“I have often wondered why there were no more children here than there appear to be, upon asking a white man who has resided here many years …”
“… the reason he replied that many infants are strangled to death by their mothers, especially if they are not able to support them and many die for want of care when young. We have seen a number of latter case.” (Daniel Chamberlain. July 20, 1820; Tobin)
“A man and his wife, tenants of Mr (John) Young … had one child, a fine little boy. A quarrel arose between them on one occasion respecting this child. The Wife refusing to accede to the wishes of the husband, he, in revenge, caught up the child by the head and the feet, broke its back across his knee, and then threw it down in expiring agonies before her.”
“Struck with the atrocity of the act, Mr. Young seized the man, led him before the king, Tamehameha, … and requested that he might be punished.”
“The king inquired, ‘To whom did the child he has murdered belong?’ Mr. Young answered, that it was his own son. ‘Then,’ said the king, ‘neither you nor I have any right to interfere; I cannot say any thing to him.’” (Ellis, 1826)
“We have long known that the Sandwich Islanders practised infanticide, but had no idea of the extent to which it prevailed, until we had made various inquiries daring our present tour, and had conversed with Karaimoku Kapiolani, the governor, and several other chiefs, who, though formerly unwilling to converse on the subject, have, since their reception of Christianity, become more communicative.”
“It prevails throughout all the islands, and, with the exception of the higher class of chiefs, is, as far as we could learn, practised by all ranks of the people.”
“However numerous the children among the lower orders, parents seldom rear more than two or three, and many spare only one; all the others are destroyed sometimes shortly after birth, generally during the first year of their age.” (Ellis, 1826)
“Several mothers presented their offspring, with the pride of old Roman matrons. We counted the number of those who had living children, and then requested those who had none to rise.”
“The scene that followed I can never forget.”
“Why are you childless? we inquired. Very few had lost children by a natural death. One woman replied in tears, holding out her hands.”
“’These must answer the question: I have been the mother of eight children, but with these hands I buried them alive, one after another, that I might follow my pleasures, and avoid growing old.’”
“’Oh, if I had but one of them back again to comfort me now! If tears and penitence could restore the dead!’”
“She was followed by others, making the same sad confessions of burying alive, of strangling, of smothering, until sobs and tears filled the house.” (Laura Fish Judd, 1880)
“There can be no doubt but that infanticide was prevalent among them and that a very large percent of the children born were disposed of in various ways by their parents, soon after their birth.”
“Generally speaking, it appears that in Hawaiʻi, as throughout Polynesia, the struggle for existence and life’s necessities, was largely evaded by restricting the natural increase in population in this way.” (Bryan, 1915)
“But as we are told that parents were fond of their children and parental discipline was not rigorous, and as children were left largely to their own devices, their care could hardly be regarded as a serious burden …”
“… moreover, more girl children were destroyed than boys, indicating that the former reason was the more economic and, therefore, the more human and logical one.” (Bryan, 1915)
“The extreme skewing of the sex ratio among Hawaiians in the nineteenth century is open to many explanations … Overwork and general exploitation may well have erased more adult women than men, but the likeliest candidate as the chief killer of females was infanticide, either by direct intention or, as is much more common, indirectly and semi-intentionally.” (Crosby)
“(B)y European contact the Hawaiians were actively practicing several methods of population control, including abortion and infanticide, perhaps in response to pressure on local food supplies and the limitations of agricultural land.” (Kirch)
“Several of the early Christian missionaries in the Hawaiian archipelago were sure that infanticide, especially female infanticide, was widespread despite decrees against the practice and assurances that it had stopped circa 1820.” (Crosby)
“Abortion and infanticide, known to exist in pre-contact times, reached new highs in 1819-1825 and 1832-1836.” (Schmitt)
“Artemas Bishop reported in 1838, ‘the majority of children born in the islands die before they are two years old.’ Indeed, the infant mortality rate was so high that microbiologist OA Bushnell uses the term ‘genocidal decline’ in discussing Hawaiian infants in this period.” (Kanahele)
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Makana Chai says
This perspective from Mary Kawena Pukui should have been included in this article. “Was infanticide a general practice?” Is a question I have been asked time and time again. Hawaiians loved children and were adopters, taking the children of others to rear as their own. Why then should a mother wish to destroy the child she had borne? Stories of lazy, pleasure-loving mothers who did not want to be hampered with children are unknown to me. My people did not destroy for laziness’ sake, for as soon as a woman mentioned the fact that she did not want the child in her womb, relatives and neighbours would beg for it and no matter how large a family there was always room for one more.
