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The Four Kamehamehas

From Mission Life, Vol. VI (March 1, 1869), pages 135-142.


The Four Kamehamehas.

IF you look at the map of the Pacific Ocean, you will see, at about a third of the distance between California and China, on the American side, the Sandwich Islands. The people who live in them are olive-complexioned, with long straight hair; in fact, of the Malay race, with which the greater part of Polynesia is peopled. A hundred years ago they were as savage and ignorant as any race of heathen cannibals in any part of the world, without the slightest notion of self-restraint or respect for other men's rights or lives. They were in complete subjection to their chief, and had a complex mythology of gods and goddesses, the very mention of whose names made them shrink in superstitious terror.

Yet these people, notwithstanding, managed to lead a sort of contented animal life in the midst of their ignorance and savagery. They had no troubles of conscience, for they did not know the difference between right and wrong; they had no anxiety about clothing, for they wore little besides wreaths of flowers; nor about eating, for the climate of their beautiful islands produces food with little more than a fortnight's work for a whole year. In such a state they were when Captain Cook discovered the westernmost of the islands in 1778.

Cook, with his two ships, the "Resolution" and the "Discovery," came in sight of the people of Hawaii; and those who saw them immediately discovered that it was one of their gods,--a certain Lono--who had sailed away in a three-cornered canoe to a foreign land, promising to return in the aftertimes on an island bearing cocoa-nut trees, pigs, and dogs. The Hawaiians thought that Cook's ships must be islands, and the masts trees; the spies who went to examine the ships reported that the people on board (sailors with cocked hats) had their heads horned like the moon, that they had fires burning in their mouths, and that whenever they wanted anything they took it out of their bodies, pockets being unknown in Hawaii.

At first, the Hawaiians treated Cook like a god, and sacrificed a pig to him; and Cook, probably not thinking it was worth his [135/137] [Engraving of "ST. ANDREW'S PRIORY--FOR THE GIRLS' BOARDING SCHOOL, HONOLULU. page 136] while to undeceive them, left them to find out their own error. This they did before long, for the islanders, as usual, did not receive the best of treatment from the white strangers, and their reverence changed to resentment, when some outrage was committed by one of the islanders; and Captain Cook, going on shore to avenge it, was killed in a fray. His body was sacrificed, and those of his bones which were not returned to the ship were laid up by the priests and worshipped.

Until this time each of the islands had been under a separate chief; but, soon after this, a young chief, named Kamehameha, conceived the thought of uniting all the islands in one kingdom under himself. When Captain Cook came to the country, Kamehameha was about twenty-one years old,--a strong, active young man, with more remarkable mental powers than were (at least at that time) commonly to be found among the barbarous islanders of the Pacific. He was not handsome, and his face had a savage expression, which did not prepossess people in his favour; but he was certainly more intelligent, and more appreciative of civilisation than his contemporaries. One by one he conquered the neighbouring islands, until he had made himself master of the whole group, and raised himself from the rank of an obscure chieftain to that of a king.

In 1793 Captain Vancouver visited Hawaii, and gained considerable influence over the mind of the king. He, a worthy and upright British seaman, seems to have given the king an impression of English greatness and civilisation which Kamehameha never forgot. Henceforth he seemed to wish to do everything which could give his people an impulse in the direction of European civilisation. Vancouver had spoken to him of Christianity, and Kamehameha expressed to him a strong desire to have religious instructor sent to his island. But England was busy attending to French revolutions, and guarding against French invasions; and Kamehameha's request passed unnoticed. He lived and died a heathen, and a valiant defender of idolatry.

In 1819 Kamehameha I. died. His last hours must have been anything but tranquil; priests, doctors, and chiefs crowded round him, bringing him food and new idols, and carrying him from house to house, so that he might lie with his head in one hut and his feet in another. When it was known that he was [137/138] dead, his people burst into transports of grief; and one of them proposed that, by way of doing honour to the deceased, they should eat his corpse raw. The others, however, objected to this method of honourable burial, and his obsequies were only marked by the slaughter of three hundred dogs, and by many of his friends knocking out their front teeth, and otherwise mutilating themselves.

