As we rode one day near the sea-shore I heard voices among the rocks, and sending the guide ahead with the horses, I walked over to the shore with the lady and children who were my companions. There we saw a sight characteristic of these islands. Three women decently clothed in a garment which covered them from head to foot, and a man with only a breech-clout on, were dashing into the surf, picking up sea-moss, and a little univalve shell, a limpet, which they flung into small baskets which hung from their shoulders. They were, in fact, getting their suppers, and they were quite as much surprised at our appearance as we at theirs. They came out politely, and showed the children what was in their baskets; the man, understanding that our horses had gone ahead, kindly volunteered to pilot us over the rocks to a village near by. I do not imagine that he was embarrassed at his lack of clothing, and after the first shock of surprise I am quite sure we were more inclined to admire his straight muscular figure and his shining dark skin than to complain of his nakedness. Presently, however, he slipped away into the bush, and re-appeared in a hat, and a shirt which was so short that even my little girl burst into laughter at this ridiculous and futile effort toward decency; and thus arrayed, and with the kindly and gracious smile which illuminates a Hawaiian's face when he puts himself to some trouble on your account, this funny guide led us to our horses.
In the evening I related this incident to our host, an old resident, and said, "I suppose this man could read?" "Read!" he replied; "he can read and write as well as you. I know him very well; he is a prosperous man, and is to be the next justice of the peace in that district. He doubtless went home and spent the remainder of the afternoon in reading his newspaper."
Native life in the Islands is full of such contrasts, and I found, on examining the labor contracts on several sugar-plantations, that almost without exception the working people signed their own names.
According to a census taken in December, 1872, the Hawaiian Islands contained 56,897 souls, of whom 51,531 were natives and half-castes, and 5366 were foreigners. In six years the native population had decreased 7234, and the foreigners had increased 1172. Since 1866, therefore, the Islands have lost 6062 souls.
Of the foreigners the Chinese are the most numerous, outnumbering all the other foreign nationalities together except the Americans. Chinese have been brought over here as coolie laborers on the plantations. They readily intermarry with the native women, and these unions are usually fruitful of healthy and bright children. It is said that the Chinese insist upon taking better care of their children than the native women, uninstructed, usually give them, and that therefore the Chinese half-caste families are more thrifty than those of the pure blood Hawaiians. Moreover, the Chinaman takes care of his wife. He endeavors to form her habits upon the pattern of his own; and requires of her the performance of fixed duties, which add to her happiness and health. In fact, the number of half-castes of all races has increased thirty per cent. in the last six years.
The native population is admirably cared for by the authorities. The Islands are divided for various governmental purposes into districts; and in every district where the people are much scattered the government places a physician—a man of skill and character—to whom it gives a small salary for attending upon the common people, and he is, I believe, expected to make a tour of his district at stated intervals. Of course he is allowed to practice besides for pay. The sugar planters also usually provide medical attendance for their laborers.
The Government maintains a careful guard over the schools. A compulsory education law obliges parents, under fixed penalties, to send their children to school; and besides the common or primary schools, there are a number of academies, most of which receive some help from the Government, while all are under Government supervision. The census gives the number of children between six and fifteen years of age at 6931; and there are 324 teachers, or one teacher for every twenty-seven children in the whole group. Attendance at school is, I suspect, more general here than in any other country in the world. The last report of W.P. Kamakau, the President of the Board of Education, made in March, 1872, returns 8287 children actually attending upon 245 schools of various grades, 202 being common schools. Under this system there is scarcely a Hawaiian of proper age who can not both read and write.
Churches they maintain by voluntary effort, and their contributions are very liberal. They take a pride in such organizations. Dr. Coan's native church at Hilo contributes $1200 per year to foreign missions.
There are no beggars, and no public paupers except the insane, who are cared for in an asylum near Honolulu, and the lepers, who are confined upon a part of Molokai. The convicts and the boys in the reform school contribute to their own support by their labor. The Queen's Hospital is only for curable cases, and the people take care of their own infirm, aged and otherwise incapable dependents.
It seems to me that very unusual judgment has been shown in the manner in which benevolent and penal institutions have been created and managed among these people; for the tendency almost everywhere in countries which call themselves more highly civilized is to make the poor dependent upon charity, and thus a fatal blow is struck at their character and respectability. Here, partly of course because the means of living are very abundant and easily got, but also, I think, because the government has been wisely managed, the people have not been taught to look toward public charity for relief; and though we Americans, who live in a big country, are apt to think slightingly of what some one called a toy kingdom, any one who has undertaken to manage or organize even a small community at home will recognize the fact that it is a task beset by difficulties.
