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The Conversation

This Native Hawaiian woman was the first to travel the Pacific on a European ship

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University of Minnesota Press
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"The World and All the Things upon It: Native Hawaiian Geographies of Exploration"

When University of Minnesota professor David Aiona Chang sat down to write his book, "The World and All The Things upon It," he wanted to document the ideas and perspectives of early Native Hawaiian explorers as they traveled the globe. At first, he found records of many male Hawaiian laborers and a few particularly adventurous aliʻi. But then, tucked away in the accounts of English sailors and ship captains of the late 1700s, he began to see the echoes of one Native Hawaiian woman’s travels, referred to as “Winee.”

Chang spoke with The Conversation about putting the pieces of this woman's life together and charting her remarkable journey as the first Hawaiian woman to travel on a European ship away from the islands. Her name, as written in the accounts, was likely an Englishman's pronunciation of wahine, Chang said.

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On how Ka Wahine joined the ship of Captain Charles William Barkley

DAVID AIONA CHANG: In the summer of 1787, when a British ship was offshore at Kealakekua Bay, what happened then is what often happened. People would get on waʻa, they'd get on canoes, and they'd paddle out to trade, or to try to get aboard to ship to see what was there, to explore this really novel space. And she was one of those people. And so she paddled out, probably with goods to trade. And like some other people, she may have asked for passage aboard the ship. They were there and many people wanted to explore this, to stay there. It was a very exciting experience, I think. And she apparently asked to stay.

Now the captain of that ship, Captain Barkley had very, this is very unusual — he brought along his wife. This is novel. Generally, they just sailed by themselves. But he had brought along a young English woman (Frances Barkley) who he married and she took the person whose only name we have for her is Ka Wahine. She took Ka Wahine on as a maidservant. And so she sailed with this British trading vessel all the way to North America. They went up the northwest coast of North America, along what we now call Vancouver Island, all the way up to Alaska, towards the Aleutian Islands, where the Englishmen were trading to get furs. Then the next part of the trip was to take those furs and sail all the way to Southeast China, to trade away the furs to get Chinese goods. And so she went all the way up the north coast of North America, all the way across the Pacific. She went to Macau, a Portuguese colony on the southeast coast right near Hong Kong.

On Ka Wahine being left in Macau

While she was in Macau, she grew ill. I don't know exactly what illness she caught. But many Native Hawaiians were growing ill at this time because our kūpuna were being exposed to diseases to which they had no immunities. She was originally going to travel along with the Barkleys. But instead, she was left behind in Macau. One source says that she asked to return to Hawaiʻi. Another source suggests that the Barkleys kind of abandoned her, she may not have been useful as a servant anymore because she was ill. But whatever it is, it's a tragic circumstance.

On her attempted journey back to Hawaiʻi

She gets aboard another British sailing vessel, which says that they will take her back to Hawaiʻi. She's not the only Native Hawaiian aboard that ship. There's a man from Maui. There's a boy. And there's an individual named Kaʻiana. And it's very touching because this ship is sailing along and Ka Wahine is getting sicker and sicker. And she's on what turns out to be her deathbed aboard this ship. And Kaʻiana, who's this high ranking aliʻi, sits at her deathbed and cares for her and nurses her through her decline until she passes away, and is deeply affected with sadness.

This interview aired on The Conversation on March 28, 2022. The Conversation airs weekdays at 11 a.m. on HPR-1.

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