The war for independence against the British on the American continent (1775-1783) closed the colonial trade routes within the British empire.
The merchantmen and whalers of New England swarmed around South America’s Cape Horn, in search of new markets and sources of supply. A market was established in China.
China took nothing that the US produced; hence Boston traders, in order to obtain the wherewithal to purchase teas and silks at Canton, spent 18-months or more of each China voyage collecting a cargo of sea-otter and other skins out of the northwest side of the American continent, highly esteemed by the Chinese.
Years before the westward land movement gathered momentum, the energies of seafaring New Englanders found their natural outlet, along their traditional pathway, in the Pacific Ocean.
Practically every vessel that visited the North Pacific in the closing years of the 18th century stopped at Hawai‘i for provisions and recreation; then, the opening years of the 19th century saw the sandalwood business became a recognized branch of trade.
Sandalwood, geography and fresh provisions made the Islands a vital link in a closely articulated trade route between Boston, the Northwest Coast and Canton, China.
The central location of the Hawaiian Islands between America and Orient brought many ships to the Islands. They needed food and water, and the islands supplied this need from its fertile lands.
Hawai‘i’s whaling era began in 1819 when two New England ships became the first whaling ships to arrive in the Hawaiian Islands.
At that time, whale products were in high demand; whale oil was used for heating, lamps and in industrial machinery; whale bone was used in corsets, skirt hoops, umbrellas and buggy whips.
Rich whaling waters were discovered near Japan and soon hundreds of ships headed for the area.
Whalers’ aversion to the traditional Hawaiian diet of fish and poi spurred new trends in farming and ranching. The sailors wanted fresh vegetables and the native Hawaiians turned the temperate uplands into vast truck farms.
There was a demand for fresh fruit, cattle, white potatoes and sugar. Hawaiians began growing a wider variety of crops to supply the ships.
In Hawaiʻi, several hundred whaling ships might call in season, each with 20 to 30 men aboard and each desiring to resupply with enough food for another tour “on Japan,” “on the Northwest,” or into the Arctic.
The whaling industry was the mainstay of the island economy for about 40 years. For Hawaiian ports, the whaling fleet was the crux of the economy. More than 100 ships stopped in Hawaiian ports in 1824.
“At present the whale ships visit the Sandwich Islands in the months of March and April and then proceed to the coast of Japan, the return again in October and November remain here about six weeks, and then proceed in different directions …”
“… some to the Coast of California, others cruise about the Equator when they return thither again in March and April and proceed a second time to the Coast of Japan; it usually occupies two seasons on that coast to fill a ship that will carry Three Hundred Tons.” (Jones report to Henry Clay, Secretary of State, 1827)
“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)
The effect on Hawaiʻi’s economy, particularly in areas in reach of Honolulu, Lāhainā and Hilo, the main whaling ports, was dramatic and of considerable importance in the islands’ history.
Over the next two decades, the Pacific whaling fleet nearly quadrupled in size and in the record year of 1846, 736-whaling ships arrived in Hawai‘i.
Then, whaling came swiftly to an end.
In 1859, an oil well was discovered and developed in Titusville, Pennsylvania; within a few years this new type of oil replaced whale oil for lamps and many other uses – spelling the end of the whaling industry.
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