Infanticide was practised so that there might be no lowborn person to claim blood relationship to the chiefs. High chiefs sought for mates for their children from among high chiefs, at least for the first marriage, that the hiapo or first born be high in rank. Should a chief find a mate a little lower than himself in rank the child was not destroyed but would serve as one of the lesser chiefs in the court of his ruler, but should the chief mate with a low commoner, the child was most likely to be destroyed by the ali’i who did not like to have a tie of blood-relationship between high and low. The death of the child, or connecting link, was the solution. Sometimes a medical kahuna was consulted, one who knew the right concoction of herbs to bring on an abortion, or the mother-to-be underwent violent exercises in an attempt to end pregnancy. This was called ‘omilomilo–this doing away with the unborn. Sometimes, there was a waiting until the child was born, then it was destroyed. This was called ‘umi keiki or child strangling.
A child sired by a kauwa (outcast) was put to death because a kauwa was despised; so was any child whose sire was regarded as worthless trash by the relatives of the mother.
In my husband’s family there was an adopted daughter who was rescued from being put to death. An Ewa girl had two lovers, a Negro and a Hawaiian and her father swore that if the child to be born to her was a Hawaiian it would be spared, but if a Negro he would kill it. It was born Negro, and so the man made ready to fulfill his promise. Just at that time my husband’s aunt arrived, and learning the man’s intention she called his attention elsewhere. Then she quickly picked the baby up, wrapped it in the skirt of her holoku and fled. Thus it was that the child was saved from death.
A girl in Ka’u was saved by my grandmother, who pretended that the baby she had just delivered was not the offspring of the man who was greatly despised by the grandparents.
When the sire or mother was greatly despised, the child was gotten rid of, usually by strangling it; but none, so far as I have heard from my old folks, was ever destroyed because of laziness or pleasure seeking. (Pukui in Polynesian Family System in Ka’u, p. 79)
Thanks for that perspective. I knew that story seemed much too one-sided…
Chris Cook says
Thomas Hopu describes his close call with infanticide circa 1795 in his memoirs. In fact Hopu claimed his name Hopu (to catch) was given due to his aunt finding him as a new born on the ground, picking him up and taking him 20 miles away to save him from his mother’s wishes, thus catching him before he was killed. Hopu wrote that he believed his mother either didn’t want the bother of raising another child or feared an attack by warriors from elsewhere on Hawaiʻi Island.
Andrea Wagner says
History can be most uncomfortable. Infanticide continues to this day in the world. That it was practiced by Hawaiians of old has long been stated as a means of keeping the race strong. That it might be practiced as a means of survival in difficult times is believable. It would be interesting to view source material.
Bill Campbell says
Nostalgia for Hawaiian culture is based on fraudulent concealment or ignorance of its truly savage enslaving inhumane brutality. America saved Hawaii
Actually infanticide as well as basically all of the supposed savagery written in history books about Hawaiians (by known & proud racist caucasians) as well as stories we retell amongst ourselves caused by cultural shame imposed by stories spread amongst us by (again) known & proud racist caucasians has been proven to be falsified history by the Hawaiian Historical Society in conjunction with other historical societies… and before you accuse us of being biased, the research was conducted by non-Hawaiians.
Michael Swanson says
I was told that Hawaiians killed children that were born small and that only larger, stronger children were allowed to live. Only allowing genes of larger and more powerful people to live. Overtime, creating a race of larger people. But now I see this is not the case. To an outsider, it seems plausible. I know this isn’t true, but I was also old this by another Hawaiian when I was in Federal Prison in Honolulu. Maybe he was just messing with me.