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The Battle of Honolulu

By Dr. T. Lowry
Excerpted with permission of the publishers from "The Story the Soldiers Wouldn't Tell"
Stackpole Books, 5067 Ritter Road, Mechanicsburg, PA 17055
Augmented from additional sources by Chuck Veit

It's a damned tough life, full of toil and strife, we whalermen undergo.
And we don't give a damn when the gale has stopped how hard the wind did blow.
We're homeward bound! 'Tis a grand old sound on a good ship taut and free,
And we don't give a damn when we drink our rum with the girls on old
Maui .

--Rolling Down to Old Maui

The Hawaiian Islands in the early 1800s were in a state of violent social and political change. The aristocracy and the priesthood had ruled for centuries through a complex system of social class structure and taboo. The usual penalty for any infraction was death. When the first whites arrived, they challenged the taboos and were not struck dead, either by the gods or by the aristocracy (Captain Cook was an unlucky exception).

When the general population saw that the white sailors did as they pleased, the sailors were accorded status as aristocracy, almost demigods. These seafarers, whether from whaling ships or merchant vessels, were largely illiterate, hard-living, working class men, used to bad pay, worse food, violent discipline, and low status. They were understandably delighted to be suddenly accepted into the top ranks of society, with unlimited access to women and power. The Hawaiians had a very open view of sexual behavior (in vivid contrast to early Victorian age New England ), which the sailors took as loose morals and an opportunity for exploitation.

Parallel with this influx of opportunists was the continuing epidemic, now waxing, now waning, of venereal disease. The British had landed on Kauai in 1778; within two years, venereal disease had spread to the southern tip of the big island of Hawaii , nearly 200 miles away.  Each ship brought fresh inoculations of these diseases, as well as deadly epidemics of measles and smallpox.

Thus two cultures were on a fatal collision course. The Hawaiians had lost all faith in their gods; their new king, the young Liholiho, had declared the old religion dead. Since the aristocracy and the old priesthood were mutually supportive, the mandate for governance was gone. The whites, mostly renegade sailors turned economic and sexual exploiters, were gaining power and land (and owned the best weapons). With the old culture dead and the new culture a mixture of anarchy, greed, and societal collapse, there seemed no future for the Hawaiians.

At this propitious moment, in 1820, an alternative arrived aboard the ship Thaddeus: the first of the American missionaries. The Hawaiians, desperate from the loss of their own belief system, willingly embraced this new world view. There was an almost-instantaneous mass conversion to Christianity. From the aristocracy downward, the new teaching took hold. And almost the first stricture was the new taboo: no more indiscriminate sexual intercourse.  

A U.S. Navy ship, the 12-gun schooner Dolphin, Lt. Jack Percival commanding, arrived in Hawaii on January 16, 1826 —the first U.S. warship to visit the islands. Percival had been sent to the Pacific to bring the mutineers of a whaling ship to justice and to enforce the settlement of debts owed by Hawaii 's ruling chiefs. As the ship sailed into Honolulu Bay , these objectives were not uppermost on the minds of the crew, however. The men of the Dolphin’s, like all mariners then, had long heard of the friendliness of women in the South Seas, and after many months away from land they were eager to match their ardor with the legendary sexual charms of the Hawaiian girls. The men were enraged to learn that times had changed: not only had the sale of alcohol been restricted, but the women were forbidden to swim out to ships in the harbor. The crew petitioned their commander for relief.

The lieutenant commanding Dolphin was one of the most colorful officers ever to serve in the United States Navy, John “Jack” Percival. Born in Barnstable , Massachusetts on April 3, 1779 , “Roaring Jack” (or “Mad Jack”) was already a legend by 1826. The popular story claims he left home at age thirteen after an argument with his parents over hasty pudding. One of his first notable seaborne adventures came when a press gang of Royal Marines boarded the vessel on which the teen was serving and hauled him aboard their warship, the Epervier. Determined that he would die before spending a minute in slavery aboard a British ship, the youth somehow got his hands on a pistol, put it to a sentry's head, and managed to escape. Another tale not only puts Percival at the Battle of Trafalgar on October 21, 1805 as Lord Nelson's British fleet defeated a combined French and Spanish armada during the Napoleonic Wars, but places him in the middle of the conflict as commander of Nelson's flagship, Victory! By the War of 1812, Percival achieved the rank of captain, and his exploits would earn him the nickname of "Mad Jack." At New York Harbor on July 4, 1813 , in a fishing boat with a crew of thirty-two he surprised and subsequently captured the British vessel Beagle, simply his way of celebrating Independence Day. On the quarterdeck of the sloop Cyane, following the war, he sailed into the waters of the West Indies with orders "to destroy pirates." Percival stalked the marauders and outmaneuvered them time after time until he held the advantage and could rake their bows and sterns without giving them a clear broadside at the Cyane

Under cover of nightfall, he led raiding parties ashore to strike at pirate island strongholds, leaving dead buccaneers and bastions ablaze throughout the Indies . Always materializing with cutlass in hand wherever musket balls, cannon fire, and blades were the thickest, Percival earned his appellation of "Mad Jack" and then some. His crews, too, learned that Percival was not a man to be trifled with. Anyone foolish enough to take on Mad Jack quickly learned that the square-shouldered officer did not have to rely on a cat o'nine tails to "hide" a miscreant's back: Percival could simply and brutally inflict discipline with his hammer-hard fists. The Hawaiians in 1826 were blissfully unaware of any of this.

