“The Isles Shall Wait For His Law”


If they could not control the sailors, men from their own homeland, how could they hope to make Christians of the Hawaiians? So reasoned Bingham and his colleagues. As they went about setting up schools and churches, as they invented a written language and for the first time put the spoken tongue into print, as they translated the whole Bible into Hawaiian and printed it, translated hymns into the Hawaiian idiom and taught the people to sing Western-style music, as they diligently clothed a people who had gone happily naked and led them to establish strange laws, as they taught them something about trade so that they would not be mercilessly cheated, encouraged them to grow varied crops where they had been content with few before—as they did all these things, they aroused hatred in all those Westerners who had depended upon the ignorance, indolence, or easygoingness of the Hawaiians to get what they wanted out of them.

The conflict, always simmering, came frequently to a boil. In 1826, Jack Percival, a bold, daredevil sort of fellow in command of the U.S. naval schooner Dolphin , found on his arrival in Honolulu that the chiefs had established laws to prevent drunkenness and debauchery. This did not prevent him from supplying himself with a girl, but it did prevent women from going aboard ships in the harbor in crowds as they had in the past, lounging in comfortable half-nakedness amongst admiring sailors. Often when a ship left the harbor, it would be crowded with girls who rode well out to sea, then dove into the water and swam about like mermaids before striking out for the shore.

Bingham had finally persuaded the chiefs to put an end to all this. When Percival learned that women had been tabooed for sailors, he called it an insult to the United States, demanded an audience with the chiefs, and threatened to shoot Bingham. When he asked the chiefs who had taught them that women must be tabooed, the big old queen Kaahumanu replied with dignity: “It is God.”

Percival gave a scornful laugh. “It was by Bingham,” he said. Again he demanded women, as in former times.

“In former times, before the word of God arrived here, we were dark-minded, lewd, and murderous. At the present time we are seeking a better way,” Kaahumanu told him.

On Sunday afternoon, February 26, sailors from Percival’s ship poured ashore, forced their way into the prime minister’s house, smashing windows on their way, and caught Hiram Bingham as he was attempting to enter his own bolted door. When a sailor aimed a heavy blow at his head, however, Lydia, the queen’s sister, jumped to Bingham’s side to ward off the blow. Then other Hawaiians entered the fray with something of their old-time love of a fight, and the sailors were driven off. But two days later the governor of the island, without the permission of the other chiefs, canceled the taboo.

A crowd of women went out to the Dolphin , which remained in port for a month. Two of the girls’ schools run by the mission were entirely depopulated.

Sadly the mission had to conclude that improving the “native females” in manners and dress and then teaching them English only made them more attractive to sailors.

So the mission lost this round in its battle against Hawaiian easygoingness and the determination of the sailors. But it had gained the confidence of the chiefs, who now saw that while others were looking out for their own interests, the missionaries truly had the welfare of the people at heart and would even risk their own lives in the cause.

As time went on, the king (a new one, for Liholiho —Kamehameha II—had gone to England, where he died of measles) and his advisers came to rely more and more on the mission, and especially on Hiram Bingham, to establish schools and churches throughout the Islands, for advice in dealing with foreign governments, and for counsel in dealing with the foreigners who had settled in Hawaii and thought themselves above Hawaiian law.

The mission influence infuriated men like Richard Charlton, the British consul. Charlton, a beefy-faced former sea captain with an irascible temper, often behaved as if the Islands were his private property. When the chiefs, toward the end of 1827, passed laws against murder, theft, rum-selling, prostitution, and gambling, he exploded. Outlaw rum, prostitution, and gambling—cornerstones of prosperity? Charlton, wrapping himself in the banner of freedom, asserted that no laws could be passed until the British king had approved them. So the chiefs backed down. They outlawed only murder, theft, and adultery.

Charlton continued to harass the chiefs. He let his cow destroy the tender young taro shoots in neighboring fields. When native cows had wandered into his fields, he had killed them without warning. Now a Hawaiian, who had seen the consul’s cow ravage his fields once too often, shot and killed her. Charlton dragged the man at rope’s end behind his horse into town, nearly killing him. He made outrageous demands upon the chiefs, who told him that even if the man had done wrong, it was for the government to punish, not for Charlton to take the law into his own hands.