An informative and revealing correspondence from one of Hawaii's most significant secular American settlers. William Lee landed in Hawaii by accident in 1846, when the ship he was sailing on to Oregon (in an effort to relieve his tuberculosis) was forced to make port there. The twenty-six-year old from New York state became just the second lawyer on the Islands, which had adopted its first constitution in 1840, moving the government to a limited monarchy from an absolute despotism. Lee was immediately offered the position as head of the Hawaiian judicial system, which he accepted.
Lee lived little more than a decade longer, but in that time he left his imprint across Hawaiian life and law. He served as chief justice of the Islands's supreme court, was an influential member of the privy council, helped establish private land ownership, wrote the Hawaiian penal code, and helped draft the 1852 constitution. Thomas Spaulding wrote that Lee "was one of the little group of statemen who were the real creators of the Hawaiian constitutional monarchy; few of them were so influential as he, and none other was so universally trusted" (DAB).
Two years after he had settled in Hawaii, Lee received a note and a newspaper from a childhood friend, Caroline Scott, and they began the charming and effusive correspondence preserved here. The significance of such letters—and the reason for their great detail—is made clear by the beginning of a letter that Mr. Lee wrote to Scott on 28 September 1849: "I had the satisfaction this morning of welcoming your letter of April 15, 1849, and I hasten to answer it before the thrill of delight it gave me has passed away. What a good letter you have given me. So kind, newsy, sisterly and graceful. … I beg you to accept my thanks for every line of your Eighteen pages."
The great significance of these letters is the frank and familiar view of the Hawaiian Islands that both Lee and his bride provide. (Lee proposed by mail, and Catherine sailed to Hawaii, where they were wed aboard ship in Honolulu harbor.) The first letter in the correspondence begins, as would be expected, with Lee providing Scott details about himself and his affairs during the decade and half since they has last seen each other. But the latter part of the letter turns to matters more local: "This part of the world is much disturbed at present with the great Gold Excitement of California. It exceeds anything you can conceive of. I have several friends who have accumulated large fortunes there within the last few months. … Another subject of great interest with us is the Trans Pacific Steam Navigation from California or Oregon to China via Honolulu. By the steamers via Panama we shall get letters from the U.S. in 50 days, but we wish to have them in 30. … I know of no part of the world where letters have such a value as here."
Lee also provides an insightful—and prescient—analysis of the social and political situation in the Islands. "Among the 600 foreigners that dwell in Honolulu, we have a good deal of heart and intellect, but politics, the conflicting interests of trade and other minor matters have split up the society in every direction. However, we have most of the comforts and luxuries of the world, and take a vast deal of enjoyment in this charming climate. … Don't, I beg you don't think we are living in a land of savages and darkness. No, no, the fair blossoms of an enlightened Christian civilization are fast opening in our midst. … Perhaps it may not be possible to save the Hawiian race from melting away, before the iron march of the sturdy Saxon, but one thing is certain, no people or power can ever extinguish the pure fire here kindled by the humble Missionary of New England, and these islands will ever be the brightest spot in the broad ocean that laves our coral shores. Hawaii is the sun of the Pacific and long will be."
The renewal of Lee and Scott's acquaintance was occasioned by her sending him a note and a local newspaper. He acknowledges her correspondence with a highly appropriate and very early allusion to Herman Melville's Pacific novels: "Your newspaper went on a regular voyage of discover, and if it could speak, might perchance, cas 'Omoo & Typee' all into the shade."
28 September 1849, Honolulu Sandwich Islands, 11 pages, from William and Catherine Lee. Herein Lee reports his recent marriage to Catharine Newton—"despite [Scott's] unwillingness to officiate as bridesmaid." After domestic pleasantries, Lee provides a lenghty account of his harrowing original voyage to Hawaii, round the Horn, on the Henry. "We left home in midwinter under favorable auspices, and were told we should be in the Sandwich Islands in four months and Oregon in six. A few days out, in crossing the Gulf Stream we met a severe storm which swept our decks carrying away our spare spars and every boat but the long boat. … then came a succession of calms which putrified our water, maddened with thirst, and exhausted our patience. … From St. Catherines nothing worthy occurred until we fell in with storms and ice-bergs off the Cape. For more than a month we were enveloped in snow ice and darkness. …after leaving Cape Horn we had nothing but storms, head winds and rain for a month. … After making the longest passage on record and being abandoned as lost for some months, we arrived at the Sandwich Islands in safety."
