Civilizers or conquerors? The first missionaries to Hawaii.

The rather dour-looking faces you see at the top of this article are regarded in many ways as the “pioneers” of Hawaii. They were among the very first Europeans (or people of European stock) to take up residence in the Hawaiian Islands, and they were, predictably, missionaries. The role of Christian missionaries in the post-contact history of Hawaii is quite controversial. Many modern Hawaiians trace their lineage back to these pioneers. Others regard them, not as angels of mercy or civilizers, but conquerors, the foot soldiers of European/American subjugation of an indigenous people. Both views have merit.

The first missionaries to arrive in Hawaii were a group of Americans, who sailed aboard a ship called the Thaddeus and arrived on March 30, 1820. Among them were Hiram Bingham, his wife Sybil, and Asa and Lucy Thurston. They’d been sent by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions headquartered in New England. The missionaries brought a staunch New England Protestantism to the islands as well as instilling market values and trying to change indigenous Hawaiian society to what they thought was a more acceptable “Christian” way of life. The Binghams in particular were highly critical of traditional Hawaiian ways, but despite this, they became friends with the ruling families of Hawaii, some of whom began to convert to Christianity in the 1820s and 1830s. Bingham founded the Kawaiaha’o Church in Honolulu in 1836, at which Hawaiian kings, including Kamehameha III, worshiped. It’s today regarded as sort of the “St. Peter’s Basilica” of Hawaii (minus the Catholic connotations, of course).

More missionaries quickly followed the Thaddeus group. The next missionary ship to arrive was the Prince Regent in the spring of 1822, bringing William Ellis, the first British missionary to reach Hawaii. Other mission ships would follow in the next few years, and their passengers busied themselves in Hawaii building churches, starting schools and proselytizing heavily, sort of a 19th century sectarian version of the Peace Corps. Like Peace Corps volunteers, most missionaries eventually went home, but a few, like William Richards and Lorrin Andrews, would spend the rest of their lives there. After their deaths their descendants formed the cultural and political elite of Hawaii–at least among white Hawaiians, of whom there were very few in the early years.

Kawaiahaʻo_Church

Kawaiaha’o Church, founded by Hiram Bingham, is still standing today. It was one of the very first buildings to be put on the National Register of Historic Places in 1966.

Despite their zeal for converting Hawaiians and “civilizing” this “savage” land, the missionaries did protect the people of the islands. By the mid 1820s Hawaii was a favorite destination for whaling ships. Becoming a sailors’ port of call had devastating consequences for Hawaii, both culturally and environmentally. Missionaries often came into conflict with whalers, who would sail into ports like Honolulu or Lahaina and expect the Hawaiian women to service them sexually. Missionary William Richards was threatened by a British captain in 1825 for trying to protect local peoples from these indignities. Missionaries were also instrumental in facilitating communication between the English and Hawaiian languages. Many missionaries attempted to learn Hawaiian for the principal purpose of translating the Bible into that language, but it also meant that Hawaiian texts could be written down and become intelligible to Western scholarship.

The problem with missionaries, though, particularly in the 19th century, is that they were usually a route to more direct conquest. Missionaries and their families tended to feel that their home countries’ governments had a duty to protect them–sometimes from local people, but more often from pirates, raiders or other countries. This happened time and time again in Africa, where the presence of British missionaries ultimately led to the presence of British military installations and finally outright annexation as British colonies. It happened in Hawaii too, although there was some question whether the empire that eventually swallowed up the islands would be flying the stars and stripes of the United States or the rising sun of Japan. Only 78 years after the first American missionaries set foot on Hawaiian soil, Hawaii was an American territory, essentially a colony.

Is it fair to blame missionaries and their (mostly) good-hearted intentions for the unintended consequences that follow from their contact with first peoples? That’s a very big question in history and one that remains open. Whether or not the Binghams, Thurstons and Richardses who came to Hawaii intended to “conquer” it–for Christ or something else–one thing is undeniable: they certainly changed it.

The image of Kawaiaha’o Church was taken by Cristo Vlahos and is used/relicensed under the Creative Commons 3.0 (Attribution) license.
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19 Comments

  1. It doesn’t matter who comes first to a “new” land. Natives as well as Christians, Europeans etc all have the basic human desire to spread out, explore and conquer. I hate when I see the set up that whites were somehow worse than other people when given the arms, the drive and the knowledge even natives fight and plunder. Missionaries actually believed that a soul was important. We may disagree with that, but I don’t think anyone seriously wants to go back to the “pure” stone age.

    1. Ummm… they were. Historically. Look into that. You can hate it but it doesn’t change the fact that Imperialist White societies everywhere enslaved the world and exploited their resources- raping the land and the people and as a beneficiary of that legacy you can’t be mad and relinquish your responsibility for being a beneficiary of that legacy while indigenous people everywhere still live under the foot of white rule. You don’t like it? Change history.

      1. Don’t think so. Indigenous populations aren’t generally “under the foot” of white conquerors, today. In fact they are generally better off than they would have been otherwise. Darwin wasn’t wrong, you know. Societies, like species, have to be able to adapt to change, hold off more advanced societies, or they will be overtaken, in time. The process continues, today!

      2. I couldn’t disagree more. They are not generally better off than they would have been otherwise. I also don’t see the relevance of Darwin, who was a biologist describing species. It sounds like you’re confusing Darwin with Spencer.

    2. Seriously? Exploration is not synonymous with cultural genocide. Yes, non whites have waged war, stolen, committed atrocities but it is ALMOST uniquely Judeo Christian to feel the need to completely wipe out another groups culture for the sake of wiping it out. Take that “everybody does it” bullshit somewhere else.

