“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.


Pilgrims and Strangers

Grass dwelling in Waipio Valley on the Big Island

Letʻs return now to Hawaiʻi.

The thoughts of the Congregationalist missionaries who first set sail from Boston for the Sandwich Islands on board the bark Thaddeus are accessible to us through their journals and letters, which are suffused with piety and instruction. Now and again, a hint of confusion and estrangement appears in their writing, along with an occasional note of frustration — a moment’s revelation, followed by remorse and guilt, but nothing more. A few of them would be enthralled by island life and the Hawaiian people, and stay long after they had fulfilled their mission; others left as soon as they could, and some even before their time of service was complete. Most of the journals kept by the missionaries on board the Thaddeus dutifully begin on the first day of their journey, the 23rd of October, 1819, and then fall silent until taken up a few weeks later, their writers too seasick to write another word until the middle of November. When she recovered, Mercy Whitney, whose husband Samuel was a lay teacher, made a schedule of her day’s activities:

5:00 private devotion and sewing
7:30-9 breakfast and exercise
9-12 writing and study
12-1 recitation and conversation
1-2 dinner and private devotion
2-5 writing and reading
5-6 study of the Hawaiian language
6-7:30 tea, conversation, and exercise
7:30-9:30 private and family devotion

In a letter dated December 20, two months after the kapu system in the Sandwich Islands was overthrown and the Hawaiian gods and their temples destroyed, Lucy Thurston, the new wife of the seminarian Asa Thurston wrote to her father from the Thaddeus. The ship was twenty-four feet wide and eighty- five feet long, and it would be three more months before it reached the Sandwich Islands:

Chests, trunks, bundles, bags &c., were piled into our little room six feet square, until no place was left on the floor for the sole of one’s foot…With such narrow limits, and such confined air, it might be compared to a dungeon. This was with me a gloomy season, in which I felt myself a pilgrim and a stranger…Our whole family, with the exception of the natives, were all under the horrors of seasickness, some thrown on their mattresses, others seated in clusters, hanging one upon another, while here and there individuals leaned on the railing, or supported themselves by hanging upon a rope…We had entered a new school.

Hiram Bingham
The Reverend Hiram Bingham, leader of the First Company of missionaries, who sailed to the Sandwich Islands on board the Thaddeus

Daniel Chamberlain, a farmer who was traveling with his wife and their five children, wrote that the small cabins were so packed with their belongings that it was necessary to walk bent in two, crawling over chests and trunks on their hands and knees, and banging their heads against the walls and ceiling. Halfway through the journey, Samuel Ruggles, a schoolmaster, was exultant to collect three pints of drinking water from the tip of his umbrella. At the end of January, in the Strait of Le Maire, near Tierra del Fuego, the ship was blown off course by high winds. Lucy Thurston wrote:

Sails were taken down and we were carried before the wind, The incessant and violent rocking of the vessel keeps me here laid prostrate upon my couch. Oh, the luxury in feeble health of reclining on a bed with tranquility and ease! But I must not, I will not repine. Even now, though tears bedew my cheeks, I wish not for an alteration in my present situation or future prospects. When I look forward to that land of darkness, whither I am bound, and reflect on the degradation and misery of its inhabitants, follow them into the eternal world, and forward to the great day of retribution, all my petty sufferings dwindle to a point, and I exclaim, What have I to say of trials, I, who can press to my bosom the word of God.

Lucy asked the captain of the Thaddeus if the lives of the missionaries would be in danger in the Islands. He answered that while the natives were addicted to alcohol, which resulted in an occasional “bold assault,” the only threat of which she should beware was that of poisoning. “When they conceive a dislike, no intimation is given, but by these means they secretly seize on the first opportunity to accomplish their fatal purpose.” Theft, too, he added, could be a bit of a difficulty. He arrived on one visit with twenty-four shirts and left a few weeks later with three. It is not surprising that Lucy was terrified.

We were taught that unprovoked, the natives of these islands conspired the death of the great navigator, Capt. Cook, cut off vessels, murdered crews, and chewed the flesh of their enemies as the sweetest titbit of revenge. Conversing with the captain of our vessel, a few weeks before reaching these islands, in 1820, he remarked that he must get his guns out, for it was not safe to approach these islands without being in a state of defense. ‘What,’ I replied, ‘leave us, a feeble company, in a defenseless state, among a people you cannot approach without fire-arms?’ ‘Ah,’ said he, shaking his head, ‘it is not my wish to leave you in such circumstances.’

