Category Archives: Polynesia

Era of Maritime Polynesian Pidgin

I’ve lately been reading several books in paper, the most recent being Language Contact in the Early Colonial Pacific: Maritime Polynesian Pidgin before Pidgin English, by Emanuel J. Drechsel (Cambridge U. Press, 2014). When I heard about it, I immediately went to order it from Amazon, but the hardcover is listed at $99 and the Kindle version listed for $79, so I resorted to borrowing a copy from the University of Hawai‘i Library’s Hawaiian & Pacific Collection. However, Cambridge UP’s website does offer a free download of a Maritime Polynesian Pidgin Vocabulary listing (pdf).

It’s a dense work. The author, an expert in two North American trade pidgins, Chinook Jargon in the Northwest and Mobilian Jargon in the Southeast, relies on a combination of ethnohistorical and philological methods to reconstruct Maritime Polynesian Pidgin, which served as a lingua franca during the early period of regular Western trade with islands in the Pacific. During this era, from the 1760s into the 1860s, powerful chiefs controlled critical resources on the larger Pacific Island groups, especially water, food, timber, and manpower. Pacific Islands also supplied bêche-de-mer and sandalwood for the China trade. Polynesians were highly valued as sailors on Western ships, whose crews were frequently depleted by disease and desertion. Polynesians could not only handle boats, they could also swim, unlike many European and American sailors in those days.

Moreover, the Polynesian languages spoken in the principal island groups during the early trading and whaling era—Tahiti, the Marquesas, Hawai‘i, and New Zealand—were similar enough that Polynesians were also recruited as interpreters during negotiations with island chiefs. Their Maritime Polynesian Pidgin was later supplanted by English-based and French-based pidgins during the era of settler colonization and plantation economies.

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Alien Encounter at Mercury Bay, 1769

From: Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before, by Tony Horwitz (Picador, 2002), pp. 104-105:

Most scholars believe that sailing canoes set off from the Society Isles, or the nearby Cook Islands, between A.D. 800 and 1200, carrying pioneers as well as plants and animals. They landed on the unpopulated North Island and gradually spread out, making New Zealand the last major landmass on earth to be settled. Then, nothing—until Cook arrived, the first intruder on the North Island since roughly the time of the Crusades.

To me, this was the most extraordinary and enviable facet of Cook’s travels: the moment of first contact between the “discoverer” and the “discovered.” No matter how far a man traveled today, he couldn’t hope to reach a land and society as untouched by the West as the North Island was in 1769. Cook, at least, anticipated first contact; finding new lands and peoples was part of his job description. For those he encountered, the moment of European arrival must have been so strange as to defy modern comprehension. The only experience that might resemble it today would be to find an alien spacecraft touching down in your backyard—except that Hollywood has prepared us even for that. Pacific islanders had no basis for so much as imagining a tall-masted ship, much less one from the other end of the globe carrying white men speaking an unfamiliar tongue.

According to stories told long after Cook’s arrival in New Zealand, some natives thought the ship’s billowing sails were the wings of a giant bird. Others saw three trees sprouting from the vessel’s base and guessed it was a floating island. A much fuller account survives from Mercury Bay, up the coast from Cook’s first landfall, where the Endeavour visited a month later. A boy about the same age as Young Nick, named Te Horeta, stood watching the ship’s approach from shore and lived long enough to share his memory with colonists, several of whom recorded his words. Te Horeta’s vivid and poetic detail, corroborated by the journals of Cook and his men, makes his story one of the most remarkable accounts in the annals of exploration.

“In the days long past,” Te Horeta recalled, he went with his clan to gather oysters and cockles beside a calm bay known by the name Gentle as a Young Girl. One day, an apparition appeared on the water, a vessel much larger than any canoe Te Horeta had ever seen. Watching from the beach, the clan’s elders wondered if the ship had come from the spirit world. Then pale creatures climbed from the vessel and paddled small craft toward shore, with their backs to the land. At this, the clan’s aged men nodded and said, “Yes, it is so: these people are goblins; their eyes are at the back of their heads.” Te Horeta fled into the forest with the other children, leaving the clan’s warriors on the beach.

