Traveler John Ball Visits Hawaii in 1833.
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Traveler John Ball Visits Hawaii in 1833.

John Ball was a lawyer, businessman, educator, civic leader, and traveler who was born on the Vermont frontier in 1794. Ball escaped the life of his father’s farm to study at Dartmouth College. He then practiced law, taught, and eventually settled in Grand Rapids and became a Michigan state legislator and a founder of the state’s school system. Before settling down, however, he led a life of great adventure. In 1832 Ball joined an expedition to Oregon, but tiring of Oregon—and suffering from the “ague”he mentions here—he boarded a Hudson Bay Company ship bound for Hawaii (or the Sandwich Islands, as they were called then). He landed in Honolulu on December 22, 1833. In Hawaii Ball observed the interactions among the native Hawaiians, Chinese, Japanese, and American missionaries, merchants and diplomats. This selection comes from an autobiography Ball wrote at age eighty.


And now we repass the Gate and bear away for the Sandwich Islands, not direct, but bearing southerly, so the sooner to fall into the trade winds. We had a diversity of weather, but none very bad, and with the aid of the sea air I soon got clear, and for good, of my ague. And so we sailed on prosperously and in three weeks, the 22nd of December, 1833, entered the port of Honolulu, having as we approached a splendid view of those high volcanic mountains that constitute all of the higher parts of all these Pacific Islands. I was told before, as I found when there, that all the rock were either coral or volcanic. The island is 14 miles long, and some half that in its widest part, and the mountains 3,000 feet high, a portion of the valley and side mountain, susceptible of cultivation, well watered by streams from the mountains. An old crater called the “Punch Bowl” immediately in rear of the town, say some two or three hundred feet high, was used as a fort, being a basin some half mile across with a grass plot and rocky border.

An Old Friend
Before I went on shore myself, the officers of the ship who had been, informed me that they met a man on shore who knew me, and that his name was Brinsmade. As I knew no person of the name except Dr. Brinsmade of Troy, who was my most intimate friend and correspondent, and his two brothers who were clergymen, I took it for granted that one of them was there as a missionary, but when they told me that he was a merchant it seemed a great puzzle. But on meeting him I found that one of the clergymen, from loss of voice or some cause, had changed his business and joined a brother-in-law, a Mr. Ladd, who had come there before, and my friend was indeed a merchant. I will mention here that they had two Chinamen, as clerks in their store, who dressed in their native costume and had the cue of hair. My friend told me that one of them was a great accountant, quick and accurate. Their trade was mostly cash, receiving in a day some hundreds of dollars in Spanish gold ounce pieces, and dollars and shillings in silver. To test his accuracy and honesty he had abstracted from his drawer a sixpence, and after fussing a long time over it would tell him he could not make his accounts balance.

They were strangely here too, four Japanese, and in this way. A strange looking craft was seen off the harbor, and it was found to be a Japanese junk or vessel with but four men alive on board. They were brought in and were kept by a Mr. French, an American merchant, and when they had so far learned English that they could talk with them, they said they got lost, had been out so many moons, that being their way of reckoning time; that the rest had perished for want of food. They had been there about a year when I saw them. When the merchant proposed to take them home, for they thought they could use them to open a trade with that exclusive people, they declined to go, and for why? They answered that they would be executed for having been in a foreign land, and so would not consent to go. A strange contrast with the present, now that they are sending many of their own boys to all the countries of Europe, and to this, to be educated and to learn our ways.

The meeting of an acquaintance here proved a great pleasure and advantage to me. My Hudson Bay friends could learn something of me, not from myself. There was but a poor understanding between the missionaries and merchants, and he being a kind of middle man, I was introduced to both, and though I boarded ashore with a Mr. Reynolds, I was often at his house. This Mr. Reynolds had passed most of his life in the Islands, and about the Pacific, and possessed much knowledge of all pertaining thereto. Had a half-breed native wife, whose father was Spanish. Their children were nearly white. I think a cross with them lighter than with Indians, and as to those Islanders, they are a fine formed and featured people—honest, generous, but as lascivious as the monkey, their intercourse being quite promiscuous. The introduction of the venereal disease by the whites has proved their ruin. A Dr. Judd, a man who has since acted an important part in those Islands, told me that though the disease did not prove immediately fatal, it undermined their constitutions and shortened their lives.

Traders and Missionaries
The American consul’s name was Jones, a Boston man. Mr. Reynolds was from Charlestown, Massachusetts. When the first missionaries, Mr. Bingham and others, first arrived there in 1818, he received them kindly and did much for their comfort. But when he found they had written home, and their letters were published to be read by his family and friends, representing the resident whites as being a dissolute and wicked set of men, he felt that they had acted an ungrateful part, and in fact, there soon grew up a great dislike between the merchants and missionaries, their business and views clashing severely. So when there I found there was no friendly intercourse between them, the residents having their own minister, a Mr. Deal. I am of the opinion, that as to the change in the ways and opinions of the natives, the missionaries claimed more than their share of being the instruments. Kamehaha First, a short time before their arrival, had abruptly at a feast gone over to the women’s table and eaten. And then, in the surprise and commotion arising from a violation of all their fixed customs and usages, he came out in an able speech showing the folly of this and many of their customs and opinions, which so satisfied his people of the truth of his views that on the ground they assailed and broke down their images.

The Catholics of Mexico also sent missionaries to the Islands. But when it was found by the Protestants, that they were rapidly gaining ground, they induced the native government to send them away and punish their adherents by putting them to hard labor on the public roads. This looks a little like persecution.