Hawaiian missionaries
Congregationalist missionary preaching to Hawaiians

On the one hundred and fifty-eighth day, the missionaries saw the island of Hawai’i looming before them. The coastal village of Kawaihae was visible from a porthole, and Lucy watched apprehensively as a canoe of “natives with animated countenances” approached the ship. The canoe pulled alongside and the Hawaiians handed Lucy a banana. When she grabbed hold of it and tentatively passed them a biscuit in return, the natives called out, Wahine maikai, or “Good woman.” She impulsively threw them more biscuits, and when she repeated the word wahine, they shouted in delight. “Thus, after sailing eighteen thousand miles, I met, for the first time, those children of nature alone.”

Not so frightening, after all. But certainly repellent. The missionaries could not have landed in a place more unsettling, more provocative to their untried souls than the Sandwich Islands. Led to believe that they would find cannibals, sorcerers, murderers, and thieves, they must have been relieved that the heathens were only repulsive. Instead of terror, there was superiority, condescension, and ignorance.

The appearance of destitution, degradation, and barbarism, among the chattering, and almost naked savages, whose heads and feet, and much of their sunburnt swarthy skins, were bare, was appalling…Some of our number, with gushing tears, turned away from the spectacle.

heiau at top of Koko Head Ave., Kaimuki

Heiau at the top of what is now Koko Head Ave., in the Kaimuki neighborhood of Honolulu

What Will She Do?

Princess Kaiulani, the daughter of Archibald Cleghorn and Princess Miriam Likelike
Princess Kaʻiulani, the daughter of Archibald Cleghorn and Princess Miriam Likelike, and heir to the kingdom of Hawaiʻi. She died when she was twenty-three years old.

I begin with a character. As you know, there are many kinds of characters — Henry James’s peripheral but all the same essential character who observes the narrative with the same mystification and curiosity as does the reader; Joan Didion’s ironical and vaguely menacing character, sometimes even the writer Joan Didion herself, who tells you the plot in the first paragraph, and then fills in the blanks; Stendhal’s historical figure, who is a creature both of his own ambition and the strivings of history. The character with whom I begin is a solitary figure, and always a woman (at least so far). But what is it that am I to do with her? Better still, what is it that she will do? If I trust her, she will tell me. Studying her with careful attention, while all the time giving her an inordinate freedom, she will reveal herself to me. How she looks and speaks and thinks; what she is wearing when she is sleeping in the room that I have made for her. There is in her story a certain inevitability, which often surprises and confounds me.

Dr. Gerrit Judd of the Second Company of missionaries, with Prince Lot and Prince Lunalilo, on their trip around the world
Dr. Gerrit Judd of the Second Company of missionaries, with the young Prince Lot (left) and Prince Alexander Lunalilo, on their trip abroad, Paris, 1849

My book In the Cut arrived by way of Raymond Chandler and Sherlock Holmes. While I was writing the last Hawaiian novel, I read every mystery and thriller I could find —- books about detectives in Bombay and judges in Stockholm, as well as the American classics of the first half of the twentieth century that came to be known as Noir. I wanted to take the traditional American crime story, and to turn it upside down. I wanted my crime fighter, my dissolute, tired, cynical detective who is typical of the genre, to be a woman. And I wanted my female character to survive at the end of the book. As it turned out, the detective in In the Cut is not a woman, and the heroine does not survive, but I did not know that then. I understood that in order to write the book, I would have to do research, something I had never done before in writing fiction. My imagination is vivid, but I would need facts. I would even need impressions. While it is possible to do absolutely anything with the novel — it is one of its charms (and terrors) — the one thing that I did not want to do was to propagandize either for a cause or a point of view. It was in my interest — it is always in the interest of a writer — to be without an opinion at all — a position that later was to cause me to disappoint some critics and readers. But the writer’s work is to render the world, not to alter it. I never intended when I began writing, nor in truth throughout the long two years it took me to finish the book, that In the Cut would be narrated by a dead woman. When I came to write the end of the book, there was no other possible resolution than her horrible death; and once I accepted this, I was bereft. I tried later, when writing the second and third drafts, to change the book so that the story is told by Franny as she is dying, when she would at last understand what had happened to her, but it would not do. In this kind of detective story, the heroine must be as innocent of the (fictional) facts as is the reader, until the end, when all that is mysterious and inexplicable is made clear.

