The Hawaiian Archipelago, by Isabella L. Bird

Letter XVII.

Str. Kilauea.

. . . I have been spending the day at Lahaina on Maui, on my way from Kawaihae to Honolulu. Lahaina is thoroughly beautiful and tropical looking, with its white latticed houses peeping out from under coco palms, breadfruit, candlenut, tamarinds, mangoes, bananas, and oranges, with the brilliant green of a narrow strip of sugar-cane for a background, and above, the flushed mountains of Eeka, riven here and there by cool green chasms, rise to a height of 6000 feet. Beautiful Lahaina! It is an oasis in a dazzling desert, straggling for nearly two miles along the shore, but compressed into a width of half a mile. It was a great missionary centre, as well as a great whaling station, but the whalers have deserted it, and missions are represented now only by the seminary of Lahainaluna on the hillside. An old palace, the remains of a fort, a custom-house, and a native church are the most conspicuous buildings. The stores and dwellings of the foreign residents are scattered along the shore, and the light frame house, with its green verandah, buried amid gorgeous exotics and shaded by candlenut and breadfruit, looks as seemly and in keeping as in far-off Massachusetts, under hickory and elm. The grass houses of the natives cluster along the waters’ edge, or in lanes dark with mangoes and bananas, and fragrant with gardenia fringing the cane-fields. These, with adobe houses and walls, the flush of the soil, the gaudy dresses of the natives, the masses of brilliant exotics, the intense blue of the sea, and the dry blaze of the tropical heat, give a decided individuality to the capital of Maui. The heat of Lahaina is a dry, robust, bracing, joyous heat. The mercury stood at 80 degrees, the usual temperature of the “flare” or sea level on the leeward side of the islands; but I strolled through the cane-fields and along the glaring beach without suffering the least inconvenience from the sun, and found the unusual precaution of a white umbrella perfectly needless.

The beach is formed of pure white broken coral; the sea is blue with the calm, pure blue of turquoise, but crystalline in its purity, and breaks for ever over the environing coral reef with a low deep music. Blue water stretched to the far horizon, the sky was blazing blue, the leafage was almost dazzling to the eye, the mountainous island of Molokai floated like a great blue morning glory on the yet bluer sea; a sweet, soft breeze rustled through the palms, lazy ripples plashed lightly on the sand; humanity basked, flower-clad, in sunny indolence; everything was redundant, fervid, beautiful. How can I make you realize the glorious, bountiful, sun-steeped tropics under our cold grey skies, and amidst our pale, monotonous, lustreless greens?

Yet Molokai is only enchanting in the distance, for its blue petals enfold 400 lepers doomed to endless isolation, and 300 more are shortly to be weeded out and sent thither. In today’s paper appeared the painful notice, “All lepers are required to report themselves to the Government health officer within fourteen days from this date for inspection, and final banishment to Molokai.” It is hoped that leprosy may be “stamped out” by these stringent measures, but the leprous taint must be strong in many families, and the social, gregarious natives smoke each other’s pipes and wear each other’s clothes, and either from fatalism or ignorance have disregarded all precautions regarding this woful disease; and now that measures are being taken for the isolation of lepers, they are concealing them under mats and in caves and woods. This forlorn malady, called here Chinese leprosy, in the cases that I have seen, confers nothing of the white, scaly look attributed to Syrian leprosy; but the face is red, puffed, bloated, and shining, and the eyes glazed, and I am told that in its advanced stage the swollen limbs decay and drop off. It is a fresh item of the infinite curse which has come upon this race, and with Molokai in sight the Hesperides vanished, and I ceased to believe that the Fortunate Islands exist here or elsewhere on this weary earth.

My destination was the industrial training and boarding school for girls, taught and superintended by two English ladies of Miss Sellon’s sisterhood, Sisters Mary Clara and Phoebe; and I found it buried under the shade of the finest candlenut trees I have yet seen. A rude wooden cross in front is a touching and fitting emblem of the Saviour, for whom these pious women have sacrificed friends, sympathy, and the social intercourse and amenities which are within daily reach of our workers at home. The large house, which is either plastered stone or adobe, contains the dormitories, visitors’ room, and oratory, and three houses at the back, all densely shaded, are used as schoolroom, cook-house, laundry, and refectory. There is a playground under some fine tamarind trees, and an adobe wall encloses, without secluding, the whole. The visitors’ room is about twelve feet by eight feet, very bare, with a deal table and three chairs in it, but it was vacant, and I crossed to the large, shady, airy schoolroom, where I found the senior sister engaged in teaching, while the junior was busy in the cook-house. These ladies in eight years have never left Lahaina. Other people may think it necessary to leave its broiling heat and seek health and recreation on the mountains, but their work has left them no leisure, and their zeal no desire, for a holiday. A very solid, careful English education is given here, as well as a thorough training in all housewifely arts, and in the more important matters of modest dress and deportment, and propriety in language. There are thirty-seven boarders, native and half-native, and mixed native and Chinese, between the ages of four and eighteen. They provide their own clothes, beds, and bedding, and I think pay forty dollars a year. The capitation grant from Government for two years was 2325 dollars. Sister Phoebe was my cicerone, and I owe her one of the pleasantest days I have spent on the islands. The elder Sister is in middle life, but though fragile-looking, has a pure complexion and a lovely countenance; the younger is scarcely middle-aged, one of the brightest, bonniest, sweetest-looking women I ever saw, with fun dancing in her eyes and round the corners of her mouth; yet the regnant expression on both faces was serenity, as though they had attained to “the love which looketh kindly, and the wisdom which looketh soberly on all things.”

