Falling Are The Heavens

Abandoned heiau, ca. 1930, Hawaiʻi State Archives

The task of understanding the past is never-ending. It is impossible not to feel at times ambivalent, and to resist the ease of disapproval, if not condemnation. It will be the obvious view of most readers that the Hawaiians should have been left to work out their own history. Although it has become useful for contemporary scholars and writers of Hawaiian history to blame the influence of foreigners, particularly the missionaries, for the near annihilation of the race, it is impossible to exempt the ali’i from hastening its perilous decline. Putting aside the inexorability of historical determinism, it is too easy to fault foreigners for the dissolution and eventual collapse of the Hawaiian monarchy, too simplistic to decry the acquisitive traders and shopkeepers who followed the ships, or the native chiefs who lost their kingdom through negligence and misrule. “The gods did not die: slowly they withdrew from the people, who no longer honored them.”

swimming in muumuu
Women swimming in the muʻumuʻu imposed on them in the nineteenth century by missionaries, ca. 1890, Hawaiʻi State Archive

The mythic navigator, Ka’uluakalana, is said to have composed this chant, only a fragment of which has been preserved, when he first landed in the Islands in the eleventh century A.D.:

Interior of heiau in Waimea on the Big Island, with gods wrapped in kapa, and sacrificed pig, after a drawing by Webber
Interior of heiau on Kauaʻi with gods wrapped in kapa, and sacrificed pig, after a drawing by Webber (in which the pig does not appear).

Falling are the heavens, rushing through the heavens
Falls the dismal rain, rushing through the heavens
Falls the heavy rain, rushing through the heavens
Falls the gentle rain, rushing through the heavens
Soars the dragonfly, rushing through the heavens
Passed away has this one to Moanawaikaioo.
The strong current, the rolling current, whirl away,
“It will be overcome by you,—
Passing perhaps, remaining perhaps.

When the cabinet minister William N. Armstrong, who accompanied David Kalākaua on a trip around the world in 1881, warned him that the future of the Hawaiian people was in danger, Kalākaua insisted that his people were happy enough — there was food, their small kuleana (homesteads) supported them, and no one robbed them. “If they are [dying out], I’ve read lots of times that great races died out, and new ones took their places; my people are like the rest. I think the best thing is to let us be.” They were not left to themselves, as both the king and Armstrong must have foreseen, and they did begin to disappear. There is no little irony in recognizing that the speed with which this occurred — a short one hundred and twenty years from the arrival of Captain Cook in 1777 to the annexation of the Islands in 1898 by the United States — serves as testimony to the generosity of spirit, patience, and adaptability of the Hawaiians themselves. In their grace lay their defeat.

King Kalakaua with Robert Louis S tevenson, 1889, Hawaiʻi State Archives
King Kalakaua with Robert Louis Stevenson, 1889, Hawaiʻi State Archives

Pālea, a Hawaiian chanter from Ka‘u who was born in 1852, composed this chant after he and his wife came upon a mirror for the first time. It is called “Piano Ahiahi,” or “Piano at Evening” (the native land shell is now an endangered species):

Pre-1900 Hawaiian woman
Hawaiian woman, ca. 1890, Hawaiʻi State Archives

O Piano I heard at evening,
where are you?
Your music haunts me far into the night
like the voice of landshells
trilling sweetly
near the break of day.
I remember when my dear and I
visited aboard the Nautilus
and saw our first looking glass.
I remember the upland of Ma‘eli‘eli
where the mists creeping in and out
threaded their way between the old
houses of thatch.
Again I chant my refrain
of long ago and a piano singing
far into the night.

Wealth for Heaven

Honolulu from the sea, with the fort built by Russian sailors. Lithograph by Louis Choris, 1822. Hawai’i State Archives.
Honolulu from the sea, with the fort built by Russian sailors. Watercolor by Louis Choris, 1822. Hawai’i State Archives.

Soon after the death of Captain Cook, it became known among seamen that the Islands provided a cheap source of provisions and fittings, and a seemingly endless supply of native sailors. The first American whaling ships appeared in the Pacific as early as 1791, when whales were beginning to grow scarce in the Atlantic, hunting off the coast of Chile and moving west across the ocean. The trip from New England to the Sandwich Islands, which once took six months, could be done, given good winds, in one hundred and ten days. The wharves of Honolulu and Lahaina were soon crowded with shouting factors, ship’s chandlers, shopkeepers, and sea captains selling their cargoes, their old schooners, and new ships on credit. Hundreds of ships and their seamen waited in port each winter for the seasonal migrations of whales, as did the many merchants and traders dependent on the whalers and the growing market for beaver and other skins in China. The Islands were one of the last stops for runaway sailors, and every foreign vessel left port missing several of its original crew. Hawaiian men, known for their strength and good nature, were often hired to replace them, paid in goods after they were charged for the cold-weather jackets, shoes, and trousers they would need in Asia and the Northwest.