King Kamehaha
An American merchant by the name of Hinkley occupied their mission building, one of the best there. To this, for a Christmas dinner, he invited all the resident white gentlemen and ladies, except the missionaries, and the King Kamehaha Third and a few men of his cabinet, but none of the native women. And I was informed that they found them so easy in their manner that the whites, even the missionaries, could not tolerate them in general society. Being an invited guest, it was the means of much extending my acquaintance. The king and other natives present spoke English fluently, and seemed entirely at their ease and gentlemanly in their ways.

Here, as is usually my practice, I acted no exclusive part, but sought also to become acquainted with the missionaries. So I called on Mr. Bingham, in his house, carried with him when he first went there, not whole surely, but put up after brought to the ground. And there I had much interesting conversation with him and information from him. He told me of his visit to the neighboring islands, and to the great volcanic crater on the greatest of the group, Owhyee (Hawaii). I attended their meeting in a large booth kind of a building, where were a great audience of natives, and their native school. Mr. Bingham made an alphabet for their language, of sixteen letters I think, so they had their own books. There was a paper printed, one side in English, the other in native, and it is a very sonorous and beautiful language, many vowel sounds.

I went some about the island, climbed up the steep side onto the Punch Bowl, from which one looks right down onto the town, the harbor, the sea, and some of the other islands of the group. Went also out some three or four miles to the Pava, a break in the mountains where one can look out on the ocean on the other side and on the perpendicular side of a once volcano some two or three thousand feet high, rising abruptly from the ocean which I suppose had swallowed up the other side of said volcano. On this trip I saw many of their taro patches on the border of the sea, low lands watered by the mountain brooks and their orchards of bread fruit trees, the orange, lemon, banana, and other tropical fruit. The bread fruit and taro are their main articles of food. And these usually cook by roasting in heated holes in the ground, an excellent way of cooking. The bread fruit when cooked, more resembles bread than any other vegetable. Taken warm with butter it is as palatable as biscuit, and the taro root, which is the size of an English turnip and quite as palatable, is as nutritious as the potato.

The natives are indolent and apparently happy in their ways. You would hear them chatting late of the moonshine nights. Still they are strong and enduring. They are often employed aboard whale vessels, and a whaler told me that they were so docile and obedient that if you put a gang in a boat they would row all day long unless told to stop. Still these people, like our Indians, are fast passing away. Mr. Bingham told me they had been dwindling, but he thought at that time, under their influence, they were keeping their own. And that then he estimated the population of the island at 200,000 but he was greatly mistaken. They have constantly dwindled in number, swept off by, to them, new diseases. The measles proved to them as fatal as the plague, in times past, to whites. The same disease very differently affects it seems different races of men. And so it seems there must be an eternal round of races to inhabit this, our earth, island and continent. All races have and probably will have their turn.

I found, on arriving at Honolulu, a trunk so far on its way to the Columbia river from Boston, for me, it being my directions, when I left Lansingburgh [New York, where his sister, Deborah Powers, had settled] that they should thus send to me, if opportunity offered. It contained some clothes and other things, but what just then proved most interesting to me was a file of newspapers. For though all of them a year old or more, I never read news with greater interest. And among the other documents I found General Jackson’s nullification message, by the reading of which I learned fully what nullification meant. And that very able state paper added to my faith in my always favorite statesman. Had we had a Jackson at the helm, when the Rebellion was brewing, I have always thought that things would have taken a different turn.

In these tropical islands, far away from any extended continent, there is a wonderful uniformity in the temperature. I met here a Hollander who had observed the weather here closely for the four prior years, and he informed me that the lowest he had seen the thermometer was 70 degrees and the highest 85 degrees so only 15 degrees difference, night and day, year in and out. And this coincided with my own observations. The temperature of the ocean on both sides, within the tropics, was 80 and 81 degrees, so of course, it must be nearly the same on the neighboring lands, if not vastly extended or high.

Honolulu was the principal harbor visited on those islands, whose central position about on the northern tropical line is usually a stopping place for vessels bound to China, or the northwest coast of America, and also was much resorted to by the sperm whale fishermen for repairs and supplies. There was a large number of vessels in at the time, giving an active business to the merchants, and indirectly to the natives, of whom there were some 7,000 in the village, all living in their own built houses scantily furnished, as of past times. Only they had generally exchanged their native tapa cloth for our American cotton white or dyed, not often figured.

The women preferred the dyed, say blue, to the white, as it would not so soon show the dirt. Of this they made a loose, long chemise or frock, which with most of them was the only garment. And as for the men, if they wore anything, it was a piece of the same around the waist or body coming down to the knees. But their ladies of rank, princesses of the royal family, tried to dress like white ladies. But as pointed out to me by a resident, they never got their dresses on right, like the improper garment hanging the lowest and the like. The men and women too were very fond of the water, would swim like frogs.

When a ship came in off would go their scant dress and away to the ship as readily as they would walk the land. And the whites, even the missionaries, could little control their movements. When at Mr. Bingham’s, a chief lady came in to ask some advice about government affairs. She was as nearly dressed like the whites, as she knew how, but while talking with him carelessly threw her enormous form on a sofa. She was the largest person I ever saw, weighing some four hundred. These islanders have a tradition, it is said, that in times past there came to them by the north and around from the east a few persons of great size and superior wisdom who became the rulers—but probably enough of this.

Source: Autobiography of John Ball, Compiled by His Daughters, Kate Ball Powers, Flora Ball Hopkins, Lucy Ball (Grand Rapids, Michigan: The Dean-Hicks Company, 125), 103–108.