Hawaii: Lahaina

This was the former capital of Hawaiian kingdom during the first half of the nineteenth century. Lahaina’s harbor and businesses also played an important role in the booming whaling industry from the 1820’s through the 1860’s.

Site Office

Lahaina Restoration Foundation

P.O. Box 338

Lahaina, Maui, HI 96761

ph.: (808) 661-3262

Web site: www.maui.net/~lrf

Lahaina’s most prominent founder was Kamehameha I, called Kamehameha the Great, a Hawaiian king who unified the Hawaiian Islands at the end of the eighteenth century. Kamehameha gained control of the island of Maui in 1790, following a victorious battle at Iao Valley, just east of Lahaina in West Maui. In 1802, the king returned to Lahaina to plan an attack on neighboring Kauai, the final island outside his control. Though the attack was ultimately aborted, he built a palace in Lahaina and eventually made it the capital of his monarchy. It would also serve as the seat of government under his sons Liholiho, who ruled as King Kamehameha II from his father’s death in 1819 until 1824, when he and his wife died of measles on a trip to London; and Kauikeaouli, who ruled as King Kamehameha III from 1832 (when he turned eighteen) until 1854. In 1845, midway through Kamehameha III’s reign, the capital was shifted to Honolulu.

Outside Influences

In 1819, whalers discovered Lahaina and introduced the industry that would dominate Hawaii’s economy until the 1860’s. The whalers were soon followed to the area by Christian missionaries. In 1823, the Reverends Charles Stewart and William Richards came to Lahaina at the invitation of Queen Keopuolani, a wife of Kamehameha the Great and mother of Liholiho, Kauikeaouli, and their sister Nahienaena. Keopuolani was the first Hawaiian to be baptized as Protestant and helped the missionaries build a small grass church at Wainee.

Another Wainee Church, the first stone church constructed in the islands, was built for the Protestant mission and would literally come and go from the time it was founded in the late 1820’s or early 1830’s. In 1858, a strong Kauaula Valley wind blew both the belfry and the roof from the church. The church was burned down in 1894 by royalists protesting Hawaii’s annexation by the United States. It was rebuilt, only to be burned down again in 1947. Four years later, the church fell victim to another Kauaula windstorm. When it was again rebuilt, it was redesigned so the front door faced the Kauaula Valley, rather than being at a right angle to the West Maui Mountains. The change seems to have done the trick. The Wainee Church was renamed the Waiola Church, meaning “water of life,” at its dedication in 1953, and still stands today.

One of the first pastors of Wainee Church was the Reverend Dwight Baldwin, a missionary and Harvard-trained physician who arrived in Hawaii in 1830 from Durham, Connecticut. Baldwin served initially in Waimea before settling in Lahaina. In 1834 a new house was built for the pastor. It was constructed to last, with thick walls of coral, stone, and hand-hewn timbers, and today it is the oldest standing building in Lahaina. The Baldwin House served as the reverend’s home from 1838 until 1871, and also as a medical office and a center for the missionaries. It has been restored by the Lahaina Restoration Foundation and is today a museum.


In 1831, the missionaries opened the Lahainaluna Seminary, initially established to teach general academic classes to adults. Gradually it changed its offerings to focus on elementary and secondary students. The seminary was also the focal point of efforts to created a phonetic standard for writing the Hawaiian language. Hawaii’s first newspaper, Ka Lama Hawaii, was published in 1834 at the Hale Pai (house of printing) on the seminary’s campus. Following the California gold rush of 1849, many Californians sent their children overseas to school at the mission. They believed the voyage to be safer than the trek across Indiana Territory and the mainland wilderness to the schools of the East Coast. Today the school remains one of the most respected educational institutions in Hawaii and is the oldest American high school west of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. It became a public institution in 1923.