Honolulu 2015

The only seeming reason for the existence of Honolulu was its harbor. The town was foetid, dry, barren, and hot. Its residents were thirsty, and they smelled bad. Although bacteria and the viruses that cause enteric fevers and dysentery, parasites, and pathogenic amoebas festered in the water and the soil, and thus in the food, there was no thought of building a public water system by either the chiefs or the government (the swamps that bordered the town were not drained until after the Second World War). O. A. Bushnell described Honolulu in 1815:

Commoners, if they still were concerned about grooming their persons, bathed perforce in the dirty river or in the turbid harbor, amid the refuse dumped overboard from ships moored there. Chiefs, and perhaps the more favored among their retainers…enjoyed the few spring-fed ponds…Scavenging pigs, dogs, goats, cats, rats, and chickens devoured whatever was edible, leaving the residue to be trampled into the dirt, or just to lie there until it disintegrated… Pollution took many forms: haole excrement, and with that haole germs, was not the only abomination…rubbish, junk, the debris of wrapping, crates, barrels, papers, jute bags, and rags; empty bottles, jugs, jars, crocks, shards of glass; the scabrous shops, warehouses and sheds; the raucous rancid grogshops and whorehouses; the two ‘innsʻ; the dismantled hulks of dead ships rotting in the harbor; the one pitiable cemetery…in which the husks of dead haoles were dumped and soon forgotten…made of Honolulu…[a] midden, alive with maggots, flies, vermin, and…the least admirable specimens of mankind, foul-mouthed, diseased, and indomitable, lurching through the town in search of rum and women.

The port of Honolulu with foreign ships and native grass houses. Lithograph by Louis Choris, 1822. British Museum.
The port of Honolulu with foreign ships and native grass houses. Watercolor by Louis Choris, 1822. British Museum.

When the First Company of Congregationalist missionaries arrived in 1820, the population of the port was between two and three thousand people. The missionaries, as is their nature, demanded a high price in exchange for the gift of faith. Both the healthful and less salutary diversions of generations, which the missionaries equated with pagan religious practice and revolting secular pleasure, were declared sinful and replaced by segregated classes in needlework, theology, and English grammar. The chants and hulas, most of which had been passed from generation to generation for centuries, were forbidden; a suppression that would prove catastrophic for Hawaiians. The chants contained everything a person needed to know about the world — they were a way to worship the gods, to call warriors to battle, to mourn a king, to court a lover, to celebrate the birth of a child. Each successive generation, listening and memorizing the stories and songs taught to it, inevitably altered the chants and meles in the retelling. Myths were not required or expected to be consistent or accurate, particularly in regard to dates or facts, and the constant subtle modification and embellishment, often sexual in nature, increased the missionaries’ determination to suppress them.

Men dancing with anklets of dogs’ teeth. Kaʻahumanu is thought to be sitting in the background, between two of the dancers. Lithograph after Louis Choris,1822.
Men dancing with anklets of dogs’ teeth. Kaʻahumanu is thought to be sitting in the background, holding a feathered staff. Lithograph after Louis Choris, 1822.

Sports and games were also considered sinful by the missionaries. Surf-riding, usually nude, was soon forbidden. Gambling, of which the Hawaiians were inordinately fond, was prohibited. “We have seen females hazarding their beds, scissors, cloth-beating mallets, and every piece of clothing they possessed, except what they wore, on a throw,” wrote a shocked William Ellis. The children were pressed to give up their pets — the following song was taught to the tune of Yankee Doodle Dandy:

Don’t beat my dog,
My pretty dog,
friend to go with, friend to sleep with, friend to play with.

Drive away your dog, says the wise one. Fleas, bites, mean, noisy, naught.

His bark bow wow
so noisy.
Steals, wastes money, eats the house’s wealth.

your “pretty dog,”
Save money, buy books, wealth for heaven.

(The strict rules put in place by the pious missionaries made for a sore curtailment of the pleasures of haoles as well as Hawaiians. “Most of the foreigners in this place,” wrote Sarah Lyman twelve years after the arrival of the First Company, “are decidedly opposed to the missionaries.”)

With the presence of the foreigner, whether sea captain or escaped Irish poacher from Botany Bay, came the use of alcohol. (As a girl, I was taught a song by a Hawaiian woman named Alice Kema, to whom I looked for love and support, a song called “Koni Au I Ka Wai,” whose translation I learned years later: “I throb, I throb for liquid, I throb for cool liquid, royal liquid —gin—to make life cool and peaceful.”)

High chiefs Hekili and Boki on board the Kamchatka, oil painting by Tikhanov, 1818. Academy of Arts, St. Petersburg.
High chiefs Hekili and Boki on board the Kamchatka, oil painting by Mikhail Tikhanov, 1818. Academy of Arts, St. Petersburg.

John Dominis Holt wrote of the Hawaiians, “Warmly disposed to the love of physical pleasure, the enjoyment of which had been brought to a great refinement in the old culture, [they] took to alcohol with a fatal and giddy determination.” It is said that one of Queen Ka’ahumanu’s favorite amusements was to make drunk two Aleutian women who had been brought by sailors from the northwest coast of America and then abandoned. The women were favorites of the queen, perhaps because she could be easy in their presence. The queen liked alcohol, and was able to drink when Kamehameha, frequently restricted by religious ritual, could not (later he eschewed alcohol altogether), but she did not drink the crude alcohol distilled from the root of the ki plant, and kept a supply of brandy that she received in secret.

During a tour of the world in 1881, the amiable and handsome King David Kalakaua “had disturbed the variety show at a public restaurant in the Prater [by howling fearfully], had taken off his uniform coat as soon as the dance began, had promiscuously kissed the women and, finally, the lackeys had to…[carry him] helplessly drunk, back to his hotel in the court- equipage…The people…however, approved of the King’s democratic manners, and when the band rendered the Hawaiian National Anthem, they rose and uncovered [their heads].”

Out of four thousand court convictions in 1874 (presumably most of them of native Hawaiians), ten were for performing the hula; three hundred forty-eight for the violation of the marriage tie; sixty-seven for desertion; sixty-one for violating the Sabbath; six hundred seventy-four for drunkenness; one hundred ninety-seven for “furious riding”; thirty-seven for cruelty to animals; and thirteen for murder. Apart from murder, all of these convictions are for acts that would not have been considered criminal were it not for the missionaries.