Tuesday, October 3, 2006

What Missionaries Thought: About Property Law, For Instance

Binghampage35_1 By the time Chief Justice John Marshall wrote Johnson v. McIntosh in 1823, Christian missionaries from Connecticut had been living in the Hawaiian Islands (known to them as the "Sandwich Islands") for three years.  Though they were separated by 5000 miles, they spoke a language similar to Marshall, of Christianity, civilization, and property.


There has been much writing on the role of the missionaries in the process of colonization (or what's now called by some in Hawaii, occupation).  Lilikala Kame'Eleihiwa's Foreign Land, Native Desires has interpreted the missionaries as agents of capitalism.  And much recent writing has focused on the Hawaiians' reactions to the new comers.  Stuart Banner, for instance, asks why Native Hawaiians adopted western patterns of land ownership?  His answer is that the powerful among the natives were "preparing to be colonized"--that is, they saw what was happening and wanted to maintain their wealth and power, to the extent possible, following colonization.  They could do this, they thought, by adopting a western property regime.

I have a somewhat different project, which takes its title from Marshall Sahlins' much-discussed book, How Natives Think: About Captain Cook, For Instance.  Sahlins was engaged in a debate with Princeton anthropologist Gananath Obeyesekere, over whether native Hawaiians actually thought that Captain Cook was Lono, a god of the new year--or whether that was merely how westerners thought natives thought.  The question is whether natives believed Cook was Lono has some implications for our understanding of how native thought.  Sahlins' point is that Obeyesekere is imposing his own set of values on the natives, about what is rational.  And so Sahlins turns what was an attack on him for imposing western values (of course, the natives must have thought that Cook was Lono) into a claim that he respected natives' ideas more than Obeyesekere (maybe some in the west think it's irrational for natives to think that Cook was Lono, but it made sense within their world).  Whew--a lot going on the exchange.  It's an engaging read.  Here's a flavor: "Heinrich Zimmerman heard it directly from the Hawaiians: Cook was Lono."  Brilliant first line, don't you think?

I’ve been thinking a lot about Hawaiian history recently-–and particularly what happened after the missionaries arrived from the mainland in the early 1820s.  I’m interested in this, because there was a process of conversion to western patterns of property rights.  Hawaii offers an important (and underutilized) vantage for viewing ideas about property's place in human society.

My project, then, is concerned with what the early missionaries (those who were there in the 1820s and 1830s) thought about what they were doing.  [Yes, I must confess, I am one of those people who study conservative, often proslavery, dead white males (college professors and more frequently judges).]  What the missionaries thought they were doing has some implications for understanding antebellum history: what motivated them?  How did the missionaries reflect the values of their brethren who remained on the mainland?  How did ideas about progress, Christianity, and property all fit together?  This is fertile ground for understanding intellectual history--and for getting at the rich questions that historians have about the process of colonization.  How did the intellectual structure behind colonization work?  Did Christianity include the common law?  How was Christianity related to the market economy?  Fits into what's been written about the antebellum mind by Elizabeth Fox and Eugene Genovese in The Mind of the Master Class.

How Missionaries Thought: About Property, For Instance

So let me introduce my primary subject: Hiram Bingham, a former Yale student, who was in the first group of missionaries sent by the American Board of Foreign Christian Missions, to the Hawaiian Islands.  Bingham's memoirs, Twenty One Years in the Sandwich Islands (full text available through the Library of Congress), tell his story of the unfolding of the missions and the progress of the propagation of Christianity.  Dedicated propertyprof readers will recall a story about Hiram Bingham III: as a young Yale professor, he was responsible for acquiring some treasures from Peru for the Yale art museum.  Peru wants them back and the Yale Daily News has the latest (and next to the latest).

Hiram Bingham begins his discussion of his arrival in Hawaii, on March 31, 1820,  with this provocative statement about his views of the Natives and his goals there:

Their manoeuvres in their canoes, some being propelled by short paddles, and some by small sails, attracted the attention of our little group, and for a moment, gratified curiosity; but the appearance of destitution, degradation, and barbarism, among the chattering, and almost naked savages, whose heads and feet, and much of their sunburnt swarthy skins, were bare, was appalling. Some of our number, with gushing tears, turned away from the spectacle.  Others with firmer nerve continued their gaze, but ready to exclaim, Can these be human beings! How dark were I and comfortless their state of mind and heart! How imminent the danger to the immortal soul, shrouded in this deep pagan gloom! Can such beings be civilized? Can they be Christianized? (81)

Thus, Bingham (not surprisingly, because he was a missionary) focused on the goal of conversion to Christianity and "civilization."  What did that mean?  What was the role of property and the "rule of law" in "civilization"?