At first, the goblins did no harm. They gathered oysters and other food. One collected shells, flowers, and tree blossoms, and knocked on stones, putting them in bags. Curious, the children crept out of the woods. “We stroked their garments,” Te Horeta recalled, “and we were pleased by the whiteness of their skin, and the blue eyes of some of them.” The goblins offered food from their ship: hard, dry lumps that looked like pumice stones, and fatty meat so salty that even the warriors winced. Was it whale’s flesh? A man’s? One goblin pointed his walking stick in the air. “Thunder was heard to crash and a flash of lightning was seen,” Te Horeta said. Then a bird fell to the ground. “But what had killed it?” Later, a warrior offered to trade with the newcomers, then snatched a goblin’s cloth and paddled away without surrendering his own dogskin cloak. A walking stick flashed and the warrior fell with a hole in his back. The clan buried him in the goblin’s garment; because the warrior had caused his own death, there was no utu, no revenge. The site of his killing became known by the name A Warm Bad Day.

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Fumigating the Polynesian Voyagers, 1995

From Out of Eden: An Odyssey of Ecological Invasion, by Alan Burdick (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005), pp. 65-66:

In 1995 three Hawaiian canoes sailed south to the Society Islands, met a contingent of three other South Pacific canoes, then sailed to the Marquesas and north again to me Big Island of Hawaii, for the first time retracing the original route of discovery of the Hawaiian Islands.

This historic voyage encountered only one significant problem. Three days before the canoes were due to arrive home, the crew radioed Honolulu with news that they were suffering the painful bite of some undetected insect. Entomologists were consulted. The suspects were narrowed to three: the nono, a tiny, vicious blackfly that plagues beaches of the Marquesas and doomed those islands’ resorts; the punkie midge, a no-see-um half the size of the nono that also haunts the Marquesas; and a biting midge known in French Polynesia as the white beach nono. The first is native to the Marquesas; the latter two arrived in Polynesia sometime between 1920 and 1950. All three are functionally identical—with mouths like scissors, they bite holes in the victim’s skin, producing welts that if scratched can quickly fester. A single nono fly can inflict five thousand bites in an hour. After securing a blood meal, the fly retreats to a crevice in any nearby decaying organic matter—waterlogged wood a coconut husk, the hull of a Polynesian voyaging canoe—to reproduce. Its larvae emerge several days later to begin the cycle anew. With these facts in mind, Honolulu newspapers treated readers to several days of midge coverage, disagreeing only as to whether the midges posed a worse threat to the tourist industry than the brown tree snake, or merely an equivalent one. Cynics whispered of a midge conspiracy, of midges planted aboard the canoes by an environmental group eager to publicize the dangers of alien species in Hawaii.

Riding a strong headwind, a biting midge can cross fifty miles of open ocean. To forestall such an event, and despite prime sailing conditions the six voyaging canoes were ordered to a halt some two hundred miles south-southwest of Hawaii’s Big Island, Hawai’i. The following morning, after much wrangling over which government agency should take responsibility for a nuisance insect that is neither an agricultural pest nor strictly speaking, a public-health threat, and which in any event now sat in international waters, a Coast Guard plane dropped thirty-six aerosol cans of pyrethrin, an insecticide made from daisies, into what were now heavy seas. The canoes’ holds were emptied, clothes and equipment sprayed with disinfectant, the hulls scrubbed four times with seawater, the sails keelhauled. Everything organic was tossed overboard: religions carvings, palm-frond baskets, breadfruit seedlings wrapped in coconut husks, and traditional foods like sweet potato, taro leaf patties, and poi—which crew members perhaps were happy to see go, as they later confessed a preference for sausage and Spam. Inspectors from the Hawaii Department of Health then boarded the canoes and sprayed everything again. A series of triumphal celebrations had been planned to mark the voyage’s end. Instead, the canoes were escorted into Hilo Harbor, sprayed once more, and enclosed in fumigation tents. A crowd of two dozen, including several customs and immigrations officials, greeted them.

