Merchant ships crossing the Pacific needed to replenish food supplies and water. The maritime fur trade focused on acquiring furs of sea otters, seals and other animals from the Pacific Northwest Coast and Alaska.
The furs were mostly sold in China in exchange for tea, silks, porcelain and other Chinese goods, which were then sold in Europe and the United States.
Needing supplies in their journey, the traders soon realized they could economically barter for provisions in Hawai‘i; for instance any type of iron, a common nail, chisel or knife, could fetch far more fresh fruit meat and water than a large sum of money would in other ports.
Members of the crews of these early visitors were left at the islands either as agents for their ships or their owners, with instructions to learn the language and to collect cargoes of sandalwood, supplies, etc., or as deserters. (Cartwright)
“In the more precise terminology of the anthropologist (a beachcomber) is a regional variety of the world-wide class of individuals called by Hallowell ‘transculturites’…
“… persons who, throughout history, ‘are temporarily or permanently detached from one group, enter the web of social relations that constitute another society, and come under the influence of its customs, ideas and values to a greater or lesser degree’.” (Maude)
John Mackey (or M’Key), the first of the modern Hawai‘i beachcombers, had signed on at Bombay in 1785 as surgeon of the fur-trading vessel Captain Cook.
Left behind at King George’s Sound partly because of ill-health and partly to act as local agent, he soon became Indianized, being described as “equally slovenly and dirty with the filthiest of them all.” He was thus no amateur beachcomber when he landed in Hawai‘i. (Maude)
“John M’Key … was born in Ireland, and went to Bombay in the East India Company’s service. Two vessels (viz. the Captain Cook, Captain Loriè; and the Experiment, Captain Guise) were fitting out in 1785, on an expedition to the North West coast of America; that he engaged on board the Captain Cook as Surgeon.”
“They sailed from Bombay the 28th of November, 1785, and arrived at King George’s Sound the 27th of June, 1786. That being very ill of a purple fever (M’Key) was left behind for the recovery of his health, at the request of Mr. Strange, the Supercargo to both vessels.”
“Mr. Strange desired him to learn the language and to ingratiate himself with the natives, so that if any other vessels should touch there he might prevent them from purchasing any furs, promising at the same time to return for him the ensuing spring.”
“That the two vessels procured 600 prime sea otter skins during their stay here, and left the Sound the 27th of July, intending to sail for Cook’s River.”
“That the Sea Otter, Captain Hanna, from China, arrived at King George’s Sound in August, 1786, and that Captain Hanna offered to take (M’Key) on board, which he refused, alledging, that he began to relish dried fish and whale oil, was satisfied with his way of life, and perfectly contented to stay ’till next year, when he had no doubt of Mr. Strange sending for him …”
“… that Captain Hanna left the Sound in September. That the natives had stripped him of his cloaths, and obliged him to adopt their mode of dress and filthiness of manners; and that he was now a perfect master of their language, and well acquainted with their temper and disposition.”
“He had made frequent incursions into the interior parts of the country about King George’s Sound, and did not think any part of it was the Continent of America, but a chain of detached islands.”
“Mr. Etches assured me that no great dependance could be placed on M’Key’s story, he being a very ignorant young fellow, and frequently contradicting himself …”
“… but that entire credit might be given to that part of it respecting his adopting the manners of the natives, as he was equally slovenly and dirty with the filthiest of them all.”
“His knowledge of the language was greatly short of what he boasted; neither was he very contented in his situation, for he gladly embraced Captain Berkley’s offer of taking him on board, and seemed delighted to think he was going to leave so uncomfortable a place …”
“… however, admitting him to be possessed of but an ordinary capacity, he certainly must be better acquainted with the people here, from more than a year’s residence amongst them, than any occasional visitor could possibly be ; and there can be no doubt but that Captain Berkley found him extremely useful in managing his traffic with the natives.” (Dixon)
“In 1787, or less than ten years after the death of Cook, the Irish ship’s surgeon John Mackey, formerly in the East India Company’s service, was landed in Hawaii from the Imperial Eagle, en route to China, at his own request.” He may be considered the first foreigner to live in the Islands.
“Within a year he had been joined by three deserters – Ridler, carpenter’s mate of the Columbia; Thomas; and a youth named Samuel Hitchcock”
“Most of the early Europeans congregated on Hawaii itself, around the chief Kamehameha, who was quick to realise their importance to his plan for conquering the other islands; there were at least 11 with him in 1794.” (Maude)