There were in Bingham's short recitation of the history of the islands, echoes of celebration of property rights.  He portrayed land ownership as a feudal system--which in the early nineteenth century was viewed with universal disdain in the United States--and suggested that such patterns of ownership (and lack of the rule of law more generally) left the people without an incentive to develop economically:

Claiming the right of soil throughout his realm, and the right to make and abrogate regulations at pleasure, and using the privilege of a conqueror who could not endure to have others enjoy their rights, Kaniehameha wielded a despotism as absolute powers as the islands ever knew. Retaining a part of the lands as his individual property, which he intended should be inherited by his children, he distributed the remaining lands among his chiefs and favorites, who, for their use, were to render public service in war or peace, and in raising a revenue. These let out large portions of their divisions to their favorites or dependants, who were in like manner to render their service, and bring the rent', and these employed cultivators on shares, who lived on the products which they divided, or shared with their landlord rendering service when required, so long as they chose to occupy the land. Thus, from the poor man who could rent 1/8 or 1/4 of an acre, up to the sovereign, each was, in some sense, dependent on the will of a superior, and yet, almost all had one or more under them whom they could control or command.

This, in a conquered, ignorant and heathen country, without the principles of equity, was a low and revolting state of society; where the -mass could have no voice in enacting laws, or levying taxes) or appropriating the revenue, or in establishing a limited rent for the use of lands, fisheries or fish-ponds. To conceive of all as supremely selfish) and each superior as desirous to aggrandize himself at the expense of others, would do them no injustice.

With the limited knowledge and skill they possessed, it would hardly be expected that cheerful and productive industry would thrive, even in such a clime and soil, unless the principles -of benevolence or a high public spirit could be engrafted in the hearts of the people, or that the population could multiply while the means of subsistence were scanty, clothing and lodging miserable, possessions utterly insecure, and all inheritance hopeless or uncertain. (49-50)

Bingham thought the process of "civilization" entailed the development of a Christian beliefs, middle class "modesty," and the market economy. (169)  Those things went together; however, many people were limited in their property rights--and that, along with a lack of capital impeded the process of conversion:

But how difficult and long must be the process of learning to make use, or keep in order and enjoy the variety of useful articles which the arts of civilized life supply, had the chiefs and people possessed money or exportable products in abundance, to purchase the materials at leasure! But not one in a thousand had the money or the exportable products at command, and while it seemed to us a difficult thing for the chiefs to pay for half-a dozen brigs and schooners, for which they had contracted, and to build and furnish houses for themselves, it seemed equaly difficult for the common people to supply themselves, who bay not the means to purchase the soil they cultivated, if they had been allowed to buy it, nor the capital to put a plough, a pair of oxen, and a cart upon a farm, if farms were given them in fee simple; nor the skill and enterprise to use them advantageously, if every hand-spadedigger of kalo and potatoe ground had been gratuitously furnished with land, teams, and implements of husbandry, like the yeomanry of New England. (170)

In many places Bingham remarks on commercial progress and the connections of the market economy to Christianity.  Thus, after a meeting in Honolulu, he saw many people departing for other islands.

Embarking on board eight brigs and schooners, mostly owned by them and under native commanders, leaving the harbor in regular and quick succession, and spreading all their white sails to the six knot N.E. trades, and stretching over Waikiki Bay, in full sight from the mission houses, they gave us a beautiful and striking illustration of their advancement in navigation, and of the facility, safety, and comfort with which they could pass from island to island, for pleasure or business, instead of depending on their frail canoes. This peaceful and apparently commercial scene, not only showed their ability to make progress towards a state of civilization, but was symbolical of the liberty and facility now expected to be extended to those who desired it, to acquire the knowledge of letters and of salvation, and to practise the duties and enjoy the privileges of the Gospel. (205)

