A Case Study of a Piracy Charge against Captain William Buckle
The sale and purchase of native Hawaiians in the 1800s - fact or fiction? The purchase of a native Hawaiian girl named Leoiki by Captain William Buckle of England in 1825 for 10 doubloons - worth $160 at that time, has been accepted, unchallenged and perpetuated by scholarly and fictional literature as "fact" for over 180 years. In this paper, we provide a treatment of the cultural, legislative, social and interpersonal conditions behind the story of Capt William Buckle and Leoiki and challenge the standard interpretation by the missionaries of the "facts."
Our paper covers more than ships, tonnage, captains, and seamen in the early days of the Pacific: it is a drama of betrayal, conspiracy, love and sex, opportunists and culture clash. And, it is a cautionary tale that concerns the Daniel IV and its Captain, before and after it sank in Tahitian waters. The story concerns what we consider to be false slavery charges brought against a British Captain, William Buckle, of a landed-gentry family and his young Hawaiian wife, Chief Leoiki. Four generations of their offspring have been affected by Missionary documentation of the events which we believe are exaggerated and misleading.
In October, 1819, the first two whale ships visited the islands. In 1820 the first company of American Puritan missionaries arrived. Kuykendall says, “That they came at nearly the same time is a striking coincidence; and it is still more remarkable that they came just when the Hawaiians were themselves preparing the way for a new order of things” (Kuykendall, Vol. I, p. 70). Our story involves one of these whalers, one of these missionaries, a young female high chief, Leoiki, and most of the important Hawaiian chiefs, merchants, consuls, and visiting dignitaries.
Forty-two years before the arrival of the missionaries, Captain Cook, in his log of 1778, noted that native Hawaiian women would swim out to his ships, hoping to engage his crews sexually (Beaglehole, 1967). Hawaiians claim Kaua’i Chief Kamakahelei even offered her own daughter, Lelemahoalani, to Captain Cook on his Kaua’i landfall (Fornander p. 142). Archibald Campbell, an 1809 visitor to Hawai’i, believed the practices of native women with foreign seamen came from a much earlier time, noting, “with respect to their visitors, where connexion of that kind is reckoned the surest proof of friendship, and they are always anxious to strengthen it by that tie” (Campbell, p. 136-137). Thereafter, most randy seamen anticipated arrival at Hawaiian ports-of-call in the years between when Cook noted this activity and when our story takes place. This practice was about to change, however.
Kapu traditions had been overthrown following the death of King Kamehameha I in 1819, after which his favorite wife, Ka’ahumanu, declared herself Kuhina Nui (acting regent and protector) of young Prince Liholiho, and she, together with Këopüolani, Kamehameha’s sacred wife and mother of his royal children, initiated "free eating" with her sons, the future kings. The two Maui wives had seized leadership of the nation, abetted by their high priest Hewahewa, leaving it without a central religion (Kamakau, p. 189). The events of our story end an era and begin the new kapu system of the foreigners.
By 1823, Ka’ahumanu, the de-facto ruler, ran the nation mostly from O`ahu, with Kalanimoku's help. Her conversion to the new god came more gradually, as she was busy maintaining and building her political power (see Silverman). At this time, an ailing Këopüolani moved her court, her sacred daughter, Nähi’ena’ena, and the other royal youngsters, including Leoiki, from Honolulu to secluded Lahaina, Maui, to establish a Royal School for only the Pi’ilani Ali’i clan (Sinclair p. 36). Këopüolani then requested American missionaries to join her there. The Reverends William Richards and Charles Stewart, with their wives, complied, arriving April 31, 1823 to build a school and to direct studies at Lahaina (The Missionary Herald, Jan. 1825, p. 39). (hereafter MH)
Once the missionaries were allowed to remain, they quickly learned Hawaiian to teach the gospel in the native tongue (Kuykendall, p. 104). They also learned to exert their influence over events through the American press. Thus through the press the story of Captain Buckle and Leoiki is first made known by the missionaries, most importantly by the Rev. Richards, shaped by the missionary perspective alone.
