Early view of Honolulu

Lilibolu, 1837

By James J. Jarves

James Jackson Jarves (1818-1888), born in Boston, arrived in Hawaii in 1837. He became the editor of a newspaper, the Polynesian, and a supporter of the American Missionary faction. This is taken from his autobiography.

Lilibolu (Honolulu) was a strange place at this date (1837). It was in a transition state between heathenism and missionaryism; and, though the two parties had ceased to fight with carnal, they were none the less bitter with their lingual weapons. To me, coming from America to Lilibolu was like stepping back from the nineteenth century into the chaotic barbarism of the Heptarchy. It was a curious experience, and a picture of it may amuse you.

Conceive a thousand or more thatched huts, looking like geometrical haystacks, most of them low and filthy in the extreme, scattered higgledy-piggledy over a plain, and along the banks of a scanty river, surrounded in general with dilapidated mud walls, and inhabited by a mixed population of curs, pigs, Shanghai poultry, and unwashed natives, on a footing as to sexes and conditions, of liberty, fraternity, and equality, that would have gladdened the heart of the reddest republican, and you have the ground plan of Lilibolu.

Here and there a white trader, mechanic, or sailor had squatted, taken to himself a tawny mistress and made to himself a mongrel home, in which the comforts and conveniences of his motherland were oddly blended with the necessities and fashions of his adopted country. There were a few shops, stores, and houses, of stone or wood, Orientalized externally by spacious verandas, and numerous doors and windows, and internally presenting a medley of native mats and divans, furniture from China, France, or New England, and merchandise in homeopathic doses from the four quarters of the globe, all strewed about in sailor-like prodigality, or assorted with the right-angular and graceless system of the Yankee peddler.

A few white women had followed their adventurous husbands hither, and, with their Parisian hats and boots, their rosy faces and boundless hospitality, despite much domestic discomfort, made quite a social oasis amid the general dirt and barbarism. As the streets or lanes were in general almost impassable to their tender feet, on account of the hot, deep dust, their visits or shoppings were made in little, low four-wheeled carriages, drawn by natives, who, out of compliment to their mistresses, consented to mount short-flapped shirts when in service.

A white woman in full toilet was still a sufficient curiosity to attract a crowd; consequently, if one went out, she was soon surrounded with a cortege of men and maidens, more or less in a state of nudity, all bent upon studying the fashions with an eagerness proportioned to their own want of clothing.

A few of the chiefs had attempted crude imitations of foreign houses, but most of them were lodged in more ample and better-constructed straw huts than the common sort. Some were really very neat and attractive in their way, and far more convenient and comfortable to their owners than the more ambitious experiments of those who had thrown away their money upon foreign mechanics.

The exteriors of these were, in general, more or less dilapidated, and the grounds about them patched and barren. Their interiors presented an incongruous mixture of white and native habits and articles. Huge state beds to look at, and piles of fine cool mats to sleep upon. Chairs and sofas backed rigidly and uselessly against the walls while their owners squatted upon the floors. Velvets and porcelain were snubbed by tapas and calabashes. Fleas and other vermin reveled amid the sweets of cologne and attar of roses.

At dinner, you rnight be served, one day, reclining on the ground, with baked dog or live fish, by your own fingers, from a common wooden platter; and the next, sit comfortably upright at a high table, horrified at the rapacity and awkwardness with which your aristocratic hosts devoured pate de foie gras with the aid of silver forks, and engulfed champagne from the costliest crystal. But everywhere you went you were sure to see, conspicuously displayed, a huge Bible, printed in the native language.

It had completely exorcised all other gods, and was held in a degree of reverence and affection which gave it an almost supernatural character. Yet its precepts, though gaining ground, were but indifferently appreciated by many church members. How could it be expected that these sensuous, sensual natures should be suddenly transformed by sermons and threats into missionary asceticism!