Lydia Kamakaeha Paki, the future ueen Liliuokalani in her youth. Honolulu, Hawaii, 1850s
Lydia Kamakaeha Paki, the future Queen Liliʻuokalani, Honolulu, circa 1850

When I began to write my new book, Paradise of the Pacific, which will be published in August, I again began with a heroine, the brilliant, cunning, and willful Kaʻahumanu. At first, I did not know what to do with her. Her story has been told many times. As I was not writing a novel, I was not able to invent her, or even to imagine her. I did not want to write a book in which I attributed words and thoughts to the characters, or even to attach adjectives to nouns: “Kʻaahumanu, bored and irritable inside the airless and dark grass house in which she was ritually confined during her menstrual period, wondered restlessly if the high surf (she could hear the waves breaking on Kauhola Point at the bottom of the kingʻs large compound) would continue through the week, when she would be at last cleansed of her defilement.” Many writers do assume the point of view of historical characters, but I dislike it when they do, and tend to put away their books.

By the roadside, Puna, 1895
A race dispossessed, sitting by the roadside, Puna, 1895
Kauikeaouli, the future Kamehameha III, oil painting by John Hayter, 1824
Kauikeaouli, Kamehameha III, oil painting by John Hayter, 1824

In order to find Kaʻahumanu and to keep a clear head, without censure or adulation, I began to read. I did not stop reading for two years. In the end, I had thousands of pages of notes, collected from journals, memoirs, newspapers, gossip sheets, histories, songs, research papers, archaeological surveys, monographs, oral histories, church records. I knew that I was ready to stop reading, which is always difficult for me, and to begin writing, which is even more difficult, when I began to dream of Kaʻahumanu.

As I wrote the new book, my love affair with the great queen, as love affairs tend to do over time, began to include other people — Kamehameha, Lucy Thurston, Liholiho, Dr. Judd, Kauikeaouli, Hiram Bingham, Kaumualiʻi of Kauaʻi, and George Vancouver, among many others — and, to my relief, the numerous characters began to insist on having their own way. This happens, of course, in writing history, as one is expected, if not required to adhere to the facts, but I was interested to discover that in all that is available to the writer of history, certain events, certain statements, certain actions force themselves to the front, insisting upon precedence and illumination, and requiring not only your attention, but your use of them. Given Kaʻahumanuʻs guile, I should not have been surprised.

rchibald Cleghorn at his home, Ainahau, in Waikīkī (now the site of the Princess Kaiulani Hotel). Kaʻiulani is on the right. Wʻs great grandmother, Rose, is sitting to the left, a baby in her lap.
Archibald Cleghorn at his home, Ainahau, in Waikīkī (now the site of the Princess Kaiulani Hotel). Kaʻiulani is on the right. Wʻs great grandmother, Rose, is sitting to the left, a baby in her lap.


“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.”

The Climax of Queer Sensations

It had once been acceptable, even pragmatic for haole seamen and traders to keep Hawaiian mistresses, not unlike the domestic arrangements and love matches of the British merchants and company officials of the East India Company in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century India. A liaison or marriage to a Hawaiian woman was considered advantageous, particularly if a woman had ali’i blood and the land that often accompanied rank.

W’s great, great grandfather, Archibald S. Cleghorn, and his wife, Princess Likelike. From the left, his daughters Rose, Helen, and Annie. Rose is W’s great grandmother. (1870, Hawaiʻi S tate Archives)
W’s great great grandfather, Archibald S. Cleghorn, and his wife, Princess Likelike. From the left, his daughters Rose, Helen, and Annie. Rose is W’s great grandmother. 1870.  Hawaiʻi State Archives.

It was only with the coming of the missionaries in the early nineteenth-century that it became disreputable for a haole to live with a native woman who was not an aliʻi. The disapproval of the missionaries did little, however, to affect the small group of local white and, later, Asian men, who were regarded with hostility by the missionaries for their drinking and general bad morals, which presumably meant their relationships with Hawaiian women, with whom they lived openly, and sired children.

The chiefess Kaenoo, watercolor by Jacques Arago, 1819. Honolulu Museum of Art.
The chiefess Kaenoo, watercolor by Jacques Arago, 1819. Honolulu Museum of Art.

