Tuesday, September 11, 2012

An 1860 Description of the Hawaiian Islands: Richmond (Virginia) Enquirer

The following article was featured in The Polynesian, published in Honolulu on November 16, 1860. “We have been favored with a copy of the annexed letter, published in the Richmond Enquirer in May last. We re-publish it to show the impressions of the writer respecting the Islands, Government, &c.” It is dated March 15, 1860, which was just before the Japanese ambassadors set off for California on their journey to Washington, D.C. The author is not named.


To the “Enquirer,” Richmond, Va.:

This, I presume, is the first letter ever received by you from the ‘Island World.’ It is written to afford some little information to your readers, and to friends, who have kindly requested letters on the subject. To comply with each individual request for “a letter” would be impossible, and I therefore throw myself on your kindness and ask its publication.

Outside of New England very little seems known respecting these beautiful and interesting Islands:- when about to visit them, on a late occasion, in taking leave of friends in Virginia and Washington, some of them appeared alarmed at the idea that your correspondent should venture to go to a land inhabited by “cannibals.” I hope after they read this letter, they will have no fears that I shall be “killed and eaten up,” unless, indeed, it shall be done by kindness, such as never has been exceeded by any people, in whose midst my lot has been cast.

In the year 1778 the Islands were discovered by Cook, and the whole group, eight in number, were supposed to contain a population of some four hundred thousand, quiet, peaceable and contented ‘Polynesians,’ living of course, in a primitive state-but happy. From various causes the number at present is much diminished. Some thirty or forty years since the missionaries made their appearance; and it is but simple justice to them to say, that they have done much toward Christianizing the natives- (I will not say civilizing them, for it is difficult to imagine, to see them in their present state, that they ever were otherwise than a civil race). They have done much towards educating them. Most excellent schools and colleges have been established, and are in successful operation; and already some of the natives (and among them the present King) have been well educated, and reflect great credit on their institutions.

Is conducted under a written constitution, which in its provisions is liberal and enlightened-it is modeled very much after some of our State Governments- the “Laws enacted by the King, the Nobles and Representatives in Legislative Council” are respected by all and rigidly enforced.

Is a well educated and talented man-dignified and gentlemanly in his deportment; is very well informed; speaks and writes the English language very well; has traveled in the United States and Europe. He lives in great comfort, quite as much as the President of the United States; has an ample income, and is much respected by foreigners, and loved by the natives. He is only twenty-seven years of age. He appoints his successor.

Is only about twenty-one years of age; said to be very charitable, good-hearted and kind to her people, who appear to idolize her.

Consists of “a Minister or Foreign Relations,” “a Minister of Finance” and “a Minister of the Interior.” The first is filled by a talented Scotch gentlemen, who has been much in the United States, and holds our institutions and Government in very high estimation. He holds office not for its salary, (he being very wealthy and without a family) but solely to give the Government the benefit of his experience and services.

The office the Minister of Finance is held by our late United States Commissioner from Illinois, a native of New York. He is a gentleman of fine talents and general information.

The Minister of the Interior is a native, brother of the King. He is well educated and is very popular. On the whole, the Government is a very good one.

As I have already said, the natives are quiet and happy, easily governed, kind in their disposition, very friendly to all foreigners, and especially Americans. Many of them are well educated, especially the females, who are intelligent and genteel. The higher class dress with great aste, and life the foreigners, some of them are pretty. The lower class, kanakas, (men), also dress like foreigners, but the wahine (women) of that class dress in very loose dresses, often made of fine silks, but frequently go barefooted. All classes, native and foreign, ride on horseback, and at full speed. The wahines ride as fast as men do, and very gracefully. It is a fine sight to see of an evening hundreds of them on horseback, with long scarfs “thrown to the breeze.” All classes look neat and clean. No people pay greater attention tom personal cleanliness. As a race, the natives, in size and personal appearance, I think are greatly superior to the Chinese, Japanese, or any of the Polynesian race I have seen.

