Thomas Lowe’s Sandwich Islands

Early 1900's sailing ship in a bottle

A Sailing ship in a bottle, from early 1900’s

In this blogpost we are speaking of Thomas Lowe’s Sandwich Islands. As we know already, from the last Thomas Lowe post, the Sandwich Islands is modern-day Hawaii, and he and his ship, the Vancouver, are making their way up the islands toward Honolulu, where, when only six miles from the place, “we Hove too and continued so till daylight.” The date was February 12, 1842. On Sunday February 13, Lowe wrote in his journal:

Rounded the Cape at 4 AM, fired two 12 pounders as a private signal to the Company’s Agent here, and hoisted the colors. All hands (crew and passengers) were on deck from 4 in the morning. About 6 o’clock we saw the Pilot boat shove off manned by half a dozen Kanakas (so the common Islanders are called), the Pilot, an old weather beaten Tar, steering. He soon brought us to the anchorage grounds, but it may be two or three days before we get into the harbour, as the Island is surrounded by Coral reefs, and the channel, between long lines of breakers, very intricate navigation. There were three American vessels lying in the Harbour and one of the Company’s Vessels, the Cowlitz, commanded by Captain Brotchie, which had only arrived two days ago from California, bringing Sir George Simpson (the Governor), Dr. McLoughlin (in command of Fort Vancouver), and 4 or 5 other Gentlemen in the Service.

Are your ears perking up yet? Thomas Lowe’s Sandwich Islands is in the middle of a historic conference, which is discussed, briefly, in this post:  As W. Kaye Lamb says in his introduction to E.E. Rich, ed., The Letters of John McLoughlin from Fort Vancouver to the Governor and Committee, Second Series, 1839-44 [HBRS, 1943]:  

These matters will still unsettled between [Chief Factor John] McLoughlin and [Governor] Simpson when Sir George [Simpson] left the Columbia for California. As he would not be returning to Fort Vancouver it was arranged that McLoughlin should meet him in Honolulu for a last-minute conference. McLoughlin reached the rendezvous in the latter part of February, 1842. A number of verbal discussions took place, but Simpson was anxious that the controversy, as it had by this time become, should be recorded at length on paper, for the purposes of record and for the information of the Governor and Committee. He and McLoughlin accordingly exchanged a series of letters…

And so, according to Thomas Lowe, on February 10 or thereabouts Governor Simpson arrived at the Sandwich Islands in the ship Cowlitz, and John McLoughlin by another ship I have not yet identified. Apparently both men were already at Honolulu in mid-February, at least according to Thomas Lowe. He had no idea what was happening at this time, of course, although, as you probably know, he will play a minor role in this story. So, let us see what Thomas Lowe has to say of the Sandwich Islands:

The Columbia (another of the Company’s ships) had only sailed on Friday last for England, with its mainmast and topmast seriously damaged, the Cowlitz and Columbia had been lying within a short distance of one another in Baker’s Bay at the mouth of the Columbia River, when they were both at the same instant struck by Lightning. The Columbia had got a strip of 10 feet long knocked out of her mainmast, her topmast splintered, and the Mate knocked down. The Cowlitz got her mainmast slightly injured, & both the Mates who were standing at the Capstan were stunned, but none of them dangerously. 

Amazing how casually Thomas Lowe spoke of one of the dangers of being on ship in a lightning storm! In these days, ships had no protection against dangerous lightning strikes. I wrote about those dangers in my old blog, Fur Trade Family History, here: http:/ — (you can go to March 31, 2013, tho’ the main part of the story is below.) This story came to me from Steve Anderson, retired manager of the replica Fort Nisqually at Fort Defiance Park in Tacoma: it is his research, and not mine: 

The Royal Navy ship Fisgard was stationed off Fort Nisqually in 1846… It was late afternoon of 16th September, 1846. A rare thunderhead formed in the sky to the west, and by six o’clock that evening, horizontal sheet lightning streaked across the sky. “The thunder roared in the most awful manner,” one man at Fort Nisqually reported, “and its grandeur was greatly increased by the reverberations amongst the neighboring woods, which were set on fire in several places by the vivid flashes of lightning.” 