Health and agriculture inspectors still do not know what sort of midge they nearly encountered; the cleaning, spraying, scrubbing, and fumigation had left no trace of them. Other survivors were discovered, however, including four species of fly, two species of ant, a cockroach, two spiders, a book louse, a parasitic wasp, a beetle, several snails, some live shrimps, a gecko, two species of eye gnat, and a scale insect that in some parts of the world is considered a serious agricultural pest. Some time afterward the chief of the Hawaii Department of Agriculture was heard expressing nostalgia for the days when state inspectors could walk down the aisles of arriving aircraft and fumigate freely, as they still do in New Zealand. As for the canoes, they reached their destinations. The Hawaiian crews sailed to warm homecomings on Maui, Molokai, and Oahu. The Cook Islanders disembarked, showered, and dried off with one hundred and fifty donated towels. The Tahitian voyagers, though they had a fine canoe, never arrived; in fact, they never embarked. They had failed to apply for U.S. visas, and were gently advised to stay home.

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Mutiny & Tragedy Aboard the Hōkūle‘a, 1976-78

From “Playing with Canoes,” by Ben Finney, in Pacific Places, Pacific Histories, ed. by Brij Lal (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2004), pp. 294-296:

Hōkūle‘a was launched in 1975, and after a year of testing, training, and making modifications we sailed her to Tahiti and returned as promised. That demonstration blew a big hole in [Andrew] Sharp’s claim that Polynesians could not have intentionally made long, navigated voyages. Furthermore, Hōkūle‘a emerged as a cultural icon credited with helping to spark a general cultural renaissance among the Hawaiians, as well as with stiffening the resolve of the Tahitians to secure more autonomy from the French. These triumphal aspects of the story have often been told. Less well known are the politics of the voyaging revival.

During fund-raising and construction and those first heady days when we sailed Hōkūle‘a around the Hawaiian chain, all went well except for a few mishaps and disagreements. However, by early 1976, just a few months before the voyage, serious troubles began while the canoe was being refitted. A number of Hawaiians, many of whom had not played any role in the project, began to claim Hōkūle‘a as their own and to use her locally for various purposes other than the stated mission. These ranged from the political to the personal—from invading the island of Kaho‘olawe to protest its use as a naval bombing range to cruising around the Hawaiian chain for the romantic benefit of male crewmembers. More chilling were the demands of a spiritual leader who claimed that Hōkūle‘a was ritually “dirty” and would sink with all hands unless he was paid an enormous sum of money to purify her.

All this might have been shrugged off as so much craziness but for the very real incongruity of having a haole professor run a project that had been so hyped as a Polynesian venture. That made me consider resigning as president of the Polynesian Voyaging Society and handing the job over to our vice president, Herb Kane, in hopes that he might be more effective in dealing with these demands. But then Herb himself abruptly left the project, saying that he was thoroughly burned out and financially impoverished from supervising the construction of the canoe and making the first test sails around the islands. As Tommy Holmes preferred to stay in the background, that left me, the haole who wasn’t even from Hawai‘i, to fend off all those who in the name of Hawaiian nationalism were attempting to take over the canoe.

Had those clamoring for control of the canoe been skilled seamen dedicated to carrying out the voyage as planned, I could have gone ahead and resigned the presidency and then concentrated on the research side of the voyage. But they were not real sailors, nor did they have any intention of conducting the experimental voyage. In fact, they had come to believe that using a canoe for research would desecrate the spiritual nature of Hōkūle‘a.

Given this situation I realized that if I did resign I would betray the hundreds of contributors and supporters, many of them Hawaiians whom I had promised to sail the canoe to Tahiti and back. Furthermore I would also have let down those expert sailors whom I had personally recruited for the voyage: Kawika Kapahulehua, the veteran catamaran sailor from the remote island of Ni‘ihau who was our captain; Mau Piailug, the master navigator from the Micronesian atoll of Satawal who would guide the canoe to Tahiti and back; and my longtime Tahitian friend Rodo Williams, a professional fisherman and copra boat skipper whose job was to pilot us safely past the atolls that lay just to the north-northeast of Tahiti.