But in these Islands a state, a society, has been created within a quarter of a century, and it has been very ably done. I am glad that it has been done mainly by Americans. Chief-justice Lee, now dead, but whose memory is deservedly cherished here; Dr. Judd, who died in August, 1873; Mr. C.C. Harris, lately Minister of Foreign Relations, and for many years occupying different prominent positions in the Government; Dr. J. Mott Smith, lately the Minister of Finance; Chief-justice Allen, and Mr. Armstrong, long at the head of the Educational Department, the father of General Armstrong, President of the Hampton University in Virginia, deserve, perhaps, the chief credit for this work. They were the organizers who supplemented the labors of the missionaries; and, fortunately for the native people, they were all men of honor, of self-restraint, of goodness of heart, who knew how to rule wisely and not too much, and who protected the people without destroying their independence. What they have done would have given them fame had it not been done two thousand miles from the nearest continent, and at least five thousand from any place where reputations are made.
Of a total native population of 51,531, 6580 are returned by the census as freeholders—more than one in every eight. Only 4772 are returned as plantation laborers, and of these probably a third are Chinese; 2115 returned themselves as mechanics, which is a very large proportion of the total able-bodied population. I believe that both freeholders and mechanics find employment on the plantations as occasional laborers.
A people so circumstanced, well taught in schools, freeholders to a large extent, living in a mild and salubrious climate, and with cheap and proper food, ought not, one would say, to decrease. There are, of course, several reasons for their very rapid decrease, and all of them come from contact with the whites. These brought among them diseases which have corrupted their blood, and made them infertile and of poor stamina. But to this, which is the chief cause, must be added, I suspect, another less generally acknowledged.
The deleterious habit of wearing clothes has, I do not doubt, done much to kill off the Hawaiian people. If you think for a moment, you will see that to adopt civilized habits was for them to make a prodigious change in their ways of life. Formerly the maro and the slight covering of the tapa alone shielded them from the sun and rain. Their bodies became hardy by exposure. Their employments—fishing, taro-planting, tapa-making, bird-catching, canoe-making—were all laborious, and pursued out-of-doors. Their grass houses, with openings for doors and windows, were, at any rate, tolerably well ventilated. Take the man accustomed thus to live, and put shoes on his feet, a hat on his head, a shirt on his back, and trowsers about his legs, and lodge him in a house with close-shutting doors and windows, and you expose his constitution to a very serious strain, especially in a country where there is a good deal of rain. Being, after all, but half civilized, he will probably sleep in a wet shirt, or cumber his feet with wet shoes; he will most likely neglect to open his windows at night, and poison himself and his family with bad air, to the influence of which, besides, his unaccustomed lungs will be peculiarly liable; he will live a less active life under his changed conditions; and altogether the poor fellow must have an uncommonly fine constitution to resist it all and escape with his life. At the best, his system will be relaxed, his power of resistance will be lessened, his chances of recovery will be diminished in the same degree as his chances of falling ill are increased. If now you throw in some special disease, corrupting the blood, and transmitted with fatal certainty to the progeny, the wonder is that a people so situated have not died out in a single generation.
In fact they have died out pretty fast, though there is reason to believe that the mortality rate has largely decreased in the last three years; and careful observers believe even that in the last year there has been an actual increase, rather than a decrease in the native and half caste population. In 1832 the Islands had a population of 130,315 souls; in 1836 there were but 108,579; in 1840, only 84,165, of whom 1962 were foreigners; in 1850, 69,800, of whom 3216 were foreigners; and in 1860, 62,959, of whom 4194 were foreigners. The native population has decreased over sixty per cent. in forty years.
In the same period the foreigners have increased very slowly, until there are now in all 5366 foreigners and persons born here, but of foreign parentage, on the Islands. You will see that while the Hawaiians have so rapidly decreased that all over the Islands you notice, in waste fields and desolate house places, the marks of this loss, foreigners have not been attracted to fill up their places. And this in spite of the facts that the climate is mild and healthful, the price of living cheap, the Government liberal, the taxes low, and life and property as secure as in any part of the world. One would think that a country which offers all these advantages must be a paradise for poor men; and I do not wonder that in the United States there is frequent talk of "annexing the Islands." But, in fact, they offer no advantages, aside from those I have named, to white settlers, and they have such serious natural disabilities as will always—or, at least, for the next two or three millions of years—repel our American people, and all other white settlers.
In the first place, there is very little of what we call agricultural land on the Islands. They are only mountains rising from the sea, with extremely little alluvial bottom, and that usually cut up by torrents, and water-washed into gulches, until it is difficult in many parts to find a fair field of even fifty acres. From these narrow bottoms, where they exist, you look into deep gorges or valleys, out of which issue the streams which force their way through the lower fields into the sea. These valleys are never extensive, and are always very much broken and contracted. They are useless for common agricultural purposes. In several the culture of coffee has been begun; but they are so inaccessible, the roads into them are so difficult, and the area of arable soil they contain is, after all, so insignificant, that, even for so valuable a product as coffee, transportation is found to be costly.