For the young Christian men of the mission, many of them fresh from the schoolrooms of New England seminaries, the physical ease and freedom of Hawaiian woman must have been very disturbing, even if the men were afforded protection by a sense of their own superiority, and their fear and mistrust of pleasure, which helped to turn any latent desire into disgust. It is no surprise that in missionary families, marriages with Hawaiians or Asians were rare. Exceptions were the marriage in 1866 of Rufus Lyman, the son of David and Sarah Lyman, to Hualani Ahung, who had a Chinese father and Cherokee-Hawaiian mother (in many records, her Chinese name is replaced with the name Rebecca Brickwood, thanks to her mother’s second marriage to the postmaster of Honolulu), and the son of the Hawai’i Island missionary John D. Paris married a woman descended from the ruling chiefs of Maui, named Kailikolamaikapaliokaukini.

A young woman of the Sandwich Islands, engraving after a drawing by John Webber, ship’s artist with Captain Cook, 1779
A young woman of the Sandwich Islands, engraving after a drawing by John Webber, ship’s artist with Captain Cook, 1779

When a visiting male friend of Clarissa Armstrong, wife of the Reverend Richard Armstrong, announced that he was marrying a Hawaiian woman and staying in the Islands, Mrs. Armstrong was horrified:

O what feelings of sorrow, contempt etc filled my breast. I have done nothing scarcely this P.M. but sorry, and weep for the folly, of one I watched over as a brother. A member of our family, and we keeping him from temptations, and the[n] without asking even our advice, is going headlong into folly, and I fear what is worse!! What will his poor mother say when she hears he is married to a heathen, who like the rest, regards not the truth, or the 7th commandment.

The Reverend George Rowell, stationed at Waimea on Kaua’i, was accused of adultery with his female parishioners by a Hawaiian woman in his church. His wife remained loyal to him, despite his dismissal and the efforts of the missionaries to turn her against him. In 1852, the Reverend Samuel G. Dwight, who had kept a school on Moloka’i for six years, was accused of lewd behavior with his young female students, and expelled from the church by unanimous vote. He married a Hawaiian girl named Anna, and became a dairy farmer.

The dashing high chief Ka’iana, lover of Ka’ahumanu, lithograph after a drawing by Captain John Meares of the Nootka , 1787. Hawaiian Historical Society
The dashing high chief Ka’iana, lover of Ka’ahumanu, lithograph after a drawing by John Webber, 1787. Hawaiian Historical Society.

If the missionary men were disturbed by the sight of naked Hawaiians, what can the missionary women have made of them? One would think, reading their letters and journals, that they did not, could not, at least at first, see them at all, although the newly-arrived Lucy Thurston, upon finding barely-clothed chiefs stretched on mattresses on the deck of the Thaddeus, admitted to feeling “the climax of queer sensations.”

In 1870, Isabella Bird, an Englishwoman advised by her doctor to travel abroad when she suffered complaints of hysteria, arrived in Hawai’i from Australia. She was not distressed by the beauty and grace of Hawaiian women, but enchanted by them. Bird, who would write Six Months in the Sandwich Islands (1875), as well as numerous books describing her adventures in the Rocky Mountains, Kurdistan, Nepal, Japan, Morocco, and Manchuria, among other places, described the enticing walk of native women:

A majestic wahine with small, bare feet, a grand, swinging, deliberate gait, hibiscus blossoms in her flowing hair, and a lei of yellow flowers falling over her holoku [fitted long dress with train], marching through these streets, has a tragic grandeur of appearance…There were hundreds of native horsemen and horsewomen…The women seemed perfectly at home in their gay, brass- bossed, high peaked saddles, flying along astride, bare-footed, with their orange and scarlet riding dresses streaming on each side beyond their horses’ tails, a bright kaleidoscopic flash of bright eyes, white teeth, shining hair, garlands of flowers and many coloured dresses…

Hawaiian women riding in pa'u, illustration by Emile Bayard, 1871
Hawaiian women riding in pa’u, illustration by Emile Bayard, 1871

For those men not encumbered by a rigid religious faith, the women of the Islands were fairly irresistible. Captain George Vancouver was captivated by the hula, sometimes performed by six hundred men and women at a time (the only objection he ever made was to the lively hula ma‘ i, a dance in honor of the genitals). “Such perfect unison of voice and actions, that it were impossible, even to the bend of a finger, to have discovered the least variation.” When the dancers collapsed into a heap on the ground in front of Vancouver and covered their heads with their kapa, “the idea of a boisterous ocean . . . [was] tranquillized by an instant calm.” Archibald Menzies, the English botanist on board the Discovery with Vancouver, was also entranced, if not aroused by the dancers. “Every joint of [the dancer’s] limbs, every finger of her hand, every muscle of her body, partook unitedly of the varied sympathetic impulses. . . . The motion of her eyes transferring their transient glances and the harmony of her features were beyond description.”

