Sacramento Union
21 May 1866

Scenes in Honolulu -- No. 8


HONOLULU (S. I.), APRIL, 1866.


Mounted on my noble steed Hawaii (pronounced Hahwy-ye--stress on second syllable), a beast that cost thirteen dollars and is able to go his mile in three--with a bit of margin to it--I departed last Saturday week for--for any place that might turn up.



Passing through the market place we saw that feature of Honolulu under its most favorable auspices--that is, in the full glory of Saturday afternoon, which is a festive day with the natives. The native girls by twos and threes and parties of a dozen, and sometimes in whole platoons and companies, went cantering up and down the neighboring streets astride of fleet but homely horses, and with their gaudy riding habits streaming like banners behind them. Such a troop of free and easy riders, in their natural home, which is the saddle, makes a gay and graceful and exhilarating spectacle. The riding habit I speak of is simply a long, broad scarf, like a tavern tablecloth brilliantly colored, wrapped around the loins once, then apparently passed up between the limbs and each end thrown backward over the same, and floating and flapping behind on both sides beyond the horse's tail like a couple of fancy flags; and then, with a girl that throws her chest forward and sits up like a major general and goes sweeping by like the wind. "Gay?" says Brown, with a fine irony; "oh, you can't mean it!"

The girls put on all the finery they can scare up on Saturday afternoon--fine black silk robes; flowing red ones that nearly put your eyes out; others as white as snow; still others that discount the rainbow; and they wear their hair in nets, and trim their jaunty hats with fresh flowers, and encircle their dusky throats with homemade necklaces of the brilliant vermilion-tinted blossom of the ohia; and they fill the markets and the adjacent streets with their bright presences, and smell like thunder with their villainous coconut oil.

Occasionally you see a heathen from the sunny isles away down in the South Seas, with his face and neck tattooed till he looks like the customary unfortunate from Reese River who has been blown up in a mine. Some are tattooed a dead blue color down to the upper lip--masked, as it were--leaving the natural light yellow skin of Micronesia unstained from thence down; some with broad marks drawn down from hair to neck, on both sides of the face, and a strip of the original yellow skin, two inches wide, down the center--a gridiron with a spoke broken out; and some with the entire face discolored with the popular mortification tint, relieved only by one or two thin, wavy threads of natural yellow running across the face from ear to ear, and eyes twinkling out of this darkness, from under shadowing hat brims, like stars in the dark of the moon.


Moving among the stirring crowds, you come to the poi merchants, squatting in the shade on their hams, in true native fashion, and surrounded by purchasers. (The Sandwich Islanders always squat on their hams, and who knows but they may be the old original "ham sandwiches"? The thought is pregnant with interest.) The poi looks like common flour paste, and is kept in large bowls formed of a species of gourd, and capable of holding from one to three or four gallons. Poi is the chief article of food among the natives, and is prepared from the kalo or taro plant (k and t are the same in the Kanaka alphabet, and so are l and r). The taro root looks like a thick, or, if you please, a corpulent sweet potato, in shape, but is of a light purple color when boiled. When boiled it answers as a passable substitute for bread. The buck Kanakas bake it under ground, then mash it up well with a heavy lava pestle, mix water with it until it becomes a paste, set it aside and let it ferment, and then it is poi--and a villainous mixture it is, almost tasteless before it ferments and too sour for a luxury afterward. But nothing in the world is more nutritious. When solely used, however, it produces acrid humors, a fact which sufficiently accounts for the blithe and humorous character of the Kanakas. I think there must be as much of a knack in handling poi as there is in eating with chopsticks. The forefinger is thrust into the mess and stirred quickly round several times and drawn as quickly out, thickly coated, just as if it were poulticed; the head is thrown back, the finger inserted in the mouth and the poultice stripped off and swallowed--the eye closing gently, meanwhile, in a languid sort of ecstasy. Many a different finger goes into the same bowl and many a different kind of dirt and shade and quality of flavor is added to the virtues of its contents. One tall gentleman, with nothing in the world on but a soiled and greasy shirt, thrust in his finger and tested the poi, shook his head, scratched it with the useful finger, made another test, prospected among his hair, caught something and ate it; tested the poi again, wiped the grimy perspiration from his brow with the universal hand, tested again, blew his nose--"Let's move on, Brown," said I, and we moved.


