The Hawaiian Archipelago:
Six months amongst the palm groves, coral reefs, and volcanoes of the Sandwich Islands
By Isabella L. Bird, 1875



In the pre-historic days of Hawaii, for 500 years, as the bards sing, before Captain Cook landed, and indeed for some years afterwards, each island had its king, chiefs, and internal dissensions; and incessant wars, with a reckless waste of human life, kept the whole group in turmoil. Chaotic and legendary as early Hawaiian history is, there is enough to show that there must have been regularly organized communities on the islands for a very long period, with a civilization and polity which, though utterly unworthy of Christianity, were enlightened and advanced for Polynesian heathenism.


The kingly office was hereditary, and the king's power absolute. On the different islands the kings and chiefs who together constituted a privileged class, admitted the priesthood to some portion of their privileges, probably with the view of enslaving the people more completely through the agency of religion, and held the lower classes in absolute subserviency by the most rigorous of feudal systems, which included hana poalima, or forced labour, and the tabu, well known throughout Polynesia.


A very interesting history begins with Kamehameha the Great, the Conqueror, or the Terrible; the "Napoleon of the Pacific," as he has been called. He united an overmastering ambition to a singular gift of ruling, and without education, training, or the help of a single political precedent to guide him, animated not only by the lust of conquest, but by the desire to create a nationality, he subjugated every thing that his canoes could reach, and fused a rabble of savages and chieftaincies into a united nation, every individual of which to this day inherits something of the patriotism of the Conqueror.


His wars were by no means puny either in proportions or slaughter, as, for instance, when he meditated the conquest of Kauai, his expedition included seven thousand picked warriors, twenty-one schooners, forty swivels, six mortars, and an abundance of ammunition! His victories are celebrated in countless meles or unwritten songs, which are said to be marked by real poetic feeling and simplicity, and to resemble the Ossianic poems in majesty and melancholy. He founded the dynasty which for seventy years has stood as firmly, and exercised its functions for the welfare of the people on the whole as efficiently, as any other government.


The king was forty-live years old when, having "no more worlds to conquer," he devoted himself to the consolidation of his kingdom. He placed governors on each island, directly responsible to himself, who nominated chiefs of districts, heads of villages, and all petty officers; and tax-gatherers, who, for lack of the art of writing, kept their accounts by a method in use in the English exchequer in ancient times. He appointed a council of chiefs, with whom he advised on important matters, and a council of "wise men" who assisted him in framing laws, and in regulating concerns of minor importance. In all matters of national importance, the governors and high chiefs of the islands met with the sovereign in consultations. These were conducted with great privacy, and the results were promulgated through the islands by heralds whose office was hereditary.


Kamehameha enacted statutes against theft, murder, and oppression, and though he wielded oppressive and despotic authority himself, his people enjoyed a golden age as compared with those that were past. The king, governors, and chiefs constituted the magistracy, and there was an appeal from both chiefs and governors to the king. It was usual for both parties to be heard face to face in the enclosure in front of the house of the king or governor; no lawyers were employed, and every man advocated his own cause, sitting cross-legged before the judges. Swiftness and decision characterized the redress of grievances and the administration of justice.


Kamehameha reduced the feudal tenure of land, which had heretofore been the theory, into absolute practice, claiming for the crown the sole ownership of the land, and dividing it among his followers on the conditions of tribute and military service. The common people were attached to the soil and transferred with it A chief might nominate his wife, or son, or any other person to succeed him in his possessions, but at his death they reverted to the king, whose order was required before the testamentary wish became of any value. There were some wise regulations generally applicable, concerning the planting of cocoanut trees, and a law that the water should be conducted over every plantation twice a week in general, and once a week during the dry season. This king constructed immense fish ponds on the sea coast, and devoted himself to commerce with such success that in one year he exported $400,000 of sandalwood (felled and shipped at the cost of much suffering to the common people), and on finding that a large proportion of the profit had been dissipated by harbour dues at Canton, he took up the idea and established harbour dues at Honolulu.


