Definition of collaborate – “to work jointly with others or together …” (Merriam-Webster)
The recent Hawaiian Mission Houses Historic Site and Archives project “Letters from the Ali‘i,” more than 225 letters written by 42 different ali‘i between 1820-1907, helps illustrate the collaboration between the missionaries and the ali‘i.
These letters have been digitized, transcribed, translated and annotated by interns under the direction of Dr. Puakea Nogelmeier, Executive Director of the Awaiaulu Foundation.
Jon Yasuda was one of the intern translators who participated in the translation project. He received his Master’s Degree in Hawaiian Language from UH Mānoa. He currently teaches Hawaiian Language at Punahou School.
In a November 4, 2016 interview on ‘Ōlelo’s ‘First Friday’, interviewer Manu Ka‘iama noted that “the nice thing about these letters is it kind of is a portal” that illustrate the feeling at the time and “you have some proof of that”.
She asked what Yasuda found interesting in the letters; he noted:
“I think one thing that is interesting is that it really shows the way that the missionaries and a lot of the chiefs at the time needed to work together. They worked together, and through their letters we can see the ways … that they helped each other. And I think that both sides had things to share with each other that were beneficial to both sides.”
“I think that one thing that is commonly believed is that the missionaries really came in and started barking orders, and saying this is how it’s going to be … and you are going to do this and you are not going to do that and this is how you need to be. But what we are really seeing is that it wasn’t quite like that.”
“There were very few missionaries in comparison to how many Hawaiians there were at the time. And so, the letters really show us the way that the missionaries and Hawaiians worked together and how some of the things the missionaries brought, for example, sewing and some business, and trade were attractive to the Hawaiians at the time. And, they really had to work together for a lot.” (Jon Yasuda)
Manu Ka‘iama then noted:
“I think I hear what you are saying, and it is an important point to make and to remember is that their mission was very different, that first generation of missionaries. Their mission or their reason to be here, and the assistance that they provided the ali‘i goes without saying. I guess these letters probably pretty much show that.”
“You can see the relationship and you can see how they worked together and that they learned from each other. And, I would assume that is so and I think we are hard on the missionaries because of maybe the next generation of missionaries …”
“We do, many times, kind of just brush over that earlier history, and we shouldn’t make that mistake, because the fact that these letters show a relationship that you think is honorable….” (Manu Ka‘iama)
Jon Yasuda then added,
“I think literacy was … almost like the new technology of the time. And, that was something that was new. … When the missionaries came, there was already contact with the Western world for many years…. But this was the first time that literacy really began to take hold. The missionaries, when they came, they may have been the first group who came with a [united] purpose. They came together as a group and their purpose was to spread the Gospel the teachings of the Bible. …”
“But the missionaries who came, came with a united purpose … and literacy was a big part of that. Literacy was important to them because literacy was what was going to get the Hawaiians to understand the word of the Bible … and the written word became very attractive to the people, and there was a great desire to learn the written word. … Hawai‘i became the most literate nation at one time.” (Jon Yasuda)
Puakea Nogelmeier had a similar conclusion. In remarks at a Hawaiian Mission Houses function he noted,
“The missionary effort is more successful in Hawai‘i than probably anywhere in the world, in the impact that it has on the character and the form of a nation. And so, that history is incredible; but history gets so blurry …”
“The missionary success cover decades and decades becomes sort of this huge force where people feel like the missionaries got off the boat barking orders … where they just kind of came in and took over. They got off the boat and said ‘stop dancing,’ ‘put on clothes,’ don’t sleep around.’”
“And it’s so not the case ….”
“The missionaries arrived here, and they’re a really remarkable bunch of people. They are scholars, they have got a dignity that goes with religious enterprise that the Hawaiians recognized immediately. …”
“The Hawaiians had been playing with the rest of the world for forty-years by the time the missionaries came here. The missionaries are not the first to the buffet and most people had messed up the food already.”
“(T)hey end up staying and the impact is immediate. They are the first outside group that doesn’t want to take advantage of you, one way or the other, get ahold of their goods, their food, or your daughter. … But, they couldn’t get literacy. It was intangible, they wanted to learn to read and write”. (Puakea Nogelmeier)
The Hawaiian frustration with the early foreigners and support for the missionaries is illustrated in comments from a couple chiefs of that time, Kaumuali‘i (King of Kauai) and Kalanimōku (chief councilor and prime minister to Kamehameha I, Kamehameha II and Kamehameha III.)
Missionary Samuel Ruggles notes in in his Journal entry on May 8, 1820, “The inhabitants treated me with all the attention and hospitality which their limited circumstances would afford; and even carried their generosity to excess …”
On May 10, 1820, Ruggles notes, “This afternoon the king (Kaumuali‘i) sent to me and requested that I would come and read to him in his bible. I read the first chapter of Genesis and explained to him what I read as well as I could.”
“He listened with strict attention, frequently asking pertinent questions, and said I can’t understand it all; I want to know it; you must learn my language fast, and then tell me all. No white man before ever read to me and talk like you.”
An 1826 letter written by Kalanimōku to Hiram Bingham (written at a time when missionaries were being criticized) states, “Greetings Mr Bingham. Here is my message to all of you, our missionary teachers.”
“I am telling you that I have not seen your wrong doing. If I had seen you to be wrong, I would tell you all. No, you must all be good. Give us literacy and we will teach it. And, give us the word of God and we will heed it … for we have learned the word of God.”
“Then foreigners come, doing damage to our land. Foreigners of America and Britain. But don’t be angry, for we are to blame for you being faulted. And it is not you foreigners, (it’s) the other foreigners.”
“Here’s my message according to the words of Jehovah, I have given my heart to God and my body and my spirit. I have devoted myself to the church and Jesus Christ.”
“Have a look at this letter of mine, Mr Bingham and company. And if you see it and wish to send my message on to America to (your President,) that is up to you. Greetings to the chief of America. Regards to you all, Kalanimōku.”
(This includes links to the letters and discussions about them.)