Black History in Hawaii: from whaling ships to royal courts

Black History Month

This is part one of two articles detailing black history in Hawaii, ending around 1900. Part two, from 1900 to the present day, will be published on Friday, February 14th.

The most common association with black people in Hawaii is the military. The increased military presence during the 20th century made African-Americans more visible in the islands, as more black servicemen found themselves stationed here. Yet the history of blacks in Hawaii goes back much further — back to King Kamehameha the Great. 

“Black Jack, who was also known as Keakaeleele, was already living on Oahu when King Kamehameha conquered it in 1795,” said Dr. Kathryn Waddell Takara, a retired ethnic studies professor at the University of Hawaii. “He was known for building a stone house for Kaʻahumanu, and he was in the maritime industry as a trader and seamen.”

Honolulu Harbor in 1857.
Photo: Hawaii State Archives / Lithograph by C.H. Burgess

As Dr. Takara wrote in her essay “The African Diaspora in 19th Century Hawaii,” after the American Revolution in 1776, “free men of color discovered seafaring as an occupation where they could earn a livelihood, ‘act with a manly bearing,’ and gain the respect of their fellow men.” Compared to the flagrant racism and violent discrimination they experienced in America, the tough life on the ocean provided opportunities unimaginable on land — responsibility, authority, freedom.

Hawaii, on the other hand, had no such racial discrimination. In fact, Dr. Takara writes that “during this period in Hawaiian history darker skin was a marker for dignity, strength and courage.” Tattoos were used as “signifiers of the brave, fierce, noble qualities possessed by the most honorable warriors.” During the final days of Kahekili — a renowned warrior and ruling chief of Oahu, Molokaʻi, Lanaʻi and Maui — historian Samuel M. Kamakau wrote that “Kahekili selected a type of soldier new to Oahu called pahupū, strange looking men tattooed black from top to toe…Had the black negroes who came later arrived at that time, they might have been made favorites.”

“A view of whale fishery,” from A Collection of Voyages round the World…Captain Cook’s First, Second, Third and Last Voyages, 1790

The whaling industry steadily grew throughout the 1800s, and in 1852 more than 200 whaling ships and 3000 crewmen docked in Honolulu. More seafaring blacks found their way to the islands than ever before, and for many of them, Hawaii was a place of alluring possibility. It was a chance to live on solid ground again, without the constant threat of violence looming overhead. Naturally, a lot of them decided to stay ashore.

Entrepreneurs, educators, musicians and politicians

Though black communities were small, they didn’t just fade into the backdrop of local life: they contributed to the islands in lasting ways. 

“Early blacks were entrepreneurs, musicians, educators, politicians and diplomats,” said Dr. Takara. “There’s a lot of boredom on the ships, so black people sang, danced and made music at sea. So a lot of people came with musical talent, and they put their talent to use.”

The Royal Hawaiian Band featured several black musicians throughout the years.

The Royal Hawaiian Band. Photo: Hawaii State Archives.

“Four blacks formed a royal brass band for Kamehameha III in 1834, with America Shattuck as first master and Davis Curtis as second master,” wrote Dr. Takara. “These bands were the forerunners of the Royal Hawaiian Band as we know it today.”

Anthony D. Allen Sr. was one of the first black men to be recorded in Hawaii, his name appearing in journals, travel accounts, newspapers and magazine articles. Allen arrived on Oahu in 1811, and was described in a missionary journal as the only black man on the island. 

“He had been a slave in New York,” Dr. Takara said. “He was on a whaling ship, and he became quite the entrepreneur. He was a dairyman, a farmer. He supplied provisions for ships that came through. He was a blacksmith. He became well-known because he had the first hospital for American seamen in Honolulu. 

“His boarding house was famous for his cooking. He had a tavern, which was not to the missionaries delight, although the missionaries and the seamen usually stayed at his boarding house when they first arrived. He started the first bowling alley in the islands. And he was an adviser to the king. 

“He had a lot of unspoken, unacknowledged contributions to the islands. He built the first carriage road up Manoa Valley. He built one of the first schools, besides Punahou and the missionary schools. And he did that because his children were not allowed to go to the schools for aliʻi. So he started his own. Washington Middle School, right by Punahou, was actually Anthony Allen’s property that he was given by the king.”

