- Historic Sites
“Mad Jack” And The Missionaries
April 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 3
One of the first orders of business was the elimination of the native costume—a pa’u (a short skirt, usually made of tapa cloth) and a kihei (a kind cape or mantle thrown loosely over the shoulders)—because it was too “revealing” by Puritan standards. While Bingham toiled with Kaahumanu over the letters of the alphabet, Mrs. Bingham and the other ladies of the mission plied their needles over the many yards of black silk needed to clothe the three-hundred-pound dowager from wrist to ankle in proper New England fashion. (All the Hawaiian chiefs at this period were large—tall, big boned, and very stout—doubtless because they had nothing to do and plenty to eat.)
So well had the missionaries succeeded in Calvinizing Oahu that when the Russian traveller Otto von, Kotzebue, who had visited the islands in February, 1825, returned to Honolulu the following September, he viewed the change with horror:
The inhabitants of every house or hut in Hanaruro [Honolulu] are compelled by authority to an almost endless routine of prayers; and even the often dishonest intentions of the foreign settlers must be concealed under the veil of devotion. The streets, formerly so full of life and animation, are now deserted; games of all kinds, even the most innocent, are sternly prohibited; singing is a punishable offence; and the consummate profligacy of attempting to dance would certainly find no mercy. On Sunday, no cooking is permitted, nor must even a fire be kindled: nothing, in short, must be done; the whole day is devoted to prayer, with how much real piety may be easily imagined.
But these moralistic decrees were not the only basis for the objections of the merchants to Bingham. One of his greatest offenses in their eyes was that he tried to give the natives some idea of the proper value of trade goods so that the merchants could no longer cheat them.
On December 12, 1825, a meeting of the chiefs had been called at Honolulu to discuss Bingham’s suggestion that the Decalogue be made the law of the islands. Billy Pitt and the dowager queen Kaahumanu favored the proposal; Boki, their brother and the governor of Oahu, opposed it, as did the traders, who angrily accused Bingham of trying to control the government. The proposal was shelved for the time being, but the atmosphere between merchants and missionaries was still seething when Dolphin dropped anchor in the roads.
On Sunday, January 15, Dolphin made the customary salute to the fort at Honolulu, and Percival was surprised that it was not returned. When the salute was answered on the following day, it was accompanied by an explanation that saluting on Sunday was a violation of the Sabbath. Percival began to smell a rat—or at least a missionary— in what he considered a deliberate insult to the flag of the United States. His pique was increased when on Tuesday the missionaries and their client chiefs failed to attend a party given on board Dolphin . The only prominent chief in attendance was Boki, who had accompanied Kamehameha H to England a few years earlier, had no illusions about the perfection of moral life in Christian countries, and had resisted Bingham’s attempts to convert him, explaining that he had already been baptized in the Church of England. Boki appeared attired in the splendor of a British major general’s uniform and attached himself to Dolphin ’s officers as a friend. Most of the ship’s officers established quarters ashore—Midshipmen Charles Davis and C. H. McBlair at Reynolds’ house, Lieutenant William Homer, Purser Bates, and Percival himself at the wooden house of Captain Wildes. Since at this time a man could acquire a “wife” in the islands simply by casting a piece of tapa over her in the presence of witnesses, and could dismiss her at pleasure, it is not unlikely that some or all of Dolphin ’s officers soon had “wives” on shore. Money passed hands during such liaisons, most of it apparently going to the island chiefs. The schooner was soon brought to the town dock (a hulk sunk near the fort) for repairs, and the sailors too were able to avail themselves of female companionship. All the “Dolphins” settled in for a pleasant stay at the islands.
This round of pleasure was interrupted on Friday, January 27, by the arrival of the pilot boat from Maui with news that the ship London of New York had been wrecked on Lanai. Since Dolphin had her foremast out, Percival hired the brig Convoy , one of Marshall and Wildes’s ships, to go to the assistance of London .