From Vancouver Kamehameha learned of the grandeur and power of Christian nations; and in the idea that his people might grow great through Christianity, he asked him, in 1794, that Christian teachers might be sent from England. This request, if ever presented, was disregarded, as was another made by Captain Turnbull in 1803, and this exceptionally great Polynesian died the year before the light of the Gospel shone on Hawaiian shores.


Some persons, it does not appear whether they were English or American, attempted his conversion; but the astute savage, after listening to their eloquent statements of the power of faith, pressed on them as a crucial test to throw themselves from the top of an adjacent precipice, making his reception of their religion contingent on their arrival unhurt at its base. He built large heiaus, amongst others the one at Kawaihae, at the dedication of which to his favourite war god eleven human sacrifices were offered. To the end he remained devoted to the state religion, and the last instances of capital punishment for breaking tabu, a thraldom deeply interwoven with the religious system, occurred in the last year of his reign, when one man was put to death for putting on a chief's girdle, another for eating of a tabooed dish, and a third for leaving a house under tabu, and entering one which was not so.


His last prayers were to his great red-feathered god Kukai limoku, and priests bringing idols crowded round him in hit dying agony. His last words were "Move on in my good way and"____ In the death-room the high chiefs consulted, and one, to testify his great grief, proposed to eat the body raw, but was overruled by the majority. So the flesh was separated from the bones, and they were tied up in tapa, and concealed so effectually that they have never since been found. A holocaust of three hundred dogs gave splendour to his obsequies. "These are our gods whom I worship," he had said to Kotzebue, while showing him one of the temples. "Whether I do right or wrong I do not know, but I follow my faith, which cannot be wicked, as it commands me never to do wrong." Kamehameha the Great died in 1819, and his son, Liholiho, who loved whisky and pleasure, was peaceably crowned king in his room, and by his name. He, with the powerful aid of the Queen Dowager Kaahumanu, abolished tabu, and his subjects cast away their idols, and fell into indifferent scepticism, the high priest Hewahewa being the first to light the iconoclastic torch, having previously given his opinion that there was only one great akua or spirit in lani, the heavens. This Kamehameha II. was the king who with his queen, died of measles in London in 1824, after which the Blonde frigate was sent to restore their bodies with much ceremony to Hawaiian soil.


Kamehameha III., a minor, another son of the Conqueror, succeeded, and reigned for thirty years, dividing the lands among the nobles and the people, and conferring upon his kingdom an equable constitution. The law officially abolishing idolatry was confirmed by him, and while complete religious toleration otherwise was granted, the Christian faith was established in these words:"The religion of the Lord Jesus Christ shall continue to be the established national religion of the Hawaiian Islands." His words on July 31st, 1843, when the English colours, wrongfully hoisted, were lowered in favour of the Hawaiian flag, are the national motto:"The life of the land is established in righteousness " In his reign, Hawaiian independence was recognized by Great Britain, France, and America. His Premier for some time was Mr. Wyllie, who with a rare devotion and disinterestedness devoted his life and a large fortune to his adopted country.


Kamehameha IV., a grandson of the Conqueror, succeeded him in 1854. He was a patriotic prince, and strove hard to advance the civilisation of his people, and to arrest their decrease by reformatory and sanitary measures. He was the most accomplished prince of his line, and his death in 1863, soon after that of his only child, the Prince of Hawaii, was very deeply regretted. His widow, Queen Kaleleonalani, or Emma, visited England after his death.


lie was succeeded by his brother, a man of a very different stamp, who was buried on January 11, 1873, after a partial outbreak of the orgies wherewith the natives disgraced themselves after the death of a chief in the old heathen days. It is rare to meet with two people successively who hold the same opinion of Kamehameha V. He was evidently a man of some talent and strong will, intensely patriotic, and determined not to be a merely ornamental figure-head of a government administered by foreigners in his name. He ardently desired the encouragement of foreign immigration, and the opening of a free market in America for Hawaiian produce. He ruled, as well as reigned, and though he abrogated the constitution of 1852, and introduced several features of absolutism into the government, on the whole he seems to have done well by his people. He is said to have been regal and dignified, to have worked hard, to have written correct state papers, and to have been capable of the deportment of an educated Christian gentleman, but to have reimbursed himself for this subservience to conventionality by occasionally retiring to an undignified residence on the sea-shore, where he transformed himself into the likeness of one of his half-clad heathen ancestors, debased himself by whisky, and revelled in the hula-hula. He is said also to have been so far under the empire of the old superstitions as to consult an ancient witch on affairs of importance.


