A Cultural History of Three Traditional Hawaiian Sites
on the West Coast of Hawai'i Island
NPS Arrowhead Logo

Overview of Hawaiian History
by Diane Lee Rhodes
(with some additions by Linda Wedel Greene)


C. The Impact of Foreign Influences on the Native Hawaiians

     1. James Cook, George Vancouver, and Others

Although James Cook's visits to the islands were short and spatially limited, they "set in motion some very basic changes in Hawaiian culture." [51]

Captain George Vancouver, who had first come to the islands with Cook, returned as commander of HMS Discovery in March 1792. Recognizing Kamehameha's exceptional leadership abilities, and knowing that trade would be most profitable in a stable political climate, Vancouver sought to reconcile the warring island chiefs and refused to sell the natives guns and ammunition. [52] However, Vancouver had another agenda as well. He carefully planned his campaign to transform Kamehameha's chieftainship into a kingship and to acquire Hawai'i for Great Britain. [53] Vancouver's actions and his support of Kamehameha helped establish the basis for the united Hawaiian kingdom.

Vancouver's visit also had a long-lasting effect on the islands' economy and environment. He recognized the utility of introducing new species to provide food and subsistence items for both foreign traders and native peoples. He brought goats, sheep, and cattle from California for Kamehameha in gratitude for the king's kind treatment of foreigners. The cattle — saved from slaughter by a kapu — multiplied rapidly and were reported running wild by 1807. [54] Vancouver gave the Hawaiians a variety of garden seeds, among which were "stone fruits" from Monterey. [55] He also provided men and materials to build a ship for Kamehameha,

As mentioned in an earlier section, the impact of foreign customs, beliefs, and institutions upon the native Hawaiians was far reaching, resulting in abolition of the kapu system, changes in religious and social mores, reforms in the land tenure system, introduction of new tools and technology, and reshaping of the economic system. In addition, the introduction of new species initiated major ecological changes.

     2. Diseases and Liquor

Because of their centuries-long isolation from other islands and continents, the Hawaiians had no immunity to diseases such as smallpox and measles that foreign visitors introduced. Despite Cook's efforts to protect the native population, venereal disease arrived in the Sandwich Islands through members of his expedition on their first visit. [56] Upon his return in late 1778, Cook was saddened to see the effects of the disease already visible among the natives. Over the next decade, the native women continued to entertain visiting sailors, although many of the captains tried, generally in vain, to contain the contagion by keeping their sailors aboard ship.

Venereal disease would be responsible for sterility, considerable illness, and even death among the population, but other diseases created distress as well. Visitors observed depopulation as early as about 1807 due to a "kind of epidemic or yellow fever." [57] Kamehameha's plans to invade Kaua'i were aborted by an epidemic causing illness and death among his army. By 1819 the population of the islands had decreased drastically. [58] Only in the second decade of the twentieth century would the Hawaiian population rise again to the estimated 1778-79 level. [59]

Although the people of the Sandwich Islands made and drank a hypnotic brew known as 'awa as part of their religious activities, the art of distilling hard liquors, especially rum, was supposedly introduced into the islands sometime before 1800 by Botany Bay convicts. [60] There were a number of sources for the liquor. Iselin, writing in 1807, reported Englishmen living on O'ahu who invited the sailors for beer and a kind of gin made from the tea root, "said to be drank freely in these Isles." [61] The Spaniard Don Francisco Marin, who was operating a distillery on the island of O'ahu by 1807, was furnishing at least some liquor. [62] When the Hawaiians of important rank came aboard ships, they drank freely. [63] Brandy and rum imported for resale were consumed in such large amounts by the natives that within a few years drunkenness had become a major problem, especially among the royalty. Liquor was probably responsible for much of the capricious behavior exhibited by Liholiho. [64]

     3. New Economic System, Trade, and Technology

The pre-contact Hawaiian society was economically self-sufficient, with management of resources and redistribution of goods effected through the land tenure system and through religious rituals like the Makahiki festival, through the kapu system, and through payment of tribute. Enough surplus food was produced to support the chiefs, priests, and craftsmen. However, Cook's visit set in motion events that would eventually effect a major change in this economic system from a subsistence economy to a supplementary food market economy. [65]

Trade between Europeans and native Hawaiians was one of the most important catalysts of cultural change. Traditionally, large-scale trade had not been an important part of the subsistence economy of the Hawaiian Islands. At first, contact with Europeans was sporadic, and trade was conducted on a piecemeal basis, usually controlled by individual chiefs. As more traders came to the islands, the finely balanced system of supply and demand was disrupted, which eventually led to the demise of the traditional subsistence economy.

