Who lived in the Canacka Boarding House?

The Canacka Boarding House served transient seamen from the Pacific Islands while they were on Nantucket. It was located somewhere in the Newtown neighborhood, but exactly where is unknown. A sign from the building is in the Nantucket Historical Association collection. The word Kanaka refers to a male Pacific Islander.

The proprietors of the boarding house were William and Maria Whippy. William Whippy was born in New Zealand in 1801. He was probably the son of one of the whalemen of the Nantucket Whippey family and a Maori mother. His wife Maria was the daughter of Africa-born James Ross of Nantucket. A boycott on behalf of her younger sister, Eunice Ross, led to the racial integration of the Nantucket public schools in the 1840s.

In the 1820s Pacific Islanders were a common sight on the streets of Nantucket. Some received Sabbath school training in hope that they would carry Christianity back to their home islands. Nonetheless, young Pacific Island men were suspected of erecting “ensigns of idolatry” and taking part in “frantick orgies” on the streets of Nantucket during moonlit nights. It was suggested that Nantucket needed a Seamen’s Bethel to curb such practices. In response, a Nantucketer wrote to the local newspaper that its readers should let “all nations walk in their own ways” and wondered “why so much pains should be taken” to represent Nantucket as “a nest of people involved in heathen darkness and suffering for the want of missionaries.”

A list of transient seamen attached to the 1850 federal census for Nantucket includes fifty Pacific Islanders. Some were using island names such as Oahu, Maui, and Rarotonga as surnames.

William Owen, a Native Hawaiian born on Oahu in 1828, shipped aboard a whaleship as a teenager, settled on Nantucket, moved to Siasconset, married, and raised a family of girls, including twins. After a life on the water as a whaler and a fisherman, he died in 1889. Descendants of William and Julia Owen are living today.

It is believed that the John Swain whose name was the last to be inscribed on Nantucket’s Civil War memorial to the Union Dead was a man born on Lahaina on the island of Maui and recognized as a Civil War veteran buried in Nantucket’s Historic Coloured Cemetery. When he died on April 25, 1865, a notice appeared in Nantucket’s newspaper, the Inquirer and Mirror, but the circumstances of his death were not reported.

Vital records document nearly a dozen Pacific Islanders who died on Nantucket of illnesses acquired on shipboard. William Whippy himself died of tuberculosis in 1837, and his young son, William Jr., died of it two years later. Maria carried on, going to work as a stewardess on one of the steamboats serving Nantucket. She was still living in 1900.

With the demise of whaling from Nantucket, young Pacific Island men ceased to be a visible presence on Nantucket, and in time it was forgotten that they had ever been here.

To learn more about Cape Verdeans and others who have contributed to Nantucket’s economy and culture, 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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