Around a small shanty was collected a crowd of natives buying the awa root. It is said that but for the use of this root the destruction of the people in former times by venereal diseases would have been far greater than it was, and by others it is said that this is merely a fancy. All agree that poi will rejuvenate a man who is used up and his vitality almost annihilated by hard drinking, and that in some kinds of diseases it will restore health after all medicines have failed; but all are not willing to allow to the awa the virtues claimed for it. The natives manufacture an intoxicating drink from it which is fearful in its effects when persistently indulged in. It covers the body with dry, white scales, inflames the eyes, and causes premature decrepitude. Although the man before whose establishment we stopped has to pay a government license of eight hundred dollars a year for an exclusive right to sell awa root, it is said that he makes a small fortune every twelvemonth; while saloonkeepers, who pay a thousand dollars a year for the privilege of retailing whiskey, etc., only make a bare living.

We found the fish market crowded; for the native is very fond of fish, and eats the article raw. Let us change the subject.


In old times here Saturday was a grand gala day indeed. All the native population of the town forsook their labors, and those of the surrounding country journeyed to the city. Then the white folks had to stay indoors, for every street was so packed with charging cavaliers and cavalieresses that it was next to impossible to thread one's way through the cavalcades without getting crippled. In the afternoon the natives were wont to repair to the plain, outside the town, and indulge in their ancient sports and pastimes and bet away their week's earnings on horse races. One might see two or three thousand, some say five thousand, of these wild riders, skurrying over the plain in a mass in those days. And it must have been a fine sight.

At night they feasted and the girls danced the lascivious hula-hula--a dance that is said to exhibit the very perfection of educated motion of limb and arm, hand, head, and body, and the exactest uniformity of movement and accuracy of "time." It was performed by a circle of girls with no raiment on them to speak of, who went through with an infinite variety of motions and figures without prompting, and yet so true was their "time," and in such perfect concert did they move that when they were placed in a straight line, hands, arms, bodies, limbs, and heads waved, swayed, gesticulated, bowed, stooped, whirled, squirmed, twisted, and undulated as if they were part and parcel of a single individual; and it was difficult to believe they were not moved in a body by some exquisite piece of mechanism.

Of late years, however, Saturday has lost most of its quondam gala features. This weekly stampede of the natives interfered too much with labor and the interests of the white folks, and by sticking in a law here, and preaching a sermon there, and by various other means, they gradually broke it up. The demoralizing hula-hula was forbidden to be performed, save at night, with closed doors, in presence of few spectators, and only by permission duly procured from the authorities and the payment of ten dollars for the same. There are few girls nowadays able to dance this ancient national dance in the highest perfection of the art.


Cantering across the bridge and down the firm, level, gleaming white coral turnpike that leads toward the south, or the east, or the west, or the north (the points of the compass being all the same to me, inasmuch as, for good reasons, I have not had an opportunity thus far of discovering whereabouts the sun rises in this country--I know where it sets, but I don't know how it gets there nor which direction it comes from), we presently arrived at a massive coral edifice which I took for a fortress at first, but found out directly that it was the government prison. A soldier at the great gate admitted us without further authority than my countenance, and I suppose he thought he was paying me a handsome compliment when he did so; and so did I until I reflected that the place was a penitentiary. However, as far as appearances went, it might have been the King's palace, so neat and clean and white, and so full of the fragrance of flowers was the establishment, and I was satisfied.

We passed through a commodious office, whose walls were ornamented with linked strands of polished handcuffs and fetters, through a hall, and among the cells above and below. The cells for the men were eight or ten feet high, and roomy enough to accommodate the two prisoners and their hammocks, usually put in each, and have space left for several more. The floors were scrubbed clean, and were guiltless of spot or stain of any kind, and the painfully white walls were unmarred by a single mark or blemish. Through ample gratings, one could see the blue sky and get his hair blown off by the cool breeze. They call this a prison--the pleasantest quarters in Honolulu.

There are four wards, and one hundred and thirty-two prisoners can be housed in rare and roomy comfort within them.

There were a number of native women in the female department. Poor devils, they hung their heads under the prying eyes of our party as if they were really ashamed of being there.

In the condemned cell and squatting on the floor, all swathed in blankets, as if it were cold weather, was a brown-faced, gray-bearded old scalawag, who, in a frolicsome mood, had massacred three women and a batch of children--his own property, I believe--and reflects upon that exploit with genuine satisfaction to this hour, and will go to the gallows as tranquilly indifferent as a white man would go to dinner.