  2. How did the missionary families “innocently acquire” a whole island for themselves? For example, the Parker Ranch, famous on the Big Island, once included nearly the entire island. Each island is dominated by a single missionary family. How did they acquire the land? Seems “conquering” to me.
    R. Tanioka, born on Oahu.

  3. Article and some comments really get under my skin with the twisting dishonesty and prejudiced, bigoted racism that emanates from them: These disregard basic logic.

    Conquest is an act of force and the missionaries acquired little to nothing by force of arms. The mere fact of their influence or possessions their family eventually acquired has no bearing on the nature of the contact. The French Normans descended from Norse conquerers who absolutely devastated the native population, raping and pillaging without restraint. But by the time these peoples invaded England they retained almost nothing (not even their language) of their culture and had become the people they conquered. By the logic of the author and some comments, the French were villains who conquered the Normans.

    Contact between vastly different peoples, especially those with substantially unequal cultural and economic power always brings change and frequently brings bloody conflict. Sometimes cultural destruction is good (e.g., Islamic State, Spartans, Southern slaving culture, etc.) and sometimes it’s bad (e.g., destruction of libraries by various barbarians, Pol Pot’s conquest, communist conquests, more than 400 years of Islamic conquest and genocide, etc.).

    The only question is the standard by which the eradication of one culture or emergence of a new one is judged. Sadly very many can’t see past skin tone to look at the character that actually matters.

  4. Ironically, the missionaries were not allowed to own land or engage in economic enterprise. They suffered a bit as a result, being dependent on the largess of donations and long-distance shipments. Their descendants were often educated in New England, but sometimes ended up returning and having a greater impact economically and politically in the islands because they could. They didn’t see themselves as “conquering” the islands. It was their own birthplace. Having lived there for many years I understand the feeling. The “melting” of the melting pot that describes Hawaii today started out in the very beginning. On the other hand, what the U.S, gov’t eventually did was clearly illegal.

  5. Happened upon this article, and while I realize it isn’t a very recent one, the response which justifies with denial and spinning of truths really got to me. I was born to a military family in Hawaii, was given a Hawaiian sounding name to commemorate that (as many Hawaii-born military dependents are), and upon my first “vacation” to Hawaii at 18, spent the rest of my adult life trying to find a way to permanent residence. I did spend 3 years on Oahu, active duty military, but have been unable to return permanently since. In 2000, as a senior capstone project for my Bachelor’s degree. I spent 90 days in New Zealand studying indigenous plants and how the Maori use(d) them. Like many non-Western cultures, the Maori expect someone wanting to learn their ways to “prove” themselves (my word, not theirs!) Having some knowledge of Hawaiian history and culture was exciting to several of the elders, and I spent a great deal of time comparing what I knew from Western and Hawaiian sources to what their tradition had handed down to them – for the Marae I was accepted into believed without doubt that the original Maori came from Hawai’i (Hawaiki is the Maori language name of the land they emigrated from).

    All of that was to lead up to this: The elder who accepted me for apprenticeship felt bitter toward Christianity, and struggled with hatred toward evangelizing Christians. You see, she had terrible, traumatic memories from her childhood. She was a pre-teen when she was taken from her family by Missionaries, forbidden to speak the language she had used her whole life and forbidden to dress as she had dressed her whole life and forbidden to practice any “pagan” customs she had been brought up with. Forbidden, as in physical punishment each time she did. As an adult, she had had to re-learn the language she had learned from birth – so strict were the Missionaries that she had been forced to even THINK in English, so convincing were they that she had even stopped DREAMING in her native tongue.

    Do not delude yourself to think the Missionaries she was exposed to were drastically different from Christian Missionaries sent to convert “Heathen” anywhere else or in any other era – like all peoples, Christian or not, Missionaries will as a rule consist of the self-serving as well as the selfless, the self-righteous as well as the righteous, those who become addicted to power in whatever form they can achieve it as well as those who thrive on love in whatever form it shows itself. But to those of us who look in from the outside, it seems those called to be Missionaries, especially in a mostly unsupervised situation, more often are the former rather than latter of all those pairs. Claim the end justifies the means all you want, history is written by the winners, always in a favorable light for themselves.

  6. As someone who grew up in Hawaii not of Hawaiian descent, I view the missionaries in a historical context of this was what happened at the time, proselytizing, the intentions might not have been bad but their ignorance to what was already there the culture of Hawaiians was. There descendants ability to buy up the land more for themselves and although may have grown up in Hawaii doesn’t mean they have a right to be the stewards of the islands, the whole reason for the overthrow was because the elite land owning missionary descendants had gained much political power that the common man Hawaiian (by then also citizens of Hawaii of foreign descent) did not have power and the queen wanting to give her people back political power was conspired against by these few who felt their economic interest were being attacked. Also the Kingdom of Hawaii had treaties with many world nations US,U.K., France ext. where other areas did not. It had an almost universal literacy rate for it’s population compared to other larger nations at the time.

  7. The final insult, the last tragedy, is for decendents of those who died, were tortured and manipulted into now WILLINGLY following the religion of the conquerors. The Invaders religion is not the story of our people. It represents no truth, it only tells the story of sadness and tragedy. We can do no more honor to our ancestors than to do what they may have not been able to do and throw of the shackles of Christianity and return to the ways of our people for good. There is no excuse now, the invader no longer points a gun at our heads, the only remaining chains are in our minds. This goes for all “conquered” people, African Americans, Mexicano, Native Americans, Pacific Islander and ironically, Europeans too. After all Christianity was imposed on you too.

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