Mercy Partridge Whitney: Pittsfield's missionary link to Hawaiian history

Sunday March 3, 2013

"This morning for the first time, I set foot on heathen ground," wrote Pittsfield native Mercy Partridge Whitney in an April 12, 1820 journal entry. "After a voyage of five months and a half, you need not wonder, if I tell you I found it difficult to walk much on land without being fatigued."

Whitney was writing about her arrival at Kailua, Hawaii, after a long voyage aboard the Thaddeus, a ship that carried Whitney, her husband, Samuel, other missionary families, and four Hawaiian boys who were heading back home from a mission school in Connecticut.

The passengers aboard the ship were making a sometimes-arduous journey from New England to Hawaii, which was then referred to as "the Sandwich Islands." After months of sea sickness, discomfort, a close call in which Samuel fell off the boat and almost drowned, and a tedious voyage around Cape Horn, they all finally reached their destination.

Each passenger made the trek for various reasons.

One of the students on board, George Humehume, was a Kaua`i prince ready to reunite with his family, and one missionary family even brought five children on board.

For the Whitneys and another missionary couple, Samuel and Nancy Wells Ruggles, the journey's goal was to establish a mission station at Waimea, Kaua`i.

This group aboard the Thaddeus, a ship called the "Mayflower of the Pacific," were the first missionaries to set foot on Hawaiian shores. Their journey, arrival, and early days in Hawaii are detailed in a September 1925 article in the now-defunct Honolulu newspaper "The Friend."

Using journal entries by the Whitneys, the article, which is available in a digitized version on the website of the Mission Houses Museum, offers a window to a forgotten past. Through Mercy, the story has its Berkshire ties, and touches on a local oral legend that states that the young missionary bride, who lived in Hawaii from 1820 until her death in 1872, played a role in the creation of the colorful and iconic "aloha shirt," popularly known as the Hawaiian shirt.

Mercy Partridge was born in 1795 in Pittsfield, and married Connecticut native Samuel in 1819. Members of the First Church of Christ in Pittsfield, the couple was supported by the Free Will Society, a charitable women's group at the church, to be among the first mission group sent to Hawaii. First Church historian Martin Langeveld, a former publisher of The Eagle, said he was always struck by the story of Mercy contributing to the creation of the aloha shirt.

According to Langeveld, the story alleges that the ladies of the Free Will Society sent a batch of fabric with colorful floral designs over to Mercy to make clothes for the local people of Kaua`i. This was essentially a prototype for the shirt. "One of the first things that these missionaries did when they got to Hawaii was to get the people to ‘cover up,' " Langeveld said. "They did not like the fact that men were running around practically naked, and that women wore skirts that were basically topless."

While an interesting theory, the idea that Mercy played a role in creating the bright shirts is not based in much fact. Langeveld said the missionaries would most likely have wanted to "emulate Victorian patterns with checks, polka dots, and plain colors," instead of "anything pretty gaudy and bright."

Marylou Bradley, a research assistant at the Kaua`i Historical Society, said she was able to find one reference to Mercy requesting that cloth be sent to her mission. Bradley said that the only fabric with flowered material that could have made its way to Hawaii during the 19th century would have come by ship from New England, Paris, or England.

"There were no manufacturers of that kind of material in Hawaii at the time," Bradley said. "Cotton didn't do well here, there was no cold spell for the crops, and it was difficult for harvest season." Bradley said that the material that was most used was something closer to plaid or gingham check fabric, rather than anything brightly colored.

While no individual is credited with the creation of the aloha shirt, the person most referenced is Ellery Chun, a Yale University-educated Hawaiian man who returned home during the Great Depression and started to sell short-sleeve shirts that were made out of leftover material from Japanese kimonos. Other businesses did the same, and the shirt entered the popular consciousness by the time Hawaii became a state and Hollywood and surfing glamorized the style. While Mercy might not have created the aloha shirt, she did make a mark. In 1823 she compiled a written record of the Hawaiian language that was first published by the Manoa Press in 1993, and has since gone out of print. She and Samuel would go on to have four children, and even though Samuel died in 1845, she would live there until her death, and only came back to the United States once for a visit in 1860.

The Whitneys' journal entries are full of fascinating anecdotes. Sometimes their writings are culturally insensitive, especially in their depictions of the customs of the Hawaiian people. In other instances, they feature descriptions of two different cultures learning from one another. When Mercy first met the Queen of Kaua`i, it was a meeting of two different worlds and two different customs of greeting.

"The Queen, not being satisfied with my giving her my hand, wished me to join noses with her (which is their usual salutation)," writes Mercy.

Mercy eventually grew to love her new home, but did show some homesickness when writing a journal entry sent to her family in Pittsfield. "I hope you will feel no anxiety respecting your absent daughter," she wrote. "Remember she is in the hands of a merciful God."


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