The Newspapers: The first article “Outrage of a Whale-ship’s Crew” was published in the July 1826 issue of the New England newspaper The Missionary Herald (hereafter MH), in a joint letter from Reverends Bingham, Blatchely, Chamberlain, Ruggles and Loomis, dated Oct. 15, 1825. Apparently they used Richards’ original account to reframe the original charge in even more inflammatory terms than Richards had used: “The riotous crew of the whale-ship Daniel, Capt. Buckle, having the countenance and example of their master, purchasing, for a stipulated sum of money, a female slave, and carrying her as the inmate of his cabin during his late cruise, were on their recent return to Lahaina, enraged at the tabu, prohibiting females from visiting the ships, and, after repeated insults and threats to Mr. Richards, left the ship in a body … armed with knives, … and seemed determined, as Mr. R. writes, to have his life, or his consent for females to go on board – the former of which he would have surrendered first.” Capt. Buckle’s response to the riot is that he has no command of the men while they are on shore. Capt. Buckle further irritates Richards by saying if Richards would let the women come off shore all would be peace and quiet (p. 209). The Boston Recorder and Religious Telegraph newspaper January 1, 1826 notes that all is peace and quiet in Lahaina since the departure of Captain Buckle (p.2). Hampshire Gazette July 19 1826 , repeats the joint letter version of the riot (p. 2). The next mention appears in the February 1827 issue by Mr. Richards himself to the Corresponding Secretary of the Mission in New England . In this version he gives a day by day account from Oct. 3,  Monday through the following Sunday, with 16 crewmen threatening him on Friday and only leaving after many natives appeared armed to defend him. But on Thursday, Richards add a new charge, “All hope of receiving any protection from the captain, was now at an end; indeed, I had, previously but little ground for hope, for he had already a mistress on board, who had accompanied him a six months voyage. She had been one of my most promising pupils, but, last March, was sold by Wahine Pio, her chief, for 160 dollars. She was so unwilling to accompany him, that after she was taken on board, three different messengers came to me, at her request, earnestly entreating, that I would use my influence to procure her release. The law on the subject, was not then passed, and there was no chief of sufficient authority, in Lahaina, to whom I could apply. She was , therefore, compelled to go, notwithstanding all her entreaties” (MH Feb. 1827, p. 41). Note the seven-month discrepancy in dates between the two events. In March 1825 William and Leoiki left the islands together before the prohibition of women visiting ships was announced. In October, after the prohibition, when the Daniel IV returns to Lahaina, the crew riots at Rev. Richards’ house.
In the September 1828 issue of The Missionary Herald there is a “Third Outrage at Lahaina,” without giving the authors. This “outrage” is prefaced by a retelling of the whale-ship Daniel IV crew riot, summarizing the February 1827 story. The inflammatory language continued: “Capt. Buckle, the master of that ship, evidently connived at the assault, (if he did not directly promote it,) and is therefore responsible for it. The enforcement of a law for the preservation of the public morals was, as will be recollected, the cause of the riot. … The demand made of Mr. Richards, on penalty of taking his life, that he should advise to repeal the law, was one of the most flagitious acts that can be conceived, and, if this threat had been executed, the guilt of murder would have been justly chargeable upon the captain, as well as upon his infuriated crew” (MH September 1828 p. 273).
Correspondence : If we look beyond the newspaper accounts of the slavery charge, to Rev. Richards’ correspondence, we find a somewhat different story. British Consul Charlton writes Richards that the captain (meaning Buckle) is in Honolulu port again, and if Richards’ statements in the newspaper are true, the laws of Great Britain will declare the act to be piracy (November 13, 1827 ML vol. 3, p. 707)., since slave trading, outlawed in Britain in 1807, was punishable by death. Richards replies that he never said the above … and cannot make oath to any newspaper declaration implying that Capt. Buckle has made a purchase for the purpose of reducing to slavery. (Nov. 14, 1827, ML vol. 3, p. 707). Charlton then forwards to Richards the Feb. Missionary Herald newspaper account and says if this article is true Capt. Buckle must be sent back to England for trial. Richards replies, contrary to what he had claimed earlier, that “it is very nearly a faithful transcript from my journal” but now, admits he never saw anything except the men outside his house, i.e., the riot. (Nov. 15, 1827 p. 708).
