By Jasmine Marshall Armstrong
When men went to sea in the nineteenth century whaling industry, they entered a working environment which was not only dangerous, demanding, and dirty, but also a space of cosmopolitan exchange with other sailors, according to Dr. James Revell Carr, an ethnomusicologist from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
Carr recently presented “‘Selamoku Hula’: Native Hawaiian Music and Dance at Sea in the 19th Century” as part of the Merced Seminar in the Humanities. As part of his presentation, Carr taught those in attendance a chantey entitled “John Kanaka,” whose title refers to Native Pacific Islanders working on American whaling ships. “Kanaka” is a Hawaiian term for “human being.” Research into the origins of “John Kanaka,” which was used by sailors when hauling up the sails, led Carr to speculate that the song’s Hawaiian lyrics which included the term “stand your ground,” were in part instructions to keep one’s feet firmly on the decking in order to maintain safety standards.
Today, “John Kanaka” is learned by numerous school children, and is sung by park rangers and volunteers from the San Francisco Martime National Historical Park, where Carr previously worked as an interpretive specialist. The original meaning and context of the song did not begin to become apparent to Carr until an elderly woman approached him after a performance and introduced herself as a Native Hawaiian. In his book, “Hawaiian Music in Motion: Mariners, Missionaries and Minstrels,” Carr writes that the woman told him her father was a stevedore in Honolulu, who sang songs combining Hawaiian words with English sailors’ expressions such as “by gum” and “ahoy.” This piqued Carr’s interest, and was the impetus for the research project which lead to his book.
Beyond a means of inclusion within the whaling work space, Native Hawaiian music became an important part of cultural circulation and exchange on the seas. Carr said that whaling ships would often meet up in the waling grounds, during which sailors would trade scrimshaw, books, and music. One mariner’s diary he read an excerpt from noted that during an occasion in which his ship met up with several others, mariners sang songs representing their nationalities and ethnicities, including Hawaiians. Another sailor, from New England, used his personal copy book to record in Hawaiian a song he learned from Native Hawaiian whalers. The sailors noted that they looked forward to impressing others with their knowledge of a Hawaiian song, reflecting the concept of cultural capital.
While Native Hawaiians were looked down upon by missionaries and those in the sugar plantation trade, in whaling, the working class masculine culture was based around mutual respect for hard work among sailors. “It mattered less if you were American or Hawaiian or English,” Carr said. “What mattered was if you worked hard, and had skills in seamanship, and bravery when facing the whale.” American missionaries attempted to keep Native Hawaiians working on the sugar plantations in Hawaii, but journals and letters Carr has found indicate that most preferred working at sea, where they were treated with more respect, and their culture was appreciated.
Although the cosmopolitan age of the whaling ships ended in the latter half of the nineteenth century, elements of native Hawaiian songs sung at sea continue to appear, whether reinterpreted as music for children or as a popular wedding song. Few Americans today are aware that Hawaiian music has a long history of popularity and inclusion in the repertoire of American popular music, Carr noted. Yet it was Hawaiians who “gave the world a unique combination of sliding steel guitar, driving ukulele, falsetto yodels, and loping, syncopated rhythms that have influenced America since the 1890s at least,” he wrote.