At this time, ships such as the Fisgard were at great risk of lightning strikes in storms like this. At this time, the Royal Navy ships had no defence against such dangers — if a bolt of lightning struck the ship’s mast, it could splinter the mast and send it tumbling to the decks. A strike could kill a man; it could find the powder magazine and blow the entire ship out of the water, killing everyone aboard!

However, before she left London, the Fisgard had installed a new-fangled, untested, experimental lightning conductor consisting of copper rods, plates, and nails on the ships spars and hull. No one really believed it would work, but as one observer said, “considering the grave number of ships which have been damaged or destroyed by lightning, it is not without considerable interest we witness and record such [events].” 

So, a mile and a half from Fort Nisqually, the tall masts of the Fisgard jutted up toward the sky. At 7.45 pm, a powerful bolt of lightning struck the ships main spar and shook the Fisgard to its core. “A sudden report, as if many guns had gone off, threw all hands into the utmost consternation.” The crew watched the lightning follow the trail of copper down the mast — those who were standing nearest the mast on the upper deck described the effect of the fluid-like “strike” as illuminating the mast with a most beautiful stream of purple light. The bolt of lightning grounded in the sea, and left the ship undamaged. And when the ship returned to London it was greeted with fanfare, largely due to the fact that she had beaten the lightning strike. 

But that happened four years after Thomas Lowe reported on the lightning strike that damaged the two ships waiting at the mouth of the Columbia River. Let us now continue with Thomas Lowe’s story of his visit to the Sandwich Islands in February 1842: 

About breakfast time, Captain [William] Brotchie and Mr. [William] Wood came on board. Mr. Wood is a Clerk in the Service and a son of Dr. Wood of Edinburgh, he had been two years in the Country, and came over to the Islands to fill the place that Mr. [Alexander] Simpson left vacant by his trip to England. They staid breakfast, got their letters, told us the news from the Columbia & Woahoo &c&c, and went shore about an hour afterwards, accompanied by the Captain and Mr. Simpson, taking the Letter Bag and Despatches with them. We had several visitors during the day but no Natives, over whom the missionaries have gained so much influence, that scarcely one of hem is now seen doing anything at variance with strict religious discipline. I went on shore in the evening, but staid only a short time. I went on board the Cowlitz, however, and found it of almost the same size and build and fitted up in the same manner as the Vancouver. Brought off some fresh beef, bananas, cabbages, and Water Melons, the water melons were about 14 inches in diameter. 

The Sandwich Islands Pilot came on board the next morning, “but did nothing. His name is Adams, and it was no difficult matter to know that he was a Scotchman.” This is likely Alexander Adams, who lived on the Sandwich Islands and over the years fathered some “Kanaka” children who worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company at Fort Vancouver and elsewhere. “He was appointed Pilot by Commodore Byron about the year 1823, and is as strong and cheerful an old man as I have seen. He has got a large amount of property, is a chief, and universally known and esteemed. He was amongst the first of the Settlers at the Islands, and says that since the white man came amongst them, they have degenerated, and decreased about 40 per cent, and learned most of the vices of the White man, but few of his virtues… He told me his whole history since he first came to sea. He was a native of Carnoustie, and seemed much surprized at some of the changes in and around Dundee, where he has been at school when a boy.”

So in the Sandwich Islands, Thomas Lowe is already making some good friends, and telling us some good stories whilst doing so. He described the outrigger canoes the Sandwich Islanders built: “Some of these canoes were only capable of containing one man, others 2 or 3 and so on. They are merely logs hollowed out and very light, long, and narrow, but neatly and laboriously made. the single canoes are from 8 to 12 feet long, from 1 to 2 broad, and pretty deep with a peaked bow and stern. The man has to set on his knees and paddle. sometimes on one side, then on the other. Their canoes are different from those of most savages, and have two long wooden stretchers connected by a transverse bar, which is always to windward & very buoyant, but impedes their progress. It renders it impossible to upset the canoes, however, and if it is blowing very hard, a man goes and sits at the end of them.” He also describes the people: 

They are generally a handsome race of men tall and muscular, and the women have a great propensity to corpulence. They are mild and hospitable. The last King Kamehamelah got two of his front teeth knocked out in battle, and whether it is a custom established by law, or merely arising out of respect for his memory, I am unable to ascertain, but all the old people, and most of the younger, have these two teeth extracted, and it gives them all an odd sort of appearance, besides causing them to lisp.

