As early as 1811, the fur trading Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) had already hired twelve Hawaiians on three year contracts to work for them in the Pacific Northwest. By 1824, HBC employed thirty-five Hawaiians west of the Rocky Mountains.
The number of Hawaiians working as contract laborers for the Hudson’s Bay Company steadily grew. The large number of Hawaiian workers in the village at Fort Vancouver led to the name “Kanaka Town” in the early 1850s.
The first Native Hawaiian seamen who shipped aboard a foreign whaler in the Pacific fleet left Maui on October 10, 1819. And rather than the Northwest, many ended up in the Atlantic Northeast.
Let’s look back …
The over-fishing of “on shore” New England whales in the 1700s forced local whalers to venture “offshore”, journeying further west in search of their lucrative prey.
The first New England whalers rounded Cape Horn in 1791, and fished off both the Chilean and Peruvian coasts. Many sailed around South America and onward to Japan and the Arctic.
Edmond Gardner, captain of the New Bedford whaler Balaena (also called Balena,) and Elisha Folger, captain of the Nantucket whaler Equator, made history in 1819 when they became the first American whalers to visit the Sandwich Islands (Hawai‘i.)
“I gave orders in the morning to put the ship on a WSW course putting on all sail. … We made the best of our way to the Sandwich Islands where we arrived in six-teen days, had a pleasant passage to the Islands and arrived at Hawaii 19th 9 Mo 1819.“ (Gardner Journal)
Gardner then “Left Oahu 10th of 10 Mo 1819 for Coast of California. I shipped two Kanakas from Maui and had them the remainder of the Voyage and took them to New Bedford.”
“Their names were Joe Bal and Jack Ena, the two names comprising that of my ship Balaena. Much notice was taken of them, singing their national songs and airs. They were the first brought to this place.”
“On a subsequent Voyage I took them back to Maui and left them there, they preferring to stay at their own Island. They were well fitted with clothing for the Voyage. I gave them all the clothing that had been furnished them by the ship, which was sufficient for three years. We had been but six months from home.”
“On a subsequent Voyage I visited Kealakekua and was visited by Comocow (Keʻeaumoku) the principal chief in the province or district. He came often and dined with me.” Gardner then went to Maui.
“On leaving Maui I discharged my Kanakas and these with the desertion of one man left me three ‘short of my complement of the ship’s company. I took two natives from Maui, one from Oahu and one from Onehow (Ni‘ihau.)”
“The names I gave them were Henry Harmony, George Germaine, John Jovel and Sam How. I finished recruiting at Niihau, where we took as many potatoes and yams as we needed. I bought twenty barrels of yams and the same quantity of potatoes of George Tamoree (Kaumuali’i) at Attowai (Kauai.) (Gardner Journal, first whaler in Hawai‘i)
A year later, Captain Joseph Allen discovered large concentrations of sperm whales off the coast of Japan. His find was widely publicized in New England, setting off an exodus of whalers to this area.
These ships might have sought provisions in Japan, except that Japanese ports were closed to foreign ships. So when Captain Allen befriended the missionaries at Honolulu and Lāhainā, he helped establish these areas as the major ports of call for whalers. (NPS)
The whaling industry had a major effect upon Hawaiian commerce and trade. As the Northwest fur trade decreased and sandalwood supplies and values dropped, the whaling industry began to fill the economic void.
Thousands of Hawaiians shipped out as seamen aboard the whaling ships, so many that the crews were often half Hawaiian. Whaling had been “an economic force of awesome proportions in these Islands for more than forty years,” enabling King Kamehameha III to finally pay off the national debts accumulated in earlier years. (NPS)
Many of the Native Hawaiian seamen who arrived were named George, Jack, Joe, or Tom Canacker, Kanaka, Mowee, or Woahoo. Their given names remain lost to us because of the common practice among whaling captains of giving them English nicknames and surnames denoting their origins in the Sandwich Islands, an early name for the Hawaiian Islands.
An 1834 editorial in the New Bedford Mercury defined “Canackers” for New England readers. “The term Canacker bears the same meaning as our English word man and is used by the natives to signify man, in general …”
“… and a man as distinguished from a woman or female. The present established mode of writing it is Kanaka, pronounced Kah nah kah, with the accent on the second syllable.” (Lebo)
Other Native Hawaiians landed in Nantucket, New Bedford, and nearby ports almost immediately after Joe Bal and Jack Ena. By the 1830s, Nantucket whalers employed about fourteen hundred seamen, including Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders. Four or five hundred men arrived or departed annually.
At least six sailor boarding houses operated during the 1820 to 1860 period when Native Hawaiian seamen frequented Nantucket.
At least one house, near Pleasant Street in Nantucket’s New Guinea section, primarily or exclusively boarded Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, and a sign identified William Whippy’s establishment as the “William Whippy Canacka Boarding-House.”
These whalers, on countless other New England voyages with Hawaiian crews, contributed to the economic and social history there. They shared their cultural traditions, languages, skills and knowledge with New England’s citizens and with each other aboard the whaleships. (Lebo)