Their white instructors in taking away their games, dances, festivals, and wars had given them nothing in return as an outlet of their animal energies. A polka or waltz was proscribed as a device of the devil. Theatricals were something worse. Horse races were no better than hell’s tournaments. Even smoking was made a capital sin, and tattooing was the mark of the beast. National songs and festivals all smacked of eternal damnation. There was absolutely nothing left to the poor native for the indulgence of his physical forces, or the development of his intellectual, but that which he hated most, hard labor and theological reading.

In the latter his choice was Iimited to the Bible, a few hymns, and elementary schoolbooks. The most rigid principles of the most rigid of Protestant sects were made the standard of salvation for the most sensualized of races.

The poor native was to labor to attain to the sanctity of men and women who rarely smiled and dared not joke; whose intellectual excitements, in general, were preaching and praying: who led lives of rigid abstinence from all the usual pleasures of life; whose greatest dissipation was a tea party, enlivened by prayer and serious discourse; who produced and reared numerous children in the same straitlaced way; comfortable in their homes and tables; neat, orderly, and exact in every circumstance; plain, somber, and tasteless in speech, dress, and deportments; preferring, from principle, the desert side of life to its amenities; worshiping the Jehovah of Moses – a harsh, retributive, cruel being, softened only through the sufferings of the innocent and pure Jesus, who was equally God and his son, and yet neither were able to give salvation, except through the capricious intervention of a third god, called the Holy Ghost, and these three were one God – such, in brief, were the examples and doctrines of Christianity the astonished Polynesian had presented to him to replace his own effete religious system.

On the other hand, he had before him the careless lives of numerous white visitors or settlers, who resembled the missionaries in nothing but color. They neither prayed nor preached. They smoked, drank, and were merry, after the desires of their own flesh. They took to themselves wives or mistresses, as interest or passion dictated. They labored for money, but spent it freely.

Some were renegade sailors, to whom the change from a forecastle to this sensuous climate and sensuous people was a paradise. Others were of every grade of life, from the honest, industrious mechanic, seeking a competency to take him back to his own village, amid the granite hills of New England, where his constant Susan impatiently awaited him, to the intelligent merchant or educated stranger, who, in visiting these shores, brought with him the enterprise, refinement, and experience which made him a valuable citizen at home.

Between the bigoted missionary and the profane, licentious renegade, most likely an escaped Botany Bay convict, there being every gradation of intelligence and morals, society was kept from the open warfare or anarchy into which the two extremes would otherwise have forced it. The missionary was, in fact, a far more useful and agreeable man than his catechism would indicate; and the trader was not so bad a man as the missionary would make him out to be.

Both were necessary ingredients in the social reorganization. The one, it is true, protested against and would annihilate the entire past, because it was born of his mortal enemy, heathenism. The other served to keep alive and give play to the inborn instincts of human nature, slowly and surely refining them to the conditions of civilized life; and the missionary, on his part, as he better learned his mission, fought less uncompromisingly against humanity, seeking to purify its impulses, and direct them to loftier ends.

When I arrived, a fierce hostility was raging between the two parties. The Guelf and Ghibelline factions of Italy were more bloody, but not more sincere in their mutual opposition and denunciations. The missionaries were by far the most powerful. They not only represented the progressive moral principles of this strange society, but were bound together by a sincere zeal and piety, against which their opponents could only offer a sort of skirmishing opposition of outwardly selfish interests, or dubious pleasures. They had, besides, the great advantage of being the actual government.

When the missionaries landed on these islands, the old form of religion, with its idol worshipers, had almost quietly died out, from the twofold cause of its own lost vitality and the skepticism of the people, derived from intercourse with white traders. The result was as unbridled a licentiousness and tyranny as a sensualized race and omnipotent oligarchy could devise.

Such influence as their old religion had when it represented to a certain extent conservative or restraining ideas was now gone, and the aborigines were abandoned to the anarchy of their passions. curbed only by the selfish interests of a tyrannical government. Social corruption, under the patronage of infidelity, was, in fact, holding its last saturnalia.

