Monday, June 14, 2010

Hawaiians in North America, 1834-1865

This is a post about the remarkable lives of Hawaiians who lived and worked in North America during the mid-nineteenth century. Growing up on the US mainland my whole life, I always thought that Hawaiʻi was part of North America! All the maps and atlases my family has ever owned, or that I have ever seen, always included Hawaiʻi as part of the US, and the US as part of North America. In fact, most of these atlases either failed to include any chapter on Oceania, and the many island nations of the Pacific were left out altogether, or rather the islands were split up imperially, and assigned to the various continents from whence came their conquerors. 

Ever seen Hawaiʻi depicted in an oddly-shaped box in the lower-left hand corner of a map of the US mainland? That's what I'm talking about: Hawaiʻi as part of North America makes geographic nonsense!

A standard map of the United States, excluding all territories such as Puerto Rico, Guam, etc. (as if we are not an empire), and representing Alaska and Hawaiʻi as "Halaska" (as John Whitehead has called it):
the 49th and 50th states have been stuffed into western Mexico! 

Before 1898, Hawaiʻi was an independent kingdom, and North America was a far-away land. The history of Hawaiians in North America during the mid-nineteenth century is truly remarkable. Did you know that decades before Chinese came to California to work in mining and on the railroads, and even before many Euro-Americans were out there seeking gold, when California was still part of Mexico, that Hawaiians lived in all the major port cities of California, and that Hawaiians comprised approximately 10% of the population of San Francisco? (Compare that with the 2000 census which recorded Hawaiians comprising only 0.06% of the city's population!) Or did you know that suburban Long Island, NY, was once home to a number of communities of Hawaiian ex-patriate sailors and whalers, and that the Hawaiian language could be heard spoken among the streets and taverns of Cold Spring Harbor, NY? Or did you know that citizens of the Hawaiian Kingdom served in the American Civil War?

Hawaiians in Mexican California, 1834-36

I recently finished reading Richard Henry Dana Jr.'s Two Years Before the Mast. The book tells the story of Dana's voyage from Boston to California and back during the years 1834-36. His ship was engaged by the firm Bryant & Sturgis to procure animal hides (cattle hides, I believe) from the Spanish mission towns along the California coast. Once procured, Dana and his fellow sailors spent much of their time curing the hides so that they could stay preserved during the long voyage back to Boston. The curing process was quite interesting:

The hides were skinned off the cows and holes were punctured in either end of the hide. The hides were then suspended on stakes in the sun to dry (and get "as stiff as boards," according to Dana). Oxen and mules were used to transport hides from the mission towns to the beach. Many beaches, however, were unreachable from above due to soaring cliffs along the ocean's edge: so they had to fling the hides down from above. But sometimes hides got stuck in cavities in the cliff wall, so, some adventurous sailor had to scramble down the cliff wall with ropes in order to dislodge the hide and send it soaring to the beach below. Down on the beach, the hides were cured: staked in the ground exposed at low tide and allowed to soak in the sea water when the tide came in; rolled up and thrown into vats of brine (sea water with extra salt added) and brined for 48 hours; stretched and staked to sun dry again; all the bad parts were then cut off with knives; then the hides were scraped to remove the grease which the sun brought out; dried in the sun some more; then staked and beaten to remove dust; then stowed in the beachside hide-house for later pick-up. Eventually, the hides then made their way (in a boat like the one Dana was in) to Boston. The hides were then tanned and made into shoes and other leather products in New England. Whew!

A sculpture representing a man throwing a cowhide off the cliff's edge at Dana Point, California. The cliffs off which Dana and his colleagues threw their hides are visible in the background. (Source: Wikipedia)

Dana soon discovered that this lengthy process of hide procurement and curing was impossible without the help of Hawaiian labor. Indeed, I think fewer New England consumers would have worn nice leather shoes in the 1830s and 40s if not for the Hawaiians who helped process the animal hides that eventually became those shoes! The most conspicuous Hawaiian community that Dana met with was in San Diego, but Hawaiians also lived in Santa Barbara and elsewhere. In Santa Barbara, Dana met Hawaiians employed by a British vessel collecting hides. Hawaiians were favored for this type of work because of their "amphibious" skills: as strong swimmers and comfortable with ocean surf, Hawaiians were depended upon for carrying the hides (1 or 2 at a time) on their heads to a boat waiting waist-deep offshore. They carried the hides on their heads to keep them dry from the water. Dana admired these "water-dogs" as he called them, who are "very good in boating" and "very good hands in the surf."

Dana's first impression of Hawaiians was altogether negative. This was due, I think, to his immediately racial response: he considered Santa Barbara "...a little dark-looking town, a mile from the beach; and not a sound to be heard, or anything to be seen, but Sandwich Islanders [Hawaiians], hides, and tallow-bags" [emphasis added]. Associating Hawaiian laborers with stinky hides, tallow-bags and darkness (racial language), he thought unfavorably of Santa Barbara when compared to the more "Christian" parts of California he had seen.

