Complaining about tourists is a favorite past times here. Sure their dollars keep our economy running. And yes, I get it. They’re just so awestruck by rainbows, beaches, and scenery that they have to drive 5 miles below the speed limit to snap photos instead of pulling over. But, why must they do it when we’re trying to get to work?
Academics and activists argue that tourism damages the host culture. The businesses, shows, shops, and industries that have built around tourists have cheapened the experience of being in Hawaii and are a form of imperialism, they say. Perhaps, but this isn’t new. More than a hundred years ago, Maui saw clans of the rowdiest, harshest, and meanest tourists you’d ever see.
In the mid-nineteenth century, Maui had a savage tourist industry thanks to whaling. It was no cake walk getting here. Yankee sailors started out on the Eastern seaboard, usually Massachusetts. From there, it was due south skirting the shores of the Brazil and Argentina. They’d head west to round the treacherous Cape Horn between Antarctica and South America in order to reach the Pacific.
A whaler’s life was rough. The crew was confined to sleeping in small rooms under the deck. The food was atrocious. Sailors ate salted meats, hardened biscuits, and used cockroach-infused molasses to sweeten their coffee.
The tedium was interrupted by the actual whaling part, which was extremely perilous. When the ship spotted one, whalers would jump into a small boat, row up to the behemoth, and stick it with harpoons. If you weren’t thrown from the boat in frothing waters with a massive cetacean, there was the risk of getting the boat crushed by the whale itself.
And when you finally slayed the beast and got it aboard, the real work of converting every imaginable piece into some commodity like bones, oil, blubber, and even meat took days.
Needless to say, by the time ships were within sight of the West Maui Mountains towering above Lahaina, everyone was ready to get off the boat. The whalers started coming to Lahaina in the 1820s and continued for another forty years or so. The town’s banner year was 1846 when 429 whale ships dropped anchor (only 167 stopped in Honolulu that year). It wasn’t the whales that attracted them. The port was a much welcomed break and vacation spot. Arguably, the whalers were Maui’s first tourists—and they were really bad.
Bars and grog shops started popping up. Not only that, but the ships attracted locals from all over the island to entertain the crews—especially young women. Promiscuity, booze, and rowdiness ruled the day.
Local chiefs and resident missionaries weren’t happy. They passed laws prohibiting the sale of liquor, commingling of crews and women, and jailing offenders. The sailors and the businesses catering to them didn’t care. A constable complained that there were so many places to buy booze that he could not “get a fair chance to fine them.”
Riots ensued. In the early 1820s, the governor of Maui at the time discovered women snuck aboard an English whaling ship in violation of the laws. When the captain was ashore, he held him hostage. The captain’s first mate demanded his released in an hour or else his ship to open fire on the town. He was released when he promised to return the girls, but the ship fired its cannons anyway. They were aimed right at the mission house on Front Street. When the captain returned to the ship the firing stopped and they headed out to Honolulu. The girls were never returned.
Then there was the time in 1843 when a crew of drunken whalers tried to kidnap King Kamehameha III, who resided in Lahaina. They were met by angry locals hurling rocks at them. Their leader was struck to the ground and dragged over to a nearby fort. A riot broke out. At the docks sailors and locals hurled rocks and obscenities at each other. Skulls were broken and it’s unclear if anyone died. It wasn’t until officers with swords showed up before the sailors started to calm down.
Thankfully, American whaling is over. The discovery of petroleum in Pennsylvania made the pursuit of sperm oil in whales pointless. The industrial revolution after the American Civil War finally brought about the death knell to the industry. These days, our visitors are less fierce. Sure, tourists speeding down Front Street on mopeds without a helmet, common sense, and sunscreen are obnoxious, but at least they’re not kidnapping and pillaging.
Much has changed since the riotous nineteenth century, but one thing remains constant. It’s still against the law to wander the streets and lanes of Lahaina with a drink. Folks get cited from time to time. The missionaries would be proud.