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Sandwich Islands.

[By Charles Smeathman.]

From The Colonial Church Chronicle and Missionary Journal, No. LXXXIII (May, 1854), pages 430-433.

Transcribed by the Right Reverend Dr. Terry Brown
Bishop of Malaita, Church of the Province of Melanesia, 2008


[The following letter, dated 18th April, 1854, was written by an American gentleman, now in England. Three years ago, he was enabled to be of great service in spreading a knowledge of the Gospel in one of those islands; and his testimony as to their present state is valuable, as coming from an eye-witness.]

YOU ask me for some statement about the Sandwich Islands, and the opening they offer for Missionary labour.

They are composed of a group of eleven, containing a native population of some 70,000 to 80,000, and are situated within a few hours' sail of each other. The island of Oahu is the seat of government, where the king (Kamehamaha III.) with his family and suite reside; there too the Parliament assemble and transact the affairs of the kingdom. Each island is divided into districts, which send representatives to the House; and a governor, chosen by His Majesty, resides at each island, who holds a kind of police court, where all cases, criminal and civil, are tried, before being finally decided upon by the chief justice of the supreme court and two puisne judges; the former, an American practitioner of great eminence, who has been there many years; and the latter are natives of the islands. Minor police courts are established throughout the islands, presided over by European and native magistrates. The king's household is composed of the Governor of Oahu (a chief of high distinction among his countrymen; the "Premier" (half-bred native--English on the father's side); the "Minister of Foreign Relations" (a Scotch gentleman); the "Collector of Customs" (an American); and the "Prime Minister," said to be His Majesty's chief adviser, also an American. The two princes may also be added, both speaking English well, and warmly disposed to our country. They have both been presented at the British and French Courts.

The law administered is as near to the old Roman law as possible: possessing most of the higher advantages of the English, and fewer of its evils. European lawyers are allowed to practise in their courts as well as natives; and a very good revenue do they bring to the Government. But the main stay of the country is, the commerce carried on by and with foreigners, who reside there in large numbers; more especially in the whaling business. I have seen as many as 250 whalers at anchor in the harbour during the season; they come every year to fit and refit, dispose of their cargoes, and transship their bone and oil to America and to England, in vessels that are always to be found idle at California; consequently, this trade alone brings together a large body of Europeans, particularly of that class who [430/431] most stand in need of spiritual advice, consolation, and exhortation. At the time I was there, between the years 1851 and 1852, on the island of Oahu alone, there were from 1,200 to 1,500 American residents of various professions, trades, and grades,--many with wives and families,--besides from 300 to 500 British, and a vast number of Frenchmen, Spaniards, Portuguese, Germans, and Chinese. The pursuits and occupations of such a concourse are very varied. Large capitalists chiefly engage in coffee and sugar growing, or become large merchants,--and these form a highly respectable class of people.

The islands of Hawaii, Attawai, Moni, and Lahina, are places of rising importance, containing a scattered European population, whose pursuits are more pastoral and agricultural than commercial.

The prevailing religion is Congregationalism; and the American Missionaries have not only converted nearly the whole native population from idolatry to Christianity, but have established schools throughout the whole islands; and in my travels I have rarely met an instance of a child above nine years old not being able to read, write, and cipher: they have great aptitude for learning, particularly arithmetic and geography. I also visited some of the schools during their public examinations, when I have seen from 250 to 350 scholars of both sexes, and was particularly astonished with the rapidity and precision with which they answered questions, even in algebra and geography. At the college of Lahina they receive a very liberal education, fitting them for the legal and ministerial professions; and some really clever excellent men have been educated at that college.