This change in the islands' economic base was exacerbated by the singular differences between the two cultures. For example, the Europeans were accustomed to a society where the means of production were privately owned and profits were expected. Hawaiians, on the other hand, were part of a society that shared work and its products for the welfare of the larger community. According to Marion Kelly, the

Europeans expected to give the least and obtain the most, while Hawaiians had a heritage of sharing what they had without thought of gain or loss, but not, however, without responsibility. [66]

Changes in the Hawaiian society went deeper than simple economics. The Hawaiian's value system included aloaha aina, an "ideal that expressed the land's meaning" to the islanders and "insured the preservation, the conservation, and the balance of life-giving resources of land and sea." [67] As this cultural value was diminished, concomitant economic changes disrupted the delicate resource balance.

During the early Western contact period, Hawaiian farmers were able to increase the production of goods and commodities to meet the traders' demands and satisfy the needs of the ali'i without a major dislocation of island economics. Hawaiians quickly learned the value of their goods and showed a strong ability to barter. On Hawai'i, early traders found plentiful sugarcane, breadfruit, coconut, plantain, sweet potatoes, taro, yams, bananas, and hogs as well as introduced oranges, watermelon, muskmelon, pumpkin, cabbages, and garden vegetables. [68] Initially the Hawaiians wanted bits of iron and beads for these products, but by 1790 firearms, gunpowder, and liquor had become prized trade items. [69] One critic complained that the European traders "commenced implanting among the chiefs the taste for ardent spirits." [70] It was not long before Hawaiians began to demand clothing, cloth, pitch, flour, and other western products. As described by one trader, "the islanders . . . ceased to care for objects of mere ornament, and preferred in their traffic cloth, hardware and useful articles." [71]

By about 1790, the demands of traders and explorers had begun to adversely affect the traditional Hawaiian subsistence economy, which was also under stress from ongoing warfare, which drained labor and resources away from the native farms. For example, visiting traders remarked that most of the hogs on Hawai'i were destroyed when their owners left to join Kamehameha in his crusade against Ka'umu'ali'i. The once flourishing vegetable gardens on the west coast also perished through neglect. Trade for guns and weapons only accelerated the process.

Inter- and intra-island warfare posed an inconvenience to the traders. The chiefs often put trade under kapu while they were away in battle, and some even used force to obtain needed guns and ammunition. Like a number of chiefs, Kamehameha played the traders off against each other to gain a trading advantage. [72] Captain Vancouver was the first to recognize that a stable, peaceful, and politically unified Hawaiian government would benefit trade and strongly supported Kamehameha in his conquest. Kelly suggests that without the political unity fostered by Vancouver, "later changes in land tenure might never have occurred." [73]

After about 1796, peaceful conditions generally prevailed across the islands. As more trading ships called at island ports, local communities began to suffer deprivations. Sometimes food and water were plentiful, but at other times the natives had little to offer to trade. According to Kelly, pork was one of the most popular trade items. Reductions in the supply of hogs due to increased trade may have encouraged a renewed dependency on fish by the native population, which then might have resulted in a return to seashore areas from inland farms. [74]

Increasingly goods became unevenly held and distributed across the islands. Some of this was due to geography; some parts of the islands were far more arable than others, and the rainfall differential between the windward and lee sides of the islands produced a much different crop potential. Also, traders tended to visit ports like Kealakekua and Lahaina, and later Honolulu, where they could generally obtain supplies and fresh water at lower prices and also feel safe from attack. As commerce increased at those ports, native populations began a subtle shift to those areas. As trade increased, more and more labor was drawn away from subsistence production to provide food, fuel, and water for the traders in return for Western clothing, metal, and even luxury items. [75]

The chiefs precipitated and encouraged some of the cultural changes associated with trading. Before Kamehameha's ascent to power, individual ali'i effectively controlled large amounts of wealth through their regulation of the trading canoes. The chiefs increasingly sought luxury goods in exchange for food and fuel. These goods did not, however, filter back to the commoners through traditional means; in fact, some Hawaiian chiefs confiscated trade goods that commoners received. [76] It is likely that the health and general welfare of the people decreased during this time because there were fewer subsistence items left for their use and because so much of their energy was spent in supplying goods for the traders.

