- Historic Sites
“The Isles Shall Wait For His Law”
So the Bible said, but American missionaries found Hawaii a paradise where pleasure reigned, and the sense of sin was difficult to teach
February 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 2
International rivalry over the control of Hawaii had already begun. When Captain George Vancouver visited the Islands in 1794, his lieutenant, Peter Puget (in whose honor Vancouver had named Puget Sound), had raised the British flag and taken possession of Hawaii in the name of his mad king, George III. If Britain had held on, the Hawaiian Islands would now be as British as Bermuda. But the home government never recognized the claim.
Russia was also interested in the Islands as a source of supply for its Alaskan fur posts. Dr. Georg Schelfer had even begun to build a Russian fort at Honolulu in 1816—without the permission of King Kamehameha. Driven oil the Islands alter brazenly erecting another Russian fort on Kauai, Scheffei finally returned to Russia where he vainly tried to persuade the Czar to seize them.
Meanwhile another Russian ship was visiting Hawaii. Its commander, Captain Vasili Mikhailovich Golovnin, wrote in the account of his world tour: Were it possible to introduce the Christian faith and the art of writing among the Sandwich Islanders, they would in one century reach a state of civilization unparalleled in history. But it is not easy to introduce an outside religion to a strong and free race!
To introduce a new religion to Hawaii seemed indeed a hopeless task. Life in Hawaii was hedged about with taboo. A man could not eat at the same table with his wife, or even under the same roof. Women were forbidden to eat many of the choicest foods in the limited Hawaiian diet, including pork, bananas, and coconuts. Even to touch the clothing of a chief, or to let one’s shadow fall on him, meant death. When periods of ritual silence were imposed by the priests who controlled this system, a man might have his eyes scooped out and his limbs broken before being put to death for an offense so small as letting a dog bark. Human sacrifices to the gods were frequent.
Yet the taboo system did regulate many aspects of life, such as fishing and planting, so as to preserve precious resources. And it fostered a yearly festival five months long when everyone took a holiday from all but the most necessary tasks and indulged in the many sports which the islanders were so fertile in inventing—surfboarding, canoe-racing, sham battles. And of course the hula, which gracefully fused poetry, dance, music, religion, and history.
The group from New England had known how slender was their chance of being welcomed ashore to such a culture. Yet they had risked everything to come. Now, as they waited for the boat to come back, doubt and fear crowded the emptiness of that long delay. Finally, after three hours, the boat came bouncing over the waves. Hunnewell heaved himself aboard the Thaddeus , and as the mission group gathered about, he told the whole amazing story in a few short breaths: “Kamehaineha is dead—his son Liholiho is king. The kapus [taboos] arc abolished—the images are burned, the temples destroyed. There has been war. Now there is peace.” He had hardly told his story when a fleet of outrigger canoes, crowded with people, put out from shore loaded with gifts of fruit.
Lucy Thurston, her bright eyes wide with interest, looked out a cabin window to see a canoeful of near-naked men and women gazing in at her. Never before had they seen a white woman. They gave her a banana, and in return she handed them a ship’s biscuit.
“Wahine maikai!” they shouted at her. “Good girl!” Delighted to understand the first Avoids spoken to her—thanks to shipboard lessons the group had been taking—she passed out more biscuits. But in her excitement the only Hawaiian she could think of was to repeat “ Wahine .”
When the brig reached Kawaihae Bay, a crowd of chiefs and their numerous wives came aboard. Both men and women duels were huge, weighing from 250 to 400 pounds—each. One of the old queens, taking a fancy to pretty, aristocratic-looking Lucia Holman, motioned her to a capacious lap and commenced to feel her all over. “Eat and grow big,” she counseled.
The next day being Sunday, Hiram Bingham, a farm boy from Bennington, Vermont, who had wooed a girl just in time to marry her and thus qualify himself as a member of the mission, preached on the text: “The isles shall wait for His law.” Prime Minister Kalanimoku came aboard with his wives, stayed through service, and slept. Whether he slept during the sermon, thus becoming the first Hawaiian to adopt an old Christian custom, the record docs not say.