So I stuck it out, and thanks to the help of Kawika, Mau, Rodo and several other sailors who were also determined to make the voyage a reality, plus the moral support of Edward Kealanahele and many others on shore, we finally set sail for Tahiti. After a little over a month at sea we entered Pape‘ete Harbor to be greeted by the largest crowd ever assembled on the island. Nonetheless, although the actual sailing of the canoe had proceeded as planned, leftover resentments had festered at sea among a number of crewmembers who had been caught up in the troubles back in Hawai‘i. Halfway to Tahiti they staged a confrontation to accuse the leaders of mismanagement and to demand special treatment for themselves. After that, they quit standing watch and spent the rest of the voyage eating, sleeping, and smoking pakalōlō (crazy tobacco, i.e., marijuana) that they had smuggled on board. Bizarre as that situation was, it did allow the rest of us to sail the canoe on to Tahiti in relative peace—until the night before landing, when the mutineers staged another protest that left blood on the deck. That so incensed Mau Piailug that upon landing he quit the canoe in disgust and flew back to Micronesia vowing never to sail with Hawaiians again.

Even after Captain Kawika Kapahulehua and some fine young crewmembers who had not been directly involved in the troubles sailed Hōkūle‘a swiftly back to Hawai’i, the travail was not over. I had made so many enemies by my efforts to keep the voyage on track that I became the scapegoat blamed for causing all the troubles. Enough was enough, and I resigned and started work on a scientific report about the voyage and a book—Hōkūle‘a, the Way to Tahiti—that I owed a New York publisher whose sizable contribution had enabled us to start building the canoe.

After taking stock of the situation the new leaders of the Polynesian Voyaging Society resolved to remove the stain left from the troubles by repeating the voyage to Tahiti with a specially selected crew. Unfortunately, in their zeal to distance themselves from those who had led the 1976 voyage they totally ignored Captain Kapahulehua, the man who had just taken Hōkūle‘a so surely and safely to Tahiti and back and could have showed them how to do it again.

Overconfidence, a casual attitude toward safety, and basic errors in seamanship doomed this second attempt to reach Tahiti. Just before midnight, after less than six hours at sea, the canoe capsized while being foolishly driven hard under full sail in gale-force winds and immense seas. Not until dusk of the following day was the overturned canoe spotted by a passing aircraft just as she was drifting south of the interisland sea and air lanes. All crewmembers but one were rescued by a Coast Guard helicopter, and the following day Hōkūle‘a was towed in, severely damaged, though the hulls were still structurally sound. Missing was Eddie Aikau, a world-champion surfer who some hours before the canoe had been spotted had valiantly tried to paddle his surfboard through the breaking seas to the nearest island to get help. He was never seen again.

The waves are getting huge on O‘ahu’s North Shore and The Eddie is expected to begin any day now.

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Pacific Annexations, 1840-1906

From Sailors and Traders: A Maritime History of the Pacific Peoples, by Alastair Couper (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2009), pp. 140-141:

The managers of the major merchant companies based at the main entrepôts in the [Pacific] islands were often ex-sailors. Several acted as consuls for their governments and supported the companies in many ways, including evoking gunboat diplomacy. A prime example is John Bates Thurston. He served at sea in the island trades, was wrecked at Rotuma in 1865, became British consul in Fiji in 1867, was highly influential in the negotiations for the ceding of Fiji to Britain in 1874, and became governor of Fiji in 1887. The companies, the new settlers, and their sympathetic consuls pressed for annexations. The French were the first to act [but Waitangi was 1840—J.] and took Tahiti, the Marquesas, and the Tuamotus as French protectorates in 1842 and New Caledonia in 1853. These were declared colonies in 1880, and the Australs and Wallis and Futuna in 1887.

The British annexed Fiji in 1874 and established protectorates over southeast New Guinea in 1884, Gilbert and Ellice in 1892, most of the Solomons soon after, and Ocean Island in 1900. They agreed that New Zealand would exercise authority over the Kermadecs in 1887, the Tokelaus in 1889, and the Cooks and Niue in 1901. The Dutch took western New Guinea in 1848. Germany annexed northeast New Guinea in 1885, along with the Bismarck Archipelago and the northwest Solomons; took possession of most of the Carolines in 1885; and ultimately purchased Yap and other islands in the Carolines and Marianas from Spain in 1899. The Germans also acquired the Marshall Islands in 1884 and took over Nauru in 1888. Chile obtained Easter Island in 1888.