Every village has its school or place of worship; one building serving both purposes where the population is thin. Some are built of stone, and others of wood and thatch, according to the means of the people and wants of the place; many of them capable of containing from 1,500 to 2,000 people. I travelled round the island of Hawaii, in company with my friend, the Rev. Mr. Brenchley (who once had a living, I believe, at Maidstone, Kent); and from visiting the natives in their most retired situations, where they have had but little intercourse with Europeans beyond the Missionaries, I had ample opportunity of seeing their real character. They are gentle, kind, and well-disposed, but not over and above industrious. Those who reside at, or frequent the ports and towns, are, I am sorry to say, not so well disposed. The too frequent visits of successful miners from California, and the lavish manner in which they distribute their gold among them, cause them not only to be very covetous, but immoral in their conduct. The force of early evil habits, which under the former dynasties had always been fostered and encouraged, induces many to return to the evil of their ways. Yet, by kindly admonishing and setting them a good example, they are to be reclaimed.

For many years, the Missionaries have been entirely supported by the American Home Mission Board; but since they have discontinued this, and relied upon the natives for support, they have fared but poorly; and several of the Missionaries have been obliged to support themselves by resorting to trading in general merchandise, to the [431/432] injury, I cannot help thinking, of their religious profession. The natives, not being wealthy nor over industrious, felt it as a tax they were ill able and unwilling to bear. Hence many seceded, or returned to their old habits of irreligion and infidelity; or, in most cases, have gone over to the Church of Rome, which there, as every where almost, is to be found with a Bishop and working staff of zealous Clergy, ever labouring and sparing no means to make converts in all directions, in which they are very successful; being entirely supported by the Government of France, they are no burden upon the people. That form of worship, with all its pageantry and ceremonies, has a peculiar charm in the eyes of the natives, and doubtless an almost overpowering influence upon their minds,--as somewhat approaching externally to their old heathenish rites;--they forgetting, or not understanding, the spiritual meaning said to be conveyed by the services of the Church of Rome. They have elegant and spacious churches, built of stone or wood, in all the islands, with always one or two priests attached. At Oahu there is a cathedral, and the Bishop has also established a College, where some forty to fifty native youths are educated in the French and Latin languages, besides writing, arithmetic, and geography.

Under these circumstances, brief and imperfect as my sketch may appear, you will see that a clergyman going out there has many difficulties to contend against; he requires to be known to the people--to be well acquainted with their peculiar traits--and should not by any means be dependent upon them for his maintenance, if he hopes to succeed in his mission. Moreover, amidst such a mixed population, he requires to be free from prejudices and bigotry, and to win, not to drive, people to religion, or he will be almost sure to fail.

Man abroad is a very different being from what we find him in an old settled country, with all his fixed views, habits, and different course of education.

I landed there in March, 1851, from San Francisco, where I had been a theological student, and was requested by the British residents to establish and conduct the services of the Church, as they had none. After obtaining the King's sanction, who very handsomely gave us full permission to fit up the Old Court-house, we opened divine service with about seventy persons, and before six months, through the blessing of God, we numbered a congregation of two hundred, which was gradually being added to up to the hour of my departure.

At the expiration of twelve months I was obliged, from delicate health, to return to San Francisco. The congregation, with the church committee, held a meeting, and presented me with 100l. for my humble services, and solicited me to return to them whenever I was ordained; that if I did, they would make provision, as far as they were able, for my maintenance, and by their united efforts, in the course of time, erect a suitable church. A very severe rheumatic fever attacked me at San Francisco, a complaint very prevalent in those parts; confining me for six weeks to my bed, totally depriving me of the use of my limbs. It being the decided opinion of my physician that [432/433] I should take a long sea voyage, as soon as I was sufficiently restored, I sailed for Port Phillip, where I had formerly been an old resident.

I am happy to say that at Oahu I succeeded in establishing a Sunday-school, numbering fourteen to twenty, several half-castes among them.

Several American Episcopalians joined us, and contributed books to the Sunday-school. We also raised by subscription a musical instrument; the ladies and gentlemen formed a choir, and chanted portions of our beautiful liturgy. An harmonicon would be a very desirable instrument to take out. The natives have fine, sweet, musical voices, excellent taste for music, readily acquire it, and are very fond of it.

It is sadly painful to know that our Church is not represented there, and that so many of our fellow-countrymen are without the means of obtaining those high, lasting, and consoling benefits and blessings it bestows, and which no true Churchman believes he will or can find elsewhere.

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