A Scotsman in Honolulu, 1809

Honolulu 1800

By Archibald Campbell

Archibald Campbell, a Scottish sailor on an American ship, wound up in Hawaii in 1809, and became part of Kamehameha I’s household.

At one time, during my stay, there were nearly sixty white people on Oahu alone, but the number was constantly varying, and was considerably diminished before my departure. Although the great majority had been left by American vessels, not above one third of them belonged to that nation; the rest were almost all English, and of these six or eight were convicts who had made their escape from New South Wales.

Many inducements are held out to sailors to remain here. If they conduct themselves with propriety, they rank as chiefs, and are entitled to all the privileges of the order; at all events, they are certain of being maintained by some of the chiefs, who are always anxious to have white people about them. The king has a considerable number in his service, chiefly carpenters, joiners, masons, blacksmiths, and bricklayers; these he rewards liberally with grants of land.

Some of these people are sober and industrious; but this is far from being their general character; on the contrary, many of them are idle and dissolute, getting drunk whenever an opportunity presents itself. They have introduced distillation into the island; and the evil consequences, both to the natives and whites, are incalculable. It is no uncommon sight to see a party of them broach a small cask of spirits and sit drinking for days till they see it out.

There were, however, a few exceptions to this. William Davis, a Welshman who resided with Isaac Davis, used to rise every morning at five and go to his fields, where he commonly remained till the same hour in the evening. This singularity puzzled the natives not a little; but they accounted for it by supposing that he had been one of their own countrymen who had gone to Tahiti or England after his death, and had now come back to his native land.

There were no missionaries upon the island during the time I remained in it, at which I was often much surprised. Most of the whites have married native women, by whom they have families; but they pay little attention either to the education or to the religious instruction of their children. I do not recollect having seen any who knew more than the letters of the alphabet.

The natives, although not tall, are stout and robust in their make, particularly those of the higher rank; their complexion is nut-brown, and they are extremely cleanly in their persons. They are distinguished by great ingenuity in all their arts and manufactures, as well as by a most persevering industry.

They are divided into two great classes, the alii, or chiefs, and the Kanaka-maori, or people. The former are the proprietors of the land, the latter are all under the dominion of some chief, for whom they work or cultivate the ground, and by whom they are supported in old age. They are not, however, slaves, or attached to the soil, but at liberty to change masters when they think proper.

The supreme government is vested in the king, whose power seems to be completely absolute. He is assisted by the principal chiefs, whom he always keeps about his person; many of these have particular departments to attend to; one chief took charge of the household and appointed the different surveys to be performed by every individual; another, named Coweeoranee, acted as paymaster; his province was to distribute wages and provisions amongst the people in the king’s service. An elderly chief, of the name of Naai, took a general charge of the whole and was, in fact, prime minister. He was commonly called Billy Pitt by the white people, and was by no means pleased when they addressed him by any other appellation.

The principal duties of the executive were, however, entrusted to the priests; by them the revenues were collected and the laws enforced. Superstition is the most powerful engine by which the latter purpose is effected, actual punishment being rare. I knew only one instance of capital punishment, which was that of a man who had violated the sanctity of the morai. Having got drunk, he quitted it during tabu time and entered the house of a woman. He was immediately seized and carried back to the morai, where his eyes were put out. After remaining two days in this state, he was strangled and his body exposed before the principal idol.

The method of detecting theft or robbery affords a singular instance of the power of superstition over their minds. The party who has suffered the loss applies to one of the priests, to whom he presents a pig and relates his story. The following ceremony is then performed: The priest begins by rubbing two pieces of green wood upon each other, till, by the friction, a kind of powderlike snuff is produced, which is so hot that on being placed in dry grass and blown upon it takes fire; with this a large pile of wood is kindled and allowed to burn a certain time. He then takes three nuts of an oily nature called kukui; having broken the shells, one of the kernels is thrown into the fire, at which time he says an anana, or prayer; and while the nut is crackling in the fire, repeats the words, “Makeloa o kanaka aihue,” that is, “Kill or shoot the fellow.” The same ceremonies take place with each of the nuts, provided the thief does not appear before they are consumed. This, however, but seldom happens; the culprit generally makes his appearance with the stolen property, which is restored to the owner, and the offense punished by a fine of four pigs. He is then dismissed, with strict injunctions not to commit the like crime in future, under pain of a more severe penalty. The pigs are taken to the morai, where they are offered up as sacrifices and afterwards eaten by the priests.

Should it happen that the unfortunate criminal does not make his appearance during the awful ceremony, his fate is inevitable; had he the whole island to bestow, not one word of the prayer could be recalled, nor the anger of the Akua appeased. The circumstance is reported to the king, and proclamation made throughout the island that a certain person has been robbed and that those who are guilty have been prayed to death. So firm is their belief in the power of these prayers that the culprit pines away, refusing to take any sustenance, and at last falls a sacrifice to his credulity.

I have but few particulars to give of their religious opinions. Their principal god, to whom they attribute the creation of the world, is called Akua; and they have seven or eight subordinate deities, whose images are in the morai, and to whom offerings are made as well as to the Akua. Their names I cannot recollect …. They have a tradition of a general deluge. According to their account, the sea once overflowed the whole world, except Mauna Kea, in Hawaii, and swept away all the inhabitants but one pair, who saved themselves on that mountain and are the parents of the present race of mankind.

Their morais, or places of worship, consist of one large house or temple, with some smaller ones round it, in which are the images of their inferior gods. The tabu’d, or consecrated, precincts are marked out by four square posts, which stand thirty or forty yards from the building.

