“Kanaka(s)” in old newspapers

It’s often been noted with interest that Chinook Jargon, and 19th-century English in the greater Northwest, both had a word specifically for Pacific Islanders: kanaka.  There were plenty of Islanders out here at the time.  They were prized as laborers both aboard ship and ashore; see some of historian Jean Barman’s research, for example.  


Emanuel Drechsel and Teresa Haunani Makuakane wrote a paper several years ago exploring possible Hawai’ian loanwords in CJ.  There are very few that can be proven, they found.  They’re mostly proper names: place names and names of ethnic groups, which tend to be a fraction of a language’s vocabulary.  Not much in the way of plain old verbs, nouns, adjectives…

This leaves me thinking of the likelihood that “kanaka”, “owyhee“, and such came into CJ from English, rather than straight from Hawai’ian.  For sure we know quite regular traffic proceeded between Hawai’i and anglophone North America starting early in the 1800s, due to the islands’ being a resupply station for whalers and traders.  And the word “kanaka” was current elsewhere in the English-speaking world, like in the plantations of Queensland, Australia.

It could be interesting to take a brief look at some seldom-consulted early sources for clues.  Were folks using “kanaka” as if it were yet another picturesque Chinook Jargon word?  Did they treat it instead as an exotic Pacific term?  Or was something else going on?

The early US presence in California depended heavily on maritime suppliers, whose routes typically included Hawai’i.  So the newspapers of that era kept readers up to date on news of the Sandwich Islands.  The California Star of May 22, 1847, runs a letter datelined “bark Whiton” (i.e. a sailing ship) from William Roberts, superintendent of the (Presbyterian) Oregon Mission.  He reports of a missionary school in the islands,

An interesting class of Kanakas has been formed in the school, who by judicious and persevering instruction, may be greatly benifitted.  [sic]

The same newspaper’s Volume 1, Number 25, 26 June 1847, reports from San Francisco that

Bands of Indians and Kanakas roam about the place on Sundays, in utter disregard of all law and decorum, disturbing the peace and quiet of the citizens, using blasphemous language, and corrupting the morals of those who would otherwise be useful to their employers.

The California Star & Californian, Volume 2, Number 24, 18 November 1848 refers to those who have transferred their allegiance from the USA to the king of Hawai’i as “Kanakas”.

I could offer more examples ad infinitum.  But the trend seems to have been that “Kanaka” was more a Pacific than a Pacific Northwest word.  By the way, the words “Hawaiians” and “Sandwich Islanders” are also common already in California at the same time period we’re looking at.  “Blue boys” is not, though for Chinese people, “China boys” is easy to find in these sources.

Similar results emerge when we look at Oregon newspapers. The Oregon spectator. (Oregon City, O.T. of September 02, 1851 discusses a man whose mother was a Kanaka “or Sandwich Island” woman.  The same paper of November 04, 1851 calls one public figure’s pronouncements “too nonsensical to do credit to a Kanaka”.  I find frequent mentions of the incomprehensibility of the Hawaiian language by the frontier journalists; the November 18, 1851 issue reprints a news item in the language from an island paper, for comic effect.  Plenty of racist jabs, too, about these folks supposedly being unfamiliar with the complex working of comb and brush.

There’s very little of all this in old BC newspapers , which really only got rolling a generation after those of the American Northwest.  While we know Hawai’ians were present in BC too, it would seem as if they were less a presence by the 1890s.  Despite the supposed etymology of “Canuck from this word, they’re mostly mentioned in connection with other parts of the world, whether Hawai’i, New Caledonia or elsewhere.  (There are plenty of mentions of “Johnny Canuck”, “jolly canuck” and “the Molly Canucks”!)