A number of recent news articles and reports from the Hawaii Commission on the Status of Women have come out about prostitution, online solicitation for sex, and human trafficking in Hawaii pointing to, for example, increased human trafficking that occurs around the time of RIMPAC exercises.

It would be helpful if we look at early historical events and attitudes that still frame our discussions about prostitution and human trafficking. There is a wide acceptance of the idea that Pacific Island women in general were “promiscuous,” unrestrained, sexualized and willingly submitted to foreign lovers making prostitution seem more acceptable and therefore a problem that could be ignored.

With Hawaiians, a lot of the general public views on Hawaiian sexuality still heavily rely on the attitudes and writings of American missionaries as well as other foreign observers who did not understand the complexity of Pacific Islander societies. Prostitution as an institution was unknown to Kanaka Maoli or Native Hawaiians prior to Captain Cook. In a society where polyamorous unions were recognized and where property was communal, prostitution would have been a strange idea. As more European and American ships began to trade and gather supplies in Hawaii, underground prostitution and human trafficking began.

Captain James Cook. The author writes that prostitution as an institution was unknown to Native Hawaiians prior to his arrival in the islands.

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The first written records of human trafficking in Hawaii occurs in a diary entry of Calvinist missionary Elisha Loomis where an American sea captain bought a part-Hawaiian girl (about the age of 8) from her father in 1825. Her father was not Native Hawaiian but an English sailor who ended up living in Hawaii and having multiple children with a Kanaka Maoli woman. Apparently, this had been a practice occurring where American fathers were selling off their part-Hawaiian children to mostly American sea captains.

This particular father had already sold off his other daughters. However, this little girl, named Polly Holmes, having been sold into prostitution by her father against her will, was able to escape the American sea captain and ran to the home of the high chief Kalaimoku. Kalaimoku was horrified to learn about this incident and to find out that this had been going on in the community.

The American sea captain demanded the child returned and Kalaimoku refused and brought the girl into his court, thereby giving her protection. Kalaimoku in letters said explicitly that it was against the traditions and customs of the land that anyone be forced into sex or to be sold. This also illustrates the Hawaiian attitude that saw prostitution as something distinctively foreign.

Brothels were tolerated because they were safer for the women than the ships that they were taken to.

The issue of human trafficking and prostitution had become so bad that Kuhina Nui Kaahumanu began to issue a series of edicts that placed a kapu on all forms of prostitution beginning in 1825 with the support of Hawaiian chiefs and American missionaries. Hawaiian chiefs supported the edicts because they saw it as undermining Hawaiian society and bringing diseases.

The American missionaries supported the edicts due to their understanding of Christianity. But in three different “incidents” between 1825 and 1827, the crews of two English whaling ships and an American warship rioted against these laws. During these armed attacks, mission stations in Honolulu and Lahaina were looted due to these sailors not being able to obtain Hawaiian women for sex. They believed that they were entitled to the bodies of Hawaiian women.

Hawaiian leaders on the other hand resisted at first. Various Hawaiian leaders kept writing to King Kamehameha III and to Kuhina Nui Kaahumanu on the issue. For example, High Chief Ulumaheihei Hoapili wrote to Kaahumanu in 1827 of his expiration of this problem: “Ua olelo kakou aole e holo ka wahine ho’okamakama i ka moku. (We have said, female prostitutes would not be allowed to go to ships).”

Enter Naval Power

Eventually, due to the rioting and foreign pressures (e.g. naval power), the Hawaiian government became lax in enforcing prostitution laws. In letters between the island governors to the central royal government, we know that brothels began to prop up in 1831 in Iwilei (then more commonly known as the district of “Kuwili”) on Oahu and elsewhere.

One of the reasons why brothels were tolerated, despite being technically illegal, was that they were safer for the women than the ships that they were taken to. The foreign population wanted access to Native Hawaiian women and it was shown that they were willing to riot and to bring in their governments to support their privilege and self-entitlement — in some ways mirroring attitudes we still see in the U.S. Navy particularly around the RIMPAC exercises.

Seeing no other options and with the decimation of the Native Hawaiian population, the Hawaiian government decided to allow Kuwili-Iwilei to become a “Red Light District” in the 1860s as a way to enforce health standards and to minimize the abuses Native Hawaiian women were going through where they could be raped, taken hostage, and/or beaten on these foreign ships.

The Commodification Of Hawaii

It should be noted too that the commodification of Hawaiian women’s bodies preceded the commodification of Hawaiian lands. Kalaimoku, despite being a Roman Catholic convert for a number of years, cited Hawaiian culture as a rationale against allowing Polly Holmes to be sold. Hawaiian culture viewed women as being strong and being part an embodiment of the female gods and being significantly linked to the land. They were Pele. They were Haumea. They were Papahanaumoku. They were Hina.

Hawaiians had no previous concept of private land ownership in the same way they had no concept that someone was entitled to or “owned” the bodies of Kanaka Maoli women. But once you normalized the selling of Hawaiian women, then the normalizing of selling of Hawaiian lands could begin, thus both prostitution and the loss of Hawaiian lands are intertwined in the same colonial framework.

In some ways, the dehumanization of Hawaiian women associated with human trafficking such as the case of Polly Holmes would serve as a prelude to the dehumanization of Queen Liliuokalani during the annexation debates. Human trafficking among Hawaiian — as well as Pacific Islander and Native American — women is still a huge problem that should addressed through a multi-strategy approach that includes looking into the history of how it started and why it continues — and importantly not dehumanizing women.

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