A Funny Scrap of History

Mark Twain

Sacramento Daily Union/September 6, 1866

In my last I spoke of the old cocoa-nut stump, all covered with copper plates bearing inscriptions commemorating the visits of various British naval commanders to Captain Cook’s death-place at Kealakekua Bay. The most magniloquent of these is that left by “the Right Hon. Lord George Paulet, to whom, as the representative of Her Britannic Majesty Queen Victoria, the Sandwich Islands were ceded, February 25, 1843.”

Lord George, if he is alive yet, would like to tear off that plate and destroy it, no doubt. He was fearfully snubbed by his Government, shortly afterward, for his acts as Her Majesty’s representative upon the occasion to which he refers with such manifest satisfaction.

A pestilent fellow by the name of Charlton had been Great Britain’s Consul at Honolulu for many years. He seems to have employed his time in sweating, fuming and growling about everything and everybody; in acquiring property by devious and inscrutable ways; in blackguarding the Hawaiian Government and the missionaries; in scheming for the transfer of the islands to the British crown; in getting the King drunk and laboring diligently to keep him so; in working to secure a foothold for the Catholic religion when its priests had been repeatedly forbidden by the King to settle in the country; in promptly raising thunder every time an opportunity offered, and in making himself prominently disagreeable and a shining nuisance at all times.

You will thus perceive that Charlton had a good deal of business on his hands. There was “a heap of trouble on the old man’s mind.”

He was sued in the Courts upon one occasion for a debt of long standing, amounting to 3,000 pounds, and judgment rendered against him. This made him lively. He swore like the army in Flanders. But it was of no avail. The case was afterwards carefully examined twice—once by a Commission of distinguished English gentlemen and once by the law officers of the British Crown—and the Hawaiian Court’s decision sustained in both instances. His property was attached, and one Skinner, a relative who had $10,000 in bank, got ready to purchase it when it should be sold on execution. So far, so good.

Several other English residents had been worsted in lawsuits. They and Charlton became loud in their denunciation of what they termed a want of justice in the Hawaiian Courts. The suits were all afterwards examined by the law officers of the British Crown, and the Hawaiian Courts sustained, as in Charlton’s case.

Charlton got disgusted, wrote a “sassy” letter to the King, and left suddenly for England, conferring his Consulate, for the time being, upon a kindred spirit named Simpson, a bitter traducer of the Hawaiian Government—an officer whom the Government at once refused to recognize. Charlton left with Simpson a demand upon the Government for possession of a large and exceedingly valuable tract of land in Honolulu, alleged to have been transferred to him by a deed duly signed by a native gentleman, who had never owned the property, and whose character for probity was such that no one would believe he ever would have been guilty of such a proceeding. Charity compels us to presume that the versatile Charlton forged the deed. The boundaries, if specified, were vaguely defined; it contained no mention of a consideration for value received—it had been held in abeyance and unmentioned for twenty years, and its signer and witnesses were long since dead. It was a shaky instrument altogether.

On his way to England Charlton met my Lord George in a Queen’s ship, and laid his grievances before him, and then went on. My Lord sailed straight to Honolulu and began to make trouble. Under threats of bombarding the town, he compelled the King to make the questionable deed good to the person having charge of Charlton’s property interests; demanded the reception of the new Consul; demanded that all those suits—a great number—which had been decided adversely to Englishmen (including many which had even been settled by amicable arbitration between the parties) should be tried over again, and by juries composed entirely of Englishmen, although the written law provided that but half the panel should be English, and therefore, of course, the demand could not be complied with without a tyrannical assumption of power by the King; he stopped the seizure and sale of Charlton’s property; he brought in a little bill (gotten up by the newly created and promptly-emasculated Consul, Simpson) for $117,000 and some odd change—enough to “bust” the Hawaiian exchequer two or three times over—to use a popular missionary term—for all manner of imaginary damages sustained by British subjects at diverse and sundry times, and among the items was one demanding $3,000 to indemnify Skinner for having kept his $10,000 lying idle for four months, expecting to invest it in Charlton’s property, and then not getting a chance to do it on account of Lord George having stopped the sale. An exceedingly nice party was Lord George, take him all around.

