The Hawaiian Islands in the early-1800s were in a state of social and political upheaval. With Kamehameha’s death in 1819, the subsequent breaking of the kapu by Liholiho and the acceptance of the missionaries and their beliefs meant significant changes were taking place.
The first visit to the Hawaiian Islands by the US Navy was in 1826 when the warship USS Dolphin came into port in Honolulu. Commanding the ship was Lieutenant John Percival (aka “Mad Jack” Percival.)
Percival had been sent to the Pacific to bring the mutineers of a whaling ship to justice and to enforce the settlement of debts owed by Hawaiʻi’s ruling chiefs to American sandalwood dealers.
As the ship sailed into Honolulu Bay, these objectives were not uppermost on the minds of the crew, however. The men of the Dolphin, like mariners then, had expectations of female companionship while in port.
They arrived on January 16, 1826, and were surprised to find the port unusually tranquil and utterly devoid of the welcoming maidens the crew had anticipated.
After making inquiries in the village they learned that, under the influence of the missionaries, the chiefs had not only forbidden the women to swim out to the ships, but had restricted the sale of alcohol. His men were outraged.
In a frenzy, Percival demanded to see the Queen in person, warning that if the leader of the missionaries (Hiram Bingham) interfered, he “will shoot him: that he was ready to fight, for though his vessel was small, she was just like fire.”
Percival attempted to persuade the Queen to release her women, reasoning that “It is not good to taboo the women. It is not so in America!”
The Queen replied, in a letter, that she had a “right to control her own subjects in this matter; that in enforcing the tabu she had not sought for money … she had done no injustice to other nations, or the foreigners who belonged to other nations; and that while seeking specially to save the nation from vice and ruin, they had been lenient to strangers … (and) that strangers, passing from one country to another, are bound, while they remain in a country, to conform to its laws.” (Bingham)
Percival said, “Why tabu the women? Take heed. My people will come: if the women are not forthcoming they will not obey my word. Take care of your men, and I will take care of mine. By and by they will come to get women, and if they do not obtain them, they will fight, and my vessel is just like fire.” (Bingham)
Kaʻahumanu replied, “Why make war upon us without a fault of ours as to restraining our women? We love the Word of God, and therefore hold back our women. Why then would you fight us without cause?” (Bingham)
Finally, able to hold his temper no longer, Percival clenched his fists with rage and shouted that the next day he would issue his men rum and turn them loose, where, if they were still denied, they would pull down the houses of the missionaries and take any women they pleased by force.
Kaʻahumanu replied, “Why are you angry with us for laying a tabu on the women of our own country? Had you brought American women with you, and we had tabued them, you might then justly be displeased with us.” (Bingham)
There were several other crews in port, of whom many sympathized with this commander and a large part of his crew. On a Sunday, the commander of the Dolphin allowed double the usual number of his men to spend the day on shore at Honolulu. The violent among them, and the violent of other crews, attempted to form a coalition to “knock off the tabu.”
First, they knocked out seventy of the windows at Kalanimōkū’s house (where church service was being held, with Kaʻahumanu, Kalanimōkū, Nāmāhana and Boki in attendance.) Then, the mob went on to the home of Hiram Bingham, the leader of the missionaries.
When the mob surged forward and one of the sailors struck Bingham, the riot ended as the Hawaiians responded by clubbing the ringleaders unconscious and overcame the remainder.
Shortly thereafter, the captain was back at the palace, admitting that his men may have overreacted, however, repeated their demands for prostitutes. He then told the Queen that the Dolphin would not leave port until his men were taken care of.
The Hawaiians by this time were very anxious to see the end of this and fearful of further violence, agreed to lift the taboo.
The prostitutes then came to the ship, and apparently the Navy’s Hawaiian mission was accomplished. Captain Percival arranged for the repair of the damaged homes and put two of the most violent sailors in irons.
After a visit of about three months, the Dolphin sailed, having obtained the name of “the mischief making man-of-war.” The incident was quickly christened “The Battle of Honolulu.”
Mad Jack’s actions were later renounced by the United States and resulted in the sending of an envoy to King Kamehameha III.
Kalanimōku wrote a letter to Hiram Bingham concerning the battle – in it he notes, “Here is my message to all of you, our missionary teachers. I am telling you that I do not see your wrongdoing. If I should see you to be wrong, I would tell you all. No, you should all just be good.”
“Give us literacy and we will teach it; and give us the word of God, and we will heed it. Our women are restricted, for we have learned the word of God.”
“Then foreigners come, doing damage to our land, foreigners of America and Britain. Do not be angry, for it is we who are to blame for you being faulted, and not you foreigners.” (Kalanimōku to Bingham, October 28, 1826)
You may see that letter (written in Hawaiian) and its translation in the Ali‘i Letters Collection at Hawaiian Mission Houses – here: https://hmha.missionhouses.org/collections/show/178.
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