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An Early Missionary
Circles the Big Island
by Betty Fullard-Leo     

William Ellis

Excerpts in this article are from the books, Hawaiian Tour by William Ellis, published 1826, and Polynesian Researches, Hawai‘i, Journal of William Ellis, published 1969.

Just as American missionaries were establishing missions in the Pacific in the 1800s, so were British missionaries. In 1822, the Reverend William Ellis had been living in Tahiti, studying the language since 1816, when he was given the opportunity to visit Hawai‘i, then called the Sandwich Islands. He caught a ride aboard the British colonial cutter, Mermaid, which had stopped at Huahine on its way to deliver a gift from the British king to King Kamehameha. The gift was a schooner, given in appreciation of King Kamehameha’s aid to English vessels that had long touched at the Sandwich Islands.

Ellis, who was a copious note taker, was able to leave one of the most complete records of early life in the Hawaiian Islands because his long study of the Tahitian language allowed him to communicate with the Pacific Islanders. He described his arrival off Kawaihae in March, 1822: “We were met by a little boat with five persons on board...As our boats approached, one of the natives hailed us with ‘Aroha,’ peace, or attachment....Having inquired the name of the place, we asked where Tamehameha (King Kamehameha) was? they replied, ‘He is dead,’ ‘Who is king now?’ was our next inquiry: they answered, ‘His son Rihoriho (Liholiho).”

The Big Island chief Kuakini was invited to come on board. Ellis wrote, “There was a great degree of native dignity about this chief, who appeared to be about five and twenty years of age, tall, stout, well made and remarkably handsome. He told us his name was Kuakini; that his sister was the queen-dowager; his brother governor of the adjacent island of Maui, and himself governor of Hawai‘i. He entered very freely into conversation with Auna, and the other Tahitians on board, and expressed his desire to learn to read and write.”

Ellis described Hawaiian chiefs in general as “tall and stout, and their personal appearance so much superior to that of the common people that some have imagined them a distinct race. This, however, is not the fact; the great care taken of them in childhood, and their better living have probably occasioned the difference.”

In 1822, Ellis figured the population of the islands was 130,000 to 150,000, with about 85,000 people living on the Big Island. At the time of discovery in 1779, the population had been estimated at 400,000, and though Ellis thought that to be high, he noted, “The rapid depopulation which has most certainly taken place within the last fifty years, is to be attributed to the frequent and desolating wars which marked the early part of Tamehameha’s reign, the ravages of a pestilence brought in the first instance by foreign vessels, which has twice, during the above period swept through the islands; the awful prevalence of infanticide, and the melancholy increase and destructive consequences of depravity and vice.”

Ellis spent four months on O‘ahu before returning to Huahine, but came back to Hawai‘i again in April 1823, when he and three American missionaries toured the Big Island for the purpose of selecting the most propitious sites to establish missionary stations. On June 26, 1823 they weighed anchor in Kailua Bay, not to return to O‘ahu until October 9.

On the Big Island, one of Ellis’ first sermons was preached at the home of Queen Ka‘ahumanu, who, Ellis noted, “next to the king and Karaimoku (Kalaimoku), was considered the person of greatest influence in the island.” Indeed, it was none other than Ka‘ahumanu, King Kamehameha’s favorite wife, who with Keopuolani, the mother of his two sons, had broken the religious kapus (taboos) three years earlier by eating at the same table as the new King Liholiho at a public feast in Kailua-Kona.

As the novelty of the religious services preached by Ellis and his brethren wore off, fewer Hawaiians attended. Wrote Ellis, “We also had frequent occasions to lament the inebriation of the king and many of the chiefs, as well as the extensive prevalence, and disastrous effects of intoxication among the people, but were encouraged by the diligence of Ka‘ahumanu, his favorite queen.”

After one well-attended prayer meeting, Ellis noted, “Ka‘ahumanu directed them to fetch the gods that were lying hid in the holes of the rocks and caves at a distance from the shore. They brought forth great numbers, and in one day burnt no fewer than one hundred and two idols.”

