But first, a short explanation.
1. A native Hawai'ian.
A native South Sea Islander, especially one who was (formerly) an indentured or forced labourer in Australia.
Form: kanaka (also)
3. The Hawai'ian language.
Etymology: 19c: Hawai'ian, meaning 'man'.
English is definitely a strange language. It’s filled with words (including slang), grammar and rules that make no sense and frequently contradict themselves. This causes mass confusion, most of the time for no good reason. “Kanaka” is one of those words. As shown above, Kanaka has three different definitions. The first two are very easy to try to lump into one, but they are not the same. Remember that.
Now that we have that out of the way...
Hawai'i in the 1700s/1800s
At one time, Hawai’i was a fairly peaceful, serene place. Two thousand miles of wide-open ocean lay between it and the nearest continent or large island group. Natives with a rich, vibrant culture populated the islands and were under their own control and leadership. Then, as it always seems to happen in history, the big, bad, white man arrived. Captain Cook discovered the islands in 1778 (though there seems to be mounting evidence the Spanish landed there first) and named them the Sandwich Islands, after the Earl of Sandwich.
Things stayed quiet for a little while after Cook’s arrival (err... other than his death), but in 1786, Hawai’i became a popular stop for ships. Its distance from other continents and large island groups made it an almost unavoidable choice when travelling through that area. Soon land began to be taken up from under the natives as only Europeans can do. Before Hawai’ians had time to react, Europeans had control of the best land, and were running Hawai’i like they owned the place. The native Hawai’ian language was eliminated from schools, their religion was abolished, and many native practices were banned (including hula dancing, surfing, and kite-flying).
As if that wasn’t bad enough, the new settlers brought dreaded European diseases that effectively wiped out three-quarters of the Hawai’ian population. The survivors became a minority on their own land.
It isn’t surprising that many Hawai’ians were eager to leap onto one of the many schooners arriving on their land and get away from the mess their home was quickly becoming. Hudson’s Bay Company was quick to take advantage of their desperation and recruit the enthusiastic young men. The first twenty-four arrived in British Columbia in 1811. There is a legend that some Kanakas, upon seeing Salt Spring Island, were so reminded of home that several jumped overboard and swam to the shores.
The Hawai’ian immigrants soon became known for their good looks, reliability, cheerful disposition, hard work, and for being “rather intelligent”. They seemed to have been labelled the “noble savages”. Most were Catholic, having been converted before they left Hawai’i.
They began settling in BC, mostly along the inner coast. Many set up camp on southern Salt Spring Island and adjacent ones, as well as some on Vancouver Island (Humboldt Street, in Victoria, was called Kanaka Row in the 1860s, and many of Vancouver Island’s Kanaka population lived there. It faced a stinking mud flat, which now, thankfully, is the Empress Hotel.) There is evidence that there were also Kanakas working at Fort Langley, hewing timbers and clearing land with French-Canadian expert axe-men.
Many Kanakas began setting up families and communities in their new country. They worked dawn ‘til dusk, but remained poor. Their neighbours were “mixed blood” (part First Nations), blacks from the United States, and some whites, all brought together by their poverty. Kanakas were almost completely self-reliant: they fished, farmed, logged, planted orchards, and even grew and cured their own tobacco.
Marriage rarely happened within the Kanakas, probably due to their low population. Kanaka women tended to marry European men, as there was a shortage of women in the west. Kanaka men married into First Nation tribes. Usually the Kanaka husband and First Nations wife were illiterate, but their children were allowed to go to local schools.
Over one hundred Kanakas settled in BC, making up 10% of the non-Native population of Vancouver Island in the 1850s. After making their home in Canada, there is at least one account of a Kanaka returning to Hawai’i only to turn around and come back to BC after seeing the state of his home (and realizing his family property had become a sugar plantation).
The Kanakas in British Columbia are largely ignored in history, perhaps relating to the dilution of their blood in descendents. There are very few people of pure Kanaka descent in modern society, though many people are starting to reclaim their Hawai’ian (which is the preferred term now) heritage and celebrate their roots.
Hawai'ians in the United States
North America’s west coast seemed to appeal to many Kanakas. Along with British Columbia, the Hawai’ian immigrants settled in Oregon, along the water. Unfortunately, the United States has a very different view of Kanakas than their northern neighbours.