In the inside of the principal house there is a screen or curtain of white cloth hung across one end, within which the image of Akua is placed. When sacrifices are offered, the priests and chiefs enter occasionally within this space, going in at one side and out at the other.

Although present on one occasion, I did not enter this recess, partly because I was doubtful of the propriety of doing so, and also on account of the difficulty I had in moving myself and the risk of getting my wounds injured among the crowd. On the outside are placed several images made of wood, as ugly as can be well imagined, having their mouths all stuck round with dogs’ teeth.

Human sacrifices are offered upon their going to war, but nothing of the kind took place during my stay; unless in the case already mentioned, of the man punished for breaking the tabu, and whose body was exposed before the idol.

During the period called Makahiki, which lasts a whole month and takes place in November, the priests are employed in collecting the taxes, which are paid by the chiefs in proportion to the extent of their territories; they consist of mats, feathers, and the produce of the country.

The people celebrate this festival by dancing, wrestling, and other amusements. The king remains in the morai for the whole period; before entering it, a singular ceremony takes place. He is obliged to stand till three spears are darted at him; he must catch the first with his hand, and with it ward off the other two. This is not a mere formality. The spear is thrown with the utmost force; and should the king lose his life, there is no help for it.

The women are subject to many restrictions from which the men are exempted. They are not allowed to attend the morai upon tabu days, nor at these times are they permitted to go out in a canoe. They are never permitted to eat with the men, except when at sea, and then not out of the same dish. Articles of delicacy, such as pork, turtle, shark, coconuts, bananas or plantains, are also forbidden. Dogs’ flesh and fish were the only kinds of animal food lawful for them to eat; but since the introduction of sheep and goats, which are not tabu’d, the ladies have less reason to complain.

Notwithstanding the rigor with which these ceremonies are generally observed, the women very seldom scruple to break them when it can be done in secret. They often swim off to ships at night during the tabu, and I have known them to eat of the forbidden delicacies of pork and sharks’ flesh. What would be the consequence of a discovery I know not; but I once saw the queen transgressing in this respect and was strictly enjoined to secrecy, as she said it was as much as her life was worth.

Their ideas of marriage are very loose; either party may quit the other when they tire or disagree. The lower classes, in general, content themselves with one wife; but they are by no means confined to that number, and the chiefs have frequently several. Kamehameha had two, besides a very handsome girl, the daughter of a chief, educating for him. One elderly chief, Coweeoranee, had no fewer than fifteen. They are very jealous of any improper connection between natives and their wives; but the case is widely different with respect to their visitors, where connection of that kind is reckoned the surest proof of friendship, and they are always anxious to strengthen it by that tie.

The virtue of the king’s wives is, however, most scrupulously guarded, each of them having a male and a female attendant whose duty it is to watch them on all occasions. Should it be discovered that any of the queens have been unfaithful, these attendants are punished with death unless they have given the first intimation.

Immediately after childbirth, women are obliged to retire to the woods, where they remain ten days, and must not be seen by the men. The queen, who had a daughter whilst I was there, had a house for the purpose of retirement; but, in general, they have no other shelter but what the woods afford.

The dances are principally performed by women, who form themselves into solid squares, ten or twelve each way, and keep time to the sound of the drum, accompanied by a song in which they all join. In dancing they seldom move their feet, but throw themselves into a variety of attitudes, sometimes all squatting and at other times springing up at the same instant.

A man in front, with strings of shells on his ankles and wrists, with which he marks time, acts as a fugleman. On these occasions the women display all their finery, particularly in European clothes, if they are so fortunate as to possess any. They receive great applause from the spectators, who frequently burst into immoderate fits of laughter at particular parts of the song.

They have a game somewhat resembling draughts, but more complicated. It is played upon a board about twenty-two inches by fourteen, painted black, with white spots, on which the men are placed; these consist of black and white pebbles, eighteen upon each side, and the game is won by the capture of the adversary’s pieces.

Kamehameha excels at this game. I have seen him sit for hours playing with his chiefs, giving an occasional smile, but without uttering a word. I could not play; but William Moxley, who understood it well, told me that he had seen none who could beat the king. The game of draughts is now introduced, and the natives play it uncommonly well.

Flying kites is another favorite amusement. They make them of kapa, of the usual shape, but of uncommon size, many of them being fifteen or sixteen feet in length and six or seven in breadth; they have often three or four hundred fathom of line, and are so difficult to hold that they are obliged to tie them to trees. The only employment I ever saw Tamena the queen engaged in was making these kites.

A theater was erected under the direction of James Beanie, the king’s blockmaker, who had been at one time on the stage in England. The scenes representing a castle and a forest were constructed of different-colored pieces of kapa, cut out and pasted together.

I was present, on one occasion, at the performance of Oscar and Malvina. This piece was originally a pantomime, but here it had words written for it by Beattie. The part of Malvina was performed by the wife of Isaac Davis. As her knowledge of the English language was very limited, extending only to the words yes and no, her speeches were confined to these monosyllables. She, however, acted her part with great applause. The Fingalian heroes were represented by natives clothed in the Highland garb, also made out of kapa, and armed with muskets.

The audience did not seem to understand the play well, but were greatly delighted with the afterpiece, representing a naval engagement. The ships were armed with bamboo cannon; and each of them fired a broadside by means of a train of thread dipped in saltpeter, which communicated with each gun-after which one of the vessels blew up. Unfortunately the explosion set fire to the forest, and had nearly consumed the theater.