America, after its disastrous Civil War, had not recovered a significant merchant fleet and showed little inclination for acquiring Pacific territory. American guano companies had already secured legislation in 1856–1860 that allowed claims over some small Pacific islands, and the US government went on to secure others, including Baker, Jarvis, Johnson, Midway, Palmyra, and Wake. In 1893 the influential American maritime geostrategist Alfred Mahan wrote that it was “imperative to take possession, when it can be righteously done, of such maritime positions as can contribute to secure command.” In 1898, Hawai‘i was annexed (US citizenships were granted in 1900), as was eastern Samoa with Pago Pago as a main naval coaling station, while Guam was captured from Spain by the US Navy in 1898.

The Pacific was now effectively divided between several colonial powers mainly by agreements. In the final carve-up, it was confirmed that Western Samoa was a German colony separated from American Samoa in the east. In turn Germany agreed to relinquish claims for Tonga. As a result, in the closing days Tonga appeared to survive as the only independent Polynesian kingdom, although not quite. It was declared a British protectorate in 1900, and in 1905 it was decreed mandatory for the king of Tonga to take advice from the British consul on all matters of importance. Finally, in 1906 New Hebrides was divided as a condominium between Britain and France.

I’m not sure why Couper omits the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi, which made British subjects of the Maori. Maybe he considered both New Zealand and Australia to be colonial powers by the 1840s, even though both were earlier annexed by another colonial power. (Like the Americas, of course.)

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Preference for Pacific Island Seafarers

From Sailors and Traders: A Maritime History of the Pacific Peoples, by Alastair Couper (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2009), pp. 102-103, 106:

As a result of continued shortages of crew, British and American ships frequently sailed shorthanded for the Pacific. The trips involved passages that were four to five months long, via the Cape of Good Hope or Cape Horn. American ships sometimes picked up a few sailors in the Atlantic Islands but generally shipowners were not unhappy with depleted crews, which reduced labor costs during these unproductive legs of voyages. Not so for the disgruntled seafarers whose lives were endangered from shortages of experienced shipmates in bad weather and when beating around Cape Horn against strong headwinds.

Arrival in the trading and whaling areas of the Pacific entailed supplementing the crew, all the more necessary because ships would lose many of the original crew during the three to four years the men were employed in the Pacific. Most losses were due to desertion….

The cautionary note on the recruitment of Samoans as sailors reflected the persistent bad reputation of those islands, arising from the massacre of the boat’s crew of La Perouse in 1787. [I believe La Pérouse was the name of the commander, not the name of his vessel.—J.] Whalers by the 1820s were likewise returning with stories of treachery and savagery experienced in parts of Melanesia and Micronesia. Such tales led to more misgivings regarding taking crew from several of these islands. The situation was different in Tahiti and Hawai‘i, where local seamen were encouraged by chiefs to serve and showed reliability even in difficult Arctic voyaging. Several Hawaiians are recorded to have been on that coast in 1788 under Captain John Meares. The New Hazard increased her crew from twenty-four to thirty-three in 1811 for voyages to the northwest coast, additions that were simply designated as “kanakas” in logbooks and journals. The ill-fated Tonquin had a Hawaiian crew of twenty-four when it was destroyed possibly by the captain after Indians boarded on the coast, and the fur trading ship Beaver took on ten “kanakas” in 1812, together with an experienced island sailor, bosun Tom. American whalers subsequently obtained most of their crews in Hawai‘i and Tahiti and also periodically at the Marquesas, the Carolines, and New Zealand….

Captains clearly preferred Pacific seafarers, who were used to compliance toward chiefs and thus unlikely to give captains trouble by demanding seafaring customary rights on board. The islanders were useful too as interpreters and understood the Pacific ways of trade. As sailors they were skillful at handling loaded boats through heavy surf when ships had to stand off and on. On whalers they acquired reputations as good harpooners and for boldness in closing on a whale. The keen eyesight of island sailors earned them the tobacco bonuses for spotting whales, and this, along with reading the signs of the sea for sudden squalls and reefs, made them invaluable as masthead lookouts.