That night, February 14, he met Governor Simpson and John McLoughlin for the first time. “I went ashore in the evening and was introduced to Sir Geo: Simpson & Dr. McLoughlin. Sir George is a middle aged man and appeared kind and condescending, Ditto the Doctor. I remained thereabout a quarter of an hour…” The next day, he and the Captain of the Vancouver “dined at the Mess with Sir George, Dr. McLoughlin and several other gentlemen in the Service. After dinner I took a walk with Robert Birnie to see the large Native Church which is now almost completed.” Robert Birnie was James Birnie’s eldest son (James Birnie being my great-great-grandfather, see the “James and Charlot Birnie” thread at the side of the page). On February 17 the ship finally made the harbour, and “when we had passed the outer buoy, about 50 or 60 Kanakas got hold of the Hawsers and towed her into the outer Harbour, where at 8 AM we cast Anchor in 6 fathoms of water. Got the long boat and Oars out and landed a boat load of Water Casks. I went on shore and strolled about Honolulu all forenoon. Dined aboard the Cowlitz. Went on board the Vancouver at night.” 

On Friday 18, “Robert Birnie and I got horses and rode down to a village about 5 Miles from the Town, then 7 miles up an extensive valley and elsewhere, — we were 6 hours on horseback and rode about 30 miles. Horses are now very numerous on the Islands, having been originally introduced from California, and are a small but active breed and very sure footed. They are allowed to run and graze where they please, the owners mark being stamped on them, and provides the Saddle & Bridle be restored, it is of small importance whether or not the Horse is brought back. We had a race with two Native women, who are excellent riders, but don’t ride sideways, they nearly outstripped us. Strong breezes & casual rain.”  He also told us that this was the coldest time of year in the Sandwich Islands, “but it nevertheless as warm as summer in Scotland. There is however little change in the climate here and it is generally much about the same temperature all the year round. It would be too warm to live comfortable were it not for the strong N.W. Trade Winds which always blow strong, and moderate the heat of the Sun.”

On Sunday he went to church. On Monday he stayed on board the Vancouver, and on Tuesday they filled all their empty water kegs and Casks from a small stream on shore. “It tastes rather brackish and not so good as Thames water, “he said, but they got enough to last them six weeks more. On Wednesday he wrote that:

Yesterday the Fort twice fired a Salute of 26 Guns, to commemorate the birth of General Washington and of course the Americans resident in Honolulu bore the Expense. The Fort mounts about 60 Guns and garrison entirely by Natives! 

I presume he is speaking of the Sandwich Islands post of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and not another fort that was also in the Sandwich Islands. Then, on Thursday, February 24:

The Cowlitz came alongside in the morning and they immediately commenced to discharge into her the Cargo brought by the Vancouver from England for the Russian settlement at Sitka, in the Aleutian Islands. This business will not likely be completed before Monday or Tuesday next. I remained on board all day checking the Cargo as it was transferred, and this is to be my occupation until all is finished… The day has been squally and rainy throughout.

25 Friday. Busy discharging cargo and I of course remain on board… Went ashore for a short time in the evening to conduct John McLeod, an apprentice, whom I before mentioned at the operations on crossing the Line, to the House of Mr. Pelly (the Company’s Agent here) where he is to remain until he recovers. He has been sized with Dysentery from eating too much fruit, change of water, or some other reason. 

On Monday, February 28, he reported that “The Cowlitz parted from us on Saturday night, but joined again this morning, to complete the transfer of the Cargo. The Boatswain having refused duty was tonight taken to the Fort and put in Irons. He had behaved shamefully on shore, but was too proud to make any apology, and having in a rash moment, when under the influence of liquor, refused duty, he never afterward would retract what he said. Transferred 50 Barrels of Gunpowder to the Cowlitz.” His journal continues:

1 Tuesday [March]. The flies and musquitoes are becoming troublesome to most of us, but I have as yet escaped… There was a large party invited to the British Consul’s tonight, at which I was present, spent the evening cheerfully and parted about 10.

