A Cultural History of Three Traditional Hawaiian Sites
on the West Coast of Hawai'i Island
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Overview of Hawaiian History
by Diane Lee Rhodes
(with some additions by Linda Wedel Greene)


B. Hawai'i Becomes an Important Pacific Port

     1. Provision Stop

For the Hawaiians, the next forty years encompassed a period of intermittent contact with foreigners. It was a time of political consolidation accompanied by the gradual disintegration of traditional religious beliefs. Geography played a critical role in the events of these four decades.

Because of their strategic location on a direct route between the North American continent and the ports of the Far East, the Sandwich Islands became a convenient place for ships — especially those of the Russians and Americans — to rendezvous, replenish their supplies, and seek replacement crews. [17] The Hawaiian bays offered good anchorage, while abundant supplies of fresh food, wood, and water could be obtained. In 1787 Captain George Dixon found that the island of Hawai'i was

by far the most plentiful island of the whole . . . and the land is more universally cultivated than at any of the other islands, which . . . accounts for the great plenty of vegetables &c. met with here. [18]

The Hawaiian Islands also offered the sailors a pleasant break from the daily monotony of storm and sea and sky. Once within reach of land, the sailors were warmly greeted by the Hawaiian women who, "sublimely indifferent to politics and war," went out to the ships "in droves." [19]

     2. Northwest Coast-Canton, China, Fur Trade

Cook's voyages set the stage for a major change in the pattern of world commerce and travel. During the 1780s, the British held the monopoly on trade with Canton, purchasing Chinese goods with the "spoil of India and the Moluccas." [20] British ships regularly sailed the coast of Africa, around the Horn, to India and China. Although eager to join in this lucrative business, the merchants and shipping companies of New England had little to offer the Cantonese in return for their goods.

Accounts of Cook's voyage published in 1784 encouraged a group of Boston merchants to expand American trade frontiers into the Pacific. (The British and the Europeans had not, as yet, laid claim to the northern Pacific routes.) The Bostonians decided to carry trade goods to the Indians living along the northwest coast of North America, swap these items for fur pelts, and then ship the furs to China to trade for items such as tea, spices, silks, and luxury goods. These merchants quickly fitted out the ship Columbia and chose John Kendrick as captain. The Columbia was accompanied by the tender Lady Washington, commanded by Robert Gray, also an American. Eleven months out of Massachusetts, the vessels anchored at Vancouver Island and began to collect furs. The next summer the Columbia carried a load of furs to Canton, exchanging it for tea.

Unfortunately, the voyage of the Columbia was not financially successful. Other American ships had already reached Canton via Africa's Cape, and their goods were being sold in Boston by the time the Columbia dropped anchor in her home port. However, the idea of the triangular trade — from New England via Cape Horn to the Northwest Coast fur country and thence to China — quickly caught on. By 1792 the trade route from Boston to the Northwest Coast to Canton to Boston was fairly well established, and American merchant ships had begun to make regular calls at the Hawaiian Islands.

By 1790 several other foreign ships also visited the islands, helping to establish them as a "familiar resort for the fur traders" and as a "port of call and wintering place . . . for those engaged in the more general trade which grew up between Asia and the west coast of North and South America." [21] These voyagers included English Captains Portlock, Dixon, and Meares (seeking commercial development), and French naval vessels under the command of La Perouse.

The Northwest trading ships generally stopped twice on their voyage to China. Sometimes the first stop was at the Cape Verde Islands, the Falklands, or the Galapagos, but invariably Hawai'i was their second stop. There they obtained fresh provisions and fruit to prevent scurvy and received a respite from the long voyage and the damp cold of the Pacific Northwest. [22] The trade increased so rapidly that by 1805-1806 the value of imports to Canton on American vessels had grown to more than five million dollars. [23]

     3. Military and Scientific Value

Recognizing the strategic location, important resources, and trade potential of the Hawaiian Islands, several European nations sent exploratory missions to the Pacific over the next three-quarters of a century. [24] Scientists recorded botanical features, native customs, and volcanic activity and mapped harbors and coastlines. Their work provided the outside world a glimpse of these new people and places and provided a basis for later scientific research. While most of these missions were ostensibly scientific in nature, they had underlying military value and aspirations.

     4. Commercial Exchange Initiated

Because of their excellent harbors and strategic location nearly equidistant from the coasts of the Orient and North America, the Hawaiian Islands quickly became a primary stop on the Pacific trade routes. These islands contained more cultivated land than most of the other Pacific islands, forming "an oasis in the ocean desert." [25] At first traders used the islands simply as a refueling and provisioning stop where they bartered for food, water, wood, and salt in return for inexpensive pieces of metal and items of Euro-American manufacture. Iron objects, weapons, and ammunition comprised the most popular trade items. For nearly two decades after Cook's visit, the islands " were the theatre of long and destructive wars'' in which the arms furnished by the traders played a major role. [26] Soon, however, traders included a variety of manufactured items in their cargoes, and island products like salt and sandalwood were sought for export.

It was not long before the two trading partners had worked out ways of obtaining the best deals. During the early part of the period, the kapu system was often used to the advantage of the Hawaiian traders in obtaining weapons for internecine warfare or in procuring other desirable goods. For example, Hawaiian pigs might be declared kapu to the foreigners unless they were paid for in arms. Sometimes other methods were used to equalize trading opportunities. There were continuing incidents of theft and hostilities between the crewmen of the trading ships and the Hawaiians. Occasionally shore parties were attacked and boats and anchors stolen, to be later ransomed for guns and ammunition, or the metal converted into hand weapons. [27] As time went on, the natives became sophisticated traders. Island sandalwood, discovered in the early 1790s, became a major Hawaiian export by 1812. The Chinese highly prized this fragrant wood, using it for boxes and incense.

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Last Updated: 15-Nov-2001