For days and nights together the unhappy Kamehameha III was in bitterest distress. He could not pay the bill, and the law gave him no power to comply with the other demands. He and his Ministers of state pleaded for mercy—for time to remodel the laws to suit the emergency. But Lord George refused steadfastly to accede to either request, and finally, in tribulation and sorrow, the King told him to take the islands and do with them as he would; he knew of no other way—his Government was too weak to maintain its rights against Great Britain.

And so Lord George took them and set up his Government, and hauled down the royal Hawaiian ensign and hoisted the English colors over the archipelago. And the sad King notified his people of the event in a proclamation which is touching in its simple eloquence:

“Where are you, chiefs, people and commons from my ancestors, and people from foreign lands!

“Hear ye! I make known to you that I am in perplexity by reason of difficulties into which I have been brought without cause; therefore I have given away the life of our land, hear ye! But my rule over you, my people, and your privileges will continue, for I have hope that the life of the land will be restored when my conduct is justified. KAMEHAMEHA III.”

And then, I suppose, my Lord George Paulet, temporary King of the Sandwich Islands, went complacently skirmishing around his dominions in his ship, and feeding fat on glory—for we find him, four months later, visiting Kealakekua Bay and nailing his rusty sheet of copper to the memorial stump set up to glorify the great Cook—and imagining, no doubt, that his visit had conferred immortality upon a name which had only possessed celebrity before.

But my lord’s happiness was not to last long. His superior officer, Rear Admiral Thomas, arrived at Honolulu a week or two afterward, and as soon as he understood the case he immediately showed the new Government the door and restored Kamehameha to all his ancient powers and privileges. It was the 31st of July, 1843. There was immense rejoicing on Oahu that day. The Hawaiian flag was flung to the breeze. The King and as many of his people as could get into the Great Stone Church went there to pray, and the balance got drunk. The 31st of July is Independence Day in the Sandwich Islands, and consequently in these times there are two grand holidays in the Islands in the month of July. The Americans celebrate the 4th with great pomp and circumstance, and the natives outdo them if they can, on the 31st—and the speeches disgorged upon both occasions are regularly inflicted in cold blood upon the people by the newspapers, that have a dreary fashion of coming out just a level week after one has forgotten any given circumstance they talk about.

A Lucrative Office

When I woke up on the schooner’s deck in the morning, the sun was shining down right fervently, everybody was astir, and Brown was gone—gone in a canoe to Captain Cook’s side of the bay, the Captain said. I took a boat and landed on the opposite shore, at the port of entry. There was a house there—I mean a foreigner’s house—and near it were some native grass huts. The Collector of this port of entry not only enjoys the dignity of office, but has emoluments also. That makes it very nice, of course. He gets five dollars for boarding every foreign ship that stops there, and two dollars more for filling out certain blanks attesting such visit. As many as three foreign ships stop there in a single year, sometimes. Yet, notwithstanding this wild rush of business, the late Collector of the port committed suicide several months ago. The foreign ships which visit this place are whalers in quest of water and potatoes. The present Collector lives back somewhere—has a den up the mountain several thousand feet—but he comes down fast enough when a ship heaves in sight.

Washoe Men

I found two Washoe men at the house. But I was not surprised—I believe if a man were to go to perdition itself he would find Washoe men there, though not so thick, maybe, as in the other place.

The Holy Place

Two hundred yards from the house was the ruins of the pagan temple of Lono, so desecrated by Captain Cook when he was pretending to be that deity. Its low, rude walls look about as they did when he saw them, no doubt. In a cocoa-nut grove near at hand is a tree with a hole through its trunk, said to have been made by a cannon ball fired from one of the ships at a crowd of natives immediately after Cook’s murder. It is a very good hole.