In their struggle to convert the people of Lahaina, the missionaries found themselves in conflict not only with the native traditions but with the representatives of the American and European governments, as well. Men such as British consul Richard Charlton saw more profit in encouraging prostitution and the sale of liquor than in restricting it. Two factions soon formed. On the one side were the missionaries, led by William Richards, and the converted Christian chiefs; on the other side were foreign representatives and the visiting whalers. In 1820, Richards worked vigorously to pass laws prohibiting local women from swimming out to greet the incoming whaling vessels. His success can be measured by the violent reaction of the whalers. More than once they came ashore to attack him and had to be repulsed by Richards’s Hawaiian allies. In 1827 the American whaling ship John Palmer actually fired its cannon directly at the mission house.

These events led to the creation of Lahaina Fort, which was completed in 1832. Constructed of coral blocks, it covered one acre, was enclosed by twenty-foot walls, and even featured at various times between twenty-one and thirty cannon. The original structure was taken down in 1854 to build the walls of a whaler’s prison called Hale Paahao, or “place of confinement.” It still stands today, on the corner of Wainee and Prison Streets.

Missionary Conflicts with the Kings

The missionaries had a turbulent relationship with Kamehameha III. Upon the death of Kamehameha II in 1824, a regency was established until the young king was old enough to rule. During that time, Kaahumanu, another wife of Kamehameha the Great, held sway. Kaahumanu was a devout Christian and had worked tirelessly with missionary Hiram Bingham to entrench Protestant education in Hawaii and to drive off French Catholics, who had arrived in July, 1827. With Kaahumanu’s death on June 5, 1832, and the regency’s end, the missionaries and the Christian chiefs lost their main advocate. Like his elder brother, Kamehameha III had never been comfortable with the Christian restrictions on sexual relations, or with the other foreign rules of conduct. He took up with a group of young men calling themselves the “Hulumanus,” or bird feathers, who demanded that the foreign codes be abandoned. Kamehameha III proclaimed that the Christian laws established under Kaahumanu were revoked; only the penalties for theft and murder were to remain. The king also seized power from the ruling chiefs and declared that all authority now rested with him alone.

One of Kamehameha III’s most flagrant violations of Christian morality was his relationship with his sister, Princess Nahienaena. The pair made no secret of their sexual relations, and eventually the outraged Christian chiefs forced the couple apart. Nahienaena was kept under the close scrutiny of William Richards and the other missionaries. She died in December, 1836, at the age of twenty. At her funeral, grieving Hawaiians compared her death to a sacrifice to the ancient gods. During the funeral procession, they cleared a path through breadfruit trees, then named the new street Luakini, which denotes a temple where chiefs prayed and offered human sacrifices. The princess was buried in Wainee Cemetery, which was established in 1823 and is the oldest Christian cemetery in the state. Others buried in the cemetery include King Kaumualii, the last king of Kauai; Queen Keopuolani; and Hoapili Wahine (Kalakua), Maui’s governor from 1840 to 1842.

By the time of his sister’s death, Kamehameha III had backed down; authority was returned to the chiefs and a new Christian code of laws was enacted. In 1838, he appointed William Richards as his official “Chaplain, Teacher, and Translator.” Richards quickly assumed great political power. Under his influence, Kamehameha III issued a decree of religious toleration and the June 7, 1839, Declaration of Rights.

The New Palace

In 1838, work had begun on a new palace in Lahaina for the king. The palace, called Hale Piula (house of the tin roof), would not be completed before the seat of government was moved to Honolulu in 1845. It ultimately was used as a courthouse. The same 1858 windstorm that damaged the Wainee Church and more than twenty buildings in Lahaina also destroyed Hale Piula. The courthouse would be rebuilt that same year using stones from the original structure; it still stands today by the Lahaina waterfront.

In Lahaina in 1840, the king proclaimed Hawaii’s first constitution, which William Richards helped compose. The constitution allowed for representational government and a national legislature, which met for the first time in Lahaina that same year. Among the more notable authors of the constitution was David Malo, one of the first adults educated at the Lahainaluna Seminary. Malo is known as Hawaii’s first modern native scholar and was the author of Hawaiian Antiquities, which is still consulted today.