As many of the chiefs sought to establish a relationship with the Europeans in hopes of acquiring gifts and weapons, they often served as middlemen or brokers in trading situations. This was a natural extension of their relationship with the commoners, and "it was this convenient adaptation that facilitated the chiefs' rapid acceptance of western trade practices." [77] In turn, the ready acceptance of these foreign customs by the chiefs served as an example to the commoners. Unfortunately, the acceptance of foreign customs and products also marked the increased exploitive role of chiefs toward the people, which peaked during the sandalwood trade. [78]

Other changes in the economic system were encouraged by the new plants and animals introduced by the early traders and explorers. These items quickly took hold in the islands and displaced more traditional foodstuffs on the small farms. These new items were generally used in trade rather than for local consumption. Cook introduced European plants to the islands — including pumpkins, melons, and onions — and also brought English pigs, goats, and sheep. [79] Captain William Broughton had his men plant grapevines and vegetable fields during the ship's visit. He complained that "pumpkins and melons were in no great plenty," but the excellent island cabbages weighed nearly two pounds. [80] By 1791 seamen were able to trade for pumpkins and watermelons.

The cattle that Captain Vancouver and other traders left swiftly multiplied because of a ten-year kapu the king placed on their use. [81] According to Kotzebue, by 1821 the wild herds were so large that Spaniards from California came frequently to the islands to capture them. [82] Vancouver also introduced goats to the islands; by 1796 these had multiplied prodigiously. In 1796 Captain William Broughton gave the islanders another pair of goats, along with geese, ducks, and pigeons. Horses were introduced onto the island of Hawai'i in 1803 by Captain Cleveland as a gift to King Kamehameha. [83] At least two breeds of swine were being raised for the traders, native pigs having been interbred with those the sailors brought. The introduced livestock did not appear to have been used by many Hawaiians for food. Instead the animals destroyed crops, helping disrupt the islands' ecology and accelerating the removal of ground cover leading to erosion. [84] When sold to traders, the pigs and cattle were usually butchered and salted down before the ships left the islands, creating yet another new industry for the islanders.

During the early 1800s, so many traders called at the islands demanding pork and other goods that supplies of hogs and produce were often exhausted. European traders were no longer able to procure large amounts of goods in exchange for a handful of nails or other metal. Although at one time a hog could be acquired for a few pieces of rusty iron, by 1807 the standard price was a greatcoat and a cask of powder. Sailcloth, tar, and pitch (for Kamehameha's navy) were also much in demand.

By 1810 a number of Hawaiian traders were demanding luxury goods and cash. Iselin describes the high prices for hogs — $4.00 each in specie, plus several yards of expensive scarlet broadcloth (worth perhaps $3.00 per yard) plus up to twenty yards of linen sheeting. [85] Americans were described as the best customers, and by the time the missionaries arrived, four American mercantile companies had established themselves in the islands.

Once in power, Kamehameha made a number of changes that resulted in formalization of relationships with foreigners. He made trade a royal monopoly and took pleasure in driving a shrewd bargain. Trade was regulated, and a certain protocol was necessary when foreigners entered port. Incoming ships had to call upon the king or upon the island governor (or one of his representatives); Kamehameha provided harbormasters to guide the ships and appointed special "confidential men" who served as intermediaries between the traders and the island governors. [86] He also attempted to control production and distribution through use of the kapu system.

The economic system was also changed by the new and different labor needs. Traditional activities, often related to subsistence or religion, were increasingly replaced by other tasks. The islanders readily learned important new crafts and skills like shipbuilding and blacksmithing and quickly adapted new technologies to traditional needs. [87] Natives now served as laundrymen, messengers, guides, servants, and boatwrights. [88] One of the major industries that developed on the islands was ship repair; ships calling at the Sandwich Islands were often repaired by native craftsmen under the direction of the ship's carpenters. [89] Kamehameha encouraged this industry and built boat sheds on the shores of O'ahu. This activity was fairly labor intensive, for repair of a mainmast might involve 300 people who dragged the timber with ropes six to eight miles down the mountainside. [90] Again, these duties pulled a substantial number of workers away from their traditional farming practices.