The whole area of all the islands is about six thousand square miles, or three million, eight hundred and forty thousand acres. They are within an area of about three hundred and fifty miles, and in latitude from 20 to 22 they are called the “pathway” to China and Japan. The climate is a very equably one. The thermometer varying from 68 to 80 all year round. It is never oppressively hot in the day, and always pleasant at night, never too warm to dispense with a blanket.

Every species of fruit raised in the tropics, are grown on some of the Islands, and very many kinds not found on other islands. The same may be said of vegetables of almost every kind. Wheat and Indian corn, in some localities, are successfully cultivated, especially wheat. Coffee of a very superior quality has heretofore been extensively and profitably raised. But within the last year or two, an insect has attacked and injured the trees. It is said to be similar to the insects which have done much damage to other coffee growing countries, and for a time almost put a stop to its cultivation, and then wholly disappeared. Doubtless it will be the same on these Islands. Sugar is, and will no doubt continue to be, the great staple of the Islands. The cane continues to grow for two years, and attains a size which is almost incredible. It “rations” from eight to ten years-never, of course, being injured by frosts, as they are unknown. The quantity raised is about two tons to an acre-often four and six have been raised-which commands in the San Francisco market from eight to nine cents per pound. Labor (in abundance) is obtained at from five to six dollars per month, and the whole cost of feeing (the only expense) is about two dollars per month. Lands of a very fine quality can be purchased at from five to ten dollars. It will be seen from the above that sugar can be raised at three cents per pound, and that the profit is immense. The quality of that now being made is very superior.

Grazing is also an extensive and profitable business. The increase of cattle is so great that many thousands have to be killed off to keep the stocks under, and the hides alone saved. I may mention in this connection, that in the year 1793 Vancouver placed on one of the Islands, four head of cattle only, and from their increase some thirty thousand have been killed, and the same number still remains. The beef and mutton are very superior-quite equal to any in Virginia. The living on the Islands is equal to any anywhere. Fish and fowls tame and wild, are supplied in great abundance, and of fine quality. The best fish are kept in large ponds, fed as we feed our poultry, and taken out when wanted.

About eight-tenths of the trade of the islands is with the United States-the larger portion with California. There is, however, a good deal of trade and intercourse with China, Japan, England and France, Germany, &c. Some fifteen or Twenty Governments are represented here by Consuls. The whale fishery, carried on in American vessels, is immense. In former time, some eight or ten millions of dollars worth of oil and bone come into this port alone annually, and some two hundred ships were employed in the business. Of late years, the business has, from various causes, greatly diminished. Still it is of very great importance.

This is said to be the only foreign port in the world in which Americans outnumber all others. The foreigners are, generally speaking, very well informed, and most of them have traveled a great deal and have seen much of the world, and of course have enlarged and liberal views. They are very social, very friendly and moral. The churches (of which they have quite a large number) are better attended than in any country I have seen. They have excellent Ministers, to whom the congregations are much attached. I may mention among them the Rev. S.C. Damon and the Rev. Eli Corwin. I mention these two not to disparage others, but because it has been my good fortune to become better acquainted with them than others.

The great volcano on the island of Hawaii is said to be one of the grandest in the world, and is visited by all travelers who visit the North Pacific. I have not seen it yet, but design doing so in May, when I will attempt to give you a description of that, and many other things which may be worth writing about. I may here say that I have been favored with a view of the ‘Robes’ worn by the King and Queen in state occasions. They are made of the feathers of birds interwoven in fine canvas. The colors are varied, rich and beautiful, only two feathers from each bird. Many, many millions of birds must have been caught, and the two feathers only taken from their plumage. It is said that it has required some seventy or eighty years to complete them. Of course no monied value can be placed on them. When we reflect that all this was the work of “Nature,” having at that day no intercourse with the world, they are indeed remarkable.

The population is about twelve or thirteen thousand. The dwelling houses, many of them built of coral, are very comfortable, and many of them spacious. They are built in the rear of the streets, and the yards are filled with ornamental trees, flowers and shrubbery, all having an air or neatness and comfort. But that which would look strange to us, is to see a considerable town built up without a single chimney. Of course they are not required, as fires are never wanted. On the whole, it is a most agreeable place for a residence. The society, male and female, is very pleasant. I must close this crude letter. 

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