldiers, but, like the missionaries, with his wives, he was welcomed by Kaumuali’i, who immediately sent lele, or messengers, to reassure the chiefs of O’ahu that the king had arrived safely. Kaumuali’i, confident that his small kingdom was in no danger, sought to honor Liholiho and his entourage by conducting them on a six-week-long progress around the island. One afternoon, Liholiho announced that he wished to repay the king’s generosity and invited Kaumuali’i on board his yacht, secretly giving orders to sail. When Kaumuali’i realized that he had been tricked, he shouted to his men on shore. His chiefs chased after the schooner in canoes, but lost sight of the darkened boat in the night, and Kaumuali’i was taken as an honored prisoner to O’ahu.

Historians question whether Ka’ahumanu was an accomplice in the abduction of Kaumuali’i, and whether she had deliberately allowed Liholiho out of her keeping. She may have been distracted by the completion of her new two-story frame house near Honolulu harbor, furnished in the Western style with two doors, chandeliers, mahogany tables, and Chinese sofas of embroidered silk. The house remained empty, however, when the queen suddenly moved to the north shore, announcing that she would remain there for several months.

View of H onolulu, watercolor over pencil by George H enry Burgess, 1867, H onolulu Academy of Art
View of Honolulu, looking toward Manoa and Nu’uanu, watercolor over pencil by George Henry Burgess, 1867, Honolulu Academy of Art

Kaʻahumanu returned unexpectedly to Honolulu with the arrival of Liholiho and his prisoner, and three days later, while accompanying Kaumuali’i on a visit to Hiram and Sibyl Bingham, she demanded that he marry her. The forty-three-year-old king, a man known to be mild in temper and happy in his marriage to the beautiful high chiefess Kapule, had no choice but to agree. Kaumuali’i and Ka’ahumanu, lying side by side on a low platform piled with thirty mats of the finest weave and covered by a blanket of black kapa to signify their union, were married that same night before a gathering of chiefs. The marriage served to unite the royal family of Kaua‘i with high-ranking Maui and Hawai‘i chiefs, and ended the possibility of conflict, as unlikely as it was, with the only island still to remain unconquered.

Hawaiian chiefess, painting by John Mix Stanley, 1849, Bernice P. Bishop Museum
Hawaiian chiefess wearing the long gown, or mu’umu’u, introduced by missionaries, painting by John Mix Stanley, 1849, Bernice P. Bishop Museum

A short time later, Ka’ahumanu also married Kaumuali’i’s son, Keali’iahonui, further torturing Kapule, who was deprived of both her husband and her son (Albertine Loomis writes that Kapule was also married to Keali’iahonui, who was in truth her step-son, and much preferred him to his father). Not surprisingly, Keali’iahonui, who was seven feet tall, was said to be the best-looking man in the Islands, in spite of missing his front teeth, which he had knocked out while mourning the death of his new wife’s late husband, Kamehameha I. James Jarves wrote that Ka’ahumanu soon held “both father and son in her chains, which were not silken.” At the time of her second marriage, Ka’ahumanu was perhaps fifty-three years old, and still beautiful, despite her arrogant demeanor, riding to church with Kaumuali’i in a wagon drawn by fifteen men, shell combs and feathers in her hair.

Hawaiian chief, lithograph in, ca. 1870
Hawaiian chief, lithograph from “Northern California, Oregon, and the Sandwich Islands,” by Charles Nordhoff, ca. 1870

Unlike most of the chiefs, Kaumuali‘i was slight of build, with skin and features said to be like those of a white man. He was known for his elegance, dressing in cashmere waistcoats, white silk stockings, and black velvet pantaloons from which hung a gold watch with seals and ornaments. He spoke English well, having learned it on Kaua’i. As a captive husband who longed for his wife Kapule, he busied himself in studying the Bible. The missionary Charles Stewart, who thought that the king in his melancholy resembled James I, found Kaumuali‘i to be “the most Christian person in the nation…I have never heard a word, nor witnessed in him a look or action, unbecoming a prince, or, what is far more important, inconsistent with the character of a professedly pious man.” Kaumuali’i once asked the Reverend Hiram Bingham for a blessing on his food, infuriating Ka’ahumanu, who threw a heavy pot at his head, which was deflected by a startled Bingham at the last moment. It comes as no surprise that Kaumuali’i is said to have wished the devil to take his new wife.

A frustrated Ka’ahumanu, not used to resistance, complained that he did not return her possibly real affection, and wrote melancholy chants bemoaning his indifference to her. Perhaps inspired by her husband’s dress, she soon abandoned her traditional pā’ū to wear heavy striped satin gowns, white muslin shawls, and Leghorn bonnets rather than her customary kapa skirt and wreaths of bright feathers and flowers. In her new finery, she surprised and amused the haole women with both her grandeur and her lack of modesty. Lucy Thurston sat with the queen at a tea given by the Binghams for some of the chiefs, and the officers of the Dolphin, which was then in port:

The time passed pleasantly until nine o’clock, when it was announced that our queen, Ka’ahumanu, was tired, and wanted to go home. She arose (I never saw her look so tall), gathered up the ample folds of her black silk dress, even to the very waist, holding a portion on each arm, and exposing a beautiful undergarment of pink satin. Thus she stood…while we gathered around her to bid her good night.

Despite the teachings of her new friends, Ka’ahumanu still preferred to spend the Sabbath swimming and surfing, rather than in church. She stopped one Sunday at the Binghams after a day of surfing, and settled comfortably on a sofa next to Lucy Thurston. She happened to be naked. “In the presence of them and their wives, she entered the sitting room. With the ease and self possession of royalty, she took a seat on the settee, and carried on conversation with freedom. Did I say she came from the bathing place? —She came as it were from Eden, in the dress of innocence.”