Buckle is never tried for piracy. There isn’t evidence to support Richards’ original charge of slavery. But the captain, seeing his reputation dragged through the mud, charges Richards with libel. This trial does take place, before the Hawaiian Council of Chiefs, on Nov. 26, 1827 . Queen Ka’ahumanu calls for a secret meeting of the Chiefs, as she is determined to save Richards (Kamakau, p.28-283). Using the logic of the Christian, David Malo, against Buckle, she gives the chiefs her decision. Richards is not guilty. Unfortunately for William Buckle, the panel of chiefs never addresses the substance of Buckle’s libel charge against the Richards, even though Richards admits the newspapers had quoted him accurately, the charges are simply dropped. Apparently the chiefs were reluctant to become too deeply involved in the foreigners’ affairs. Chiefs Boki and Manuia wrote to the Maui chiefs that the trial was “a foreigner against a foreigner; let them have it out between them” (Kamakau p. 281), Where similar port incidents and threats of violence in 1823 had been resolved peacefully until a new law was formally adopted, only this British Captain had been branded in perpetuity. (MH, XXII, December 1826, p. 72).
Let’s take a look at some additional evidence, beginning with Buckle’s rebuttal of Richards’ charges, which appears in his final letter to Richards. Though the letter condemns Richards in strong terms, it has none of the hyperbole of Richards’ account of the rioting and slavery incident. A few brief excerpts should suffice.
Buckle is amazed “that a minister of the gospel would so far forget himself, and have descended so low as to become the author of a piece, so scandalous and so totally void of truth, how muchsoever you might have wished to injure my character (for the purport of your publication can admit of no other construction). You should have been very careful to have kept truth on your side, and perhaps it would have been better first to have cast the beam out of your own eye, and then possibly you might have seen clearly to have cast the mote out of mine.
As for Richards’ claim that he was misunderstood, Buckle counters that “No part of your publication (as you wish to imply) has been misunderstood. It is too plain to be mistaken. If I understand English it can admit of no other construction than at the Island of Maui in 1825, I purchased a female slave for whom (for fear of misunderstanding) you have stated the price. This with other accusations, such as that the female sent to you repeatedly to use your influence to get her released, that I had promised my people arms, and assistance and that I upheld them in their proceedings, together with the matter which you published as the substance of my answer to your note, at the time referred to, you must be well aware are gross misrepresentations, and without a shadow of truth.”
Buckle also sees the motive behind Richards’ hyped-up rhetoric: “[In] The affair with the people of the Daniel, you no doubt thought afforded a good opportunity to get up the tragical story which you have published to impose on the feelings of the credulous community and wring from the hard earnings of industry another contribution to add to your own comfort and ease – this dreadful tale has no doubt answered your purpose well, such a narration is well calculated to call forth the charities of the fanatical community, and no doubt has been the case of taking bread from the mouth of many a half starved child, to enable the deluded parent to contribute his proportion for the relief of the poor persecuted missionary.”
Buckle concludes with a reference to the Ten Commandments and its admonition against bearing false witness: “I wish you well and hope that in your future dealings with mankind, you will be more careful to remember the ninth Commandment.”
Captain Buckle, does not address the question of the money. It would be unseemly. However, we would like to suggest for your consideration that the eight doubloons Captain Buckle gave Leoiki’s guardian was, in fact, the centuries-old English practice of a dowry, using the less common definition: A present given by a man to or for his bride (OED since 1611]. From the testimony Richards gathered at Levi Chamberlains’s advice, the last two doubloons were to ensure her return to Hawai’i (HMCS Missionary Letters, vol. 3, p. (p. 870).
If Buckle had in fact bought himself a slave, would he have treated Leoiki as well as he did? Would he have married her, had a son with her (William Wahinepio Kahakukaakoi Buckle, born on February 5, 1826 as a British citizen on board the Daniel IV off the coast of South America), and would he, on their return to Honolulu, have purchased a home for his family on Fort Street and a family burial plot at Kawaiaha‘o?
As for Leoiki, it would have been extraordinary for a woman of such high rank to be sold; nor is it likely that she would have received her six chiefly lands in the 1848 Mahele, as she did on Oahu , Maui and Kaua’i, which came to her from the Pi’ilani clan and ‘ohana. At her death in 1848 in her will she gave to her own and hänai sons among other things, William’s swallow-tail coat, his serge trousers his saber, and her lands.
So why have none of the 30+ subsequent publications questioned Rev. Richards’ purposefully distorted version of the events? Perhaps it’s because it’s the perfect fiction. It has all the ingredients of good story-telling, and perhaps this is why so many scholars have perpetuated it. But a good story is not a necessarily a true story, and when it casts a dark shadow on future generations, it seems to us a story worthy to be challenged. [ the end]
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