Missionaries and the Decline of Hula
The first Westerners to visit Hawai`i remarked on the beauty and grace of the native dance. Captain Cook described hula in his journal in 1778
Their dances are prefaced with a slow, solemn song, in which all the party join, moving their legs, and gently striking their breasts in a manner and with attitudes that are perfectly easy and graceful.
Adelbert de Chamisso, arriving in 1816
aboard the Russian ship Rurick
, praised hula above Western-style dance:
Truly, since I have often seen the ungraceful contortions that we admire in our dances under the name of ballet, it seems to me after observing and viewing the magnificence of the local performances that the former pale in comparison.
Not all foreigners were so appreciative. Protestant missionaries arriving in 1820 believed hula dangerously promoted old heathen beliefs and celebrated physical enjoyment. Hiram Bingham wrote:
The whole arrangement and process of their old hulas were designed to promote lasciviousnous [sic], and of course the practice of them could not flourish in modest communities. They had been interwoven too with their superstitions, and made subservient to the honor of their gods, and then rulers, either living or departed or deified.
With this attitude, missionaries made a strong effort to eradicate hula and in this goal they were strongly supported by some of the powerful ali`i who converted to Christianity. In 1825, Ka`ahumanu, wife of Kamehameha I and regent after his death, was accepted into the church and in 1830
she forbade public performances of the hula.
After Ka`ahumanu's death in 1832
, some chiefs ignored the hula ban and until 1834
or so Kamehameha III himself openly flouted many of the social constraints laid out by previous chiefs and missionary leaders. Hula remained largely hidden, however, for decades to come. In 1851
, public hula performances became regulated through a licensing system with a heavy fee paid for each performance.
In the 1860s
, clandestine hula schools continued to pass down the old traditions. During this period some ali`i reverted to the custom of keeping hula po`e, or hula people, on hand to provide entertainment for private parties and gatherings. Kamehameha V revived hula during his reign in a broader effort to restore aspects of traditional lifestyle in the face of rapid Westernization. However, he also passed laws restricting hula because it was a distraction from working in the fields and fishing grounds.
Hula didn’t experience a significant public revival until the reign of King Kalakaua. His coronation in 1883
and jubilee celebration in 1886
both featured hula performances. Kalakaua proclaimed, "Hula is the language of the heart and therefore the heartbeat of the Hawaiian people." Court dancers like Jennie Wilson had prominent careers and later performed for royalty and heads of state around the world.
With the end of the monarchy, many aspects of Hawaiian culture went into decline and disfavor. Hula remained visible but became subverted into a tourist entertainment stripped of its larger meaning, at least in its more public displays. Within families and through individual teachers, traditions, chants and dances continued to be passed on. Many traditional practices resurfaced publicly only in the 1970s
when a cultural renaissance bloomed in the Hawaiian community.