But it is along and in the streams which rush through the bottoms of these narrow gorges that the Hawaiian is most at home. Go into any of these valleys, and you will see a surprising sight: along the whole narrow bottom, and climbing often in terraces the steep hill-sides, you will see the little taro patches, skillfully laid so as to catch the water, either directly from the main stream, or from canals taking water out above.
Such a taro patch oftenest contains a sixteenth, less frequently an eighth of an acre. It consists of soil painfully brought down from above, and secured by means of substantial stone walls, plastered with mud and covered with grass, strong enough to resist the force of the torrent. Each little patch or flat is so laid that a part of the stream shall flow over it without carrying away the soil; indeed, it is expected to leave some sediment. And as you look up such a valley you see terrace after terrace of taro rising before you, the patches often fifty or sixty feet above the brawling stream, but each receiving its proper proportion of water.
Near by or among these small holdings stand the grass houses of the proprietors, and you may see them and their wives, their clothing tucked up, standing over their knees in water, planting or cultivating the crop. Here the Hawaiian is at home. His horse finds its scanty living on the grass which fringes the taro patches; indeed, you may see horses here standing belly deep in fresh water, and feeding on the grasses which grow on the bottom; and again you find horses raised in the drier parts of the islands that do not know what water is, never having drunk any thing wetter than the dew on the grass. Among the taro patches the house place is as narrow as a fishing schooner's deck—"two steps and overboard." If you want to walk, it must be on the dikes within which the taro land is confined; and if you ride, it must be in the middle of the rapid mountain torrent, or along a narrow bridle-path high up on the precipitous side of the mountain.
Down near the shore are fish ponds, with wicker gates which admit the small fry from the sea, but keep in the large fish. Many of these ponds are hundreds of acres in area, and from them the Hawaiian draws one of his favorite dishes. Then there may be cocoa-nuts; there are sure to be bananas and guavas. Beef costs but a trifle, and hogs fatten on taro. The pandanus furnishes him material for his mats, and of mats he makes his bed, as well as the floor of his house.
In short, such a gorge or valley as I have tried to describe to you furnishes in its various parts, including the sea-shore, all that is needed to make the Hawaiian prosperous; and I have not seen one which had not its neatly kept school-house and church, and half a dozen framed houses scattered among the humbler grass huts, to mark the greater wealth of some—for the Hawaiian holds that the wooden house is a mark of thrift and respectability.
But the same valley which now supports twenty or thirty native families in comfort and happiness, and which, no doubt, once yielded food and all the appliances of life in abundance to one or two hundred, would not tempt any white man of any nation in the world to live in it, and a thousand such gorges would not add materially to the prosperity of any white nation. That is to say, the country is admirably adapted to its native people. It favors, as it doubtless compelled and formed, all their habits and customs. But it would repel any one else, and an American farmer would not give a hundred dollars for the whole Wailuku Valley—if he had to live in it and work it—though it would be worth many thousands to the natives if it were once more populous as of old.
As you examine the works of the old Hawaiians, their fish ponds, their irrigation canals, their long miles of walls inclosing ponds and taro fields, you will not only see the proofs that the Islands were formerly far more populous than now, but you will get a respect for the feudal system of which these works are the remains.
The Hawaiian people, when they first became known to the world, were several stages removed from mere savagery. They had elaborated a tolerably perfect system of government and of land tenure, which has since been swept away, as was inevitable, but which served its day very well indeed. Under this system the chiefs owned every thing. The common people were their retainers—followers in war and servants in peace. The chief, according to an old Hawaiian proverb, owned "all the land, all the sea, and all the iron cast up by the sea."
The land was carefully parceled out among the chiefs, upon the plan of securing to each one from his own land all that he and his retainers needed for their lives. What they chiefly required was taro ground, the sea for fish, the mulberry for tapa, and timber land for canoes; but they required also ti leaves in which to wrap their parcels, and flowers of which to make their les, or flower necklaces. And I have seen modern surveys of old "lands" in which the lines were run very irregularly, and in some cases oven outlying patches were added, because a straight line from mountain to sea was found to exclude some one product, even so trifling as the yellow flowers of which les are often made.
