Whalers - primarily American vessels - began arriving in Hawai'i in the early 19th century. At this time, whale oil was used for heating, lamps and in industrial machinery; whale bone (actually the baleen strips suspended from the whale's upper jaw) was used in corsets, skirt hoops, umbrellas and buggy whips. Whaling ships visiting hunting grounds in the Japan Sea, the South Pacific and later the Arctic, usually punctuated their forays twice a year with stops to restock provisions, replenish their crews and transship their whale oil cargoes. For Hawaiian ports, especially Honolulu and Lahaina, the whaling fleet was the crux of the economy for 20 years or more. More than 100 ships stopped in Hawaiian ports in 1824. Over the next two decades, the Pacific whaling fleet nearly quadrupled in size and in the record year of 1846, 736 whaling ships arrived in Hawai'i.
Whalers' aversion to the traditional Hawaiian diet of fish and poi spurred new trends in farming and ranching. Hawaiians began growing potatoes and a wider variety of vegetables to supply the ships. Paniolo cowboys coralled and slaughtered herds of wild cattle descended from Vancouver's original gift cows to provide beef for hungry crews. Fresh water was also in high demand, and the volume required to supply the ships in Honolulu spurred the installation of the first transmission pipes running from upper Nu`uanu valley to a storage tank at the base of the harbor. Other businesses sprang up to service the ships, including sailmakers, blacksmiths, carpenters, laundries, bakeries, shops and boarding houses. Four of the Big Five - companies that later dominated the Islands' economy - got their start as merchants or suppliers to whalers.
The influx of sailors also generated conflict with the missionary community. Sailors were eager to get their hands on Polynesian women. Chiefs and missionaries were eager to maintain order and established laws to regulate drinking, gambling, prostitution, fiddling, dancing and even horse riding on Sundays. Occasionally disagreements took a spectacular turn, such as when the crew of the John Palmer
fired cannon balls at the home of Reverend William Richards.
A sailor's life was rough and hard and thousands jumped ship every year in Hawai'i. Ship captains were constantly recruiting replacements, sometimes resorting to a "Shanghai stick" (weighted with lead) to "entice" prospective sailors aboard. Hawaiians were popular recruits, being naturally adept in the water and superb boatsmen. Called "sailamokus," these Hawaiian sailors traveled all over the world and sprinkled Hawaiian names in places where they settled - Kalama, Kanaka Bar, Aloha, Owyhee River - particularly along the West Coast.
In 1859, the discovery of petroleum oil in Titusville, Pennsylvannia, spelled the end of the whaling industry. It was dealt another major setback by the American Civil War when Southern warships destroyed many Yankee whalers. A final blow came in 1871 when 33 whaling ships were crushed in Arctic ice; no lives were lost, but a sizeable portion of the fleet was destroyed. For Hawai'i, the whaling boom was soon replaced by profits in the sugar industry.