The bewitchment was not limited to the heterosexual. Charles Warren Stoddard, in his 1905 book of travel essays, The Island of Tranquil Delights, took the brave and somewhat reckless step of writing about a boy whose Hawaiian name, Kāne‘aloha, translates as Man of Love:

Kane-Aloha had been shedding garments by the way all the blessed afternoon. It was evident that presently there would not be a solitary stitch left for propriety’s sake. Nobody seemed to care in the least. . . .Is there anything more soothing, more cleansing, more ennobling and refining than the caress of the pure, cool air when it comes in immediate contact with the human body as God created it? . . . We slept the sleep of the just made perfect by the realization of our wildest dreams; meanwhile at the Mission House . . . [they were] joining in the prayer of the Family Circle, that we, the unregenerated, might be delivered from evil.

Heroines Both Real and Imagined

I spent the summer of 1956, when I was ten years old, reading in a coconut grove. My family was staying at a beach house at Punalu’u on the north shore of O’ahu, and my mother was suffering from what the newspaper later called a “nervous condition.” I had decided that there were body parts on the floor of the ocean, and refused to go into the water, much to the puzzlement of my younger brothers and sisters. The days were very long, as summer days are for children in the countryside. The trees in the grove were said to have been planted by King Kamehameha IV in 1850. There was the sound of the trade wind in the branches, and I could just make out the voices of my brothers and sisters over the constant rush and sweep of the ocean.

Fanny Burney at age thirty-two, in a portrait by her cousin, Edward Burney, 1785
Fanny Burney at age thirty-two, in a portrait by her cousin, Edward Burney, 1785

My mother possessed, among other gifts, a willingness to indulge the imagination of a child, which led to misunderstandings (severed legs on the ocean floor), but also to intuitive acts of sympathy and kindness. She wrote a letter to the small local library which enabled me to borrow books from the adult section, otherwise denied me by the stern librarian. Among the books that I chose, ostensibly for my mother, were Forever Amber, an historical novel set in seventeenth-century London by Kathleen Winsor which had been banned as pornography in fourteen states; Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…” is a line still emblazoned in my soul); and Fanny Burney’s novel, Evelina. All of them the stories of young women making their way in a treacherous, but gratifyingly sexy world. Just the names of the characters were enough, given my mildly hallucinatory state, to thrill me: Amber St. Clair, Evelina Anville (almost an anagram), Maxim de Winter. I was particularly fascinated by Miss Burney, and later read her distressing description of her mastectomy, performed in Paris in 1811:

I mounted, therefore, unbidden, the Bed stead — & M. Dubois placed me upon the Mattress, & spread a cambric handkerchief upon my face. It was transparent, however, & I saw, through it, that the Bed stead was instantly surrounded by the 7 men and my nurse. I refused to be held; but when, Bright through the cambric, I saw the glitter of polished steel —- I closed my eyes. I would not trust to convulsive fear the sight of the terrible incision. Yet — when the dreadful steel was plunged into the breast — cutting through veins — arteries — flesh — nerves — I needed no injunctions not to restrain my cries. I began a scream that lasted unintermittingly during the whole time of the incision — and I almost marvel that it rings not in my Ears still! so excruciating was the agony.

I had never read anything like it (it is in a long letter to her sister, Esther), until I recently came across the missionary Lucy Thurston’s account of her own mastectomy in the fall of 1855 in Honolulu, also performed without anesthesia, while I was doing research for a non-fiction book about Hawai’i. The two accounts are dissimilar in one sense, however. Lucy, I suspect, did not utter a sound.