But Dana soon learned to respect, admire, and make friends with the California Hawaiian community, especially the community in San Diego. In San Diego, Dana encountered approximately 20 Hawaiian males living and working on the beach. They had each worked on various vessels, had been paid their lay (their earnings), and were basically living it up on their own, living off their savings, and just relaxing on the beach. They all lived together in an abandoned brick oven built by Russians at some previous time. It was a big brick bread oven, and 15-20 Hawaiian men lived together inside it! Dana got to calling the oven the "Kanaka Hotel" or the "Oahu Coffee-house." ("Kanaka" means "person" in Hawaiian, and was apparently the way that Hawaiians referred to themselves when among haole [foreigners]; Dana writes that his Hawaiian friends told him that there were but two types of people in this world: kanaka and haole.) He visited the Hawaiians at the oven often for evenings of companionship. The oven was decorated with mats for carpeting and bedding. The Hawaiians lived on cow meat (they purchased and slaughtered one cow per week from the mission town) and on "fruit, liquor, and provisions" also purchased in town.

Dana's captain eventually hired four of these San Diego Hawaiians to help with hide collection and hide curing on the beach. They were "Mr. Bingham" (named after the missionary Hiram Bingham), "Hope" (named after a vessel he had served in), "Tom Davis" (named after his first captain), and "Pelican" (named after a bird he fancied he resembled [or someone else fancied he resembled]). I believe that these Hawaiian men actively chose these names (with the possible exception of "Pelican") as a way of appropriating the best of what they admired about haole people and their culture, and as a way of liberating themselves from their past lives and beginning new, adventurous lives under new identities. I believe these aspirations were part and parcel of why men like "Hope," "Tom Davis," and "Pelican" went abroad in the first place....

Some of the Hawaiians in San Diego could read and write English and Hawaiian; and some were illiterate. Some had been in the United States; and some only knew Mexican California; and some only knew of Hawaiʻi before arriving in California. Now and then, Dana gave the Hawaiians a voice in his narrative, such as when the captain of Dana's ship attempted to persuade some of the San Diego Hawaiians to work for him:

“ ‘What do you do here, Mr. Mannini?’ said the captain.

‘Oh, we play cards, get drunk, smoke—do anything we’re a mind to.’

‘Don’t you want to come aboard and work?’

Aole! Aole make make makou i ka hana. Now, got plenty money; no good, work. Mamule, money pau—all gone. Ah! Very good, work!—maikai, hana hana nui!

‘But you’ll spend all your money in this way,’ said the captain.

‘Aye! Me know that. By-‘em-by money pau—all gone; then Kanaka work plenty.'”

There is a nice sense given here of the Hawaiians' agency; they refused to work for the haole captain, choosing instead to enjoy their earnings in whatever way they pleased. Surely they appeared to be in no rush to return home to Hawaiʻi with their savings, although their families back home might have wished that they would.

My favorite image from Dana's book is of one night in San Diego when itinerant laborers of all ethnicities came together to sing and dance the songs of their native countries for each other. Dana recorded that 2 Englishmen, 3 Yankees, 2 Scotchmen, 2 Welshmen, 1 Irishman, 3 Frenchmen, 1 Dutchmen, 1 Austrian, 2-3 Spaniards, 6 Spanish-American creoles, 2 Native Chileans, 1 African-American, 1 African-American "mulatto", 20 Italians, 20 Hawaiians, 1 Marquesan, and 1 Tahitian all attended, performed, and shared their heritage as part of this multicultural extravaganza! Oh, how I wish I could have been there, for that; so it is no wonder to me that these Hawaiian men sought out such remarkable experiences, just as I would have...

View of the historic "Plaza Church" in the Pueblo de Los Angeles. Dana, and maybe some Hawaiians, too, would have seen and perhaps visited this church during the 1830s when Los Angeles was but a small mission town.

View of San Francisco Bay from Angel Island. Dana did not specifically mention Hawaiians living in tiny San Francisco at the time, but other data suggests that Hawaiians comprised fully 10% of San Francisco's population in the 1840s.

View of the Pacific Ocean and the beach at Santa Monica. It did not happen precisely here, but I can easily imagine the Hawaiians living in their brick oven on this beach, looking west out upon the Pacific, thinking about their home beyond the horizon.

