brig ship

Back in December I did a special series of articles called Hawaiian History Week, detailing various aspects of the fascinating history of the 50th state. One of those articles was this one, about the first American missionaries who reached Hawaii in 1820 and their large impact on the islands’ subsequent history. Well, last week at the Massachusetts Historical Society, I happened to come across a journal written by one of those early missionaries, a man named Daniel Chamberlain. I wasn’t looking for it specifically; in my research on the “Cold Decade” I’m seeking out any journals or diaries from the period (1810-1820) that might contain weather or environmental information, and Chamberlain’s fell–just barely–within my search parameters. It did, however, give me a fascinating new look at this crucial chapter in the history of Hawaii.

Before I did my article last December, most of what I knew about the early missionaries to Hawaii came from James Michener’s popular historical novel Hawaii, published in 1959, and the 1966 movie made from the book, which starred Max von Sydow, Julie Andrews and Gene Hackman as three of those early missionaries. Michener did a tremendous amount of research for his books and tried to make them accurate. After looking through the file at MHS, I’m absolutely certain that Michener read Chamberlain’s diary and used it in his preparation for the novel. But it was very interesting to me the differences between what really happened and how it was portrayed in the novel (and movie).

Chamberlain, his wife and several children embarked on the brig Thaddeus, which left Massachusetts in October 1819 for the arduous journey around Cape Horn to what were then called the Sandwich Islands. He and several other missionary families, including Hiram Bingham and the Thurston family, had been selected by a New England missionary organization to preach Christianity to the “heathens” of Hawaii. Most of Chamberlain’s diary details the voyage, which took months–the Thaddeus didn’t reach Hawaii until March 30. He describes the tiny cramped quarters and constant seasickness on the voyage, which Michener put into the novel Hawaii, but he also describes how happy and excited his children were and how quickly they adapted to shipboard life. He also stated that the food was excellent, which surprised me. We’re used to stories of cold gruel and hardtack biscuits swarming with weevils being served aboard 19th century ships, but the Chamberlains and other families evidently had hot meals and fresh bread baked frequently. Chamberlain also talks about drinking wine and rum on the voyage. If these people were strict Calvinists, as Michener portrayed them, they were a little lax.

Here are some clips from the 1966 film Hawaii, which depicts fictionalized versions of the missionaries. The boxes on the screen call out a young Bette Midler who appears (uncredited) as a missionary woman.

Most interesting to me were Chamberlain’s descriptions of the physical environment of Hawaii (the Thaddeus landed on what we now call the Big Island, known as “Ohyhee” by English-speakers in 1820). Indeed the paradise that he described in obvious awe must have been something to behold. Chamberlain describes verdant green mountains ringed with fog at the top, beautiful pristine forests and other wonders–most of which have now been changed dramatically. Yet it’s also clear that the idea we might have had of Hawaii being sort of an “untouched” garden of Eden until the missionaries arrived is clearly flat-out wrong. This was the most surprising part of the journal.

I presume that the first white contact with Hawaii occurred in 1778, when Captain Cook and company “discovered” (in European terms) the Sandwich Islands, but I didn’t appreciate that this was not an isolated event of contact. Indeed it seems Americans began coming to the Sandwich Islands almost immediately. Chamberlain describes an American who had lived on Hawaii for many years before 1820 and who evidently mingled with some of the King’s servants. (Kamehameha II was on the Hawaiian throne at that time). There was also an African-American from New York named Allan who had moved to the islands about 1810, possibly to escape racial prejudice. Thus, by the time Chamberlain and his friends arrived, people were already teaching Hawaiians English and Christianity, and starting to weave them into the world market economy. I didn’t know any of this before I read Chamberlain’s journal.

The trailer for the 1966 film Hawaii. A sequel, called The Hawaiians, was made in 1970; I haven’t seen it yet.

In Hawaii, James Michener depicts the early missionaries as boorish imperialists, demanding the Hawaiians give up their native gods and customs in favor of the white man’s ways. This too is an oversimplification. Chamberlain makes clear that Kamehameha was already reforming the religious and cultural life of the islands by the time the missionaries arrived. That’s not to say that the missionaries were exactly tolerant of the “heathen” gods and “savage” customs of the Hawaiians; Chamberlain himself describes them as “Satanic.” But it’s a little simplistic to blame the spoliation of the Hawaiians’ native culture solely on the American missionaries. They did bring capitalism, disease, intolerance and eventually imperialism, but they certainly weren’t acting in a vacuum.

Chamberlain and his family eventually left Hawaii. His body ravaged by effects of the tropical climate, Chamberlain was persuaded to go home in 1823, and in fact wrote a second, shorter journal about the trip home. His wife, Jerusha, died in Massachusetts in 1879; her obituary appears in the MHS archive files. She is obviously the model for the character of Jerusha Hale in Michener’s Hawaii, which was portrayed on the screen by Julie Andrews. (In the novel and the movie, Jerusha dies in Hawaii; in reality Jerusha Chamberlain only spent a few years there).

hawaiian missionaries

These photographs depict several of the original missionaries who came to Hawaii in the 1820s. Daniel Chamberlain is not among them; I couldn’t find a photo of him.

The handwritten originals of Chamberlain’s diaries reside at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu. The ones I read the other day are typewritten transcripts evidently made about 1935. Michener began working on Hawaii in 1954, so I know he saw and handled those same pieces of paper, in search of the same truths about the history of Hawaii that I found almost inadvertently. This is another reason why seeing the journal was so cool–I followed in the footsteps of a truly great fiction writer, and one I greatly admire.

Hawaii and its history are a vast and fascinating topic. After this experience I find myself drawn to it. Who knows; this may not be my last encounter with this rich and absorbing story.

The photo at the top of this article is a brig, a sailing vessel similar to the Thaddeus, and was taken by Lance Woodworth, used under Creative Commons 2.0 (Attribution) license.