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Christianity Descends on The Islands

In the 1820s and 1830s, Hawai‘i rulers found themselves between two competing sets of foreigners – merchants and missionaries. American and European merchants hoped to continue to advance their businesses in the relaxed moral atmosphere of the isolated Islands. A big part of their market were the whalers. On the other hand, American Protestant missionaries were preaching and teaching the Hawaiians, seeking to Christianize the native population. (Kashay) White traders and American Protestant missionaries had presented the Hawaiians with two competing visions of life. Ka‘ahumanu and her followers seem to have concluded that an alliance with the missionaries would bring greater religious, political and economic benefits than the future envisioned from the foreign businessmen. By adopting Christianity, Ka‘ahumanu and most of the other Chiefs could claim to rule in the name of the God worshipped by most western leaders, perhaps gaining legitimacy and respect in their eyes. (Kashay) In March 1831, Kaʻahumanu and Kuakini came down hard, imposing moral law in Honolulu. The two restricted liquor licenses, the sale of rum, and gambling. They also tabooed “lewdness, & Sabbath breaking”, meaning that both Hawaiians and foreigners could no longer play games, dance, ride horses, or carouse on Sundays. At a public meeting on April 1, 1831, Kauikeaouli announced that he had sequestered the lands, forts and laws of Honolulu, and had given them to Kaʻahumanu. She, in turn, decreed that future governmental policy would be based on the 10 Commandments, and put Kuakini in charge of enforcement. (Daws) The new Governor threatened that ‘if any transgressed he should take all their property and pull their houses down.’ Under the leadership of a native by the name of ‘Big Ben,’ the Hawaiian police constantly patrolled the streets of Honolulu. As part of their new duties, they invaded private homes, grog shops, and gambling halls, searching for contraband liquor and lawbreakers. In the process, Big Ben’s force confiscated drinks, broke up billiard, bowling, and card games, and wreaked havoc on the lives of the foreign population. (Kashay) For example, as William French rolled a newly purchased cask of wine to his house, he was surrounded by a group of soldiers who confiscated the barrel and took it to the fort overlooking Honolulu harbor. On another occasion, ‘several persons were rolling Ninepins (a bowling game,) the Guard came in & Stole the Balls and Pins’. Under such circumstances, the foreign merchants expressed anger and frustration over the new restrictions. (Kashay) In April 1831, when a group of armed Hawaiian soldiers invaded Mr. Dowsett’s billiard room and tried to stop the men from playing, John Coffin Jones, the US Agent for Commerce, and many others, “told them to fire, that they would play as long as they pleased”. Big Ben then threatened to tear down the building and Jones instructed him to go ahead. Apparently, the soldiers desisted after Richard Charlton rushed to the billiard hall armed with pistols. Leaving Dowsett’s establishment, the soldiers broke into a number of other homes, ransacking them as they searched for hidden caches of rum. The merchants resisted the crackdown violently. For example, on the occasion when the native police stole the foreigners’ bowling balls and pins, the merchants “hustled” some of the guards. Kuakini responded to the traders’ Sabbath breaking by confiscating their horses and forcing them to pay fines before they could retrieve them. Kuakini also clamped down on the makaʻāinana (commoners) by sending a crier around the streets, ordering them to attend church and school and to leave the white men alone. Clearly, the lengths that the foreign businessmen went to resist the moral laws and clashes between the malcontents and commoners indicate that the Christian chiefs’ crackdown had gotten out of hand. (Kashay) The missionaries, supported by the chiefs, were able to extend their sabbatarianism. At the height of the conflicts (storms), “crowd(s) of natives gathered in the streets each Sunday to watch club-wielding policemen topple foreigners from horseback”. (Daws) Somewhat ironically, all seamen, whether pious or otherwise, were concerned to preserve their perceived right to leisure time of a sort on Sundays. Tradition said that only essential work was done on shipboard on the Sabbath, but on most whalers essential work included taking and rendering of whales. Normal leisure patterns might include washing clothes, scrimshawing, overhauling personal possessions in one’s sea chest, or simply relaxing. (Busch) New England captains were familiar with quiet Sundays, but still might be surprised at the extent of regulation in a society where virtually no activities were permitted on the Sabbath aside from religious observances, and certainly not such suspect pagan traditional practices as dancing. That trade on Sunday might be prohibited was no surprise; stores were not open at home either. But other aspects excited comment: “the natives are forbide to do anything not as much as to cook their victuels,” recorded Shadrack Freeman of the Orion at O‘ahu in 1831. (Busch)

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