The missionary party traveled south, stopping to view the battle field where Lihohiho had defeated Kekuaokalani (his first cousin), who had opposed the overthrow of the kapu system in 1819. Piles of stones marked the grave of Kekuaokalani and his wife Manona, who had followed him into battle. Ellis wrote, “The wives of warriors often accompanied their husbands into battle, and were frequently slain. They generally followed in the rear, carrying calabashes of water, or of poi, a little dried fish or other portable provision, with which to recruit their husband’s strength when weary, or afford a drought of water when thirsty or faint, but they followed more particularly to be at hand if their husbands should be wounded.”

As the missionary band neared Kealakekua, where Captain Cook had been slain more than fifty years earlier, they paused at a village Ellis called “Kaavakoa.” Here they visited a cave where Cook’s body was said to have been deposited after being removed from the beach at Kealakekua. Ellis wrote that natives told him, “We thought he (Cook) was our god Rono, worshipped as such and after his death reverenced his bones.” Ellis’ narrative continued, “Many of the people express sorrow whenever they think of the captain...they have said, Why did you not come here sooner? Was it because we killed your Captain Cook?”

As the group traveled through the lava covered terrain, past Pu‘uhonua, even then popularly called the City of Refuge at Honaunau, they encountered natives at Papaohaku whose “black hair was in several instances turned up and painted white all round the forehead with a kind of chalk or clay.”

At Nino‘ole, they found a pebbly beach which the natives told them was famous because the stones were able to propagate themselves. The stones were used to make small adzes and hatchets, to use as game pieces in konane (similar to checkers) and also to impart luck to whomever possessed a deified stone.

Sometimes they slept in caverns, more often than not, they reached a village by nightfall where they preached the gospel and were welcomed with curious hospitality.

Near Kilauea, when they discovered ohelo bushes laden with berries, they quickly began to eat the juicy fruit, to the consternation of their native guides. Even though the kapus no longer were in effect, “the natives...begged us to desist, saying we were now within the precincts of Pele’s dominions, to whom they belonged and by whom they were (prohibited) until some had been offered to her and permission to eat them had been asked.” When Pele did not punish them on the spot, the missionaries used the opportunity to point out that theirs was the true god.

When they reached the edge of Halemaumau Crater, “astonishment and awe for some moments rendered us mute... Immediately before us yawned an immense gulf...Fifty-one conical islands, of varied form and size, containing so many craters, rose either round the edge or from the surface of the burning (lava) lake. Twenty-two constantly emitted columns of gray smoke, or pyramids of brilliant flame, and several of these at the same time vomited from their ignited mouths streams of lava, which rolled in blazing torrents down their black indented sides into the boiling mass below.”

Eventually, the missionaries returned along the Hamakua Coast, hiking into Waipi‘o Valley where they marveled at the skill of native surfers frolicking in the waves. “All ranks and ages seem to be equally fond of it. We have seen Karaimoku and Kaikioeva, some of the highest chiefs in the island, both between fifty and sixty years of age, and large corpulent men, balancing themselves on their narrow board, or splashing about in the foam, with as much satisfaction as youths of sixteen.”

On the other hand, all was not play. These were the years vast quantities of sandalwood were being exported to China, and Ellis noted seeing 600 houses on one day’s journey but only 400 people—“almost the whole population being employed in the mountains cutting sandalwood...Before daylight on the 23rd, we were roused by vast multitudes of people passing through the district from Waimea with sandalwood, which had been cut in the adjacent mountains for Karaimoku (Kalaimoku), by the people of Waimea, and which the people of Kohala, as far as the north point, had been ordered to bring down to his storehouse on the beach, for the purpose of its being shipped to O‘ahu. There were between two and three thousand men, carrying each from one to six pieces of sandalwood, according to their size and weight.”

Even the boat on which Ellis left the Big Island was so full of sandalwood “there was not room for any person below, while the decks were crowded with natives.” He watched the shoreline receding, reflecting, “We had made known the nature and consequences of sin; spoken of the love of God; and had exhibited the Lord Jesus Christ as the only Savior, to multitudes who had never before heard his name...” In return, Ellis admitted, “The varied and sublime phenomena of nature had elevated our conceptions of ‘nature’s God;’ the manners and customs of the inhabitants had increased our interest in their welfare; while their superstition, moral degradation, ignorance, and vice, had called forth our sincerest commiseration.”


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Story appeared originally in Coffee Times print magazine and appears online for archival purposes only. Any use or reprinting of these stories without the expressed written consent of the author is prohibited.

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