(EMPIRE and OCEANIA to 1900 – continued)

home | 18-19th centuries index

EMPIRE and OCEANIA (3 of 6)

previous | next

Hawaii, to 1843

In 1804 a scourge greater than war appeared. That year around 150,000 Hawaiians – nearly half of the population – are said to have died from what was called the Great Sickness, which may have been bubonic plague or cholera.

Meanwhile, a British sea captain, George Vancouver, brought horned cattle from California to the Hawaiian Islands, and he brought goats, geese, grapevines, orange trees and various kinds of garden seeds.

In 1804, Russians visited the islands – on the way to their outpost at Fort Ross in California. A couple of years later the Russians returned and traded the skins of sea otters for salt, sweet potatoes, pork and other food. In 1809 the Russians built a fort at Honolulu and tried to establish themselves on the island of Kauai. But the Russians offended the Hawaiians by ignoring islander customs. The Hawaiians did not need the Russians for trade, and they drove them away.

In 1810, the ruler of Kauai, Kaumualii, ceded his island to Kamehameha. Kamehameha was now ruler of all of the Hawaiian Islands, and he ruled in accordance with Hawaiian tradition. Hawaii's chieftains were considered divine. Commoners prostrated themselves before their chieftain, and in theory land belonged to the chieftain, who could dispose of his land as he saw fit. Chieftains parceled their land to sub-chiefs – supporters that he best try to please – and these sub-chiefs parceled their holdings to people below them, down to the commoners who worked the land. Common people couldn't own land, and they were forbidden use of words thought to have extraordinary power – for example, the words life and death.

With hierarchy in mind, Kamehameha sent a letter to the lord of the ships that often arrived from England: King George III. And in that letter, with courtesy, Kamehameha described himself as George's subject.

When Kamehameha was facing death in 1819 he commanded that his priests follow all customs but one: human sacrifice. He was succeeded by his son, Liholiho, who acquired the title Kamehameha II. These were times of cultural revolution. Tahitians had been arriving in the islands aboard British ships and bringing with them their Christianity, which they described to some Hawaiians including people at the royal court.

In 1820, missionaries arrived, not from Britain but from the United States, led by the Reverend Hiram Bingham. American whaling ships were calling on Hawaiian ports to gather provisions, and their trade was bringing wealth to island sub-chiefs. Whaling crews were coming ashore in search of a good time, and islanders were wondering why ugly foreigners could break rules and they could not. The missionaries gained respect among the islanders by denouncing the behavior of the whalers. The missionaries befriended island aristocrats and introduced Western social mores. They also denounced the gods of the islanders. And, with all of the disease and war that had been endured, the islanders were receptive to teachings that replaced the gods that had let them down.

As elsewhere in Polynesia, cooking had been men's work, and the men ate together, excluding women, the men believing they were taking communion with ancestral gods. Women had separate eating houses, and women were forbidden from entering temples. Men of high rank were permitted to eat pork, coconut, shark, sea turtle, whale and most varieties of banana. Women were obliged to eat fish and taro but had been eating forbidden foods when they could do so unseen by men – at the risk of having an eye destroyed or being put to death if they were commoners. A woman of high rank who had been caught eating forbidden food might be obliged to sacrifice one of her servants to the gods.

The mother of Kamehameha II was among some high-ranking women strong enough to rebel against the eating prohibitions. King Kamehameha II declared an end to the old moral (kapu) system, and in a dramatic ceremony he ate and drank with women. Then temples were destroyed and images of the old gods were burned.

In 1822, notices were posted prohibiting boisterous conduct by visiting sailors – Hawaii's first written laws. Sailors responded by rioting and were set upon by island police. In 1824, written law was extended by a list of injunctions drawn from the Ten Commandments. The missionaries managed to have the hula outlawed, and they introduced the new fashion in dress: the mumu.

Islanders remained vulnerable to European diseases, and in 1824 Kamehameha II and his wife died of measles. In 1825 their son, Kauikeaouli, age eleven, became Kamehameha III.

By now, Honolulu had become a busy port of trade. While on their way elsewhere, US, French and British warships stopped at the islands for supplies, sometimes staying during the winter months. Ships traded between Mexico (including California) and the Hawaiian Islands. New England traders brought kitchen utensils, pins, and scissors to the islands – and a billiard table.

The elite among the islanders were the main consumers of imported goods, and to acquire the means for trade the common people were taxed in various forms, including the sandalwood that grew in Kauai's Waianae mountains. Sandalwood was selling in China for about $10 per 133 pounds, and by 1829 sandalwood in the Islands was all but gone.

A British agriculturalist and former planter in the West Indies, John Wilkinson, arrived in Honolulu and started seven-acres of sugar cane, but he had difficulty acquiring islanders willing to work for him. A coffee plantation was also begun. In 1830, Mexican cowboys (paniolos) arrived from California for involvement in the cattle business on the island of Hawaii. Whites in the Hawaiian Islands now numbered around 1,000. The population of the islands in 1830 has been estimated at 130,000, down from 142,000 seven years before – a loss of around 1,700 per year. note47

Hawaii's King Kamehameha III was interested in trade with the Americans and Americans were interested in Kamehameha maintaining the kind of stable government that was conducive to commerce. Kamehameha issued a Bill of Rights in 1839, and in 1840 a constitution was created that provided for the king to share power with a legislature. On December 19, 1842, the United States recognized the sovereignty of the Kingdom of Hawaii.

French moves in the Pacific frightened Kamehameha III into believing that they were on their way to his islands. It was a British warship that arrived, in February 1843, and it threatened an attack on Pearl Harbor concerning a dispute over the treatment of Britain's resident agent in the islands. Nominally for protection against the French, Kamehameha III ceded his kingdom to Britain. Soon thereafter the British restored sovereignty to Kamehameha in exchange for an agreement that British subjects in the islands would have parity of treatment with other foreigners. And in November, Britain and France, in a joint declaration, announced their recognition of the Hawaii Islands as an independent state, declaring that this was justified on the basis of the islands being "capable of providing for the regularity of its relations with foreign nations."


Copyright © 2003-2015 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.