He died amidst the rejoicings incident to his birthday, and on the next day "lay in state in the throne-room of the palace, while his ministers, his staff, and the chiefs of the realm kept watch over him, and sombre kahilis waving at his head beat a rude and silent dead march for the crowds of people, subjects and aliens, who continuously filed through the apartment, for a curious farewell glance at the last of the Kamehamehas."


His death closed the first era of Hawaiian history, and the orderly succession of one recognised dynasty. No successor to the throne had been proclaimed, and the king left no nearer kin than the Princess Keelikolani, his half-sister, a lady not in the line of regal descent.


Under these novel circumstances, it devolved upon the Legislative Assembly to elect by ballot "some native Alii of the kingdom as successor to the throne." The candidates were the High Chief Kalakaua, the present King, and Prince Lunalilo, the late King, but the "Well-Beloved," as Lunalilo was called, was elected unanimously, amidst an outburst of popular enthusiasm.


From his high resolves and generous instincts much was expected, and the unhappy failing, to which, after the most painful struggles, he succumbed, on the solicitation of some bad or thoughtless foreigners, if it lessened him aught in the public esteem, abated nothing of the wonderful love that was felt for him.


He died, after a lingering illness, on February 3, 1874. Although the event had been expected for some time, its announcement was received with profound sorrow by the whole community, while the native subjects of the deceased sovereign, according to ancient custom, expressed their feelings in loud wailings, which echoed mournfully through the still, red air of early daylight. On the following evening the body was placed on a shrouded bier, and was escorted in solemn procession by the government officials and the late king's staff, to the Iolani Palace, there to lie in state. It was a cloudless moonlight; not a leaf stirred or bird sang, and the crowd, consisting of several thousands, opened to the right and left to let the dismal death-train pass, in a stillness which was only broken by the solemn tramp of the bearers.


The next day the corpse lay in state, in all the splendour that the islands could bestow, dressed in the clothes the king wore when he took the oath of office, and resting on the royal robe of yellow feathers, a fathom square.* Between eight and ten thousand persons passed through the palace during the morning, and foreigners as well as natives wept tears of genuine grief; while in the palace grounds the wailing knew no intermission, and many of the natives spent hours in reciting kanakaus in honour of the deceased. At midnight the king's remains were placed in a coffin, his aged father, His Highness Kanaina, who was broken-hearted for his loss, standing by. When the body was raised from the feather robe, he ordered that it should be wrapped in it, and thus be deposited in its resting place. "He is the last of our race," he said; "it belongs to him." The natives in attendance turned pale at this command, for the robe was the property of Kekauluohi, the dead king's mother, and had descended to her from her kingly ancestors.


* Only one robe like this remains, that which is spread over the throne at the opening of Parliament: The one buried with Lunalilo could not be reproduced for one hundred thousand dollars.


Averse through his life to useless parade and display, Lunalilo left directions for a simple funeral, and that none of the old heathenish observances should ensue upon his death. So, amidst unbounded grief, he was carried to the grave with hymns and anthems, and the hopes of Hawaii were buried with him.


He died without naming a successor, and thus for the second time within fourteen months, a king came to be elected by ballot.


The proceedings at the election of Lunalilo were marked by an order, regularity, and peaceableness which reflected extreme credit on the civilisation of the Hawaiians, but in the subsequent period the temper of the people had considerably changed, and they had been affected by influences to which some allusions were made in Letter 19.


In politics, Lunalilo's views were essentially democratic, and he showed an almost undue deference to the will of the people, giving them a year's practical experience of democracy which they will never forget.


