Hawaii Western Influence

1819 – 1850: Hawaiian culture, politics, and economy shift to a Western model

Sovereignty, Sin, and Salvation

The first person to unite all the Hawaiian Islands as a single country, Kamehameha had been a great and beloved king. As European and American presence increased during his reign, he had appropriated foreign goods and technologies which he thought were beneficial while rejecting those he disliked. At the same time, he had reinforced the kapu system, the traditional means of maintaining order.

When Kamehameha died in 1819, his son Liholiho (Kamehameha II) inherited the throne. Kamehameha's favorite wife, Ka'ahumanu, actually wielded more power, however, and effectively ran the government.

The Kapu System Breaks Down

Ka'ahumanu and some of Liholiho's advisors wanted to dismantle the kapu system, but Liholiho was resistant. To force change, Ka'ahumanu broke one of the most important kapus, eating with men. Some kahunas and chiefs were outraged, but many other ali'i continued to support her and Liholiho decided it was time to give up the kapu system.

Further angered by this, the disgruntled chiefs and kahunas raised an army and attacked. With both sides armed with guns and fighting close up, as they were accustomed to in hand-to-hand combat, the battle was bloody and resulted in many casualties. In the end, the government prevailed.

This victory, coupled with the fact that the gods did not punish Ka'ahumanu for breaking the kapu, hastened the disintegration of Hawaiian beliefs. Less than six months after Kamehameha's death, traditions entrenched on the islands for eight hundred years had been abandoned.

Missionaries and Market Economy

In 1820, missionaries from New England arrived and set up operations on Maui, Hawaii, and Oahu. The skimpy clothing, hula dances, and open-minded sexual mores of the Hawaiians disturbed them. They saw the Hawaiians as savages who would surely burn in hell if denied the guidance of morally superior Christians. With the natives' faith in their ancient beliefs shaken, the missionaries had a head start in converting them.

The Hawaiians didn't find the newcomers' attitudes, wardrobe, or food preferences particularly endearing. The ali'i, on the other hand, welcomed the opportunity to learn how to read and write because it would help them in business dealings with Anglos.

Traditional Hawaiian culture had always been based in subsistence. Islanders grew what they needed to live on, and that was that. But when the ali'i had started buying Western goods during Kamehameha's era, simple trades weren't enough – they needed money, and many had quickly gone into debt.

They had begun to harvest sandalwood, which grew high in the mountains. Europeans and Americans made good money selling sandalwood in China, so there was a high demand for it. When the missionaries came, the sandalwood trade was booming.

At the same time, whaling ships from Massachussetts began using Lahaina and Honolulu as ports. In addition to stocking up on provisions, they would unload their catches and head back out to sea for more whaling, rather than returning home. Of course, the sailors were also eager to spend time on the island and Hawaiian women seem to have realized that the desires of the sailors presented an opportunity for them to take part in commerce as well. They would swim out to meet arriving ships, trading sex for clothing, perfume, money, or other items. To quench the sailors' thirst for rum, many bars sprang up. Neither of these activities pleased the missionaries, who lobbied for the abolition of both.

Although the missionaries' efforts weren't immediately successful, they had begun teaching Ka'ahumanu and a number of ali'i how to read and write. Naturally, they used the Bible to teach not just language and literacy, but to indoctrinate them with Christianity as well. In the absence of a belief system, the Hawaiian nobles found that Christianity filled the void nicely.

While Ka'ahumanu was busy with education and affairs of state, Liholiho and his wife, Kamamalu, immersed themselves in royal trappings, particularly English finery. In 1824, they took a trip to England, hoping to meet King George. Unfortunately, they had no immunity to Western diseases and caught the measles shortly after their arrival. Only days after their infection, both of them succumbed. On his deathbed, Liholiho left the throne to Kauikeaouli (Kamehameha III), his brother and Kamehameha's last living son.

Western Systems Strengthen

Although Kauikeaouli was now officially King, Ka'ahumanu remained in control. She and many other ali'i passed the required formal tests to become members of the Christian Church. Under pressure from the ali'i, many commoners began studying to join, too.

After 1825, the sandalwood industry declined because few of the slow-growing trees remained. But the whaling trade continued to increase, creating new opportunities. Hawaiians had always cultivated their nautical skills and young men easily found jobs on the ships. An industry in extracting and refining whale oil grew, and whalebones were processed for use in things like corsets. Merchants who served these industries, either by buying whale oil or supplying the whalers, grew their businesses into powerful financial trading companies.

Of course, as more sailors came to port, carousing with Hawaiian women proliferated. Now that Ka'ahumanu was Christian, she wanted to curb such unseemly behavior, and the Christian ali'i backed her. Several policies were instituted to keep Hawaiian women and sailors apart. Whalers protested, and with Governor Boki of Oahu on their side, disputes on the issue continued to rage.

However, Ka'ahumanu did manage to ban other offensive practices, such as public performances of hula dancing. Kauikeaouli, who owned a saloon and preferred traditional Hawaiian ways over Christianity, must have found her influence irritating.

When Ka'ahumanu died in 1832, Kauikeaouli tried to reestablish Hawaiian traditions. He lifted the hula dancing ban, erased penalties for adultery, and slept with his sister according to ancient custom. But Christianity had become firmly ingrained in many of the ali'i by this point, and they demanded he return to Christian values. With this rebuke of his royal authority, he lost interest in trying to change the direction the country was heading.

By 1834, the majority of Hawaiians were literate. As foreigners continued to flock to the islands, Western diseases like tuberculosis took a toll on the native population.

In 1835, the first large commercial sugar plantation began operations. As the new industry sought to find a foothold, the whaling business continued increasing in strength. In addition to the British and Americans, French and Russians competed for a share in the market.

All these foreigners pushed the Hawaiian government for more rights for themselves, and they succeeded. The Kingdom of Hawaii Constitution, created in 1840, codified Hawaii's laws and traditions along a Western model. It also gave foreigners stronger legal positions.

But 1848 saw even bigger changes. The gold rush in California created a demand for Hawaiian goods, such as produce and sugar, because it was cheaper and faster to get them from Hawaii than from the Eastern seaboard. Although the Americans weren't successful in pressuring the government for annexation to the United States, a new act was passed which obliterated the old land-owning system, creating a great new opportunity for foreigners.

In the Great Mahele of 1848, one-third of Hawaii's lands were retained by the monarchy; one-third were available to the ali'i; and one-third were available to commoners. The ali'i had to pay a large tax to keep their land, and since many were already in debt, selling their land to foreigners was a tempting option. Commoners didn't understand the new system, which required them to register their land and pay a small tax. The majority of commoners didn't register their land, leaving them with no legal claim over it.

American influence strengthened in 1849, when Kauikeaouli signed a most favored nation treaty with the United States. In 1850, foreigners were allowed to buy land. Now that they didn't have to acquire land through marriage, foreigners eagerly began buying it. Some unscrupulous types even used technicalities to cheat Hawaiians out of it.

Over the short span of approximately thirty years, the whole foundation of Hawaiian life had radically changed. The native people who had held dominion for so long were losing their grip to foreign interests.


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