The Hero of the Sunday School Books

The high chief cook of this temple—the priest who presided over it and roasted the human sacrifices—was uncle to Obookia, and at one time that youth was an apprentice-priest under him. Obookia was a young native of fine mind, who, together with three other native boys, was taken to New England by the captain of a whaleship during the reign of Kamehameha I, and were the means of attracting the attention of the religious world to their country and putting it into their heads to send missionaries there. And this Obookia was the very same sensitive savage who sat down on the church steps and wept because his people did not have the Bible. That incident has been very elaborately painted in many a charming Sunday School book—aye, and told so plaintively and so tenderly that I have cried over it in Sunday School myself, on general principles, although at a time when I did not know much and could not understand why the people of the Sandwich Islands need care a cent about it as long as they did not know there was a Bible at all. This was the same Obookia—this was the very same old Obookia—so I reflected, and gazed upon the ruined temple with a new and absorbing interest. Here that gentle spirit worshipped; here he sought the better life, after his rude fashion; on this stone, perchance, he sat down with his sacred lasso, to wait for a chance to rope in some neighbor for the holy sacrifice; on this altar, possibly, he broiled his venerable grandfather, and presented the rare offering before the high priest, who may have said, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” It filled me with emotion.

Kanui the Unfortunate

Obookia was converted and educated, and was to have returned to his native land with the first missionaries, had he lived. The other native youths made the voyage, and two of them did good service, but the third, Wm. Kanui, fell from grace afterward, for a time, and when the gold excitement broke out in California he journeyed thither and went to mining, although he was fifty years old. He succeeded pretty well, but the failure of Page, Bacon & Co. relieved him of $6,000. and then, to all intents and purposes, he was a bankrupt community. Thus, after all his toils, all his privations, all his faithful endeavors to gather together a competence, the blighting hand of poverty was laid upon him in his old age and he had to go back to preaching again. One cannot but feel sad to contemplate such afflictions as these cast upon a creature so innocent and deserving.

And finally he died—died in Honolulu in 1864. The Rev. Mr. Damon’s paper, referring—in the obituary notice—to Page-Bacon’s unpaid certificates of deposit in the unhappy man’s possession, observes that “he departed this life leaving the most substantial and gratifying evidence that he was prepared to die.” And so he was, poor fellow, so he was. He was cleaned out, as you may say, and was prepared to go. He was all ready and prepared—Page-Bacon had attended to that for him. All he had to do was to shed his mortal coil. Then he was all right. Poor, poor old fellow. One’s heart bleeds for him.

For some time after his bereavement in the matter of finances, he helped Rev. M. Rowell to carry on the Bethel Church in San Francisco and gave excellent satisfaction for a man who was so out of practice. Sleep in peace, poor tired soul!—you were out of luck many a time in your long, checkered life, but you are safe now where care and sorrow and trouble can never assail you anymore.

Temple to the Rain God

Quite a broad tract of land near that port of entry, extending from the sea to the mountain top, was sacred to the god Lono in olden times—so sacred that if a common native set his sacrilegious foot upon it it was time for him to make his will, because his time was come. He might go around it by water, but he could not cross it. It was well sprinkled with pagan temples and stocked with awkward, homely idols carved out of logs of wood. There was a temple devoted to prayers for rain—and with rare sagacity it was placed at a point so well up on the mountain side that if you prayed there twenty-four times a day for rain you would be likely to get it every time. You would seldom get to your Amen before you would have to hoist your umbrella.

The House Built by the Dead Men

And there was a large temple near at hand which was built in a single night, in the midst of storm and thunder and rain, by the ghastly hands of dead men! Tradition says that by the weird glare of the lightning a noiseless multitude of phantoms were seen at their strange labor far up the mountain side at dead of night—flitting hither and thither and bearing great lava-blocks clasped in their nerveless fingers—appearing and disappearing as the fitful lightning fell upon their pallid forms and faded away again. Even to this day, it is said, the natives hold this dread structure in awe and reverence, and will not pass by it in the night.

