Tags: Alexander Ross; Travel by Sailing Ship to Sandwich Islands; Hawaii Big Island; Oahu
My last post ended on February 10, 1811, when Ross and his fellow Pacific Fur Company employees had just caught sight of Hawaii – known at that time as the Sandwich Islands – on their way from New York City to the mouth of the Columbia River aboard a sailing ship called the Tonquin. People today might be surprised at the route followed by the Tonquin, as shown on the map below. Until the construction the Panama Canal early in the 20th Century, it was necessary to round Cape Horn in order to pass between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Modern people might still wonder why it was necessary to sail by way of Hawaii instead of directly to the mouth of the Columbia River. It was because ocean currents and trade winds made it the quickest route for boats powered by sail to travel.
MAP SHOWING ROUTE TRAVELLED BY ROSS
MAP OF SANDWICH (HAWAIIAN) ISLANDS
In my last two postings I have compared the ocean cruise which my husband Don and I made around Cape Horn in January 2019 with Ross’ trip in 1810-11. Although we did not go to Hawaii this year, we did fly there in the winter of 2014 and spent three weeks on the Island of Hawaii (otherwise known as the Big Island). The men on the Tonquin first anchored in Karakakooa (Kealakekua) Bay on the Big Island within a mile of the place where Captain Cook — thought to be the first Westerner to visit the Hawaiian Islands — was killed in 1779. One day we took a boat trip during which we visited the Captain Cook Monument near where the Tonquin first landed.
MAP OF HAWAII (THE BIG ISLAND)
CAPTAIN COOK MONUMENT
The Tonquin immediately began trading for food stuffs with the local people, but they soon learned that the chief of the island resided at Kawaihae – or Tocaigh Bay, as the first English-speaking visitors called it. Because Captain Thorn expected a better supply of food at Tocaigh Bay, he ordered his crew to weigh anchor and sail northwest along the coast. After passing the town of Kailua Kona, they turned northeast along the Kohala Coast. Tocaigh Bay is about two-thirds of the way along the Kohala Coast near modern- day Spencer Beach Park which we visited on our trip. The first horses and cattle brought to Hawaii were unloaded at Kawaihae, one of two major ports on the island.
SPENCER PARK BEACH
When the Tonquin arrived at Tocaigh Beach, Thorn and two of the partners spoke to the governor, an Englishman named John Young. Young told the partners that the sale of pork had been prohibited by royal proclamation. That meant that no one could sell meat without the permission of the king.
Since the king lived on the island of Oahu, the Tonquin almost immediately left for Oahu, arriving there on February 21. Oahu is the third largest of the Hawaiian Islands, the site of the city of Honolulu, and home to two-thirds of the population. Washington Irving, in his history of the Pacific Fur Company, described the Tonquin’s visit there. He thought Oahu was the most beautiful of the Sandwich Islands with its volcanic mountain ridge “rising into lofty peaks, and skirted by undulating hills and rich plains, where the cabins of the natives peep out from beneath groves of coconut and other luxuriant trees.” [Irving, p. 44]
Ross described the rather unusual housing arrangements of Hawaiian people. He wrote that each family, “however poor, invariably occupies three houses.” King Kamehameha (also spelled Tamaahmaah) lived in a palace consisting in 13 houses forming a square. The king occupied three of the houses – one each for eating, sleeping, and the conducting of business. Each of his queens also occupied three houses – one each for dressing, sleeping and eating. Neither king nor queens ever entered each other’s houses. There was yet another house whose exclusive purpose was as a place for them to meet. [Ross, p. 37]
While the Tonquin was at anchor “much ceremonious visiting and long conferences” took place between the king and the fur company partners. The king boarded the ship ceremoniously from his royal boat paddled by 16 chiefs. He was accompanied by his chief counselor and by three of his wives who were almost as tall and “quite as corpulent as himself.” The partners received the king dressed in scarlet coats. In the king’s honour, the American flag was displayed and four guns were fired. The partners told the king that they were chiefs in a trading company about to be established on the northwest coast of North America and that they were interested in possibly opening trade with him.
The following day, the partners met the king on shore. In honour of the occasion, some of the partners appeared dressed in Highland plaids and kilts. The partners hired 12 men for the company and Thorn hired 12 as ship’s crew. Thorn successfully negotiated for water, meat, and vegetables while the partners were entertaining the king. [Irving, pp. 45-6]
After landing at the Kona International Airport, my husband and I spent a few days in the town of Kailua Kona at Uncle Billy’s Kona Bay Hotel before driving to the interior of the island where we had rented a room with shared kitchen and bathroom facilities near Volcano National Park. During the remainder of our stay, we drove around most of the island in a rental car. Although neither Ross nor Irving specifically said that the Tonquin only travelled between Karakakooa (Kealakekua) Bay and Tocaigh Bay, it seems unlikely that they travelled anywhere else along the coast or went inland before leaving for Oahu because only 11 days passed between their arrival at Karakakooa and leaving for Oahu. We, on the other hand, spent quite a bit of time visiting the Volcano National Park near where we were staying. We did not see any actual lava flows; however, after dark we could see the orange glow in the sky of lava which was virtually invisible in daylight. We drove as far as Kalapana where the road ends because the two villages beyond were destroyed by lava flows. Since our visit, however, much of the area we saw has been destroyed or rendered off-limits to travellers because of the 2018 eruption of the Kilauea Volcano’s.
On March 1, the Tonquin set sail for the final leg of her voyage to the Columbia River. Matters went well until March 12, when the weather turned squally and cold with snow and sleet. The partners decided to open some of their bales in order to issue warm clothing to the men, but Captain Thorn refused to allow them to do so. As a result, civil war almost broke out. David Stuart again succeeded in calming things down but was unable to change the captain’s mind. The men were so cold that many had to take to their hammocks.
A violent gale began on March 14 and lasted for four days, carrying everything on deck overboard or dashed it to pieces – including all the livestock and much of sails and rigging. Finally, on March 22 they sighted land. It was Cape Disappointment, a promontory forming the north bank of the Great Oregon or Columbia River. Everyone was delighted to see the end of their voyage; however even worse problems were to come. Since the coast appeared wild and dangerous, Captain Thorn had the ship lie-to until he could decide where the safe entrance of the river was. He ordered first mate Fox to go in a small boat to check for the entrance. Thorn only allowed one experienced sailor plus four Canadian voyageurs to accompany Fox. When Fox protested, Thorn said he had no one else to spare. Then the partners protested and told Thorn he should wait until the weather improved — especially before sending out a small unseaworthy boat with inexperienced hands. Thorn refused to wait and ordered Fox to leave immediately. The boat quickly got into serious difficulty and disappeared from view. None of the six men were ever seen again.
Maps are from Google Maps, modified by D. Gordon. Photos by D. Gordon
Franchère, Gabriel. Adventure at Astoria 1810-1814, translated by Hoyt C. Franchère. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1967
Irving, Washington. Astoria; or Anecdotes of an Enterprise beyond the Rocky Mountains. Project Gutenberg Ebook, 2016.
Ross, Alexander. Adventures of the First Settlers on the Oregon or Columbia River: Being a Narrative of the Expedition Fitted out by John Jacob Astor of the Pacific Fur Company. London: Smith Elder & Co., 1849
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