Kamehameha was succeeded by his son Lilolého, called Kamehameha II. He had much less character than his father; he was good-natured, indolent, and dissipated, and given to over-much drink. Whereas his father had ruled the nation with a rod of iron, Lilolého let them do much as they liked. The old rules of heathenism had become oppressive to the Hawaiians; intercourse with Europeans, though they had not learnt Christianity by it, had taught them to disbelieve their old ideas; and the women especially, who were punished with death for the infringement of several foolish and absurd rules, were quite ready for a change of régime. At last the King's mother persuaded him to lead the movement, and with one consent the whole nation joined him, and resolved to give up their former superstitions, break their idols, destroy their temples, and, in fact, do without any religion at all. Some disturbances, though of no great importance, followed the overthrow of idolatry; but they were at last suppressed, and the oppressive customs which had hitherto held ground were done away with for ever.

Some young Hawaiians had been taken to the United States, and there educated; and, having become Christians, they wished to bring the truth they had themselves learnt to the knowledge of their countrymen. Some Congregationalist ministers, therefore, resolved to accompany them as Missionaries, and in 1820 they reached Hawaii. There was now no system of idolatry to contend with, and their preaching proved remarkably successful. In a short time, the Sandwich Islands had become, at lest nominally, Christian.

In the island of Hawaii there is a volcano, called Kilauea, the crater of which is the largest in the world. It is often in active eruption; and perhaps it is natural that its cloud-capped head should have been thought to be the abode of a demon goddess named Pele; for the lovely, sunny plains of the island seemed to be an entirely different region from this mountain range; and [138/139] when Christianity had been received by the people of Hawaii, the superstitions of heathenism had clung about the mountain, like the clouds about its head. Awful noises were from time to time heard under-ground, and the ground emitted puffs of hot steam and burning lava; while the crater itself was a lake of liquid fire, seething around two great cones of lava in the midst; and on the bushes near it, a curious fibrous substance, like spun glass, hung like cobwebs, and was called Pele's hair. The priest of Pele lived as near the summit of the mountain as they could, and the berries which grew on the mountain were called sacred to the goddess. Even after the island had become nominally Christian, the goddess Pele was still revered and dreaded; and Kapiolani, a Christian chieftainess, resolved to brave her in her own domain, and show that she was utterly powerless and helpless. So she climbed the mountain, attended by a concourse of people, until she stood upon the edge of the crater. The priests of Pele exhorted her to give up her project; but she replied she came to prove how far greater was the God of the Christians than the goddess of the volcano; that He would keep her safe, and that she did not fear Pele's wrath. Accordingly, she ate some of the sacred berries, and threw others into the crater; and then, after praising God aloud, returned to her friends, to urge them to forsake the worship of Pele, and serve God.

As always happens, however, in the conversion of a heathen nation, it is much easier to destroy idolatry than to raise the nation to Christianity; and so it proved with the Hawaiians. The American Missionaries, good and excellent as they were, seem, in some instances, to have failed in judgment, and by the severity of their laws against social and moral evils, to have produced hypocrisy instead of obedience. Such persons as Kapiolani were, unfortunately, too rare in Hawaii; and characters like those of Kamehameha II. and his successor were typical of the bulk of the people of the island.

The king had his queen came to England in the year 1824, and there both died of measles. He was succeeded by his son, Kamehameha III.

Kamehameha III. had a long and important reign, lasting for thirty years; but our space does not allow us to give many details about it. The islands gradually became more civilised under his sway, and when he died, in 1854, an entirely different generation [139/140] was living from that which had known the old days of heathenism. But the population of the islands, once so numerous, had gradually begun to lessen; it seems as if the doom of the dark races, to die out wherever the white man sets his foot, had fallen upon the promising islands of Hawaii.