Venus at the Bath

At noon I observed a bevy of nude native young ladies bathing in the sea, and went down to look at them. But with a prudery which seems to be characteristic of that sex everywhere, they all plunged in with a lying scream, and when they rose to the surface they only just poked their heads out and showed no disposition to proceed any further in the same direction. I was naturally irritated by such conduct, and therefore I piled their clothes up on a boulder in the edge of the sea and sat down on them and kept the wenches in the water until they were pretty well used up. I had them in the door, as the missionaries say. I was comfortable, and I just let them beg. I thought I could freeze them out, maybe, but it was impracticable. I finally gave it up and went away, hoping that the rebuke I had given them would not be lost upon them. I went and undressed and went in myself. And then they went out. I never saw such singular perversity. Shortly a party of children of both sexes came floundering around me, and then I quit and left the Pacific ocean in their possession.

The Shameless Brown

I got uneasy about Brown finally, and as there were no canoes at hand I got a horse whereon to ride three or four miles around to the other side of the bay and hunt him up. As I neared the end of the trip, and was riding down the “pathway of the gods” toward the sea in the sweltering sun I saw Brown toiling up the hill in the distance, with a heavy burden on his shoulder, and knew that canoes were scarce with him, too. I dismounted and sat down in the shade of a crag, and after a while—after numerous pauses to rest by the way—Brown arrived at last, fagged out, and puffing like a steamboat, and gently eased his ponderous burden to the ground—the cocoa-nut stump all sheathed with copper memorials to the illustrious Captain Cook.

“Heavens and earth!” I said, “what are you going to do with that?”

“Going to do with it!—lemme blow a little—lemme blow—it’s monstrous heavy, that log is; I’m most tired out—going to do with it! Why, I’m going to take her home for a specimen.”

“You egregious ass! March straight back again and put it where you got it. Why, Brown, I am surprised at you—and hurt. I am grieved to think that a man who has lived so long in the atmosphere of refinement which surrounds me can be guilty of such vandalism as this. Reflect, Brown, and say if it be right—if it be manly—if it be generous—to lay desecrating hands upon this touching tribute of a great nation to her gallant dead? Why, Brown, the circumnavigator Cook labored all his life in the service of his country—with a fervid soul and a fearless spirit, he braved the dangers of the unknown seas and planted the banner of England far and wide over their beautiful island world. His works have shed a glory upon his native land which still lives in her history to-day; he laid down his faithful life in her service at last and unforgetful of her son, she yet reveres his name and praises his deeds—and in token of her love, and in reward for the things he did for her, she had reared this monument to his memory—this symbol of a nation’s gratitude—which you would defile with unsanctified hands. Restore it—go!”

“All right, if you say so; but I don’t see no use of such a spread as you’re making. I don’t see nothing so very high-toned about this old rotten chunk. It’s about the orneryest thing for a monument I’ve ever struck yet. If it suits Cook, though, all right; I wish him joy; but if I was planted under it I’d highst it, if it was the last act of my life. Monument! it ain’t fit for a dog—I can buy dead loads of just such for six bits. She puts this over Cook—but she put one over that foreigner—what was his name?—Prince Albert—that cost a million dollars—and what did he do? Why, he never done anything—never done anything but lead a gallus, comfortable life, at home and out of danger, and raise a large family for Government to board at 300,000 pounds a year apiece. But with this fellow, you know, it was different. However, if you say the old stump’s got to go down again, down she goes. As I said before, if it’s your wishes, I’ve got nothing to say. Nothing only this—I’ve fetched her a mile or a mile and a half, and she weighs a hundred and fifty I should judge, and if it would suit Cook just as well to have her planted up here instead of down there, it would be considerable of a favor to me.”

I made him shoulder the monument and carry it back, nevertheless. His criticisms on the monument and its patron struck me, though, in spite of myself. The creature has got no sense, but his vaporings sound strangely plausible sometimes.

In due time we arrived at the port of entry once more.

(Source: Project Gutenberg Australia: http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks09/0900821h.html#TOC3_467)

The works of Mark Twain and other American journalists are now freely available at The Archive of American Journalism. Visit our bookstore for single-volume collections–-ideal for research, reference use or casual reading.