In the Islands, as in New France (Canada to Louisiana (1534,)) New Spain (SW and Central North America to Mexico and Central America (1521)) and New England (NE US,) the trader preceded the missionary.
For a generation previous to 1820 New England seamen had found rest, healing and even profit in the Islands.
When US independence closed the colonial trade routes within the British empire, the merchantmen and whalers of New England swarmed around the Horn, in search of new markets and sources of supply.
The opening of the China trade was the first and most spectacular result of this enterprise; the establishment of trading relations with Hawai‘i followed shortly.
Years before the westward land movement gathered momentum, the energies of seafaring New Englanders found their natural outlet, along their traditional pathway, in the Pacific Ocean.
Probably the first American vessel to touch at Hawai‘i was the famous Columbia of Boston, Capt. Robert Gray, on August 24, 1789, in the course of her first voyage around the world. She remained twenty-four days at the Islands, salted down five puncheons of pork, and sailed with one hundred and fifty live hogs on deck.
A young native called Attoo, who shipped there as ordinary seaman, attracted much attention at Boston, on the Columbia’s return, by his gorgeous feather cloak and helmet.
Attoo was the first of several young Hawaiians who, arriving in New England as seamen on merchant vessels, influenced the American Board of Foreign Missions to found the Mission School at Cornwall, Connecticut, which was the origin of the famous mission of 1819-20.
Captain Amasa Delano brought a young Hawaiian boy (whom Delano named ’Bill’,) arriving in Boston on November 2, 1801. (Carr)
“He performed on the Boston stage several times, in the tragedy of Capt. Cook, and was much admired by the audience and the publick in general.” (Delano)
The Boston traders who followed the Columbia to the Northwest Coast and Canton, found ‘The Islands,’ as they called the Hawaiian group, an ideal place to procure fresh provisions, in the course of their three-year voyages.
Capt. Joseph Ingraham stopped there in the Hope, of Boston, in May, 1792. Five months later, Captain Gray, fresh from his discovery of the Columbia River, ‘Made the Isle of Owhyhee, one of the Sandwich Islands,’ writes John Boit, Jr, the 17-year-old fifth mate of this vessel.
(October 30, 1792) “Hove to, for some Canoes, and purchased 11 Hogs from the Natives, and plenty of vegetables, such as Sweet Potatoes, Yams, tarro, etc. These Canoes was very neatly made, but quite narrow. The Outrigger kept them steady, or else, I think, they wou’d too easily upset in the Sea.”
Off Kealakekua Bay: “Some double Canoes came alongside. These was suspended apart by large rafters, well supported. The Masts were rig’d between the canoes, and they carried their mat sails a long time, sailing very fast. The Shore was lined with people. “
(October 31, 1792) “Stood round the Island and hau’d into Toaj yah yah bay, 194 and hove to. Vast many canoes sailing in company with us. The shore made a delightful appearance, and appeared in the highest state of cultivation. Many canoes along side, containing beautiful Women.”
“Plenty of Hogs and fowls, together with most of the Tropical fruits in abundance, great quantities of Water, and Musk, Mellons, Sugar Cane, Bread fruit, and salt was brought for sale. The price of a large Hog was from 5 to 10 spikes — smaller ones in proportion. 6 Dunghill fowls for an Iron Chizzle, and fruit cheaper still.” (Boit)
It did not take long for the Northwest Coast fur traders to discover at Hawai‘i a new medium for the Canton market. That market was, of course, the prime object of our Northwest fur trade.
China took nothing that the US produced; hence Boston traders, in order to obtain the wherewithal to purchase teas and silks at Canton, spent 18-months or more of each China voyage collecting a cargo of sea-otter skins, highly esteemed by the mandarins.
Salem traders, in the same quest for the wealth of the Indies, resorted to various South Sea Islands for edible birds’ nests, and beche de mer or trepang, a variety of sea-cucumber that tickled the mandarin palate.
Captain Kendrick (who originally commanded the Columbia but remained in Pacific waters with the sloop Lady Washington), discovered about the year 1791 that Hawaii produced sandalwood, an article in great demand at Canton.