Betsey Stockton. Photo: Hawaiian Mission Children’s Society 

There was also Betsey Stockton, who arrived in 1823 and started the first school on Maui for students who weren’t missionary children or aliʻi. Born a slave in New Jersey, she was given to Reverend Ashbel Green, who was the president of Princeton College at the time. Green noticed her intelligence and encouraged her to use the family library. She excelled in English and Theology, was granted her freedom and was accepted by the American Board of Commissions for Foreign Missionaries. Stockton departed for Hawaii, quickly learned Hawaiian and founded Maui’s first school for commoners — now the site of Lahainaluna. 

“At her school, not only were the traditional subjects of math, English and Latin taught, she also taught weaving, sewing, etcetera. The school was well-received and trusted,” Dr. Takara said. “Hampton University in Virginia, a historically black college, was somewhat modeled after Betsey Stockton’s school on Maui. It had the classic education components, but it also had the trades.”

Another prominent black man in Hawaii was Thomas McCants Stewart.

“He was a lawyer from New York, and he was a member of Kalakaua’s cabinet. He drafted the Organic Act in 1898, and he aided Hawaiians in gaining their kuleana land after the Overthrow.” 

Between these and dozens more, blacks made regular contributions to Hawaii, and were generally welcomed warmly into island life. Things started to change, however, around the latter half of the 19th century.

The Whitening of Hawaii

The whaling industry retracted and more blacks remained in Hawaii. For the most part, they assimilated into Hawaiian life seamlessly. Individual black men — and they were mostly men, due to the harsh nature of the seafaring institutions that brought them to Hawaii — were welcomed, but perceptions slowly began to shift. 

Dr. Takara at a Black History Month exhibit in Kahuku Public Library.
Photo: Kathryn Takara.

“I would call it the whitening of the Hawaiians,” said Dr. Takara, “in that slowly, white was seen as power and knowledge and status. As white planters and missionaries married into Hawaiian families, the whitening of Hawaiians became real. Aliʻi became whiter and whiter, and commoners became darker.”

The residue of America’s war over slavery also spilled onto Hawaii’s shores.

“After the Civil War, much of the South was decimated. Many of the planters turned to Hawaii to raise sugar. In addition to the missionaries coming, you had a new group of people, largely southerners, coming to the islands. The attitude towards blacks began to shift radically.”

The former slave-owners who turned to Hawaii’s sugar industry were wary of contracting black labor to work on plantations, though a few small groups of black contract laborers did work on plantations on Maui and Kauai at the turn of the century. 

“The old-timers who were respected and in politics and had land, who had descendants who were more local than black — they continued to do OK, because they were already known. But the soldiers who began to come at the turn of the century with the various wars, passing through or stationed — they faced big time segregation. Local women were not supposed to date black men. People had to choose sides. A lot of local people chose to identify with the dominant and the powerful.”

That general attitude of accepting knowable individuals more easily than faceless groups still echoes today. That gives Dr. Takara hope for the future, because it means education and exposure can and does change minds.

“I am definitely an optimist. It is slowly getting out that yes, we are a part of these islands, and yes, we have contributed. We are a minority, but that does not mean that we are not a vital part. Once people start to learn about each other and experience each other, then that makes a difference, because we’re all human.”

Dr. Kathryn Waddell Takara is a professor (retired), author, and owner and publisher of Pacific Raven Press, LLC. She won the American Book Award in 2010 for her poetry collection Pacific Raven: Hawai`i Poems. Her essay, “The African Diaspora in 19th Century Hawaii,” was published in They Followed the Trade Winds: African Americans in Hawaii.

This is the third installment in a month-long series for Black History Month, about black history and identity in Hawaii. The other stories are linked below.
A word, a plant, a group of people: unpacking “pōpolo”
The Pōpolo Project: building a space to ask questions and challenge ideas
Black History in Hawaii: visible and invisible blackness
Black music in Hawaii: reggae grows Hawaiian roots 
Local musician perpetuates the culture that adopted him
Black music in Hawaii: hip-hop’s Hawaii connection
Black identity in Hawaii: the conflicting experiences of being black and local
Black futures in Hawaii: envisioning a beautiful, equitable horizon for everyone

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