John Coffin Jones Jr was the only son of a prominent Boston businessman (in mercantile and shipping business) and politician. (John C Jones Sr served as speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives and was legislative colleague of John Quincy Adams (and one of the signors for Massachusetts of the Ratification of the US Constitution for that State.))
Young Jones was born in 1796 in Massachusetts and seems to have gone to sea at an early age. He left to work in the sandalwood trade under Captain Dixey Wildes. (Kelley)
Jones (also known in Hawaiian documents as John Aluli) was appointed US Agent for Commerce and Seamen on September 19, 1820. When he acknowledged his commission as Agent for Commerce and Seamen, he mentioned two previous voyages he had made to Canton and an extended visit to the Sandwich Islands. (State Department)
He began to serve in October of 1820, at the port of Honolulu. As Agent for Commerce and Seamen, Jones became the ﬁrst ofﬁcial US representative in the Hawaiian Islands. His role was to help distressed American citizens ashore, both seamen and civilians, serving without salary from the US government and required to report on commerce in Hawai‘i.
(The post of commercial agent was raised to Consul effective July 5, 1844, and held by Peter A. Brinsmade, who had already been appointed commercial agent on April 13, 1838.)
Jones was already agent for the prosperous Boston firm of Marshall and Wildes (one of four American mercantile houses doing business in Honolulu,) and by accepting the additional responsibility from his country, the firm and he might hope that through his reports to Washington the voice of commerce in the Pacific would be heard more clearly by the US Government. (Hackler)
When Jones arrived in 1821 the sandalwood trade with China was still thriving. King Kamehameha I had monopolized, the cutting and exporting of sandalwood during his reign, but after his death in 1819, Kamehameha II was unable to enforce the conservation policies of his father, and unrestricted cutting of sandalwood soon threatened to deplete the hillsides of this rare wood.
But, while the wood lasted and the market held up in Canton, the American merchants in Honolulu competed fiercely with each other for the valuable cargoes, and pressed on the Hawaiians all sorts of goods which were to be paid for in sandalwood. (Hackler)
He was considered an advocate for commercial interests in Hawaiʻi and immediately collided with the missionary group led by Rev. Hiram Bingham. For the next couple of decades he contended for commercial advantages for the US. He set up his own trading firm in 1830 and made many voyages to California during the next ten years. (Kelley)
“Since the discovery of the whale fishery on the coast of Japan, and the independence of the republics of the western coasts of North and South America, the commerce of the United States at the Sandwich islands has vastly increased.”
“Of such importance have these islands become to our ships which resort to the coast of Japan for the prosecution of the whale fishery, that, without another place could be found, possessing equal advantages of conveniences and situation, our fishery on Japan would be vastly contracted, or pursued under circumstances the most disadvantageous.” (Jones, to Captain Wm B Finch, October 30, 1829)
As US Agent for Seamen, Jones had a burdensome responsibility. Many seamen were put ashore because of illness, and they became the special concern of Jones. This was a responsibility and an expense.
In his first report to the Secretary of State on December 31, 1821, Jones complained of the commanders of American ships who were in the habit of discharging troublesome seamen at Honolulu and taking on Hawaiian hands. (Hackler)
In addition, Jones reported to the Department that 30,000 piculs of sandalwood were sent to China in American ships that year, and estimated that the price for this wood in Canton should be about $300,000. The Hawaiian chiefs were becoming increasingly indebted to the American merchants in Honolulu and payment was slow in coming.
To add to his burden, in 1822-23 the crews of three wrecked American vessels were brought to the islands; in 1825 he explained his disbursements at Honolulu on behalf of seamen as being very heavy, as many men were put ashore without funds. (Hackler)
“The number of hands generally comprising the Company of a whale ship will average Twenty Five; and owing to the want of discipline, the length and the ardourous duties of the voyage, these people generally become dissatisfied and are willing at any moment to join a rebellion or desert the first opportu(nity) that may offer;”
“- this has been fully exemplified in the whale ships that have visited these islands, constant disertions have taken place and many serious mutinies both contributing to protract and frequently ruin the voyage.” (Jones report to Henry Clay, Secretary of State, 1827)
He wrote that the only solution was the posting of a US naval vessel at Honolulu, at least during the periods between March and May, and October and December, when the whalers gathered at the port. (Hackler)
The service of Jones as consular agent in Honolulu put him in the middle of a number of commercial and political causes. Both as government representative and private trader during a formative period, he was an energetic figure and is credited with leadership in opening trade between Hawaiʻi and Spanish California.
By 1829, Jones seemed to have fallen out of favor with the Hawaiian rulers. At that time the King and the principal chiefs addressed a protest to Captain Finch of the USS Vincennes, accusing Jones of maltreating a native and lying about royal morals. (Hackler)
Jones’ several marriages caused additional concern. He married Hannah Jones Davis, widow of his partner, William Heath Davis Sr, in 1823. His younger stepson, William Heath Davis, Jr, became a prominent California businessman.
Jones continued to live with Hannah but also lived with Lahilahi Marin, daughter of Don Francisco Marin, and had children by both. In 1838, he married Manuela Carrillo of Santa Barbara, California and deserted Hannah and Lahilahi.
In December, 1838, returning from one of his periodic business trips to California, he introduced Manuela as his wife. This apparently enraged Hannah Holmes Jones, who promptly petitioned the Hawaiian Government for a divorce on grounds of bigamy.
The charge was upheld by the King and led to his writing Jones on January 8, 1839, that “… I refuse any longer to know you as consul from the United States of America.” (Kamehameha III; Hacker)
Jones left the Islands and settled in Santa Barbara in 1839 and continued as a merchant both in California and Massachusetts. He died on December 24, 1861, leaving his wife and six children. (Kelley)
The image shows Honolulu Harbor in 1826 (with the Dolphin in the harbor. (Massey))