Today, for my 900th post on the blog, we're traveling across the Pacific to the Hawaiian Islands of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. V.E. Ulett, author of the seafaring adventure novel Blackwell's Paradise, newly out from Old Salt Press, is our guide to the islands' colorful political and cultural history.
The Early Hawaiian Islands in Blackwell's Paradise
Royal Navy Captain James Blackwell’s experiences in the Hawaiian Islands in Blackwell’s Paradise are an amalgamation from various 19th-century Pacific island cultures and societies. In this post I’d like to share a few details concerning the actual Hawaiian Islands of the late 18th and early 19th centuries: an island paradise or a place of danger, warfare, and cannibalism?
Kamehameha (c. 1758 - 1819) had conquered all of the Hawaiian islands except Kauai by 1795, and is recognized as the most noteworthy of the Hawaiian monarchs. He is reputed to have been a giant of a man, nearly seven feet tall, full of martial ability. Kamehameha came to manhood during a time of constant warfare between tribes of the Hawaiian Islands. By 1778, when Cook arrived with the ships Resolution and Discovery, Kamehameha was a seasoned warrior, said to have exuded power and violence. He observed and appreciated guns, iron tools, and weapons when European and American ships began to frequent the islands as a place of refreshment in the Canton and Northwest trade routes. Later, when supreme ruler of the Sandwich Islands, Kamehameha would insist on receiving arms and ammunition, tools, and naval stores and expertise in trade with other nations.
|Tammeamea, roi des iles Sandwich par Louis Choris, 1816|
Pacific island tribes of Kamehameha’s era practiced a fierce and brutal hand-to-hand warfare. In the last battle before dominating the entire island chain, Kamehameha put down a rebellion on his home island of Hawaii, afterwards sacrificing the rebel chief at a heiau in Piiho-nua, Hilo. Human sacrifice formed part of ancient tradition, demanded by Hawaiian gods and their priests. The victims were captured enemies, slaves, or violators of kapu. The kapu system kept the Hawaiian gods constantly before the country people, the kama’āina, and by extension as the descendants of the gods, the ruling class of ali’i. This was a system of governance that touched every aspect of Hawaiian life, including agriculture and fishing, land management and husbandry, trade and social interactions.
Cannibalism appears to have been a ceremonial practice for the Hawaiians, associated with veneration for the dead, and the traditional preserving of the bones of chiefs. Portions of Captain Cook’s body were delivered to Lieutenant James King after his death at Kealakekua in 1779. This gesture was likely honorably meant, other portions having been allotted to important chiefs and priests. Kamehameha was rumored to have claimed Cook’s hair, the possession of which would have increased his own mana, or power and prestige.
Following the conquest period, Kamehameha was held to be a good and great chief, who restored order and prosperity to the land. He encouraged agriculture, putting a great seven mile swath of land in his home district of Kona under cultivation himself, which was to his advantage in trade and the provisioning of foreign ships. The kapu system, that helped Kamehameha maintain order and the continuance of chiefly rights and privileges, was abandoned after the great king’s death in 1819.
|Queen Ka’ahumanu with her servant on rug, lithograph by Jean-Pierre Norblin |
de la Gourdaine after painting by Louis Choris, the artist
aboard the Russian ship Rurick, which visited Hawai'i in 1816
In 1804, when Captain Blackwell’s Pacific island adventures take place, Kamehameha was at the height of his power — the ali’i nui ai moku, the high chief who eats the islands (land districts). The king of Hawaii, Maui, and Oahu, Kamehameha at that period was amassing a force of invasion in Honolulu against Kauai. Kauai was a tough island to invade, a 75-mile channel of rough sea separating it from neighboring Oahu. Kamehameha’s favorite wife, Ka’ahumanu (c. 1768 - 1832), is nevertheless said to have successfully fled Kamehameha’s ill-treatment, alone in a canoe across this difficult channel, and reached Kauai.
Captain Blackwell negotiations that same treacherous channel, and the disparate civilizations and cultures of Europe and Oceania. He discovers similarities between the two maritime nations; England as embodied in the Royal Navy and the Hawaiian nation in the hierarchy of the ali’i and the kapu system; each with strict prohibitions, violent retaliations, and a strong sense of honor and duty. Captain Blackwell and Mercedes venture into a fictional version of Kamehameha’s magnificent and complex Hawaiian kingdom in Blackwell’s Paradise.
About V.E. Ulett's Blackwell's Paradise: The repercussions of a court martial and the ill-will of powerful men at the Admiralty pursue Royal Navy captain James Blackwell into the Pacific, where danger lurks around every coral reef. Even if Captain Blackwell and Mercedes survive the venture into the world of early 19th-century exploration, can they emerge unchanged with their love intact? Blackwell’s Paradise takes Captain Blackwell and Mercedes to the far side of the world, on a new personal, and cultural adventure.
A longtime resident of California, V.E. Ulett is an avid reader as well as writer of historical fiction.
Proud to be an Old Salt Press author, V.E. is also a member of the National Books Critics Circle and an active member and reviewer for the Historical Novel Society.