2 Wednesday. A heavy rain fell this morning and continued all day without intermission. On clearing up in the evening it was cool and refreshing, the streets of Honolulu, however, as they are sandy and full of deep cuts, are rendered almost impassible. 

3 Thursday. I has again been raining heavy today and the wind has set in from the South. I have been occupied all day writing ashore, and I believe this is to be my employment during the remainder of our stay here. 

He does not say so, but I think he may already be acting as clerk at the Fort, and possibly directly for Governor George Simpson. His journal continues, although there is no mention of his being the “writer,” until Monday March 7::

Employed busily all day ashore at the pen, and at present it is the best employment I could have, as I find it too warm out of doors to walk about with any comfort. The people of Honolulu se large Umbrellas to protect them from the Sun.

8 Tuesday. We have finished unloaded today and the Cowlitz has parted company. The Vancouver is now to commence to receive cargo from the Shore, and will likely sail at the end of this, or the beginning next week. Heat strong. 

9 Wednesday. Calm and Sultry weather, and the heat in unsheltered situations unbearable.

10 Thursday. All as usual. I am employed writing on shore. 

11 Saturday. Today they have finished taking in cargo and must now begin to make the ship ready for Sea, and lay in a stock of fresh provisions and water, which is to be set about.

12 Saturday. When ashore today, I was very much surprized when Sir George Simpson handing me an open note, addressed to Captain Brotchie, desired me to give it to him, but in the first place to read it myself. On reading it I found that Captain Brotchie was requested to receive me and my luggage immediately on board the Cowlitz, as I was to take passage in her, but where he did not at the time think proper to tell me. I nave had the least notion of this change, and always took it for granted that I was bound for the Columbia in the Vancouver, and had made all my preparations for that purpose. — It is the invariable practice in the Country, to tell one of some change, or to prepare for some journey, only a few hours before he is obliged to start. The Cowlitz is to sail for the Russian Settlement at Sitka and thence to some of the Company’s Forts or Stations on the North West Coast, but at which of these Forts I am to be stationed is, as yet, merely conjectural. Sir George is to proceed in her to Sitka, and from thence via Achotsk, across Siberia In the evening, I got everything I possessed removed on board the Cowlitz, and slept there. 

And so, this journal covers Thomas Lowe’s time at the Sandwich Islands. But this is not the last of his records: we have the journey north to Sitka and Fort Taku to relate. When this is published, it will appear here:

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2021. All rights reserved. 






2 thoughts on “Thomas Lowe’s Sandwich Islands

  1. David Yale Simpson

    Hello Nancy, I am enjoying your blogs as usual. I have a number of books and articles relating to the HBC and Sir George Simpson which I bought over the years. If you are in Vancouver I would love to meet you. Please tell me if any of these interest you.

    Fur Trade and Empire, George Simpsons Journal 1824-5, by Merk 1931 Edition
    Simpson’s Athabaska Journal and Report 1821-22, by Martin
    Hudson Bay Miscellany 1670-1870 XXX HBCRS – Contains Simpsons Character book, original edition.
    Narrative of a voyage to Hudson’s Bay 1817 in HMS Rosamond, by Chappell
    The enigma of Sir George Simpson, by Galbraith
    Jehu of the Waterways, by Grace Lee Nute
    Simpson in Russia, by Alice Johnson
    Sir George Simpson ‘Man of Feeling’ by Mitchell
    Part of Publications by the HBCRS 1670-1870 Vol II 1763-1870 Chapter xviii, ‘The Governor’
    Simpson’s Letters to London 1841-2, HBCRS volume xx1c

    1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

      Hello, David — I am glad to hear from you again. I tried reaching you a while ago and the email address I had did not work, and I feared something had happened.
      Fur Trade and Empire is of interest, but frankly I don’t think I’ll need it — I won’t be writing about that time period again. I am getting to the end of my ability to write, having three books in the works and a plan to research another, of which Fur Trade and Empire will not be useful. I inherited a whole stack of HBRS books, most of which I will never use, and its sad to see that no one wants or needs them anymore.
      Keep in touch. Its nice to hear from you.