I never saw such a mirthful-looking set of girls. Some were cooking the dinner, some ironing, others reading English aloud; but each occupation seemed a pastime, and whenever they spoke to the Sisters they clung about them as if they were their mothers. I heard them read the Bible and an historical lesson, as well as play on a piano and sing, and they wrote some very difficult passages from dictation without any errors, and in a flowing, legible handwriting that I am disposed to envy. Their accent and intonation were pleasing, and there was a briskness and emulation about their style of answering questions, rarely found in country schools with us, significant of intelligence and good teaching. All but the younger girls spoke English as fluently as Hawaiian. I cannot convey a notion of the blitheness and independence of manner of these children. To say that they were free and easy would be wrong; it was rather the manner of very frolicsome daughters to very indulgent mothers or aunts. It was a family manner rather than a school manner, and the rule is obviously one of love. The Sisters are very wise in adapting their discipline to the native character and circumstances. The rigidity which is customary in similar institutions at home would be out of place, as well as fatal here, and would ultimately lead to a rebound of a most injurious description. Strict obedience is of course required, but the rules are few and lenient, and there is no more pressure of discipline than in a well-ordered family. The native amusements generally are objectionable, but Hawaiians are a dancing people, and will dance, or else indulge in less innocent pastimes; so the Sisters have taught them various English dances, and I never saw anything prettier or more graceful than their style of dancing. There is no uniform dress. The girls wear pretty print frocks, made in the English style, and several of them wore the hibiscus in their shining hair. Some of the older girls were beautiful in face as well as graceful in figure, but there was a snaky undulation about their movements which I never saw among Europeans. All looked bubbling over with fun and frolic, and there was a refinement and intelligence about their expression which contrasted favourably with that of the ordinary female face on the islands.

There are two dormitories, excellently ventilated, with a four-post bed, with mosquito-bars, for each girl, and the beds were covered with those brilliant-coloured quilts in which the natives delight, and in which they exercise considerable ingenuity as well as individuality of taste. One Sister sleeps in each dormitory, and these highly-educated and refined women have no place of retirement except a very plain oratory; and having taken the vow of poverty, they have of course no possessions, none of the books, pictures, and knick-knacks wherewith others adorn their surroundings. Their whole lives, with the exception of the time passed in the oratory, are spent with the girls, and in visiting the afflicted at their homes, and this through eight blazing years, with the mercury always at 80 degrees!

The Hawaiian women have no notions of virtue as we understand it, and if there is to be any future for this race it must come through a higher morality. Consequently the removal of these girls from evil and impure surroundings, the placing them under the happiest influences in favour of purity and goodness, the forming and fostering of industrious and housewifely habits, and the raising them in their occupations and amusements above those which are natural to their race, are in themselves a noble, and in some degree, a hopeful work, but it admits of neither pause nor relaxation. Those who carry it on are truly “the lowest in the meanest task,” for they have undertaken not only the superintendence of menial work (so called), but the work itself, in teaching by example and instruction the womanly industries of home. They have no society, until lately no regular Liturgical worship, and of necessity a very infrequent celebration of the Holy Communion; and they have undergone the trial which arose very naturally out of the ecclesiastical relations of the American missionaries, of being regarded as enemies, or at least dangerous interlopers, by the excellent men who had long resided on the islands as Christian teachers, and with whose views on such matters as dress and recreation their own are somewhat at variance. In the first instance, the habit they wore, their designations, the presence of Miss Sellon, the fame of whose Ritualistic tendencies had reached the islands, and their manifest connection with a section of the English Church which is regarded here with peculiar disfavour, roused a strongly antagonistic feeling regarding their work and the drift of their religious teaching. They are not connected with what is known at home as the “Honolulu Mission.” 24

I.L.B.

24 It gives me pleasure to add that the Sisters have lived down this very natural distrust, and that in a subsequent residence of five months on the islands, I never heard but one opinion, and that of the most favourable kind, regarding the Lahaina School, and the excellence and wisdom of the manner in which it is conducted. I have been told by many who on most points are quite out of sympathy with the Sisters, not only that their work is recognized as a most valuable agency, but that their influence has come to be regarded as among the chiefest of the blessings of Lahaina.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:41