Captain Vancouver found on the Island of Kauai, in March, 1792, an Englishman, a Welshman and an Irishman whom Kendrick had left there the previous October, to collect pearls and sandalwood against his return.
Practically every vessel that visited the North Pacific in the closing years of the 18th century stopped at Hawai‘i for refreshment and recreation; but it was not until the opening years of the 19th that the sandalwood business became a recognized branch of trade.
The imports at Canton of that fragrant commodity in American vessels rose from 900 piculs (of 133 1/3 pounds each) in 1804-05 to 19,036 piculs in 1811-12.
Sandalwood, geography and fresh provisions made the Islands a vital link in a closely articulated trade route between Boston, the Northwest Coast, and Canton.
Nathan Winship, Wm. Heath Davis, and Jonathan Winship, Jr made a deal with Kamehameha for sandalwood and cotton in 1812. One of the Winships was residing at Honolulu when the missionaries landed, on April 19, 1820, and placed his house at their disposal.
“We were sheltered in three native-built houses, kindly off’red us by Messrs Winship, Lewis and Navarro, somewhat scattered in the midst of an irregular village or town of thatched huts, of 3000 or 4000 inhabitants.”
“After the fatigue of removing from the brig to the shore, Captain Pigot of New York considerately and kindly gave us, at evening, a hospitable cup of tea, truly acceptable to poor pilgrims in our circumstances, so far from the sympathies of home.”
“As soon as the bustle of debarking was over, and our grass-thatched cottages made habitable, we erected an altar unto the Omnipresent God, and in unison with the first detachment of the mission, presented him our offerings of thanksgiving and praise”. (Hiram Bingham) (This was the first communion service on Hawaiian soil.) (Morison)
A new era opened in 1820 with the arrival of the first missionaries, the first whalers and the opening of a new reign. It was the missionaries who brought Hawai‘i in touch with a better side of New England civilization than that represented by the trading vessels and their crews.
But without the trader, the missionary would not have come. The commercial relations between Massachusetts and Hawai‘i form the solid background of American expansion in the Pacific.
At the same time, the Hawaiian market for American goods was rapidly increasing, owing to the improved standards of living.
As early as 1823 there were four mercantile houses in the Islands: Hunnewell’s, Jones’s, ‘Nor’west John DeWolf’s (from Bristol, Rhode Island) and another from New York (possibly that of John Jacob Astor & Son, represented by John Ebbets (Kuykendall.)) (Morison)
“Their storehouses are abundantly furnished with goods in demand by the islanders; and at them, most articles contained in common retail shops and groceries in America, may be purchased.”
“The whole trade of the four probably amounts to one hundred thousand dollars a year – sandal wood principally, and specie, being the returns for imported manufactures.”
“Each of these trading houses usually has a ship or brig in the harbor, or at some one of the islands; besides others that touch to make repairs and obtain refreshments, in their voyages between the north-west, Mexican and South American coasts, and China.”
“The agents and clerks of these establishments, and the supercargoes and officers of the vessels attached to them, with transient visiters in ships holding similar situations, form the most respectable class of foreigners with whom we are called to have intercourse.” (Stewart)
The New England whalers, so much complained of by the China traders, brought them new business by creating a local market for ships’ stores, chandlery, etc.; and by giving them return freights of oil and whalebone.
About 1829 the Islands were visited annually by nineteen American vessels engaged in the Northwest fur, South American, China and Manila trades, and by one hundred whalers.
The little community of respectable traders and missionaries, with a disreputable fringe of deserters from merchantment and whalers, was so predominantly Bostonian that ‘Boston’ acquired the same connotation in Hawaii as along the Northwest Coast. It stood for the whole United States.
Hawaii had, in fact, become an outpost of New England. The foreign settlement at Honolulu, with its frame houses shipped around the Horn, haircloth furniture, orthodox meeting house built of coral blocks, and New England Sabbath, was as Yankee as a suburb of Boston.
(The bulk of this post is from the Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society; Samuel Eliot Morison presented the paper to the October, 1920 meeting of the Society.)