“Mad Jack” And The Missionaries


Percival’s methods were unconventional, as might be expected of a naval officer who had begun his career as a sailing master. A colleague described him as “the roughest old devil that ever was in his manners, but a kind, good hearted man at bottom.” Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was to meet Percival at the Boston Navy Yard in later years, thought he saw “an eccentric expression in his face, which seemed partly wilful, partly natural. … He seems to have moulded and shaped himself to his own whims, till a sort of rough affectation has become thoroughly imbued throughout a kindly nature.” Mad Jack’s peculiar manner, coupled with his extreme sensitivity for his own and his country’s honor, was to be a large factor in the events of the cruise to come.


Dolphin sailed from Chorillos, Peru, on August 18, 1825. Reaching the Mulgraves in November, she proceeded to search among the islands of the atoll, and after ten days found Cyrus Hussey and William Lay, the only survivors of the nine men left by Globe . The rest had been killed by the natives, who, provoked by the mutineers’ flaunting of firearms and their seizure of women, massacred them with spears, stones, and hatchets. Hussey and Lay, aged twenty and eighteen respectively, were saved by native couples who wished to adopt them as sons. Neither was implicated in the mutiny. Percival took them aboard, to the great sorrow of their island parents, and after showing the flag among the islands for about a month, stood for Honolulu, where he anchored on January 14, 1826.

As Dolphin came up the harbor that Saturday noon, she was saluted by the guns of the fort at Honolulu and those of the ships anchored in the harbor —the American traders Parthian, Convoy, Tamaahmaah, Owhyee, Harbinger , and Waverly , and the British merchantman Kiel . The placid village that greeted the eyes of the sea-weary sailors was made up of about 150 thatched houses and a few buildings of frame or stone, the whole surrounded by fish ponds and taro patches. In the eastern quarter rose the unfinished stone walls of a church. But Percival soon found that this hospitable-looking place was as riddled with tensions and scandals as the New England villages he had left behind. The white residents, who numbered between one and two hundred, were divided into hostile factions engaged in a struggle for control of the government, and each faction hoped to make the visit of Dolphin work to its own advantage.

The first group whom Percival met were the resident merchants. They came down to greet him as he landed with First Lieutenant Hiram Paulding and Purser John Bates. The delegation was led by Dixey Wildes, partner in the Boston firm of Marshall and Wildes, and by Eliab Grimes, captain of Marshall and Wildes’s brig Owhyee . These gentlemen escorted the American officers to their house —commonly called “the wooden house” because it was one of only two or three frame dwellings in Honolulu for an impromptu reception. After dinner Paulding and Bates visited the house of Stephen Reynolds, a testy merchant from New England, and later Bates accompanied Reynolds to a luau. No doubt the company was entertained by the hula, although Reynolds explained to the purser that the missionaries had tried to abolish it. Percival was quite soon made aware of these missionaries, who formed another of the warring factions of Oahu. They were a New England group, sent to the islands in 1820 by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. [See “The Isles Shall Wait for His Law” in the February, 1960, AMERICAN HERITAGE .] Their self-appointed leader was Hiram Bingham, a thirty-seven-year-old Vermonter. Bingham, while doubtless sincere, had an overbearing manner and was known, even among his fellow missioners, as “Pope.” What the merchants called him had best be left unsaid; one printable comment was that of Reynolds, who called him “the most impudent puppy I have seen for many a day.”

The American missionaries were strict Calvinists who regarded the islands as an unspoiled wilderness filled with pliable heathens waiting to be molded into a kind of Utopian commonwealth. So they set out to convince the bewildered natives of their innate and hopeless depravity, and to persuade them to give up dancing and drinking in favor of prayer and meditation. Bingham soon concentrated his proselytizing efforts upon a few of the chiefs, leaving the ordinary kanakas to follow the example that he hoped would be set by their leaders. His principal disciples were Kalanimoku, popularly known as “Billy Pitt,” and his sister, the dowager queen Kaahumanu, widow of Kamehameha I , who together acted as regents for the boy king Kauikeaouli (Kamehameha III ). Both the youth’s father (Kamehameha II ) and his mother had died in England in 1824 while on a visit there. Billy Pitt and Kaahumanu were the two most powerful chiefs in the islands. One-eyed and dropsical, Billy Pitt was usually ill and always indolent; he acquiesced cheerfully in the missionaries’ demands so long as no great effort was required of him. The haughty Kaahumanu, resistant at first, eventually became a model convert, zealous to spread the teachings of her savior—Bingham.