In the dawn hours of January 18, 1778, on his third expedition, British explorer Captain James Cook on the HMS Resolution and Captain Charles Clerke of the HMS Discovery first sighted what Cook named the Sandwich Islands (that were later named the Hawaiian Islands.) Hawaiian lives changed with sudden and lasting impact, when western contact changed the course of history for Hawai‘i.
Forty years after Cook’s death, the Pioneer Company of American Protestant missionaries (American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM)) set sail on the Thaddeus for the Sandwich Islands (on October 23, 1819.) There were seven American couples sent by the ABCFM to convert the Hawaiians to Christianity in this first company. Missionaries arrived first at Kailua-Kona on April 4, 1820; they then went to Honolulu and arrived there on April 14, 1820.
Captain Cook estimated the population at 400,000 in 1778. When Vancouver, who had been with Cook, returned in 1792, he was shocked at the evidences of depopulation, and when the missionaries arrived in 1820, the population did not exceed 150,000. (The Friend, December 1902)
By the time the missionaries arrived, Kamehameha I had died and the centuries-old kapu system had been abolished; through the actions of King Kamehameha II (Liholiho,) with encouragement by former Queens Kaʻahumanu and Keōpūolani (Liholiho’s mother,) the Hawaiian people had already dismantled their heiau and had rejected their religious beliefs.
But how were our ears astonished to hear the voice devine proclaim, “in the wilderness prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God”! How were our hearts agitated with new & various & unexpected emotions, to hear the interesting intelligence, “Tamahemaha is dead,” – “The Taboos are broken” – “The Idols are burnt” – “The Moreahs (heiau) are destroyed” – and the priesthood abolished. (Hiram Bingham and others in a letter to the ABCFM)
So, what was Honolulu like forty-years after the first arrival of foreigners? The following, from books, journals and letters, helps to paint the picture of Honolulu.
This village (Honolulu,) which contains about two hundred houses, is situated upon a level plain extending some distance back from the bay part of which forms the harbour, to the foot of the high hills which abound throughout the Island. The little straw-huts clusters of them in the midst of cocoanut groves, look like bee-hives, and the inhabitants swarming about them like bees. In passing through the midst, in our way to the open plain, it was very pleasant to hear their friendly salutation, Alloah (Aloha,) some saying, e-ho-ah, (where going?) We answered, mar-oo, up yonder. Then, as usual, they were pleased that we could num-me-num-me Owhyhee (talk Hawaiian.) (Sybil Bingham)
Here we dropped anchor in the peaceful waters of this safe and commodious harbor, the best in this part of the world. It is sufficiently large to admit 150 sail, of the capacity of 100 to 700 tons. The depth of water at the bar, or mouth of the harbor, being little more than twenty feet, and little affected by the tide, the largest class of ships could not pass in and out with safety, without under-girders, or camels, to buoy them up. (Hiram Bingham)
Ships lying at harbor whose officers were interesting themselves in our object, and whom we sought to entertain at our little dwelling as much after the manner of our own country as we could— a respectful attention also to the chiefs and their suite whenever they came in and spread themselves around upon our mats. (Sybil Bingham)
Passing through the irregular village of some thousands of inhabitants, whose grass thatched habitations were mostly small and mean, while some were more spacious, we walked about a mile northwardly to the opening of the valley of Pauoa, then turning south-easterly, ascended to the top of Punchbowl Hill an extinguished crater, whose base bounds the north-east part of the village or town. (Hiram Bingham)
On the east were the plain and grove of Waikiki, with its amphitheater of hills, the south-eastern of which is Diamond Hill, the crater of an extinct volcano, in the form of a cone, truncated, fluted, and reeded, larger, higher, and more concave than Punchbowl Hill, but of much the same model and general character. (Hiram Bingham)
Below us (below Punchbowl,) on the south and west, spread the plain of Honolulu, having its fish-pond and salt making pools along the sea-shore, the village and fort between us and the harbor, and the valley stretching a few miles north into the interior, which presented its scattered habitation and numerous beds of kalo (taro) in it various stages of growth, with its large green leaves, beautifully embossed on the silvery water, in which it flourishes. (Hiram Bingham)
Through this valley, several streams descending from the mountains in the interior, wind their way, some six or seven mile watering and overflowing by means of numerous artificial canal the bottom of kalo patches, and then, by one mouth, fall into the peaceful harbor. (Hiram Bingham)
The soil is of the best kind, producing cocoanuts, bananas, and plantains, bread fruit, papia, ohia, oranges, lemons, limes, grapes, tamarinds, sweet potatoes, taro, yams, watermelons, muskmelons, cucumbers and pineapples, and I doubt not would yield fine grain of any kind. (Ruggles, The Friend)
There are large droves of wild cattle in the mountains, and a herd of about fifty fine ones on a large plain near this village, owned by a Spaniard who neither makes any use of them himself, nor will he permit us to, yet. There are also immense numbers of goats both wild and tame. They supply us with milk, and are excellent meat. Hogs are numerous in the mountains. Dogs abound in great numbers. I have counted 250 brought in one day to King Tamoree. They are esteemed by the natives as the best food. (Ruggles, The Friend)
From Diamond Hill, on the east, to Barber’s Point and the mountains of Waianae, on the west, lay the sea-board plain, some twenty-five miles in length, which embraces the volcanic hill of Moanalua, two or three hundred feet high, and among them, a singular little lake of seawater, abounding in salt crystalized through evaporation by the heat of the sun, the ravine of Moanalua, the lagoon of Ewa, and numerous little plantation and hamlets, scattered trees, and cocoanut groves, range of mountains, three or four thousand feet high, stretches aero the south-western part of the island, at the distance of twenty-five miles. (Hiram Bingham)
Another range, from two to four thousand feet high stretches from the north-western to the eastern extremity of the island. Konahuanui, the highest peak, rises back of Punchbowl Hill and north by east from Honolulu, eight miles distant, and four thou and feet high, often touching or sustaining, as it were, a cloud. (Hiram Bingham)
We were sheltered in three native-built houses, kindly offered us by Messrs. Winship, Lewis and Navarro, somewhat scattered in the midst of an irregular village or town of thatched huts, of 3,000 or 4,000 inhabitants. (Hiram Bingham) “(O)ur little cottage built chiefly of poles, dried grass and mats, being so peculiarly exposed to fire, beside being sufficiently filled with three couples and things for immediate use, consisting only of one room with a little partition and one door.” (Sybil Bingham)
In addition to their homes, the missionaries had grass meeting places, and later, churches. One of the first was on the same site as the present Kawaiahaʻo Church. On April 28, 1820, the Protestant missionaries held a church service for chiefs, the general population, ship’s officers and sailors in the larger room in Reverend Hiram Bingham’s house. This room was used as a school room during the weekdays and on Sunday the room was Honolulu’s first church auditorium. (Damon)