In the following excerpt from Lucy’s journal, Persis is her daughter; Asa is her husband, the Reverend Asa Thurston:

I took my seat in the chair. Persis and Asa stood at my right side; Persis to hand me restoratives; Asa to use his strength, if self-control were wanting. Dr. Judd stood at my left elbow for the same reason; my shawl was thrown off, exhibiting my left arm, breast and side, perfectly bare . . . Dr. Ford looked me full in the face, and with great firmness asked: ‘Have you made up your mind to have it cut out?’ ‘Yes, sir; but let me know when you begin, that I may be able to bear it. Have you your knife in your hand now?’ He opened his hand that I might see it, saying ‘I am going to begin now.’ Then came a gash long and deep, first on one side of my breast, and then on the other. Deep sickness seized me, and deprived me of my breakfast. This was followed by extreme faintness. My sufferings were no longer local. There was a general feeling of agony through the whole system. I felt, every inch of me, as though flesh was failing . . . Persis and Asa were devotedly employed in sustaining me with the use of cordials, ammonia, bathing my temples . . . It was nearly an hour and a half that I was beneath [Dr. Ford’s] hand, in cutting out the entire breast, in cutting out the glands beneath the arm, in tying the arteries, in absorbing the blood, in sewing up the wound, in putting on the adhesive plaster, and in applying the bandage…The views and feelings of that hour are now vivid to my recollection. It was during the cutting process that I began to talk. The feeling that I had reached a different point from those by whom I was surrounded, inspired me with freedom . . . the doctor, after removing the entire breast, said to me, ‘I want to cut yet more, round under your arm’ . . . the wound had the appearance of being more than a foot long. Eleven arteries were taken up.

Lucy’s memory of events after the surgery was less clear. She told Persis that it must have been the paregoric that caused her to forget, but Persis reminded her that no sedative of any kind had been given her.

Lucy and Asa Thurston
Lucy and Asa Thurston
That was the beginning. I would sometimes spend the entire day in the grove, wrapped in a mat when I grew sleepy, dimly and uneasily aware that while I didn’t yet understand what it meant to be attached to this Earth, I must not make the mistake of imagining that happiness, or even beauty, was something available to everyone. Thanks to the books I borrowed from the library, I was able to exchange, at least for a little while, turmoil for silence, in the hope — always — that the essence of things might be found in books, the essence of something, which would perhaps reveal to me a small part of the world’s mystery.

Mourning Rituals

The Hawaiian ritual of mourning served to incorporate the past into the present and the present into the past; creating anew, over and over again, a cosmology without end. The twenty-six year old missionary Lucy Thurston, who arrived in the Islands five months after Kamehameha’s death in 1821, was terrified by warnings that she would be robbed, bewitched, and possibly even eaten. She described in her journal what she had been told of the traditional chaos that followed the death of King Kamehameha I.

Niuli'i coastline
Niuli’i coastline in North Kohala

They went upon the idea that their grief was so great, that they knew not what they did. They were let thoroughly loose, without law or restraint, and so gave themselves up to every evil, that they acted more like devils incarnate, than like human beings . . . Their grass-thatched cottages were left empty; their last vestige of clothing thrown aside; and such scenes of wholesale and frantic excesses exhibited in the open face of day, as would make darkness pale. A tornado swept over the nation, making it drunk with abominations . . . It was among their more decent and innocent extravagances that they burned their faces with fire, in large, permanent, semi-circular figures, and with stones knocked out their front teeth.

After his death, Kamehameha’s body, as befitted that of a great king, was wrapped in leaves of banana, mulberry, and kalo, laid in a shallow trench a foot deep, and covered with soil. A fire was lighted the length of the grave and kept burning for ten days, during which time chants and prayers were recited without pause. The grave was then opened and the bones cleaned. The flesh, internal organs, and other parts of the body were taken out to sea after dark and discarded, during which time no commoner was allowed to leave his house or he would be killed. The priests then arranged his bones in the shape of his body and wrapped them in white kapa, which marked the end of the period of defilement. The hiding place of Kamehameha’s bones, said to be along the Kona coast or in Kohala, has never been found.

Nancy Johnson at eighteen at Waipiʻo after a swim in a cold mountain pool. She is wearing a blue chambray shirt, called a Kauaʻi shirt, once favored by workers on the plantations, which we wore on all adventures, particularly fluming and ti-leaf sliding.
Nancy at eighteen at Waipiʻo, after a swim in a cold mountain pool. She is wearing a blue chambray shirt, called a Kauaʻi shirt, once favored by workers on the plantations, which we wore on all adventures, particularly fluming and ti leaf-sliding.

