- Historic Sites
“Mad Jack” And The Missionaries
April 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 3
Percival spent about a week at Lanai helping London ’s master, Alfred P. Edwards, salvage as much as possible from the wreck. While he was away the situation at Honolulu heated up even further. Exactly what happened is not entirely clear, but it appears that a taboo on women visiting the ships in the harbor, which had been proclaimed before Dolphin ’s arrival, began to be more strictly enforced. Several girls were imprisoned at the fort for violating the taboo, and the seamen aboard Dolphin and the various whalers and merchant ships in the port began to find “wives” much harder to obtain except on the occasions when they received shore leave. When Percival returned to Honolulu on February 5, a delegation from the forecastle called on him to ask his assistance in having the taboo lifted. Percival promised to do what he could.
Mad Jack correctly suspected that the instigator of the taboo was Hiram Bingham. The missionaries had been delighted to learn on their arrival in the islands that the old pagan custom of taboo had been abolished. Virtually all life had been controlled by the system, and the punishment for violating it—for such an offense as letting a dog bark during a period of ritual silence—was torture and death. The missionaries had since found, however, that the taboo could be a useful tool in combating practices (including the hula) that they wished to see abolished. They viewed the sexual freedom of the natives as “lewdness,” and in December Bingham had persuaded Kaahumanu that such practices should be taboo.
Up to now Mad Jack’s contacts with the missionaries had been reasonably cordial, so far as they went. On January 23 Mr. Bingham had acknowledged with thanks Percival’s gift of a cask of wine, and two days later Percival took morning coffee with the Binghams and another couple, who were visiting from a mission assignment at Maui. On this occasion Percival talked expansively of his voyages, and it would appear from their later remarks that the missionaries regarded him as peculiar. In any event, when he brought his men to meeting on Sunday he found himself snubbed, and he was soon grumbling to the white residents that Bingham and his friends were “a set of damned schoolmasters.”
After the sailors’ complaint about the taboo against women visiting the ships, Percival remarked privately to Paulding that “the sailors would serve the missionaries right if they were to tear down their houses.” Then, on February 20, a number of women were taken from their white “husbands” and put to work at carrying stone to complete the new church. One of the women was Paulding’s “wife”; another was one of the Holmes girls, a white resident’s half-breed daughter who was said to be Percival’s “wife.” This raised the captain’s temper to the boiling point.
On February 22, after saluting the fort in honor of Washington’s birthday, Percival went to call on the dowager queen. He had convinced himself that his honor and the honor of the United States were at stake, because Dolphin was being denied an indulgence that had been granted the previous year to the British frigate Blonde . The dialogue with Kaahumanu, conducted through an interpreter, has been variously reported. Something like the following seems to have taken place:
Percival: “Who governs the Islands?”
Kaahumanu: “The young king.”
Percival: “And who governs him?”
Kaahumanu: “I do.”
Percival: “And who governs you?”
Kaahumanu (piously): “My God.”
Percival (pointing a finger scornfully): “You lie, you damned old bitch! Mr. Bingham governs you!”
Percival also told Kaahumanu, apparently as a bluff: “Take heed. My people will come: if the women are not forthcoming they will not obey my word. … By and by they will come to get women, and if they do not obtain them, they will fight, and my vessel is just like fire.”
This simmering pot came to a boil at last on the morning of Sunday, February 26, when Percival boarded Dolphin for a muster. Several men who had caused trouble on shore the previous Sunday were again requesting liberty, but he ordered them to remain on board. Liberty was granted to the usual number of seamen—about twenty-seven, perhaps a third of the ship’s company—and Percival admonished them to go to meeting, stay sober, and return on board promptly.
But the dozen or more grog shops of Honolulu were hospitable, and in the course of the afternoon some of Dolphin ’s men paid them extended visits. There they found sailors from the whaling ships, and the two groups commiserated with one another on their troubles with the missionaries. The discussion waxed hot, and presently several of the whalemen and a number of “Dolphins” picked up clubs and set off for the Mission House.