Both countries seemed to have difficulties placing these settlers. Canada seemed to lump them in with the whites: not the same, but similar, and entitled to most of the same rights.
The US, on the other hand, regarded Kanakas as being similar to the First Nations, and deserving of the same respect. They were unable to vote (this was restricted to male, white property-owners), unlike Kanakas in BC. The final blow was when Oregon legislation introduced an act in 1886 making mixed marriages illegal (this was mainly concerned with the union of whites with any other race). The Kanakas that stayed in Oregon married into First Nations tribes and disappeared from records. For these reasons, some Hawai’ian immigrants were so set against the US that when San Juan Island became American, many Kanakas picked up and left, bound for Canada.
A few Kanakas also lived in California, mainly during the gold rush. They were revered for their expertise in sailing, and many hunted sea otters as well as participating in the gold-crazy fray. Sierra County’s Kanaka Creek and Trinity County’s Kanaka Bar are evidence of the influence of the Hawai’ians.
Fort Vancouver (Vancouver, Washington) also had its fair share of Kanakas. HBC arranged an agreement between themselves the Hawai’ian king, and “the proper royal authority” regarding the transport of Hawai’ians to North America. This contract was vague, but stated three years was the maximum amount of service. The journey across the ocean these immigrants partook in was treacherous, and many died from exposure, hunger and seasickness. The dramatic change between a warm climate and North America’s climate was difficult to handle.
When they arrived, two hundred Hawai’ians assisted in running the fort by trapping and, most importantly, cooking; Kanakas were frequently the only competent cooks available. Regrettably, the Kanakas Village (a tight-knit community including part-Native and French-Canadians) was plagued with homesickness and drunkenness.
HBC had soon cultivated a successful relationship with the (then) Sandwich Islands and had begun trading with them. Kanakas also constituted a reasonable portion of the HBC workforce, working as servants, labourers, sawyers, millers, sailors, gardeners, cooks, divers and even spies (by befriending First Nations and warning of any planned attacks on the white population).
Australia in the 1800s was facing a major labour crisis. A new sugar cane industry had begun, and they were in need of cheap labour to compete with foreign trade. The South Pacific Islands met the demand.
Captain Robert Towns shipped 67 Islanders from the Solomons, New Hebrides, Torres Strait Islands and New Guinea in 1683. This was the beginning of blackbirding in Australia.
Towns paid his employees 10-12 shillings a month (though little, if any, was saved. Shopkeepers were notorious for swindling Kanakas out of their earnings) and replaced the Kanakas every year (or six months). Some of the slaves came to Australia willingly, and some (if not the majority) were treated well by their employers, but many others were tricked into boarding the boats, or even blatantly kidnapped. This sparked an incident in 1886, where after a recruiting schooner arrived in Malaita, and its Captain and a few crew members were elsewhere, the crew was attacked by natives. There was only one surviver.
Many Kanakas were brought to the Yeppoon Sugar Plantation in Central Queensland, where the conditions were horrific. In 1865, a newspaper accused them of “blatant kidnapping” and the use of leg irons, whips and nooses. Slaves were frequently branded like cattle. Kanakas died from being worked to death, as well as pneumonia and homesickness. They were also abused and attacked by white residents of Queensland who saw them as a threat to their own employment conditions and pay.
There was a time when, Kanakas made up half of Queensland population. By the 1890’s, their population had skyrocketed to over 57,000. The mistreatment of this population had appalled humanitarian groups, who fought to change their working conditions. There was also a lot of promotion of European labour, and with the new plow replacing hoes, there was less of a need for cheap workers.
In the end, it was Federation and the Pacific Island Labourers' Act of 1901 that ended the trade of Kanakas in Australia. The Commonwealth Government had disagreed on the slave labour issue, and with the demand for European employment, it was almost inevitable that the trade would end. From 1906 to 1908, Kanakas were deported to the island they came from, including those who were born in the fields and had no knowledge of any other life.
1 Definition from Allwords.com (edited slightly)
Barman, Jean. Whatever Happened to the Kanakas? Beaver, (Dec 91/Jan 98), Vol. 77 Issue 6,
Tom Koppel (1995). Kanaka. Vancouver/Toronto: Whitecap Books. Pp 1-10