“Mad Jack” Percival demanded an audience with Prime Minister Kalanimoku and the Dowager Queen (and regent) Kaahumanu. In his message, Percival asserted that denying women to his crew was an insult to the American flag. The Queen replied, in a letter, that she had a right to control her own subjects; that in punishing her offending subjects she had done no injustice to other nations and that she sought only to save her own nation from vice and ruin. She further reminded Percival that strangers in a new country are expected to follow the laws and customs of their hosts. 

The governor of Oahu delivered this message. Mad Jack, in a frenzy of rage, replied that he would not write the Queen again but would visit her in person, and if the leader of the missionaries appeared, he would shoot him. An audience was arranged. Percival demanded that the Queen release her women: “It is not good to taboo the women. It is not so in America !” The Queen replied, “In former times, before the Word of God arrived here, we were dark-minded, lewd, and murderous; at the present time we are seeking a better way.” She added, “Had you brought American women with you, and we tabooed them, you might then justly be displeased with us.” There was more such discussion, with no change of opinion. Mad Jack clenched his fists in rage and said that the next day he would give his men rum and send them ashore, where, if they were still denied women, they would pull down the houses of the missionaries and take the women they wanted.

The next day was the Sabbath. In the afternoon, as the royal family gathered in the prime minister’s home for divine services, 150 drunken sailors (merchant seamen had joined the Navy men) arrived, repeated their demands for women, made loud threats, and then smashed seventy windowpanes. A contingent proceeded on to the home of Hiram Bingham, the leader of the missionaries. Mrs. Bingham locked the front door, and the sailors proceeded to smash in her windows. Forcing their way inside, the mob found Bingham himself, surrounded him, cursed him loudly, and menaced him with clubs and knives. A group of Hawaiian men, warriors and Christian converts, stood calmly by; they told Bingham no harm would come to him. When the first American sailor actually struck a blow at Bingham, the riot was over. The Hawaiians clubbed the ringleaders unconscious and disarmed the remainder. The sailors still able to walk were sent back to the ships, their arms bound tightly. Another group, which had returned to Bingham’s home and was attempting to break down the door, was interrupted by the ship’s officer and beaten—including “Mad Jack,” wielding a whalebone cane.

In the late afternoon, Percival appeared, grudgingly admitted that his men had gone too far, and repeated his demand for women. In fact, he said that the Dolphin would not leave Honolulu until his men were satisfied. The Hawaiians, intimidated by the threats of further violence, reluctantly agreed to a lifting of the taboo. Soon the shouts and laughter from canoes filled with willing women were heard over the waters of the harbor. Percival, in a small concession to his Hawaiian hosts, put the two most violent sailors in irons and arranged for the repair of the damaged homes. Dolphin remained in port for several months, resting and refitting. On May 11, 1826 , she weighed anchor and departed Hawaii . Thus ended the first visit of the U.S. Navy to Honolulu .

Mad Jack’s actions were later renounced by the United States and resulted in the sending of an envoy to King Kauikeaouli. When Captain Thomas A.P. Catesby Jones arrived, in command of the USS Peacock, he was armed with instructions to discuss international affairs with the Hawaii King and Chiefs, and to conclude a trade treaty.

Captain Percival will forever be remembered for the years from 1841 to 1846 during which time he was associated with USS Constitution. In fact, Percival is credited with saving "Old Ironsides" from being scrapped when the Navy Department deemed her beyond repair. According to the Navy, repairs would cost $150,000, a fortune in those days. Percival scoffed at the Navy's claim and price tag, and promised that he could oversee the repairs for a mere $10,000. Percival was true to his word, and when the repairs were concluded for the specified $10,000 in 1844, the Navy placed "Mad Jack," then sixty-five years of age, in command with orders to sail the grand warship around the world. The voyage lasted for nearly five hundred days, covering more than 50,000 miles and forever established the vessel and the man as U.S. Navy institutions. Percival peacefully passed away in his sleep in Dorchester in 1862, an ending that few who knew him would once have envisioned, and was buried in West Barnstable , his birthplace. In Honolulu, U.S. destroyer squadrons based in Pearl Harbor annually celebrate "Mad Jack Percival Day" in the Captain's honor on the anniversary of Dolphin’s departure; what role—if any—Hawaiian girls play in the ceremonies is unknown . . .



The Story the Soldiers Wouldn't Tell: Sex in the Civil War, Dr. Thomas P. Lowry

Virtual Vermont entry for Hiram Bingham at http://www.virtualvermont.com/history/hbingham.html

Hawaiian history at http://www.unitedstatestourism.com/world_travel/hawaii/hawaii_history.htm

Cape Cod Companion entry for “Mad Jack” Percival at http://www.barnstablepatriot.com/cccompanion/chapter6.html

The U.S. Navy in Hawaii , 1826-1945 at http://www.history.navy.mil/docs/wwii/pearl/hawaii.htm#anchor420895

Ship Store Galleries, “USS Dolphin Departing Honolulu” at http://www.shipstoregalleries.com/fineart/artists/massey/orig/dolphin_honolulu_o.html

Find-a-Grave entry for Jack Percival at http://www.findagrave.com/

Dorchester Reporter article by P. F. Stevens, “Captain ‘Mad Jack’ Percival of Meeting House Hill” at http://www.dotnews.com/percival.html

Stackpole Books

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