Mary Mahiai, the original story, in English, 1901.


PROBABLY the most interesting woman in all Hawaii is the white-haired old wahine of four-score and ten, or thereabouts, who answers to the name of Mary Mahiai.

Last week an intricate land case came up in Judge Gear’s court and Mary Mahiai was summoned to appear as a witness, her testimony being relied upon to establish the validity of certain patents to extensive and valuable lands, the ancient boundaries of which were in dispute.

The old lady scorned the services of the interpreter on the witness stand and proceeded with her own story in good English astonishing the court and silencing the lawyers as, with Hawaiian freedom of gesture and animated features, she related the details of a most remarkable career.

It developed that she was born on the Island of Kauai before the coming of the first missionary, the arrival of Rev. Hiram Bingham being distinctly within her memory; at the age of seven years, little Mahiai, whose name (meaning “Working in the taro”) had been given her by her mother, went out in a rowboat with her uncle and five other men, starting for Molokai, to “go look see.” A storm came up and the boat was driven out of sight of land, its occupants having no food or drink with them, and suffering terribly from the pangs of hunger and thirst: for ten days and nights they drifted, becoming crazed and unable to cry out, and at last, when all hopes had been abandoned, and it was certain that the frail boat would go to pieces before the end of another day, a sail appeared upon the horizon and the faint outcries and feeble signals of the seven unfortunates attracted the attention of a sailor on board the ship, which was a sailing vessel bound for China. The six men and the little girl were taken on board and treated kindly. When the little girl was able to be about she was given the task of taking care of the captain’s little daughter, and the men were put to work on the ship; the vessel put in at Ladrone Islands, and by their own desire, the five men who had set out with little Mahiai and her uncle, were put ashore. It was afterwards learned that they were eaten by cannibals.

“Mahiai, who had been named Mary by the captain’s wife, went with her uncle to China on the vessel, landing at Macao, where both were turned over to the missionaries. For several years they remained there. Mary’s uncle dying after a year and a half. Little Mary was made nurse to the infant of the missionary’s wife, referred to as “Miss Nellie,” and probably the wife of a Rev. W. A. Brown.

With “Miss Nellie,” little Mary traveled about China, and after several years, accompanied her mistress to New York, where she was the object of much curiosity, and where her pathetic story was the subject of much comment. A year and a half later the news of the discovery of gold created wild excitement throughout the East, and with the rush to the western gold fields went Mary, now a grown up young woman of eighteen. “Miss Nellie” had died to the great grief of her protege, who although given over to the kindly hands of a missionary family named Bates, refused to be comforted for a long time. It was with the Bates family that she boarded the good ship Hope Well, in the year 1845, and set sail, via Cape Horn, for the California gold fields. Terrible storms drove them out of their course, and they were many months in reaching their destination, landing at various places along the South American coast, and at Mexican cities. At last they reached Monterey, there being only two houses there at the time of their arrival.

After two months’ residence at Monterey, and several months in the various Mexixan mining towns, the Bates family, accompanied by Mary, again set sail, this time for the Hawaiian Islands, to which place Mary had long been anxious to return.

Early in 1850 they landed at Honolulu, then a mere village of grass huts, and Mary sent a letter to her relatives on Kauai, who had many years ago mourned her death, thinking that the boat to which she had left as a little girl of seven years, had been lost at sea, and that the occupants had been eaten by sharks, if they had not perished by starvation and thirst.

When the letter reached her rela-…

(Pacific Commercial Advertiser, 7/25/1901, p. 1)


Pacific Commercial Advertiser, Volume XXXIV, Number 5918, Page 1. July 25, 1901.

…tives, the girl’s mother and sisters, accompanied by her three brothers, immediately came to Honolulu, her father having died. There was a great rejoicing and a big luau, which lasted for several days, and which was attended by hundreds of natives, who were very much excited by the strange reappearance of the little Hawaiian girl, now a handsome young woman, and who never wearied of hearing her relate her adventures.

Mary had become attached to Mrs. Bates and her children, and did not accompany her relatives back to Kauai when they departed, but remained to serve her foster mother and the little ones.

Later, she married, her husband dying after a few months. She married again, and her second husband was a victim of a disastrous smallpox epidemic. The third time she married, her husband lived only a year, and a year after his death she married her fourth husband, with whom she lived happily for over twenty years, and whose decease, only five months ago, was an occasion of great grief to her, following shortly upon the heels of a great New Year luau, which had started with a bottle of gin and a pailful of swipes that had been presented to the old folks as a New Year present.

Such was the story that the old woman of ninety years related upon the witness stand in the First Circuit Court last week, and so promising of interesting developments was the outline of it, that the Advertiser sent forth a reporter to seek behind a high board fence on Vineyard street, near Nuuanu, where the residence of Mary Mahiai was reputed to be.

I was the reporter, and I was in luck, for that which I found behind the high board fence was such a scene as may not be witnessed often, even in Honolulu.

Old Mary Mahiai was seated upon the doorstep of her hut, barefooted and clad in an old blue blouse and a faded flimsy red calico skirt, the struggling beams of an old lantern on the floor lighting up her fine old face, with its frame of curling white hair.