An antagonism to the foreign residents, or rather to their political influence, had grown rapidly. Some of the Americans had been unwise in their language, and the discussion on the proposed cession of Pearl River increased the popular discontent, and the jealousy of foreign interference in island affairs. "America gave us the light," said a native pastor, in a sermon which was reported over the islands, "but now that we have the light, we should be left to use it for ourselves." This sentence represented the bulk of the national feeling, which, if partially unenlightened, is intensely, passionately, almost fanatically patriotic.


The biennial election of delegates to the Legislative Assembly occurred shortly before Lunalilo's death, and the rallying-cry, "Hawaii for the Hawaiians," was used with such effect that the most respectable foreign candidates, even in the capital, had not a chance of success, and for the first time in Hawaiian constitutional history a house was elected, consisting, with one exception, of natives. Immediately on the king's death, Kalakaua, who was understood to represent the foreign interest as well as the policy indicated by the popular rallying-cry, and Queen Emma, came forward as candidates; the walls were placarded with addresses, mass meetings were held, canvassers were busy night and day, promises impossible of fulfilment were made, and for eight days the Hawaiian capital presented those scenes of excitement, wrangling, and mutual misrepresentation which we associate with popular elections elsewhere, and everywhere.


The day of election came, and thirty-nine votes were given for Kalakaua, and six for Emma. On the announcement of this result, a hoarse, indignant roar, mingled with cheers from the crowd without, was heard within the Assembly chamber, and on the committee appointed to convey to Kalakaua the news of his election, attempting to take their seats in a carriage, they were driven back, maimed and bleeding, into the Courthouse; the carriage was torn to pieces, and the spokes of the wheels were distributed as weapons among the rioters. The "gentle children of the sun " were seen under a new aspect; they became furious, the latent savagery came out, the doors of the Hall of Assembly were battered in, the windows were shattered with clubs and volleys of stones, nine of the representatives, who were known to have voted for Kalakaua, were severely injured; the chairs, tables, and furnishings of the rooms were broken up and thrown out of the windows, along with valuable public and private documents; kerosene was demanded to fire the buildings; the police remained neutral, and conflagration and murder would have followed, had not the ministers despatched an urgent request for assistance to the United States' ships of war, Portsmouth and Tuscarora, and H. B. M. ship Tenedos, which was promptly met by the landing of such a force of sailors and marines as dispersed the rioters.


Seventy arrests were made, the foreign marines held possession of the Courthouse, Palace, and Government offices, Kalakaua took the oath of office in private; the Representatives, with bandaged heads, and arms in slings, limped, and in some instances were supported to their desks, to be liberated from their duties by the king in person, and in ten days the joint protectorate was withdrawn.


Those who know the natives best were taken by surprise, and are compelled to recognise that a restive, half-sullen, half-defiant spirit is abroad among them, and that the task of governing them may not be the easy thing which it has been since the days of Kamehameha the Great.


Of King Kalakaua, who began his reign under such unfortunate auspices, little at present can be said. Though island affairs have settled down into their old quietude, party spirit, arising out of the election, has not died out among the natives. The king chose his advisers wisely, and made a concession to native feeling by appointing a native named Nahaolelua to a seat in the cabinet as Minister of Finance, but his first arrangement was upset, and a good deal of confusion subsequently prevailed.


The Queen, Kapiolani, is a Hawaiian lady of high character and extreme amiability, and both King and Queen have been exemplary in their domestic relations.


Kalakaua's first act was to proclaim his brother, Prince Leleiohoku, his successor, investing him at the same time with the title, "His Royal Highness," and his second was to reorganize the military service, with the view of making it an efficient and well-disciplined force.


There is something melancholy in the fact that this small Pacific kingdom has to fall back upon the old world resource of a standing army, as large, in proportion to its population, as that of the German Empire.


Those readers who have become interested in the Sandwich Islands through the foregoing Letters, will join me in the earnest wish that this people, which has advanced from heathenism and barbarism to Christianity and civilization in the short space of a single generation, may enjoy peace and prosperity under King Kalakaua, that the extinction which threatens the nation may be averted, and that under a gracious Divine Providence, Hawaii may still remain the inheritance of the Hawaiians.




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