Hawaii, 1786

Hawaii 1786

By John Nicol

John Nicol was a cooper on the King George, Nathaniel Portlock’s flagship, which arrived in Hawaii in 1785

The first land we made was Hawaii, the island where Captain Cook was killed. The King George and Queen Charlotte were the first ships which had touched there since that melancholy event. The natives came on board in crowds, and were happy to see us; they recognized Portlock and others, who had been on the island before, along with Cook.

Our decks were soon crowded with hogs, bread fruit, yams, and potatoes. Our deck soon resembled a shambles; our butcher had fourteen assistants. I was as busy and fatigued as I could be, cutting iron hoops into lengths of eight and nine inches, which the carpenter ground sharp. These were our most valuable commodity in the eyes of the natives. I was stationed down in the hold of the vessel, and the ladders were removed to prevent the natives from coming down to the treasury.

The king of Hawaii looked to my occupation with a wistful eye; he thought me the happiest man on board, to be among such vast heaps of treasure. Captain Portlock called to me to place the ladder, and allow the king to come down, and give him a good long piece. When the king descended he held up his hands, and looked astonishment personified. When I gave him the piece of hoop of twenty inches long, he retired a little from below the hatch into the shade, undid his girdle, bent the iron to his body, and, adjusting his belt in the greatest haste, concealed it. I suppose he thought I had stole it. I could not but laugh to see the king concealing what he took to be stolen goods.

We were much in want of oil for our lamps. The sharks abounding, we baited a hook with a piece of salt pork, and caught the largest I ever saw in any sea; it was a female, nineteen feet long; it took all hands to hoist her on board; her weight made the vessel heel. When she was cut up we took forty-eight young ones out of her belly, eighteen inches long; we saw them go into her mouth after she was hooked. The hook was fixed to a chain attached to our main brace, or we never would have kept her.

It was evening when she snapped the bait; we hauled the head just above the surface, the swell washing over it. We let her remain thus all night, and she was quite dead in the morning. There were in her stomach four hogs, four full-grown turtles, besides the young ones. Her liver, the only part we wanted, filled a tierce.

Almost every man on board took a native woman for a wife while the vessel remained, the men thinking it an honor, or for their gain, as they got many presents of iron, beads, or buttons. The women came on board at night, and went on shore in the morning. In the evening they would call for their husbands by name. They often brought their friends to see their husbands, who were well pleased, as they were never allowed to go away empty.

The fattest woman I ever saw in my life our gunner chose for a wife. We were forced to hoist her on board; her thighs were as thick as my waist; no hammock in the ship would hold her; many jokes were cracked upon the pair.

They are the worst people to pronounce the English of any I ever was among. Captain Portlock they called Potipoti. The nearest approach they could make to my name was Nittie; yet they would make the greatest efforts, and look so angry at themselves, and vexed at their vain efforts.

We had a merry facetious fellow on board called Dickson. He sang pretty well. He squinted, and the natives mimicked him. Opunui, king of Kauai (“Big Belly” – he was actually second in command under King Kaeo), could cock his eye like Dickson better than any of his subjects. Opunui called him Billicany, from his often singing “Rule, Britannia.” Opunui learned the air, and the words as near as he could pronounce them. It was an amusing thing to hear the king and Dickson sing. Opunui loved him better than any man in the ship, and always embraced him every time they met on shore, or in the ship, and began to sing “Tule, Billicany! Billicany, tule,” etc.

We had the chief on board who killed Captain Cook for more than three weeks. He was in bad health, and had a smelling bottle with a few drops in it, which he used to smell at; we filled it for him. There were a good many bayonets in possession of the natives, which they had obtained at the murder of Cook.

We left Hawaii, and stood down to Kauai, where we watered, and had a feast from Opunui the king. We took our allowance of brandy on shore, and spent a most delightful afternoon, the natives doing all in their power to amuse us; the girls danced, the men made a sham fight, throwing their spears; the women, standing behind, handed the spears to the men, the same as in battle, thus keeping up a continued shower of spears. No words can convey an adequate idea of their dexterity and agility.

They thought we were bad with the rheumatism, our movements were so slow compared with their own. The women would sometimes lay us down, and chafe and rub us, making moan and saying “Lomilomi!” They wrestled, but the stoutest man in our ship could not stand a single throw with the least chance of success.

We stood next for Niihau, of which Opunui was king as well as of Kauai, to get yams. This island grows them in abundance, and scarce anything else. They have no wood upon the island, but exchange their yams for it to build their canoes. While lying here, it came to blow a dreadful gale; we were forced to cut our cables, and stand out to sea and leave sixteen men and boys.

.It was three weeks before we could return. When we arrived, we found them well and hearty; these kind people had lodged them two and two in their houses, gave them plenty of victuals, and liberty to ramble over the whole island.

The only man who was in the least alarmed for his safety was an old boatswain; he was in continual fear. The innocent natives could not meet to divert themselves, or even a few talk together, but the old sinner would shake with horror, and called to his shipmates, “Now they are going to murder us; this is our last night.”

He was a perfect annoyance to the others; he scarce ever left the beach but to go to some height to look out for the ships, and after looking till he was almost blind he would seek out the other men to make his lamentations, and annoy them with his fears of the loss of the ships, or their being deserted by them.

At length we returned, and took them on board, making presents to the king and his kind people for their unlimited hospitality. We now took an affectionate leave of these kind islanders.

After waiting in Nootka Sound, our place of rendezvous, for some time, and the Queen Charlotte not appearing, we immediately set sail for Hawaii, but got no word of our consort until we came to Kauai, when we perceived Opunui in his single canoe, making her scud through the water, crying, “tattoo for Potipoti,” as he jumped upon deck with a letter from Captain Dixon, which removed our fears and informed us he had discovered an island and got a very great number of skins, and had sailed for China. We watered and laid in our provisions as quick as we could, to follow her.

Opunui, soon after he came on board, told the captain he had seen Billicany, and squinted so like Dickson that we knew at once Meares had been there in the Nootka. Dickson afterward told us Meares would not have got anything from Opunui had he and Willis not been with him. Opunui had a son called Poinui-in English, “large pudding.” I thought him well named. He had the largest head of any boy I ever saw. His father wished Captain Portlock to take him to England, but Poinui did not wish to go. He leaped overboard just as we sailed, and swam back to his father.

It was with a sensation of regret I bade a final adieu to the Sandwich Islands. Even now I would prefer them to any country I ever was in. The people so kind and obliging, the climate so fine, and provisions so abundant, all render it a most endearing place. Hawaii is the only place I was not ashore in. Captain Portlock never went himself, and would not allow his crew to go. The murder of Cook made him timorous of trusting too much to the islanders. At Kauai and Niihau we went on shore, one watch one day, the other the next.