In 1854 Kamehameha IV. came to the throne. At the commencement of his reign his character seemed to approach too much to those of his predecessors; he was wild and dissipated, like them; and the American Missionaries did not hope much from his beginning, though he was humane and intellectual. Two years after his accession, he married Emma, the daughter of a Hawaiian chieftain, and the grand-daughter of an English-man, John Young, who had settled in the island under Kamehameha II. She had been carefully educated by a Dr. Rooke, a physician residing in the islands; and her influence over the king came gradually to change his character, and to make him all that his best friends should have wished to see him. Two years afterwards they had a child, an heir to the throne, and great were the rejoicings in Hawaii.

In 1860 the King and Queen sent a request to the British Government for a Bishop and clergy to be sent out to them. After considering the claims of the Congregationalist form of church government, hitherto the only one officially recognised in the island; after weighing the matters which were wanting in them--the comparative dreariness and heaviness of their services to an unintellectual and still half-barbarous people, who were gradually, it seemed, being attracted to the Church of Rome by the greater relief to ear and eye afforded by the services of that Mission--they came to the conclusion that the Church of England had the form of worship which would be most suitable to them, together with the great truths held in common with other Protestant bodies, which the Romish Church could not give them. In 1862 Bishop Staley was sent out to Hawaii as Missionary Bishop of Honolulu.

But just before his arrival, the joy of the King and Queen had been changed into mourning; the little prince, now four years old, had been attacked by disease of the brain, and had died after a few days' illness. He was their only child--they never had another.

In the trial the sympathy of the Bishop and his wife was very [140/141] grateful to the bereaved parents, and thenceforth to the King, who, if not a professedly religious person, had for some time been living respectably, and steadily attending to the duties of his office, became a true and earnest Christian man. He devoted himself to his royal duties more assiduously than ever, and spent his spare time in translating our English Prayer Book into Hawaiian. But a tinge of sadness was thenceforth cast upon his mind. He could not forget the sins of his youth, which he now repented so bitterly; neither could he put from his memory the little face which had gone from him, the loss of which had recalled him to his better mind; and one who was accustomed to be daily in his society remarked of him "If ever I saw a broken-hearted man, it is the King."

On one occasion, when the King was making a tour through the island of Hawaii with the Bishop, the latter had to go on to a village fifteen miles distant, and left the King to spend his Sunday at a country house which he possessed, where he had never stayed since the death of his little boy. The next morning the King and his party attended a little meeting-house of the Congregationalists, served by a native preacher, who preached a strong Calvinist sermon, in which his zeal outran his discretion, and, no doubt, involuntarily caricaturing the doctrines of his teachers, he descanted at large upon the subject of eternal punishment, apparently losing sight of the general drift of the Bible, and of the aspect in which our Father in heaven is there presented to us. The King could not bear to think that his people should be taught no better ideas of the truth than this, and he announced that he would hold another service in the afternoon. The chapel was crowded with natives, and the King, putting on a white surplice, mounted the pulpit, and preached another kind of sermon, taking for his text the words, "Jesus wept." Instead of trying to terrify his hearers into holiness of life by startling imaginary descriptions of future punishment, the King spoke of the love of God constraining us, and of the hope and of the incentive to goodness which that idea gives. He spoke from his own experience, and his people listened in awe and reverence. That evening he had the first attack of a disease which a few months later released him from a life which had become very weary to him. He died on the 30th of November, 1863, watched over by his devoted wife with tender care to the last.

[142] Poor Queen Emma was struck deeply by this second blow; but her spirit bore up against her grief, and a year or two ago she paid a visit to England, in the course of which she visited many places in order to obtain subscriptions towards supporting the Church of England Mission in her own country. Her portrait presents the appearance of a gentle, sorrow-stricken woman, whose own personal hope and fears have all died away, and passed into desires and labours for the good of her Church and country.

This sketch of the fourth Kamehameha, compared with that of the first, shows, perhaps more plainly than many descriptions, how great a change has passed over the islands. The first Kamehameha was a man of remarkable mental powers, but he was a savage barbarian; the fourth was a man of no remarkable force of character, but a true Christian gentleman.

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