In the height of this revolution, the missionaries arrived, and began their preaching. Even the lowest class of whites had come to revolt at the horrible orgies and scenes of violence they had witnessed; so they rather welcomed than otherwise the newcomers. Soon, some of the chiefs, wearied of their debaucheries, were attracted.

Two classes of converts came quickly to them: the best minds, which gladly availed themselves of a newer and pure knowledge; and those that having gone to one extreme of folly and wickedness were anxious to expiate it by going to the other extreme of faith and virtue. These two made the new religion fashionable.

It speedily became a state power, and after its kind, owing to the zeal and ignorance of the new converts, an ecclesiastical despotism, which would have been almost as intolerable, in the end, as the old order of things, had it not been for the greater enlightenment of some of the missionaries, and the continual opposition of the foreign population to the extreme measures the chiefs sought to impose upon their people for the forcible furtherance of Christianity.

The leaven of foreign opposition and example derived from the white settlers alone prevented the reign of the saints from being absolute. As it was, the enactments which attended their ascendancy were of the most arbitrary character, having for their object not only to root out every vestige of heathen ideas and customs but to compel every inhabitant to an observance of laws whose spirit was derived almost exclusively from the Mosaic dispensation.

No people ever underwent a more forcible and thorough outward change than these unfortunate aborigines, in less than a score of years. There was some resistance and fighting, at the first, resulting from the expiring force of the old in contact with the new faith. But, as soon as the latter was fully adopted by the chiefs, their people acquiesced, and upon the whole welcorned a moral reaction, which exchanged the violence and degradation of excessive sensuality for the order strictness, and sobriety of their new religion.

They gave up, though at first not without a murmur, their dances and songs, their feastings and licentious revelries, their games, and even their tattooings, the superfluous wives and drunken debaucheries – all that was in itself harmless as well as what was vicious which belonged to their former belief – and in exchange accepted the Bible, rneetinghouse, schoolroom, and prayer circle, and loyally sustained their chiefs in their inquisitorial spread of new ideas. The external reform soon became as extreme as the previous undisguised vice.

One who frequented only missionary circles would have concluded that Puritanism had revived in Polynesia. Many of their chiefs and their retinues were sincerely pious, and, considering their antecedents, exceedingly exemplary in their deportment. With but few exceptions, the people at large devoutly conformed in their external conduct to the new order of things. But it would have been contrary to their common sense to have accepted the outward for the true view.

The same extraordinary intermixture of civilization and barbarism that was to lie observed in their household effects was equally perceptible in their morals, apart from the restraint of missionary vision. Within sound of one of Watts’ hymns, as sung by a native choir, the curious visitor would be cautiously conducted into the premises of a high chief, who was surreptitiously indulging himself in witnessing wanton dances by young, half-clad maidens, followed by scenes not to be described.

A little further off, he might hear through the open windows of a merchant’s house the enlivening notes of waltz or cracovienne. Nearer by, the monotonous tones of natives, earnestly praying to Jehovah, would strike his ear, interrupted, perhaps, by the profane and vulgar mirth of groggy sailors ashore on a spree, but kept like wild animals chafing within the limits of some white man’s enclosure, from which they and their female companions could sally forth only at the risk of being arrested by native constables, greedy to collect the fines imposed upon drunkeness or debauchery.

Should he wander into one of those huts so recently the scene of a devotion, its owner – a church member, perhaps a deacon – would not unlikely welcome him in the spirit of the former hospitality of his race, and inquire if it would be agreeable to him to have a female to share his couch. Possibly the next day he would meet the same woman at hard labor on the public highways, betrayed by a spy, and condemned to an infamous punishment for indulging in what in her early youth she had been taught to consider as a virtue, but which now was very properly denounced as a vice.

I cannot give better an idea of the state of morals among this race at this period than in the words often used by themselves: "Me mikonaree here," pointing to the head: "aole mikonaree,” no missionary here, designating the rest of the body. Brass joined to clay they indeed were.