It has been said that the lives of happy women –like happy nations– are never written.
– H. A. Carter, Kaahumanu, 1899.
Throughout The Conversion of Ka‘ahumanu the Hawaiian women comment on the missionaries’ unhappiness, their sad faces and lack of smiles. Yet the audience witnesses a broader spectrum of Sybil and Lucy’s stories, their strengths and weaknesses, and their ups and downs. We see a side of missionary work that is not often told. As Patricia Grimshaw writes in Paths of Duty: American Missionary Wives in Nineteenth-Century Hawaii, missionary ventures to foreign lands are usually described as male endeavors. Yet, Sybil Bingham and Lucy Thurston were among eighty American Protestant women who made the journey to Hawaii between 1819 and mid-century.
In the decades before the foreign missions, women were central to social reform initiatives. They were charged with being moral crusaders, and often dealt with the lowlier parts of religious efforts such as working with drunks, prostitutes, urban poor, and slaves. Female missionaries also had sex-specific jobs and were first and foremost their husband’s support system, but they nevertheless played an important role. Grimshaw describes the missionary wife as a sexual companion, friend, and counselor for her husband. She would create a comforting domestic setting to allow her husband to focus on his work. Mission wives’ first priority was their home, but their importance went beyond their domestic abilities. Women were a symbol of peace and thus provided protection against violence. By creating Christian households women provided models for how the indigenous populations might live. In addition, as we see in The Conversion of Ka‘ahumanu, women, especially those who had been teachers in America, could have their own mission service through schools for women and children (xi-7).
The Conversion of Ka‘ahumanu is a narrative of what contact might have looked like through its female characters, whose stories are rarely told, and the result is very moving.
For more information see Patricia Grimshaw’s Paths of Duty: American Missionary Wives in Nineteenth-Century Hawaii (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1989).