Lee offers high praise of the Missionaries at work in Hawaii—perhaps because his correspondent was familiar with some of them. But he clearly did not see the enchroachment of mainland into the islands as unreservedly favorable: "This nation will soon pass away and give place to the more sturdy Saxon. The white man with his civilization seems to carry effiminancy and death into every savage nation he visits, Depopulation is at work throughout all Polynesia. The measles have decimated the Hawaiian race. Alas! for the poor Hawaiian. My heart bleeds at the thought of his approaching destiny!"
Lee then turns his sheets over to his wife, "with the request that she give you some particulars respecting our home etc." Mrs. Lee dutifully describes their boardinghouse ("a large white coral building surrounded by broad pillared verandas into which open by glass doors the rooms of each story") and Honolulu society ("intelligent, social and refined, and could you drop down in the midst of one of our brilliant parties you might easily imagine it a gathering of the elite of our own land. Scarcely a house in Honolulu is destitute of a Piano.")
Mrs. Lee also gives an excellent summary of the French naval "reprisals" against the Hawaiian Kingdom after it rejected as series of demands presented by the French consul, Guillaume Patrice Dillon. She lacks her husband's prescience about the future of the Pacific, however, for she also writes: "You mention the possibility of these islands resting under the folds of the stars and stripes. It is a vain possibility, for Great Britain and France would deprecate such an accession. As an American I should most heartily deprecate that acquisition. I think we have yet to learn whether California will not prove a deadly curse to its new owner."
Catherine's letter of 8 December 1851 is of particular note for her description of their plantation near the town of Lihu'e on Kauai. "I have been away from Honolulu quite a time visiting our Plantation. William was obliged to be from home three long months on a 'Land Commission' tour of the Islands. … Our Plantation … is a tract of twenty five hundred acres of well-wooded, well-watered land with between two and five hundred acres of sugar cane ready for grinding this month. … The trees are principally kukui or 'candle nut' trees, from the nuts of which the natives obtain their oil, bread-fruit, ohia, or the native apple, koa, the Island mahogany, and a very few orange trees and cocoa-nuts. The under-growth consists of arrow-root, ginger, sandal wood, bamboo, and a vairety of shrubs unknown to me. In the way of fruits we have the ohia, guava, pine-apple, papaya, banana, oranges and cocoa-nut. The latter is not considered eatable in the state you see it home. They are picked before they harden, and the soft, white pulp is eaten with a spoon."
The subsequent letter, 15 March 1854, in the series is by William Lee, and in it he stoically reports the first signs of the illness that would lead to his death. "Well, in August last I broke down from excessive labor in-doors, and the care of small pox patients out-doors, and for three months was kept on my back, subjected to all the medicinal & physical evils you can imagine." In a partially cross-written (but legible) appended letter of her own, 16 April 1854, Mrs. Lee enlarges on her husband's illness: "During the prevelance of the pestilence he took the charge of between fifty and sixty of the loathsome small-pox patients, necessarily crowding the labors of the day into unwholesome night hours. Of course he caught the variolus fever in the height of which he took a cold … which settled on his lungs. The moment he could crawl from his room he resumed the care of the miserable sufferers together with his other multifarious duties, paying no attention to his threatening lungs."
Unfortunately, Lee never recovered. He accepted an appointment as Hawaiian minister to the United States in 1855 so that he might seek medical attention. But when he realized his case was terminal, he returned to Honolulu, where he died in 1857. His affection for Hawaii demonstrated that he well deserved an honor accorded him by King Kamehameha III, as descibed by his wife in her letter of 16 April 1854: "I am very sorry you 'deprecate so earnestly' our admission into the Union, and I assure you that though at first we might be a little 'incongruous,' we don't intend to be the least bit 'discordant.' My husband has always remained a true American. As he declined taking the oath of allegiance, the King made him a denizen."
Because of his brief career, letters by William Lee are very rare; the record in ABPC was for a group of thirteen letters to five different correspondents including in the celebrated Sang sale, 1981 (lot 1160).
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