The prison yard--that sad enclosure which, in the prisons of my native America, is a cheerless barren and yieldeth no vegetation save the gallows tree, with its sorrowful human fruit--is a very garden! The beds, bordered by rows of inverted bottles (the usual style here), were filled with all manner of dainty flowers and shrubs: Chinese mulberry and orange trees stood here and there, well stocked with fruit; a beautiful little pine tree--rare, and imported from the far South Seas--occupied the center, with sprays of gracefully arching green spears springing outward like parasol tops, at marked and regular intervals, up its slender stem, and diminishing in diameter with mathematical strictness of graduation, till the sprouting plume at the top stood over a perfect pyramid. Vines clambered everywhere and hid from view and clothed with beauty everything that might otherwise have been suggestive of chains and captivity. There was nothing here to remind one of the prison save a brace of dovecotes, containing several pretty birds brought hither from "strange, strange lands beyond the sea." These, sometimes, may pine for liberty and their old free life among the clouds or in the shade of the orange groves, or abroad on the breezy ocean--but if they do, it is likely they take it out in pining, as a general thing.


Against one wall of the prison house stands an airy little building which does duty as a hospital. A harmless old lunatic, named Captain Tait, has his quarters here. He has a wife and children in the town, but he prefers the prison hospital, and has demanded and enjoyed its hospitality (slip of the pen--no joke intended) for years. He visits his family at long intervals--being free to go and come as he pleases--but he always drifts back to the prison again after a few days. His is a religious mania, and he professes to read sixty chapters of the Bible every day, and write them down in a book. He was about down to chapter thirty-five when I was introduced to him, I should judge, as it was nearly two in the afternoon.

I said, "What book are you reading, Captain?"

"The precious of the precious--the book of books--the Sacred Scriptures, Sir."

"Do you read a good deal in it?"

"Sixty chapters every day (with a perceptible show of vanity, but a weary look in the eye withal)--sixty chapters every day, and write them all down in a plain, legible hand."

"It is a good deal. At that rate, you must ultimately get through, and run short of material."

"Ah, but the Lord looks out for his own. I am in His hands--He does with me as He wills. I often read some of the same chapters over again, for the Lord tells me what to read, and it is not for me to choose. Providence always shows me the place."

"No hanging fire?--I mean, can you always depend on--on this information coming to time every day, so to speak?"

"Always--always, sir. I take the sacred volume in my hand, in this manner, every morning, in a devout and prayerful spirit, and immediately, and without any volition on my part, my fingers insert themselves between the leaves--so directed from above (with a sanctified glance aloft)--and I know that the Lord desires me to open at that place and begin. I never have to select the chapter myself--the Lord always does it for me."

I heard Brown mutter, "The old man appears to have a good thing, anyway--and his poi don't cost him anything, either; Providence looks out for his regular sixty, the prison looks out for his hash, and his family looks out for itself. I've never seen any sounder maniac than him, and I've been around considerable."


We were next introduced to General George Washington, or, at least, to an aged, limping Negro man, who called himself by that honored name. He was supposed to be seventy years old, and he looked it. He was as crazy as a loon, and sometimes, they say, he grows very violent. He was a Samson in a small way; his arms were corded with muscle, and his legs felt as hard as if they were made of wood. He was in a peaceable mood at present, and strongly manacled. They have a hard time with him occasionally, and some time or other he will get in a lively way and eat up the garrison of that prison, no doubt. The native soldiers who guard the place are afraid of him, and he knows it.

His history is a sealed book--or at least all that part of it which transpired previously to the entry of his name as a pensioner upon the Hawaiian Government fifteen years ago. He was found carrying on at a high rate at one of the other islands, and it is supposed he was put ashore there from a vessel called the Olive Branch. He has evidently been an old sailor, and it is thought he was one of a party of Negroes who fitted out a ship and sailed from a New England port some twenty years ago. He is fond of talking in his dreamy, incoherent way, about the Blue Ridge in Virginia, and seems familiar with Richmond and Lynchburg. I do not think he is the old original General W.


Upstairs in the prison are the handsome apartments used by the officers of the establishment; also a museum of quaint and curious weapons of offense and defense, of all nations and all ages of the world. The prison is to a great extent a self-supporting institution, through the labor of the convicts farmed out to load and unload ships and work on the highways, and I am not sure but that it supports itself and pays a surplus into the public treasury besides, but I have no note of this, and I seldom place implicit confidence in my memory in matters where figures and finance are concerned and have not been thought of for a fortnight. This government prison is in the hands of W. C. Parke, Marshal of the Kingdom, and he has small need to be ashamed of his management of it. Without wishing to betray too much knowledge of such matters, I should say that this is the model prison of the western half of the world, at any rate.


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