“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


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

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.

“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.”

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.

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.