Hawaii's Whaling History

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Hawaii's Whaling History

In 1866, Samuel Clemens visited Hawaii—or the Sandwich Islands, as he still liked to call the archipelago. He was a young man, new to the pseudonym Mark Twain, notable for wearing a brown, linen duster in his travels “ransacking” the islands. His hair was red then, always whipped into a frenzy by the trade winds, but he already sported that wooly mustache of his.

Two of Twain’s 25 letters originally published by the Sacramento Union and included in the anthology Mark Twain’s Letters from Hawaii, edited by A. Grove Day, tackle whaling. Before the big business of sugar took over, whaling provided a good economy to the Hawaiian Islands. In addition to the flow of cash, though, whaling also accelerated the spread of disease.

In the first, Twain shares a two-page encounter with the wife of a whaler, Mrs. Captain Jollopson, that is little more than a monologue—and a single sentence, at that—by the woman. She says:

Oh, I’ve never had such a time of it! I’m clean out of luck, I do believe. The wind’s been dead ahead with me all this day. It appears to me that I can’t do no way but that it comes out wrong. First, I turned out this morning and says I, ‘Here’s a go—eight bells and no duff yet! I just know it’s going to blow great guns for me today.’ And so it’s come out. Start fair, sail fair; otherwise, just the reverse. Well, I hove my dress and cleared for the market, and took the big basket, which I don’t do when I’m alone, because I’m on the short lay when it comes to eating; but when the old man’s in port, it’s different, you know, and I go fixed when I recruit for him—never come back in ballast then, because he’s on the long lay, and it’s expensive too; you can depend on it, his leakage and shrinkage shows up on his home bills when he goes out of port, and it’s all account of recruiting too—though he says it’s on account of toggery for me….

Thankfully, Twain follows that with a what amounts to a glossary for whaling-speak. It’s a good tutorial.

In his next letter, Twain reports the business side of whaling. Speaking of Honolulu, where he was visiting at the time, he writes, “The whaling trade of the north seas—which is by no means insignificant—centers in Honolulu. Shorn of it this town would die—its business men would leave and its real estate would become valueless, at least as city property, though Honolulu might flourish afterwards as a fine sugar plantation, the soil being rich and scarcely needing irrigation.”

He spells out the business numbers. “Honolulu fits out and provisions a majority out of ninety-six whalers this year, and receives a very respectable amount of money for it. Last year she performed this service for only fifty-one vessels—so you can see how the trade is increasing.

From Oahu, Twain eventually made his way to Maui, where he seemed to be swept up in the magic of the place and forgot altogether his assignment—to write about the business prospects of Hawaii. “I went to Maui to stay a week and remained five. I had a jolly time. I would not have fooled away any of it writing letters under any consideration whatever.”

Had he written about Maui, and, in particular, Lahaina, Twain would have padded his collection of letters with several more on whaling. Lahaina is known as the whaling capitol of Hawaii. A walk down Front Street is evidence of that. Today, in addition to Twain’s book, there are three good places to learn more about whaling:

1. Bishop Museum, Honolulu, Oahu;
2. An interactive kiosk at the Lahaina Courthouse, Maui; and
3. Whalers Village Museum, Kaanapali, Maui.