Hawaiians in Long Island, New York

Just as Hawaiians "jumped ship" in Honolulu or Lahaina and ended up living and working on the coast of California, other Hawaiians ended up "jumping" onto whalers and finding themselves "let go" in New England and Long Island whaling ports. Few of the Hawaiian men who signed ship's articles in Honolulu to serve on the bark Alice likely knew where Cold Spring, New York, was. But after a few seasons of chasing whales across the North Pacific in the early 1860s, these Hawaiian men may have ended up there (today's Cold Spring Harbor, NY) upon the completion of their voyage. Arriving in Cold Spring would have been a homecoming for the ship's captain and mates (many of whom probably began their journey there); but for the Hawaiians, however, we can only guess what emotions they felt upon first arriving in Long Island; for some of them, it may have been their first experience of the United States. We know that some Hawaiians stayed in Cold Spring instead of returning to Hawaiʻi.

A list of the sailors shipping out from Honolulu on the bark Alice in December 1860 for a whaling voyage. The Alice was a Cold Spring Harbor whaling ship. 

The Hawaiians taking part in this voyage included:
William Frazer, 15 years old
Haole, 37 years old
Naono?, 29 years old
Kanaka, 26 years old
Akalu? or Lohu?, 17 years old
Pua Kalehoa or George?, 17 years old
Kapali or Bill ___?, 20? years old

[Note that "Haole" is the Hawaiian term for a foreigner. This man, however, was not non-Hawaiian; the list confirms him to be of "copper" skin tone, so we know that he was a Native Hawaiian. Why he took a name that basically means "white man" is up for debate, but what better name to take by someone hoping to reinvent himself on an adventure away from home?]
[Also note that "Kanaka" is the Hawaiian term for person, and is the term used by Euro-Americans to refer to all Polynesian peoples. We can assume that someone else has given "Kanaka" this essentially name-less name. Sometimes this happened when Euro-Americans had trouble writing the person's true Hawaiian name]
[You can probably tell I am fascinated by this process of (re-)naming!]

Also onboard were at least 2 Easter Islanders, 4 Tahitians, and one New Zealander...

Imagine the fun all these young Polynesian men had once they had finally unloaded all the whale oil, &c, at Cold Spring Harbor. We don't know exactly what Polynesian life was like in Cold Spring, but we do know that Hawaiians lived in apartments on Bedlam Street (today's Main Street); Hawaiians and other Polynesians also hung out on the porch of the Stone Jug, a tavern/inn? on Bedlam Street. There they sat and carved bone ornaments. Carving whale bone ornaments, also known as scrimshaw, was hardly unique to the Polynesians, as it was a pastime of the Euro-American sailors as well. I have visited two whaling museums on Long Island - Cold Spring Harbor Whaling Museum and Sag Harbor Whaling Museum. Both museums hold large collections of scrimshaw carved and decorated by Euro-American whalers, but I have yet to see any piece attributed to a Polynesian whaler/sailor. I have often looked the scrimshaw over for any Polynesian-style designs or representations of Polynesian people or places on the scrimshaw, but always in vain. Someday I hope to find examples of the ornaments that these Hawaiians carved on the porch of the Stone Jug in Cold Spring!

The North Shore of Long Island / The Long Island Sound. Hawaiian sailors would have seen this beach on their journey west towards Cold Spring Harbor. What were their emotions upon seeing this foreign land?

 Cold Spring Harbor

Further east lay Sag Harbor, on the north shore of the South Fork of Long Island. Sag Harbor had an even larger whaling fleet than the one at Cold Spring. However, when I visited the Sag Harbor Whaling Museum, I was unable to find any reference to Polynesian peoples living and working in and around the town. In fact, the only Pacific Islander objects in their collection were some artifacts of Micronesian manufacture from the Gilbert Islands:

Shields and spears from the Gilbert Islands, either stolen or received as gifts by Euro-American whalers from Sag Harbor on a nineteenth-century Pacific whaling expedition.

Hawaiians were as essential to the American whaling industry as they were to the cowhide industry on the California coast. Although they were noted as particularly good whale-spotters, boatsmen, and harpooners - all very necessary skills - most Hawaiians were hired as "waisters": a general term for the lowest-paid sailors on the ship who did whatever dirty, grunt work had to be done. Being a "waister," though, was okay because this was still a means of seeing the wider world for thousands of young Hawaiian men in the mid-nineteenth century. Indeed, in the 1840s it is assumed that during any given year approximately 3,000 young Hawaiian men were either working on the seas or living abroad.

Hawaiians and the American Civil War

There is so much more research to do regarding Hawaiian experiences in North America during the mid-nineteenth century. But until I can snoop around on Long Island some more, much of this history will have to remain unknown to me and left to our imaginations. A recent article in the Honolulu Advertiser uncovered and shared the history of Hawaiians who served on both sides in the American Civil War, a war that had nothing to do with them....or did it? Where the economics of the Civil War and of Pacific whaling intersected, and where the racial identities of Polynesian peoples and African-Americans intersected, is, perhaps, where the Civil War and the lives of Hawaiians intersected, too. But again, this demands yet more research!


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