At other points, it is easy to remember that Bingham was writing during the romantic era; and while I suspect he and Ralph Waldo Emerson would have had little to say to one another, there are important echoes of romanticism (perhaps even of Transcendentalism) in parts of the memoirs.  Bingham wrote of the snow-capped volcano a "striking view of the majestic Maunakea, distant about 120 miles whose icy and snowy summit glittered in the morning sunbeams, beckoning them onward to the station beyond its south-eastern base." (206)  But often there was a juxaposition of the romantic with the missionaries' goals. There was the beauty of nature against the missionaries' settlements:

The romantic might easily imagine Hilo to be a very inviting location, among barbarians, on account of the beauty, grandeur, and wonders of nature, which are there so interesting. Nay, it may too be thought, even by the sober, pious mind, to be now a desirable residence, because the wonders of nature and the wonders of grace are there united and so distinguished; yet, to this day, no civilized family on earth is known to have chosen it for a residence, except those who are sent there to dispel the moral darkness, and to watch over the spiritual interests of thousands too indigent and too imbecile, with all the salubriousness and fertility of their rough country, to give a decent maintenance to their missionaries in their arduous labors of love. Such a location could hardly be chosen by a cultivated family, for the sake of its privileges, unless doing good to the needy be esteemed, as it justly might be, a privilege.

The missionaries were, indeed, pushing against the romantic life:

To a spectator from the missionary's door, or from the fort, or other precipice, is presented a good specimen of Sandwich Islands scenery. On a calm and bright summer's day, the wide ocean and foaming surf, the peaceful river, with verdant banks, the bold cliff, and forest covered mountains, the level and fertile vale, the pleasant shade-trees, the green tufts of elegant fronds on the tall cocoanut - trunks, nodding and waving, like graceful plumes, in the refreshing breeze; birds flitting, chirping, singing and among them, goats grazing and bleating, and their kids frisking on the rocky cliff, the natives at their work, carrying burdens, or sailing up and down the river or along the seashore, in their canoes, propelled by their polished paddles that glitter in the sun-beam, or by a small sail well trimmed; or riding more rapidly and proudly on their surf-boards, on the front of foaming surges, as they hasten to the sandy shore, all give life and interest to the scenery. But the residence of a Christian missionary, toiling here, for elevating thousands of the heathens and an humble house of God erected by once idolatrous hands, where from Sabbath to Sabbath the unsearchable riches of Jesus were proclaimed, amid the ruins of the bloody temples of heathenism) gave the peculiar charm to the scene which it never had for ages of pagan darkness, and which Cook, when he gazed on this landscape, did not expect it would ever have. For it was the opinion of that navigator, that the fairest isles of the Pacific would never be evangelized. (217-18)

Bingham was not alone in his interpretation of the Hawaii government in terms of property.  Rufus Anderson, another missionary, wrote in similar terms in 1827:

The government could not remain unchanged, and the people become free and civilized. The people must own property, have acknowledged rights, and be governed by written, well-known, established laws. This was far from their condition before the year 1838. The government was then a despotism. The will of the king was law, his power absolute; and this was true of the chiefs, also, in their separate spheres, so far as the common people were concerned. All right of property, in the last resort, was with the king. How were the people to attain the true Christian position? Obviously the rulers had duties to learn and to perform, equally with the people; and the missionaries were the Christian teachers of both classes, with God's Word for their guide.

Rufus Anderson, The Hawaiian Islands: Their Progress and Condition Under Missionary Labors 232 (1827).  There’s certainly a lot to say about this topic–this is an era in which Christianity and the common law were related.  And it was a time when people in the United States spoke often of what they believed was moral, economic, social, and religious progress.

So the missionaries set as their goal the propagation of “Christian civilization.”  And in that they meant alteration of the moral character–and in part that meant the establishment of property rights.


The image, of the place where Captain Cook died, is from Bingham's Twenty-One Years in the Sandwich Islands.  In addition to the library of Congress website, you may view the book at the Mystic Seaport Museum's website.

For further reading, see:

Stuart Banner, "Preparing to Be Colonized," Law and Society Review (2005).

William R. Hutchinson, Errand to the World: American Protestant Thought and Foreign Missions.

Sally Engle Merry, Colonizing Hawaii: The Cultural Power of Law (2000).

1 Marshall Sahlins, Anahulu: The Anthropology of History in the Kingdom of Hawaii (1992).

Alfred L. Brophy

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