Canon Kingsley, in his charming book on the West Indies, says, “The undoubted fact is known I find to few educated English people, that the Coco palm, which produces coir rope, cocoanuts, and a hundred other useful things, is not the same plant as the cacao bush which produces chocolate, or anything like it. I am sorry to have to insist upon this fact, but till Professor Huxley’s dream and mine is fulfilled, and our schools deign to teach, in the intervals of Greek and Latin, some slight knowledge of this planet, and of those of its productions which are most commonly in use, even this fact may need to be re-stated more than once.”
There is no room for the supposition that the intelligence of Mr. Kingsley’s “educated English” acquaintance is below the average, and I should be sorry to form an unworthy estimate of that of my own circle, though I have several times met with the foregoing confusion, as well as the following and other equally ill-informed questions, one or two of which I reluctantly admit that I might have been guilty of myself before I visited the Pacific: “Whereabouts are the Sandwich Islands? They are not the same as the Fijis, are they? Are they the same as Otaheite? Are the natives all cannibals? What sort of idols do they worship? Are they as pretty as the other South Sea Islands? Does the king wear clothes? Who do they belong to? Does any one live on them but the savages? Will anything grow on them? Are the people very savage?” etc. Their geographical position is a great difficulty. I saw a gentleman of very extensive information looking for them on the map in the neighbourhood of Tristran d’Acunha; and the publishers of a high-class periodical lately advertised, “Letters from the Sandwich Islands” as “Letters from the South Sea Islands.” In consequence of these and similar interrogatories, which are not altogether unreasonable, considering the imperfect teaching of physical geography, the extent of this planet, the multitude of its productions, and the enormous number of islands composing Polynesia, Micronesia, and Melanesia, it is necessary to preface the following letters with as many preliminary statements as shall serve to make them intelligible.
The Sandwich Islands do not form one of the South Sea groups, and have no other connexion with them than certain affinities of race and language. They constitute the only important group in the vast North Pacific Ocean, in which they are so advantageously placed as to be pretty nearly equidistant from California, Mexico, China, and Japan. They are in the torrid zone, and extend from 18 degrees 50’ to 22 degrees 20’ north latitude, and their longitude is from 154 degrees 53’ to 160 degrees 15’ west from Greenwich. They were discovered by Captain Cook in 1778. They are twelve in number, but only eight are inhabited, and these vary in size from Hawaii, which is 4000 square miles in extent, and 88 miles long by 73 broad, to Kahoolawe, which is only 11 miles long and 8 broad. Their entire superficial area is about 6,100 miles. They are to some extent bounded by barrier reefs of coral, and have few safe harbours. Their formation is altogether volcanic, and they possess the largest perpetually active volcano and the largest extinct crater in the world. They are very mountainous, and two mountain summits on Hawaii are nearly 14,000 feet in height. Their climate for salubrity and general equability is reputed the finest on earth. It is almost absolutely equable, and a man may take his choice between broiling all the year round on the sea level on the leeward side of the islands at a temperature of 80 degrees, and enjoying the charms of a fireside at an altitude where there is frost every night of the year. There is no sickly season, and there are no diseases of locality. The trade winds blow for nine months of the year, and on the windward coasts there is an abundance of rain, and a perennial luxuriance of vegetation.
The Sandwich Islands are not the same as Otaheite nor as the Fijis, from which they are distant about 4,000 miles, nor are their people of the same race. The natives are not cannibals, and it is doubtful if they ever were so. Their idols only exist in missionary museums. They cast them away voluntarily in 1819, at the very time when missionaries from America sent out to Christianize the group were on their way round Cape Horn. The people are all clothed, and the king, who is an educated gentleman, wears the European dress. The official designation of the group is “Hawaiian Islands,” and they form an independent kingdom.
The natives are not savages, most decidedly not. They are on the whole a quiet, courteous, orderly, harmless, Christian community. The native population has declined from 400,000 as estimated by Captain Cook in 1778 to 49,000, according to the census of 1872. There are about 5,000 foreign residents, who live on very friendly terms with the natives, and are mostly subjects of Kalakaua, the king of the group.
The islands have a thoroughly civilized polity, and the Hawaiians show a great aptitude for political organization. They constitute a limited monarchy, and have a constitutional and hereditary king, a parliament with an upper and lower house, a cabinet, a standing army, a police force, a Supreme Court of Judicature, a most efficient postal system, a Governor and Sheriff on each of the larger islands, court officials, and court etiquette, a common school system, custom houses, a civil list, taxes, a national debt, and most of the other amenities and appliances of civilization.
There is no State Church. The majority of the foreigners, as well as of the natives, are Congregationalists. The missionaries translated the Bible and other books into Hawaiian, taught the natives to read and write, gave the princes and nobles a high class education, induced the king and chiefs to renounce their oppressive feudal rights, with legal advice framed a constitution which became the law of the land, and obtained the recognition of the little Polynesian kingdom as a member of the brotherhood of civilized nations.
With these few remarks I leave the subject of the volume to develop itself in my letters. They have not had the advantage of revision by any one familiar with the Sandwich Islands, and mistakes and inaccuracies may consequently appear, on which, I hope that my Hawaiian friends will not be very severe. In correcting them, I have availed myself of the very valuable “History of the Hawaiian Islands,” by Mr. Jackson Jarves, Ellis’ “Tour Round Hawaii,” Mr. Brigham’s valuable monograph on “The Hawaiian Volcanoes,” and sundry reports presented to the legislature during its present session. I have also to express my obligations to the Hon. E. Allen, Chief Justice and Chancellor of the Hawaiian kingdom, Mr. Manley Hopkins, author of “Hawaii,” Dr. T. M. Coan, of New York, Professor W. Alexander, Daniel Smith, Esq., and other friends at Honolulu, for assistance most kindly rendered.
ISABELLA L. BIRD.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:48