On such a "land," and from it, the chief and his people lived. He appears to have been the brains and they the hands to work it. They owed him two days' labor in every seven, in which they cultivated his taro, cleaned his fish pond, caught fish for him, opened paths, made or transported canoes, and did generally what he required. The remainder of the time was their own, to cultivate such patches of taro as he allowed them to occupy, or to do what they pleased. For any important public work he could call out all Hawaiian Warriorshis people, and oblige them to labor as long as he chose, and thus were built the surprisingly solid and extensive walls which enclose the old fish ponds, and many irrigating canals which show not only long continued industry, but quite astonishing skill for so rude a people.
The chief was supreme ruler over his people; they lived by his tolerance, for they owned absolutely nothing, neither land, nor house, nor food, nor wife, nor child. A high chief was approached only with abject gestures, and no one dared resist his acts or dispute his will. The sense of obedience must have been very strong, for it has survived every change; and only the other day a friend of mine saw a Hawaiian lady, a chiefess, but the wife of an American, and herself tenderly nurtured and a woman of education and refinement, boxing the ears of a tall native, whom she had caught furiously abusing his wife, and the man bore his punishment as meekly as a child. "Why?" "He knows I am his chief, and he would not dare raise even an angry look toward me; he would not think of it, even," was her reply, when she was asked how she had courage to interfere in what was a very violent quarrel. Yet the present law recognizes no allegiance due to a chief.
When the young king Lunalilo returned to the palace after the coronation, the pipe-bearer, an old native retainer, approached him on his knees, and was shocked at being ordered to get up and act like a man. The older natives to this day approach a chief or chiefess only with humble and deprecatory bows; and wherever a chief or chiefess travels, the native people along the road make offerings of the fruits of the ground, and even of articles of clothing and adornment. One of the curious sights of Honolulu to us travelers, last spring, was to see long processions of native people, men, women, and children, marching to the palace to lay their offerings before the king, who is a high chief. Each brought something—a man would walk gravely along with a pig under his arm; after him followed perhaps a little child with half a dozen bananas, a woman with a chicken tied by a string, a girl with a handkerchief full of eggs, a boy with a cocoa-nut, an old woman with a calabash of poi, and so on. In the palace yard all this was laid in a heap before the young king, who thereupon said thank you, and, with a few kind words, dismissed the people to their homes.
As an illustration of the power of the old chiefs, as well as of the density of the population in former times, it is related that when the wall inclosing a certain fish pond on the windward side of Oahu was to be built, the chief then ruling over that land gave notice that on a certain day every man, woman, and child within his domain must appear at a designated point, bearing a stone. The wall, which stands yet, is half a mile long, well built, and probably six feet high; and it was begun and completed in that one day.
As the chief was the ruler, the people looked to him for food in a time of scarcity. He directed their labors; he protected them against wrong from others; and as it was his pride that his retainers should be more numerous and more prosperous than those of the neighboring chief, if the head possessed brains, no doubt the people were made content. Food was abundant; commerce was unknown; the chief could not eat or waste more than his people could easily produce for him; and until disturbing causes came in with Captain Cook, no doubt feudalism wrought satisfactory results here. One wonders how it was invented among such a people, or who it was that first had genius enough to insist on obedience, to make rules, to prescribe the tabu, and, in short, to evolve order out of chaos.
The tabu was a most ingenious and useful device; and when you hear of the uses to which it was put, and of its effectiveness, you feel surprised that it was not found elsewhere as an appurtenance of the feudal machinery. Thus the chief allowed his people to fish in the part of the ocean which he owned—which fronted his "land," that is to say. He tabued one or two kinds of fish, however; these they were forbidden to catch; but as a fisherman can not, even in these islands, exercise a choice as to the fish which shall enter his net or bite at his hook, it followed that the tabued fish were caught—-but then they were at once rendered up to the chief. One variety of taro, which makes poi of a pink color, was tabued and reserved for the chiefs. Some birds were tabued on account of their feathers; one especially, a black bird which has a small yellow feather under each wing. The great feather cloak of Kamehameha I., which is still kept as a sign of royalty, is made of these feathers, and contains probably several thousand of them, thus gathered, two from each bird.
Further, a tabu prohibited women from eating with men, even with their husbands; and when, on the death of the first Kamehameha, his Queen Kahumanu, an energetic and fearless virago, dared for the first time to eat with her son, a cry of horror went up as though "great Pan was dead;" and this bold act really broke the power of the heathen priests.
A tabu forbade women to eat cocoa nuts and some other articles of food; and the prohibition appears to have been used also to compel sanitary and other useful restraints, for I have been told that a tabu preserved girls from marriage until they had attained a certain age, eighteen, I believe; and to this and some other similar regulations, rigorously enforced in the old times, I have heard old residents attribute the fertility of the race before foreigners came in.
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Notes About Book:
Source: Nordhoff, Charles. Northern California, Oregon, and the Sandwich Islands. Harper and Brothers, Publishers, 1875.
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