“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.


The Chief Gets No Rest

Nāhiʻenaʻena as a child, oil painting by Robert Dampier, ca. 1825

One of the figures in my new book, Paradise of the Pacific: Approaching Hawaiʻi, which will be published next Tuesday by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, is Nāhiʻenaʻena (1815-1836), the daughter of Kamehameha I and his wife, Keōpūolani, whose forebears rendered her the highest-ranking woman in the Islands. Little has been written of Nāhiʻenaʻena, yet she is an obvious metaphor for the impossible position in which many Hawaiians suddenly found themselves in 1820, with the arrival of Congregationalist missionaries from New England. As I was writing the book, I regretted that I had not made Nāhiʻenaʻena my subject. I would like to write a book about her now.

Her mother, Keōpūolani, was so sacred that her husband, King Kamehameha, had to remove his clothes in her presence. Nāhiʻenaʻenaʻs older brother, Liholiho, succeeded King Kamehameha at his death in 1819, and her second brother, Kauikeaouli, who had been raised with her in their motherʻs compound, an unusual exception to the customary practice of giving away high-ranking children to relatives or friends, became Kamehameha III in 1824 after Liholihoʻs shocking death in London from measles.

There had been rumors for some time among the missionaries and the foreign traders and ship masters in Honolulu that the relationship between Kauikeaouli and Nāhiʻenaʻena was incestuous. The chiefs knew, of course, that the missionaries were aghast at the possibility, and that marriage between the two was not only a most grievous sin, but a deliberate refutation of their teachings. By 1825, the Hawaiians had already begun to grow weary and resentful of the Missionʻs many rules, among them the prohibition of singing, gambling, dancing hula, and surfing. The young princess, caught between the rituals and beliefs of her Polynesian heritage and the strict orthodoxy of her pious Christian teachers, wrote in a letter to a missionary wife, “One day my thoughts are fixed on God; another day I am ensnared; and thus it is continually.” A Tahitian convert named Toteta was sent by the missionaries to live with her, in the hope that he would encourage her conversion, and he kept a diary on their behalf in which he noted the girlʻs ambivalence and confusion: “The chief gets no rest.” Her growing interest in the Christian god worried her court and her noble advisers urged her to hold to the life of her ancestors. They were alarmed when she suddenly announced that those men and women who did not read hymns and study the Bible would no longer be allowed to enter her house. The Lahaina missionary William Richards was surprised one midnight by the arrival of the agitated princess who asked for the loan of a lamp, in order to chase some wicked people from a nearby church. When Richards later wondered who had been in the church at midnight, and how the princess had come to know, he was told that it had become her habit to visit the church alone at night to pray.

Nāhi’ena’ena, fatally caught between the new religion and the old pagan gods (the translation of her name is “Fires that Rage”) was the only female ali’i known to have possessed a feather pā’u, or skirt, but she refused to wear it, as it left her breasts bare, which was thought by the missionaries to be licentious and thus shameful. The feather garment, once a symbol of the gods, and considered so valuable that it had been the finest object a Hawaiian king could offer in tribute to white foreigners, had become a distasteful reminder of the past. The Rev. Charles Stewart described a feast held to honor Kauikeaouli and his sister:

Missionaries preaching to Hawaiians, lithograph from a drawing by Rev. William Ellis, 1820

This article [the feather pāʻu], nine yards long and one yard wide, was made at great expense of time and labour…and designed to be worn by the princess as a pau…with the wreaths for the head and neck necessary to form the complete ancient costume of a princess…but as it was necessary…that she should be naked to the waist, nothing could induce her to consent. To escape importunity, she fled to the Mission House early in the morning. She wept so as scarcely to be pacified by us, and returned to the chiefs only in time to take her seat, and have it thrown carelessly about her over her European dress, with one end cast across the arm of the sofa.

Liholiho, Kamehameha II, older brother of Kauikeaouli and Nāhiʻenaʻena, who died in London of measles in 1824, lithograph after watercolor by John Hayter, Hawaiʻi State Archives

Kauikeaouli’s determination to marry his sister did not lessen with time, and her hesitance to marry him was a torment to him. In late July 1836, however, Nāhi’ena’ena and Kauikeaouli had sexual intercourse in the presence of the high chiefs, as was traditional, to signify their union (there were many who believed that they had been sleeping together since they were seven and eight years old respectively). A stunned William Richards sent her a message when he received the news, reminding her of the wishes of her late mother, and of her request that her daughter be a good Christian. Although his letter, delivered to the princess while she sat drinking and dancing with her attendants, caused her much distress, she wrote to Richards that she wished never to see him again. She admitted that she had behaved in a shameless manner and had destroyed her soul, but she refused to repent. Richards threatened to excommunicate her, and she later met with him in Lahaina, where she swore to return to Christian ways. His threat of excommunication, which had alarmed her, was dropped, and she felt hopeful in her remorse. The wary missionaries decided that she should formally marry as quickly as possible a fourteen-year-old Kona chief, and she agreed, despite her recent ceremony of union with the king. She was married to the boy in a Christian rite performed by Richards, and in a surprising betrayal, was immediately excommunicated.

Queen Kamamalu, wife and half-sister of Liholiho, who died along with her husband in London of measles, colored lithograph from a watercolor by John Hayter, London, 1824

The following year, Nāhi’ena’ena gave birth to the king’s child, but the infant lived only a few hours. She herself fell gravely ill (it was thought by the haole doctors who treated her that she had imprudently taken a cold bath shortly after giving birth), and died three months later. Mrs. Judd, the wife of Dr. Gerritt Judd, was with her when she died and wrote that the young princess showed a deep agony over her past behavior. “Can there be hope for one who has sinned as I have?” (As there are no other written accounts of her death, it is not possible to know if Mrs. Judd is telling the truth.)

After her death, Kauikeaouli built a large stone house on the Lahaina waterfront, the top floor of which he made into a mausoleum in honor of his mother, and his sister and their child. Nāhi’ena’ena’s coffin, covered in a cloth of heavy red velvet, rested on a large bed in the center of the room, surrounded by her hereditary kāhili, or feather staffs. Along one wall, behind glass, were her clothes — silk and cambric gowns, satin slippers, a black lace shawl, and a white taffeta cape, although not her feather pā’u. For years, the bereft king took friends and visitors to see her coffin, and the little display of her belongings.