In 1786, trading ships began making regular stops in Hawai‘i on their way to China and the Pacific Northwest. Pursuing the lucrative fur trade, vessels from Great Britain, Spain and America found Hawai‘i an ideal place to restock provisions and replenish depleted crews with fresh Hawaiian sailors. In 1791, while sailing off Kaua‘i, Boston trader James Kendrick smelled fragrant smoke wafting from a fire on land, and realized that Hawai‘i had sandalwood trees, ‘iliahi. There was an insatiable demand for the trees’ fragrant heartwood in China, where it was turned into fine furnishings and incense. Kendrick left three men on Kaua‘i to harvest the trees, ahead of his return the following year. Hawai‘i’s first major commercial enterprise was born.
Harvested sandalwood was measured in piculs of 133.3 pounds. A picul of sandalwood could collect up to $10 dollars in China at a time when $1 bought 12 pounds of beef in the islands. It became the kingdom’s currency. During an era of escalating rivalry, the ali‘i eagerly traded sandalwood for modern weapons. Kamehameha I was among the first to recognize the value of having not only weapons but foreign advisers to help negotiate trade agreements and teach weapons use. British traders Isaac Davis and John Young became two of Kamehameha’s most favored advisers. “It was through the aid of muskets and of foreigners to instruct in their use that Kamehameha was able in so short a time to bring all the islands under his rule,” says 19th-century historian Samuel Kamakau.1
Traders and explorers, beginning with Captain Cook, brought with them a host of deadly foreign diseases. On their final voyage, Cook’s crew had been sickened by a long list of infectious maladies: tuberculosis, malaria and dengue, dysentery, dropsy, pneumonia, influenza, viral hepatitis, smallpox and venereal diseases.2 While such illnesses were not uncommon among Pacific voyagers, Cook’s men – and those that followed – proceeded to infect a population that had no immunity. As trade ramped up, with ships from France, Russia, Germany and elsewhere plying Hawai‘i waters, successive epidemics of measles, influenza, diarrhea and whooping cough ravaged the population. Seventy-five years after Cook’s arrival in 1778, the number of Hawaiians plummeted from an estimated 700,000 people to just 71,019.3 According O.A. Bushnell, a microbiologist and historian, “… since 1778, infectious diseases introduced by foreigners have claimed more Hawaiian lives than all other causes of death combined.”
“In the reign of Kamehameha, from the time I was born until I was nine years old, the pestilence visited the Hawaiian Islands, and the majority of the people from Hawai‘i to Ni‘ihau died.”
— David Malo in an 1839 article entitled “On the Decrease of the Population in the Hawaiian Islands.”4
Note: Malo was born in 1793, so he would have been nine years old in 1802. Two years later, O‘ahu suffered a major epidemic that wiped out Kamehameha’s army and caused unknown deaths.
“Plenty of Hogs and fowls, together with most of the Tropical fruits in abundance; great quantities of Water, and Musk, Mellons, Sugar Cane, Bread fruit and salt was brought for sale. The price of a large Hog was from 5 to 10 spikes (nails).”
— John Boit, Jr., mate on the Columbia of Boston, under Captain Robert Gray, 17925
2Igler, David, The Great Ocean: Pacific Worlds from Captain Cook to the God Rush, Oxford University Press, Oxford, United Kingdom, 2017, p. 44.
3La Croix, Sumner, “Economic History of Hawai‘i: A Short Introduction,” Working Paper No. 02-3, University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, Department of Economics, January 2002.
4Malo, David, “On the Decrease of the Population in the Hawaiian Islands,” Hawaiian Spectator, April 1839, p. 125.
5Morrison, S.E., “Boston Traders in Hawaiian Islands, 1789–1823,” The Washington Historical Quarterly, Vol. 12, No. 3 (July 1921), pp. 166–201.