Excerpt: Island Queens and Mission Wives, by Jennifer Thigpen

Island Queens and Mission Wives: How Gender and Empire Remade Hawai‘i’s Pacific World by Jennifer ThigpenIn the late eighteenth century, Hawai’i’s ruling elite employed sophisticated methods for resisting foreign intrusion. By the mid-nineteenth century, however, American missionaries had gained a foothold in the islands. Jennifer Thigpen explains this important shift by focusing on two groups of women: missionary wives and high-ranking Hawaiian women. Examining the enduring and personal exchange between these groups, Island Queens and Mission Wives: How Gender and Empire Remade Hawai‘i’s Pacific World argues that women’s relationships became vital to building and maintaining the diplomatic and political alliances that ultimately shaped the islands’ political future.

In the following excerpt (pp. 46-48), Thigpen describes the voyage of New England missionaries to Hawai’i and the political shifts occurring on the island that signaled the powerful role women would play in the cultural interactions that lay ahead.


The little band of missionaries found ample time to reflect on their new situation on board the Thaddeus, their home and “abode” for the foreseeable future. The first days at sea were rough. In November, one mission wife remarked that the weather was “boisterous” and the wind “contrary.”[1] Weather conditions not only threatened to hamper the pace of the journey; it also made the missionaries and their wives seasick. Moreover, some of the company began to realize just how far from home they were. Sybil Moseley Bingham confessed that three months into the journey she felt “truly like a pilgrim and a stranger” with no “abiding place.” As she lamented: “[A]ll the objects of my heart” seemed “far, far away.”[2] Bingham and her new mission family, however, did not give in to despair; instead, the journey seemed to provide new opportunities for the group to recommit itself to its evangelical project. In January, as the Thaddeus rounded Cape Horn and the mission band “gaze[d] upon” the region’s “rude coasts,” Bingham reflected on the work to be done in Hawai‘i. “Here, as there,” she wrote, “‘No gospel’s joyful sound’ is heard.” She regretted that the “poor souls” the missionaries passed knew “no other scepter than that of the Prince of darkness.” Yet Bingham was hopeful that “the day is hastening when they shall.”[3]

Bingham carried this confidence with her into the spring, when the Thaddeus sailed near the coast of Hawai‘i. On March 30, 1820, Bingham reported that Thomas Hopu, one of the mission’s Hawaiian assistants, called out to the slumbering missionaries: “Land appears!” After a trying sea journey, the mission band came into “full view” of Hawai‘i, “that dark pagan land so long the object” of missionaries’ “most interested thoughts.” The excitement on board the Thaddeus must have been nearly palpable. As Bingham wryly observed: “[T]here was but little sleep.” In the morning, a small crew went ashore to “inquire into the state of things.” They returned with news that stunned all those still gathered on board. “Kamehameha is dead!” they reported. “The government is settled in the hands of his son, Liholiho . . . the taboo system is no more . . . the idol gods are burned!” It took some time for the missionaries and their wives to absorb the astonishing news. They could only interpret the changes as a sign of God’s will. “The Lord,” it seemed, had “gone before” the missionaries, clearing a space for their work in the islands.[4]
Despite the missionaries’ optimism regarding the success of their endeavor, they faced numerous challenges. First, the Hawaiians—maka‘āinana and ali‘i alike—expressed little interest in Christianity. The king and his chiefs, in particular, appeared indifferent to the missionaries’ project and proved difficult to convert. It was not simply, as American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions corresponding secretary and mission historian Rufus Anderson later wrote, that Hawaiians, “having abolished one religion without any religious motives,” felt “in no haste to come under the restraints of another.”[5] In fact, the king and his chiefs seemed exceptionally tolerant of—if not more interested in—the French Catholics who had recently arrived in the islands. Second, and a related point, was the fact that the missionaries had to compete with other groups for Hawaiians’ attentions. By the time the first company of missionaries arrived in 1820, the islands were virtually teeming with foreigners from around the globe who arrived with political, economic, and religious interests.[6] Many had already established relationships with the islands’ ali‘i. Third, missionaries also encountered an unfamiliar gender hierarchy, one that compelled them to negotiate directly not just with the islands’ new kuhina nui (coruler), Ka‘ahumanu, but with other women of rank. American missionaries’ arrival coincided, then, with both a period of rapid transformation already well under way and the rise of Ka‘ahumanu’s growing political authority.

As under Kamehameha, Hawai‘i’s ali‘i in the early part of the nineteenth century continued to engage with foreigners from around the globe, who came not only with different aims for Hawai‘i and its people but also with different cultural styles for conducting those exchanges. The French, who arrived in the islands just ahead of the missionaries, provide an excellent example of both the distinct and “variegated” character of the foreign presence in Hawai‘i and Hawaiians’ skillful negotiations with their foreign guests. Like Kamehameha, ali‘i continued to absorb some of the changes that foreigners brought with them while steadfastly negotiating their relationships with outsiders on the most favorable terms possible. These negotiations sometimes left little space for the American missionaries, who were relative newcomers to the islands.

When the small band of missionaries departed from Boston, they had no way of knowing that Hawai‘i’s powerful King Kamehameha had already perished. The missionaries, in fact, fully expected to find “the old King Kamehameha ruling the Islands with despotic power, and zealously upholding idolatry.” Upon landing in Hawai‘i, however, they learned that Kamehameha’s young son, Liholiho (also called Kamehameha II), ruled as the islands’ mō‘ī. Yet the young king’s authority in the islands was far from absolute. At a ceremony held days after Kamehameha’s death that conferred the new king’s title, the deceased king’s favored widow, Ka‘ahumanu, disclosed to Liholiho that Kamehameha had named her kuhina nui (chief counselor). Ka‘ahumanu declared: “We two shall share the rule over the land.” As kuhina nui, Ka’ahumanu became coruler of the Hawaiian Islands.[7] Endowed with this new role, the already-powerful Ka‘ahumanu increased her political influence overnight.


From Island Queens and Mission Wives: How Gender and Empire Remade Hawai’i’s Pacific World by Jennifer Thigpen. Copyright © 2014 by the University of North Carolina Press.

  1. [1]Samuel and Nancy Ruggles, journal, November 8, 1819, Journals Collection, Hawaiian Mission Children’s Society Library, Honolulu, Hawai’i (HMCS). See also Sybil Moseley Bingham, journal, November 9, 1819, Journals Collection, HMCS.
  2. [2]Sybil Moseley Bingham, journal, January 6, 1820, Journals Collection, HMCS.
  3. [3]Sybil Moseley Bingham, journal, January 26, 1820, Journals Collection, HMCS. See also Samuel and Nancy Ruggles, journal, January 26, 1820, Journals Collection, HMCS.
  4. [4]Sybil Moseley Bingham, journal, March 30, 1820, Journals Collection, HMCS. See also Bingham, A Residence, 69–70; Anderson, History of the Sandwich Islands Mission, 18, 19; and Tracy, et al. History of American Missions to the Heathen, 91–92.
  5. [5]Anderson, History of the Sandwich Islands Mission, 20. See also Daws, Shoal of Time, 63–64.
  6. [6]See Thomas, Islanders, 77–80; Skwiot, “Migration and the Politics of Sovereignty, Settlement, and Belonging in Hawai‘i,” 440–41; Oliver, The Pacific Islands, 73–86.
  7. [7]Kamakau, Ruling Chiefs of Hawaii, 220. See also Kame‘eleihiwa, Native Land and Foreign Desires, 69–74; Kirch and Sahlins, Anahulu, 118–19; Kuykendall, The Hawaiian Kingdom, 1:64–65.