Swimming and diving proved other important assets. Turnbull was impressed when, on approaching Hawai‘i, he encountered people a mile offshore supported only by “a thin feather-edge slice of wood.” He refers also to Hawaiians diving from topgallant yards and swimming under the ship. This skill of deep diving was employed on pearling and bêche-de-mer ships, as well as for making underwater hull repairs and clearing fouled cables. The extent to which island men and women were at home in the sea is further alluded to in dramatic rescues. Copping describes how, when the Harriet of Sydney was totally lost near Te Puna in April 1840, “the crew would have been lost also if it had not been for the Maori women on board the ship swimming them ashore.” He relates also that when his own whaleboat broached to, and he was knocked overboard and trapped under the boat, a shark “lay hold” of his shoulder, but “my harpooner a Maori jumped overboard after me.” Similarly when James Bagley fell from the topgallant crosstrees, a Hawaiian seaman, John Mowhee, dived after him and told Bagley to hold on to his shoulder until they were rescued.

For the shipowners a more compelling reason for employing Pacific seafarers was their lower costs in wages and victualing. The whaleship owner F. Parbury, who gave evidence at the British House of Lords Select Committee on the Navigation Laws, readily attested to this and expressed preferences for New Zealand (Maori) crews.

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Failed Hawaiian Colony on Erromango

From Sailors and Traders: A Maritime History of the Pacific Peoples, by Alastair Couper (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2009), pp. 88-89:

Kamehameha died in 1819 at the age of about sixty-six. His fleet of foreign-going ships probably never made adequate profits, even though most of the capital and operating costs had been derived from the extraction of natural resources, with free Hawaiian labor ashore. Most of the voyages to China by his ships were ruinous, at least partly due to the unscrupulous agents and merchants in Canton, lack of care, recurring repairs and delays, and related payments of high port dues. His son Liholiho (Kamehameha II) faced increasing debts, as resources from land and sea, used for financing these ventures, had appreciably decreased.

Despite mounting debts the new king went on to purchase more ships. His first acquisition, at enormous cost, was the luxury yacht Cleopatra’s Barge (191 tons), bought from the American millionaire shipowner George Crowninshield Jr. Renamed Haaheo O Hawaii (Pride of Hawai‘i), the ship cruised around the Hawaiian group with the royal family and leading chiefs until 1825, when it was wrecked. It was reported that the ship at this time was “manned by a drunken, dissipated, irresponsible crew from the captain down to the cabin boy.” About the same time, the ship Prince Regent, which Vancouver had promised as a gift, was also wrecked after less than one year in service. To add to the problems of the royal family, news was received in 1825 that the king and queen had died of measles on a visit to England during 1824. They were there to elicit British political support and in the process incurred considerable expenditure.

The family, now with a boy king (Kamehameha III), faced numerous creditors, and with sandalwood and pearls exhausted, a bold maritime venture was conceived to solve these financial problems. Governor Boki of Oahu and Chief Manui‘a of Hawai‘i were to sail for Erromango in Vanuatu and acquire the still plentiful sandalwood of that region for carrying to China on Hawaiian ships. Chief Boki was in effect to occupy Erromango as ruler in a Hawaiian attempt at colonization. They sailed on 2 December 1829. Boki was in charge of the royal warship Kamehameha with a complement of 300 people, including 10 foreigners, Hawaiian sailors, soldiers, servants, women, and some other Polynesians. His navigators were Blakesly (a watchmaker) and Cox (a silversmith), possibly neither being qualified in navigation or experienced in seamanship. Manui‘a was in charge of the Becket, with 179 people. His navigator was more sensibly a former mate of a whaler.

Other merchants were also seeking Erromango sandalwood in 1829–1830 with Pacific Island labor. The Sofia carried more that 100 Tongans to the island in 1829. On a second voyage in January 1830 the Sofia recruited 200 Rotumans for Erromango. The Snapper in turn delivered another 113 Tongans for sandalwood extraction. The Kamehameha never arrived in Erromango, and no trace was ever found of the ship The Becket stayed there for six weeks, but Erromangoans were alarmed at the arrival of four European-type ships with 600 or so Polynesians, and there was much hostility, malaria, and many deaths. The Becket returned to Honolulu on 30 August 1830 with only a few Hawaiians and foreigners left alive….

The last foreign-going vessel independently owned by the Hawaiian royal family was the schooner Kamehameha III (116 tons), which sailed to California in 1848. However, the French Navy commandeered the ship in response to a complaint by its consul in Honolulu regarding unfair treatment of French business interests by the Hawaiian authorities.

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