As early as the 1790s, the New England traders picked up men on Hawai'i to serve aboard the sailing ships or purchased youngsters as servants. [91] Soon Hawaiian sailors were visiting American coastal towns; by 1807 Hawaiian sailors could be found in the ports of New York. [92]

They brought ideas from abroad home with them, thus contributing to the cultural changes.

     4. Kapu System Weakened

Well before the formal end of the kapu system, there were signs of weakening in the authority of the priests, especially over women. While the rules forbade women to watch a man eat pork — or to consume it themselves — on board ship they would "partake, in stealth, of what was handed to them, and would peep from behind the screen of a stateroom, to see the men eat." [93]

     5. Population Shift and Growth of Towns

When Vancouver's ships stopped along Hawai'i's west coast in 1793-94, more than 3,000 people came to greet them at Kealakekua Bay, suggesting a fairly large population in that area. However, between Vancouver's visit and 1819, a gradual shift of population away from Hawaii's west coast to other areas began. Several factors may have accounted for this: as the importance of O'ahu and the port of Honolulu grew, more ships began to call there and more people went there to interact with the foreigners; also Kamehameha and his retinue began to spend more of their time on the other islands, and ali'i and commoners alike tended to cluster around his court. Disease may have played a role in population decrease in certain areas, and ongoing warfare, causing abandonment of farms, certainly was a strong factor.

     6. New Class of Foreigners — Part-Hawaiians

By the year 1800, there were a number of children of mixed heritage resulting from two decades of contact between native women and foreign traders. The majority of these children were raised in the traditional Hawaiian manner. In addition the islands supported a small but growing number of foreign residents who had married Hawaiian women. Some, like John Young, married into Hawaiian royalty and lived their lives according to the rules of Hawaiian society but sent their children abroad for schooling. Some Hawaiians took in the children of foreigners; Kamehameha's prime minister in 1807, a chief named Teremotoa, cared for the children of a Captain Hart, who had died on O'ahu, along with those of several other white men. [94] Some part-Hawaiians were regarded as native residents, such as George Holmes, son of Oliver Holmes and a Hawaiian woman. [95] Many of these children went on to become their country's leaders in later years.

     7. Facilitation of Kamehameha's Rise to Power

During the 1790s, warring Hawaiian chiefs often demanded powder or guns in return for their produce. For example, when Vancouver s ships first stopped at Kawaihae to trade, they were able to purchase vegetables with nails and beads but "the hogs they [the Hawaiians] would not at first part with but for muskets." [96] Some traders (especially Vancouver) tried to ameliorate antagonisms among the various chiefs, but others encouraged the distribution of guns and powder as a form of bribery to obtain preferential trading privileges. [97]

At the time of Western contact, the Hawaiian Islands were already on the road towards state formation. Unquestionably, Western technology, and especially guns, played a major role in speeding up the process by facilitating Kamehameha's rise to power. Recognizing the value of ships, arms, and ammunition in warfare, Kamehameha set out to acquire Western technology and skilled technicians. His first venture was to take possession of the schooner Fair American and its big guns in 1790. He also acquired a number of small arms and ammunition. [98] In 1796 one explorer noted that European vessels had furnished Kamehameha with such a large supply of muskets and ammunition, and numerous three- and four-pounders (cannons), for his boats, that he "presumes his force is equal to any." [99] John Young and Isaac Davis, both experienced seamen, provided technical assistance and military advice.

Kamehameha convinced Captain Vancouver to assist in the construction of his first ship; by 1807, Kamehameha had built or acquired a navy of his own, consisting of a large ship (the former Lelia Byrd, an American vessel), several large three-masted schooners, and about twenty-five small vessels of twenty to fifty tons. [100] He employed Euro-Americans both to construct his ships and to serve in the military.

<<< Previous <<< Contents >>> Next >>>

Last Updated: 15-Nov-2001