My childhood friend, Nancy Johnson, who died six years ago, told me that she had come upon a cave on the coast at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel while diving for golf balls near Hole Three of the hotel’s notoriously difficult course. The following is an excerpt from my book, I Myself Have Seen It, published in 2003:

She saw at sea level the entrance to a cave, visible only at low tide. When she swam into the cave, it was as dark as night…but for a scant moment of sunlight each time the ocean receded, leaving the entrance uncovered. The water was deep and the cave rose to a height of ten feet. In one of the intervals of light, she saw, to her astonishment, a long wooden canoe wedged onto a natural shelf near the dome of the cave. What appeared to be wooden images wrapped in kapa were inside the canoe, as well as long spears. As the water was rising with the turn of the tide, there was not enough time to climb onto the ledge to look inside the canoe. A week later, after swearing me to secrecy, we swam along the coast at low tide, looking for the entrance to the cave, but we could not find it…The Hawaiians say, ʻThe morning star alone knows where Kamehameha’s bones are guarded.’

I received quite a few letters after the book was published from people who had the same story to tell, which made me wince in embarrassment, as I had somewhat naively believed my friend. I can no longer ask her if she was teasing me, or if she made up the story and then came to believe it herself, as happens, or if she had indeed seen the canoe and artifacts in the cave, or if the cave itself was a fantasy. That we could never find it after many attempts should have told me something, I admit. I was once taken by my brother into what was called the Vagina Cave, a lava tube whose entrance was a damp rock-strewn crevice in the middle of open brush, concealed by the ferns and wild orchids growing in a narrow rivulet of water. One had to squeeze into the opening (either head or feet-first, your choice), only to land in an enormous cavern where it is said the high chiefesses of Hawaiʻi Island had gone to give birth. The name of the cave refers to a large representation on the floor of the chamber, both carved and natural, of a woman’s vagina with rose-colored labia, on either side of which were ledges strewn with the remnants of frayed and desiccated mats and water gourds. My brother made me swear not to tell anyone about the cave, as it was on private property belonging to the Bishop Estate, and for years I kept my promise. Others knew about the cave, however, and when it became evident that people were visiting it, activists buried the entrance, and it can no longer be found. I tell this story only because years later, when I did describe the cave to friends, no one believed me.

Nancy grew up in Manoa Valley in Honolulu in a distinctive house designed by the architect Charles W. Dickey, who also designed Pauahi Hall at Punahou, where we went to school, the Alexander and Baldwin building downtown, the charming cottages at the old Halekulani Hotel, and the Waikiki Theater where we saw our first movies (“Imitation of Life” with Lana Turner, and Susan Kohner, who is beaten in an alleyway by Troy Donahue when he discovers that she is black).

A slumber party in Manoa, circa 1954, to celebrate Nancy’s birthday. The friend with whom I swim at Mahukona is standing far left. I am in the middle in a striped t-shirt, above Nancy, whose two hands are raised in front of her. We seem to be wearing lipstick.
A slumber party in Manoa, circa 1954, to celebrate Nancy’s birthday. The friend with whom I swim at Mahukona is standing far left. I am in the middle in a striped t-shirt, above Nancy, whose two hands are raised in front of her. We seem to be wearing lipstick.

This is another story about Nancy, again taken from I Myself Have Seen It:

Not so long ago, a friend sitting on the beach at her familyʻs beach house at Malaekahana on the north shore of Oʻahu happened to notice a turtle, the size and shape of a quarter, staggering across the sand to the sea. The turtle, after many cumbersome attempts, at last tumbled into the surf where, to my friendʻs dismay, it began to drown. She dashed into the water, and after some trouble, she found it, but the turtle was not strong enough to swim on its own, despite being ferried beyond the breaking surf to deep water, and she reluctantly carried it back to shore. She filled a bucket with seawater and went to the Kahuku market, the old company store where indebted Chinese and Japanese workers once forfeited their meager weekly wages for scrip (as opposed to what was called cash-money), and she bought raw shrimp, which she chopped into minuscule pieces to feed the turtle. After a few days, when it grew apparent that the turtle was dying, she called the Oceanic Institute near Makapuʻu to inquire if she should alter the turtle’s diet or the temperature of the water. She was startled to learn upon describing the turtle that she had rescued a species last seen in 1943, so rare as to be thought extinct. Her picture, with the turtle balanced on the tip of her finger, was on the front page of the newspaper and she was given a lifetime pass to the Institute, which promptly confiscated the turtle.

This story, I swear, is true.