The following is a portion of a letter from William Richards to Charles Wilkes, commander of the United States Exploring Expedition, dated March 15, 1841 in Lahaina. The letter responds to questions raised by Wilkes. It comes from editors Marshall Sahlins and Dorothy Barrere.
Richards arrived in Honolulu in April 1823 in the second company of American missionaries and was stationed soon thereafter in Lahaina, home of many of the chiefs. He remained in Lahaina throughout most of his missionary career.
His knowledge of Hawaiian is known to have been excellent—he is responsible for many translations of biblical and other works into Hawaiian—and as the letter to Wilkes documents, he was friend to the famous Hoapili and other chiefs.
In 1838, Richards left the mission to become political counselor to the Monarchy. In 1842 with T. Ha‘alilio he undertook a mission to America and Europe to negotiate recognition of Hawaii’s independence. Richards was commissioned Minister of Public Instruction in 1846. He died in Honolulu in November 1847. All of the following is from that letter:
Their amusements were pretty numerous, and many of them of an athletic kind, though not requiring the severest trials of strength.
A favorite amusement of the chiefs was sliding down hill on a long narrow slead, upon which they prostratrated themselves, and then having the slead ballanced on the edge of a very steep hill they started it with the foot and were precipitated down the hill with immense velocity often to a distance of half or even a whole mile.
Thus they went from the top of Diamond Hill far out upon the plane of Honolulu, and at other places to a much greater distance.
Rolling a smooth round stone was another favorite amusement and one which tended to strengthen the arms more than any other with which I have been acquainted.
On ground where the descent was scarcely perceptable I have seen the stone rolled a hundred and thirty rods.
Throwing the spear and various other exercises with it was also an amusement as well as a military exercise. With this weapon they were very expert.
Playing on the surf board has always been and continues to be a very favorite amusement. As you have doubtless seen this, I need not describe the process.
The dance was an amusement which was practiced perhaps to a greater extent than any other. There was a great variety of dances. Some of them consisted mainly in the recital of songs accompanied with much action as was calculated to give them force. Other seemed to consist mainly in action.
Sometimes a single girl was the actress, again, a large number united. Their motions were anything but graceful. Their motions were regulated by music, which consisted of a kind of drumming on various hollow vessels, as calabashes, tubs, and a kind of drum made by drawing a piece of shark skin over a short piece of a hollow log. . . .
Every variety of song was rehearsed and acted on these occasions, from the most sentimental to the most lascivious, and the action always echoed to the sense.
Sometimes a single voice rehearsed the song—sometimes a number chanted in unison.
The first summer I spent in Lahaina scarcely a night passed in which I did not hear the noise of these assemblies, and they were uniformly scenes of lewdness and vice.
But the most numerous class of all their amusements was their games of chance.
Of these they were specially fond. These games were peculiar to themselves. The one most practiced by the chiefs was that of placing several bunches of kapas in a row, and then one man took a stone and hid it under one of the tapas. His antagonist guessed the place of the stone, and the one who was oftenest right won the game.
They never played at games of chance without a wager, nor indeed at any game of skill. The wager seemed to constitute the charm of most of their amusements. It was an accompanyment of their down hill slides – their play in the surf – their plays with the spear their rolling the stone – their flying the kite &c. . . .
They gambled away their property of every kind – their clothes – their food – the crops upon their land – the lands themselves – their wives – their husbands – their daughters, and even the very bones of their arms and legs.
At present cards is a common amusement and it is accompanied with its usual evils.