Throughout his career, Malo was torn between Hawaii’s ancient traditions and the changes brought by contact with Europeans. While he himself was a product of the new educational system and helped to forge the new political system, he feared that the foreigners would push aside the native culture and even the natives themselves. In 1837 he wrote,

If a big wave comes in, large and unfamiliar fishes will come from the dark ocean, and when they see the small fishes of the shallows they will eat them up. The white man’s ships have arrived with clever men from big countries, they know our people are few in number and our country is small, they will devour us.

When Malo died, he was buried, according to his wishes, on Mount Ball, a hill overlooking Lahainaluna Seminary.

Rise of the Whalers

Malo’s prophesy about the large and unfamiliar fishes proved all too true. By the late 1840’s, the area had indeed been invaded–by whalers. The opening of lucrative new hunting grounds off Japan made Hawaii an ideal spot to resupply. Thousands of whalers traveled to Lahaina and Honolulu from Nantucket and New Bedford, making Hawaii the principal forward station of the American whaling fleet. Many whalers stopped in Lahaina twice a year: once in the spring, to resupply after their trip from New England before setting sail for the sea of Japan, and once in the fall, on their return from the North Pacific to resupply for a cruise of the equator.

They hunted many types of whales, including such species as the right, bowhead, fin, gray, humpback, and sperm whales. The sperm whales were both the most coveted and numerous. Scrimshaw artists wanted the large white teeth from its lower jaw, but the real money was to be made from the whales’ oil. A single whale could produce three thousand gallons.

In 1834 Lahaina missionaries and whaling officers and captains worked together to build the first seamen’s headquarters on the island. The building was intended to provide suitable reading rooms for visiting seamen and a place for the families of the ships’ officers to visit with the missionaries. The two-story headquarters was built from coral blocks and field stones. The reading area, referred to as the Masters’ Reading Room, was located on the second floor. Today, the building houses the Lahaina Restoration Foundation.

One of the whalers to visit Lahaina in 1843 was Herman Melville. Having served on several whaling vessels (two of which he deserted), Melville found himself stranded in Lahaina and looking for work. He stayed only briefly before heading to Honolulu, where he held a series of odd jobs. That August, he signed aboard the navy frigate United States and sailed back to America. When he later wrote of Lahaina in the appendix to his first novel, Typee (1846), he was highly critical of the administration there: “The ascendancy of a junto of ignorant and designing Methodist elders in the councils of a half-civilized king . . . was not precisely calculated to impart a healthy tone to the policy of the government.”

For more than forty years, the whaling industry drove Lahaina’s economy. In 1844, Lahaina hosted 326 whalers; two years later that figure increased to 400. Lahaina was home to 3,557 residents in 882 grass houses, 155 adobe houses, and 59 houses made of stone or wood. Its stores and businesses supplied the whalers with shipping-related goods and services, not to mention liquor and prostitutes. The local missionaries agreed with Henry T. Cheever, a parson who visited Lahaina in the early 1840’s and called the area “one of the breathing holes of hell” and “a sight to make a missionary weep.”

In the late 1850’s, however, the American whaling industry entered a period of sharp decline brought on by the discovery of petroleum, a whale shortage in the Pacific, and the start of the Civil War. Petroleum was discovered in Pennsylvania in 1859, and kerosene soon replaced the whale oil used in lamps. People began using wax instead of spermaceti in candles. In 1861, when the Civil War began, the Union purchased forty whaling ships, only to load them with stone and sink them in the harbors of Savannah and Charleston in a strategic blockade effort. Confederate raiders further depleted the fleet by capturing other Yankee whaling ships. The Shenandoah, for instance, captured thirty-nine whalers. Finally, as the number of whales in the North Pacific declined from overhunting, whalers began frequenting the waters of the Arctic. In 1871, a group of thirty-three whaling ships hit ice off the northwest coast of Alaska and were abandoned. The two million-dollar loss crippled the fleet and ended the heyday of the American whalers.

