Wednesday, June 16, 1999

Kamehameha the Great
Kamehameha the Great statue across from Iolani Palace. Photo by Ken Ige, Star-Bulletin

Kamehameha dynasty confronts world of change

The arrivals of missionaries and
traders bring new diseases and religion
that overturn old taboos

By Richard Borreca


It was a moment of precarious balance.

Kamehameha was king. Seven hundred grass houses spread from Nuuanu across the hot plain of Kakaako. Behind the homes by the beach, cultivated fields stretched out to the mountains.

The year was 1810. Hawaiian chiefs on Oahu, Maui, Molokai, Lanai and Hawaii swore allegiance to Kamehameha, the warrior turned statesman. Kauai, the unconquered island, had agreed to be subject to the unifying king and Hawaii now was a kingdom.

Millennium Special

Kamehameha's reign had been born of ferocious battles. His final assault on Oahu in 1795, for one, was a D-Day invasion of more than 1,000 canoes that landed from Waikiki to Kahala. From these shores, his army pushed the warriors of Kalanikupule, son of Maui king Kahekili, to the brink of the Nuuanu Pali where they were slaughtered, many forced off the steep cliff to their deaths below.

According to Hawaiian lore, bones from the lesser Oahu chiefs who perished were used as the handles of royal kahili or feather standards of Kamehameha.

Courtesy of Bishop Museum
This lithograph by Louis Choris shows King Kamehameha
and Kaahumanu meeting with Russian navigator Otto von
Kotzebue and officers in 1816 at Kealakekua Bay.

As the king extended his reign, intrigues by the chiefs prompted him to gather the alii close: About 2,000 chiefs, priests, warriors, artisans, retainers and servants made up the Kamehameha court. In strenghtening control over the islands, Kamehameha continuously warned the alii not to forget or abandon the old gods.

Thanks to British explorer Capt. James Cook, however, Hawaii was starting to appear on newly drawn maps worldwide.

In an era of international imperialism, Hawaii became a beacon for voyagers. Among the many: British ships King Charles and Queen Charlotte, and French naval frigates Boussole and Astrolabe, all in 1786; Imperial Russian ships from 1804; and a bevy of Boston traders.

Hawaiians had flocked to areas that provided safe anchorage: Kealakekua Bay on the Big Island, Lahaina on Maui, Waimea on Kauai, and Honolulu on Oahu.

The village of Honolulu existed because foreigners created it beside the tiny harbor of Kou, explained Hawaiian historian O.A. Bushnell. "The priests of Pakaka, at the great heiau at Kou were called 'man-eating sharks' for their propensity to hunt for sacrifices, the heads of which hung from the ramparts," he said.

Courtesy of Bishop Museum, photo Craig T. Kojima
A regal cape made of bird feathers.

Hawaiians welcomed the foreign crews, not knowing they brought diseases beyond their control.

While the Black Plague in 14th-century Europe killed up to a third of the people, the toll here leveled perhaps 80 percent. Though some have calculated the Hawaiian population as high as 1 million at the time of Cook's 1778 arrival, most historians put the number at about 300,000.

By 1872, the population was estimated at only 56,900, according to former state statistician Robert Schmitt. The decline was nothing short of apocalyptic.

In a vivid description, Bushnell, who is also a microbiologist, imagines those meetings between disease-bearing sailors and Hawaiian women:

"The mucous membranes lining his mouth and throat were shedding myriads of spirochetes ... during fits of coughing, his rotten lungs were raising bloody sputum and tubercle bacilli into his mouth. Or if the virus that cause influenza, smallpox, mumps, measles, chicken pox, or even the common cold lurked there ...

"... It was the kiss of death."

Coming of the missionaries

When Kamehameha died in May 1819, another shock to the Hawaiian kingdom was being readied half a world away, as the first contingent of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions prepared the brig Thaddeus.

"You are to aim at nothing short of covering those islands with fruitful fields and pleasant dwellings, and schools and churches; of raising up the people to an elevated state of Christian civilization," Dr. Samuel Worchester, secretary of the commissioners, told the assembled pioneers in Boston harbor.

The group included four classmates of Kona native Henry Opukaha'ia - "Obookiah" - believed to be the first Hawaiian Christian. Obookiah had sailed from Hawaii in 1808, but died in Connecticut 10 years later at age 26 before being able to carry his Christian zeal home. East Coast Protestants inspired by his love of God and Hawaii, however, took on his dream.

Courtesy of Iolani Palace, photo by Dennis Oda, Star-Bulletin
Queen Kapiolani's necklace and cross
made of cat's eye and shell.

Ahead, the missionaries would face a five-month voyage before their small ship sighted the Big Island's Kohala coast on March 20, 1820.

As Australian historian Patricia Grimshaw wrote in her account of the missionaries, "Paths of Duty," the "Hawaiians were a source of anxiety and tension rather than a pool of friendship because their way of living constituted the evil which Americans had sacrificed themselves to eradicate."

A regally indifferent Liholiho was in court in Kailua and was unimpressed with the missionary force.

But Hawaii's moment of balance had passed. The forces of old gods, ancient customs and aged relationships between Hawaiians and the islands were changing.

'The taboo system is no more'

It was Kamehameha's favorite wife Kaahumanu, who upon the monarch's death, decreed that the old customs and taboos be broken.

"The taboo system is no more - man and women eat together - the idols (and) gods were burned," pioneer missionary Sybil Bingham wrote in her journal.

King David Kalakaua, later writing on the destruction of the temples, exclaimed that in one moment, a people's history changed. "In the smoke of burning heiaus, images and other sacred property, beginning on Hawaii and ending at Niihau, suddenly passed away a religious system which for fifteen hundred years or more had shaped the faith, commanded the respect and received the profoundest reverence of the Hawaiian people," he wrote.

But the religion would soon be forced underground or into decay.

American novelist Mark Twain spent six months in the Hawaiian kingdom in 1867, noting that foreign traders and missionaries were carefully defining the downfall of the native population.

"The 3,000 whites in the islands handle all the money and carry on all the commerce and agriculture - and superintend the religion," Twain said. He added: "These natives are the simplest, the kindest-hearted, the most unselfish creature that bear the image of the Maker."

By Twain's visit, the missionary work had succeeded in preparing a written version of the Hawaiian language, printing Bibles and scripture, and generally convincing many Hawaiians that the new religion could replace the old gods.

"Religion is meat and drink to the native," Twain wrote. "He can read his neatly printed Bible (in the native tongue) ... and he reads it over and over again."

About this Series

The Honolulu Star-Bulletin is counting down to year 2000 with this special series. Each month through December, we'll chronicle important eras in Hawaii's history, featuring a timeline of that particular period. Next month's installment: July 12.

Series Archive

Project Editor: Lucy Young-Oda
Chief Photographer: Dean Sensui

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