Were there Pacific Islanders on Nantucket?

Herman Melville writes of Pacific Islanders like Queequeg on the streets of New Bedford during the whaling era. Were there also Pacific Islanders on Nantucket?

A: Yes. Pacific Islanders began joining the crews of Nantucket whaleships almost as soon as the ships entered the Pacific, and some of them accompanied the ships all the way back to Nantucket.

The first whaleships, the Balaena of New Bedford and the Equator of Nantucket, reached Hawaii (then known as the Sandwich Islands) on September 29, 1819. On board they had as an interpreter a Native Hawaiian who had received some schooling in Boston. After taking a sperm whale in Kealakekua Bay on the coast of the Big Island of Hawaii, the two ships moved on to the island of Maui, where the Balaena took on two more Native Hawaiians whom they called Joe and Jack.

Joe and Jack traveled back to New Bedford on the Balaena and then returned to the Pacific, leaving the ship in Maui, where four other Native Hawaiian men called Henry, George, John and Sam took their place.

In no time at all, New Bedford and Nantucket became temporary homes to significant numbers of Pacific Island men, whom they collectively referred to as “Canackas” (from kanaka, meaning “man” in related Polynesian languages).

Already in 1822, just three years after the Equator had been to Hawaii, a Nantucket newspaper, The Inquirer, carried a front-page story about a Sabbath School in “the South Part of Town” attended by thirty young people including three “heathen youths” who had just shipped out of Nantucket on a whaleship “to carry the Gospel to their countrymen of the islands of the Pacific Ocean.”

At the very same time, the First Congregational Society of Nantucket’s North Church had just opened its own Sabbath School with over a hundred enrollees, including seven Native Hawaiians.

A letter published in a Boston newspaper claimed that, “Not many years ago there resided here [on Nantucket] twenty Society and Sandwich Islanders [French Polynesians and Native Hawaiians], who on stated evenings when it was clear, assembled in the streets, erected ensigns of idolatry, and in frantick orgies” worshipped their own gods, unrestrained by Nantucketers. The writer felt that Nantucket needed the establishment of a seamen’s bethel to suppress such heathenism.

In 1825 The Inquirer estimated that over fifty Pacific Islanders were employed on Nantucket whaleships with “many now on the island.” During their time ashore they needed lodgings, and New Zealand-born half-Maori William Whippey saw a business opportunity. The sign for his “Canacka Boarding-House” is preserved in the artifact collection of the Nantucket Historical Association.

Pacific Islanders who came all the way to Nantucket had poor survival prospects. Most died of tuberculosis they had contracted shipboard.

Every year more records come to light of Pacific Islanders who came ashore on Nantucket to die. The current count stands at twenty. Many were taken to the asylum in Quaise for care in their last days. In 1840 five came off a ship suffering from with smallpox and died within days at Nantucket’s pest house in Shimmo.

A list of transient seamen attached to the 1850 federal census for Nantucket lists thirty-five “black” men from the Sandwich Islands. Six used the island name Maui as a surname, and one used Oahu. From the Friendly Islands (Tonga) there were seven men, three of who used Rarotonga for a surname. Others took Kanaka as a surname. Yet others adopted the Nantucket family names Coffin and Swain. They all used generic English given names: Bill, Jack, Jim. John, George, Henry, Mike, Sam, and the like. There was not a Queequeg among them.

When whaling shifted from Nantucket to New Bedford in the 1850s, the island no longer held any attraction for Pacific Islanders. Few had formed families on the island; most disappeared, and with few exceptions, their former presence was forgotten.

Scholar Barbara White found the following in the 1854 annual report of the Nantucket School Committee: “One of the most promising pupils of this school [the North Primary School] is an orphan boy whose mother was a native of the South Sea Islands, and his father a former citizen of our town.”

Frank Morral has made the case that “John Swain,” the last name added to the monument to Nantucket men who died in the Civil War, is that of a man born in Lahaina, the old whaling port on the island of Maui. The Inquirer and Mirror reported his death on April 25, 1865, and he has a head stone in Nantucket’s Historic Coloured Cemetery.

Cameron Texter has been in touch with the Nantucket Historical Association about his ancestor, William Owen, who is an exception to the rule that Pacific Island men left hardly a trace on Nantucket. Oahu-born brothers William and John Owen appear on the 1850 list of transient seamen residing on Nantucket. William settled in Siasconset and married Ireland-born Julia Leonard. William continued to go whaling on Nantucket ships as their family expanded to seven daughters: Annie, Carrie, Lizzie, Martha, Charlotte, and the twins Priscilla and Winnie (of whom there is a studio portrait in the historic image archive of the Nantucket Historical Association).

Leaving whaling, William engaged in fishing and was employed as the ‘Sconset lamplighter. He also served as a volunteer firefighter and special policeman for the village. Born in 1828, he lived nearly four decades on Nantucket and died in 1889, leaving descendants, including his great-great-grandson Cameron, to research and preserve his story.

To learn more about Pacific Islanders on Nantucket, see Frances Karttunen’s book, The Other Islanders: People Who Pulled Nantucket’s Oars, available from the NHA Museum Shop and from Spinner Publications of New Bedford. For more about Nantucket in the Civil War, see Frank Morral and Barbara Ann White’s book, Hidden History of Nantucket, also available from the NHA Museum Shop.

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

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