Rise of the Planters

The new era at Lahaina would be ruled not by whalers, but by planters. With the California gold rush of 1849, Lahaina had become a port of supply for the American West Coast. The whaling season of 1847-1848 had been a poor one, and many Lahaina and Honolulu shop owners found themselves hopelessly overstocked. The gold rush opened up a new market for their goods. When the shop owners became wealthy from overseas trade and began looking to invest their money in real estate, the sugar boom was born.

The rise of the planters was made possible by reforms in laws governing real estate, reforms brought about by the influence of the missionaries and other haoles (foreigners). “By the end of the [1840’s],” writes historian Gavan Daws, “the traditional land system, under which tenure was granted at the pleasure of the chiefs . . . , had been superseded by an arrangement that permitted Hawaiian commoners and foreigners alike to buy and sell land.” The frenzy of land speculation triggered by these laws attracted missionaries as well as the shop owners. By 1886, foreigners had purchased two-thirds of all land sold by the government.

The planters’ great difficulty was a shortage of labor. Hawaii’s native population had been decimated by European diseases; the population dropped from a quarter million at the turn of the nineteenth century to less than sixty thousand by 1880. The planters believed that the remaining natives were not willing to engage in hard work. Those natives who had acquired small tracts through the land reform of the 1840’s seemed content with subsistence farming. The planters turned instead to thousands of imported immigrant laborers from China, Japan, and Portugal. Many of these workers continued to live in the area after their contracts had expired, thus contributing to Lahaina’s “melting pot” population. In 1909, the city’s Chinese residents built the Wo Wing Temple, a Buddhist shrine that today also functions as a Chinese cultural center.

The Sugar Industry

The sugar plantations proved hugely successful. By 1898, 1.25 million acres were devoted to the crop in the Hawaiian Islands; these plantations were worth forty million dollars and exported five hundred million pounds of sugar a year. The planters had begun to exert their increased political power. They lobbied for a reciprocity treaty with the United States, which was passed by the U.S. Senate in March, 1875. In early 1893, they helped overthrow the Hawaiian monarchy itself and set up a new republic in the hope of being annexed by the United States, their largest trading partner. Annexation finally took place on July 7, 1898.

Present-day Lahaina and greater Maui still bear witness to the early period of the sugar industry. The smokestack of the Pioneer Mill, built in 1860 by James Campbell, is still visible from Lahaina. A restored 1890’s sugar cane train now transports tourists from the mill to the Victorian-style train station at Lahaina. The route is the same as that used by the sugar mill until 1952.

With the ascendancy of the sugar industry, the decline of whaling, and the move of the government to Honolulu, Lahaina was gradually eclipsed by other Hawaiian cities. In 1962, Lahaina was designated a National Historic District, and the area soon began to attract thousands of visitors. Ironically, one of the main tourist attractions is a guided whale-watching cruise, which has led to heightened concern for the preservation of the very creatures that the residents and visitors to Lahaina once hunted and destroyed.

For Further Information

  • Daw, Gavan. Shoal of Time: A History of the Hawaiian Islands. Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii, 1968. Provides a good overview of Lahaina’s and Hawaii’s history.
  • Judd, Walter F. Palaces and Forts of the Hawaiian Kingdom: From Thatch to American Florentine. Palo Alto, Calif.: Pacific Books, 1975. A more detailed discussion of Lahaina’s historic architecture.
  • Kepler, Angela Kay. Wonderful West Maui: A Guide to Lahaina, Kaanapali, Kapalua, and Iao Valley. Honolulu: Mutual, 1992. A guidebook that includes illustrations and maps.
  • Simpson, MacKinnon. Whale Song: The Story of Hawai‘i and the Whales. Honolulu: Beyond Words, 1989. The Lahaina whaling industry is discussed in this heavily illustrated book.
  • Sterling, Elspeth, comp. Sites of Maui. Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press, 1998. A history of Maui that describes its historic sites.