A little white dog, which is her esspecial pet, leaped up from its place at her feet and yelped with a lively semblance of ferocity. The yard in front of the door of the hut was paved with round lava stones, and the glimmer of the lantern shone out over them far enough into the darkness to show the outlines of a fish baking oven, and old poi board, a big calabash, and a string of drying fish which was stretched across from the branches of a mango tree to a nail in the side of the hut.

Mary, who is now known as “Mummy,” received me cordially, and retold the story, now and then lapsing into a succession of vowel sounds as her English became difficult, to clear the idea in her own mind.

I was accorded a seat on a three-legged stool, from which I changed to an upturned washtub at the third tipping, and listened with interest, as she went again over her story.

“I not remember when I born,” said she; “I born when before the missionaary come. I little girl, so high, when missionary come, I go in boat with my uncle; five other men; we go Molokai look see, Big storm come—wind blow, big wave—boat go out sea. No eat, no drink; ten days, ten nights. I little girl, I cry very much. I like eat, I want some water. We have nothing. The boat leak; we dip ’em out; we have calabash to dip. One man dip, dip, all time. Some man get sick, no can work. Some man go crazy, pupuli; no see any ship ten day, ten night;I no remember; I sick, I crazy, too. i think so one more day we have no boat—boat go break up into piece. Some man see sail; he holler. My uncle take up show me ship. Man lift up hands to make them see; then they get us; take us on ship. After while they feed us little bit; no give us much eat—make us die; give little drink, too; bimeby get well. I nurse little baby, he belong to captain wife. I no know name of ship; I no know name of captain. I too little; I seven—eight years old. I go China; my uncle come China, too. Other man—other five man he go Ladrone; native man eat him—you call him cannibals.

“I go Macao, China. My uncle come too. Missionary take me, I learn talk English; I take care of baby; Miss Nellie good to me—like me very much.

“After while my uncle die. I left all alone. I go Canton. I go Hwelehau, with Miss Nellie. Mister Brown, he come, too; he Miss Nellie husband, I go Shanzhai, too; I go everywhere. I think so I stay China five—six year; me big girl. Miss Nellie say she go New York, take me to go to school. I come New York with Miss Nellie. Everybody look see. They like talk to me; they write me in paper, make picture; I all time like come back Hawaii. Miss Nellie die. I feel very bad; cry all time, Miss Nellie good to me. Then I go Miss Bates. Mister Bates, he missionary, I take care baby. Bimeby everybody go California get gold money. Mister Bates like go; Miss Bates and baby come; I come, too. We come ship Hope Well, come round Horn; have plenty trouble; big storm come; take long time. We stop Valparaiso; we stop Peru; we stop Mexico—we stop everywhere. We come Monterey, two house; everybody hunt gold. We stay two, three months. We go ‘nother place, all time travel on land; Mister Bates he missionary.

“I like come Hawaii. Mister Bates he say he come here. After while we take ship come back here. I big girl now, big wahine; when i be away, I like come back. I very pleased when I get back.

“I came Honolulu. I stay here Miss Bates; I send letter my mother, my sister; I have brother, too; they no die. My father die. I no see him. My relative think I die long time. They surprise. All come see me. Have big luau. Everybody come. All Kanaka he come; everybody come look see—four, five hundred Kanaka come. I stay Miss Bates; Miss Bates like me stay; I no go back Kauai; my mother, my sister go back. I stay Miss Bates maybe one year; then I go Kauai see my mother, I get married.”

Continuing, “Mummy” related the story of her various unfortunate matrimonial ventures, reckoning the time by such events as “one big smallpox come; two big smallpox come.” Her last husband she voted as a good man, and her features softened at the mention of him. The particulars of his death were learned from Mrs. West, who lives next door, and whom “Mummy” has taken into her confidence.

The old woman has a face of the better type of Hawaiian, and as she related her remarkable story in the light of the old barn lantern, squatting there on the doorstep of her tumble-down old hut, she presented such a weird and striking picture as would have furnished an artist with an opportunity for a rare study.

In concluding her story the white-haired old woman expressed her content with her lot. “I all time go everywhere when I am little girl; when I am big, too,” said she, “I all time have trouble; I all time like come back. I like come back Hawaii; I no like go round too much. I like stay here my own people My husband that die last, he good man. I very happy. I no have much trouble. I no like go away again. I stay here.”

Thus it is that Mary Mahiai, who is uncertain as to her exact age, but who is somewhere near the fourscore and ten mark, lives alone in a picturesque little old hut behind a high board fence on Vineyard street, between Nuuanu and Fort, washing the clothes of the haoles for her fish and poi, and making a splendid picture as she goes about the neighborhood with a basket of clothes poised on her erect white head, her wonderfully lithe body swinging along with almost as little effort as if only nineteen summers, instead of ninety, numbered the years of her life—well content, after a life of much adventure and turbulence, to be peacefully at home under her own vine and fig tree, in Hawaii nei.


[This is the English article published a day before it appears in translation in the Kuokoa, which was posted earlier this week. There were many articles taken from English newspapers and translated (and sometimes like in this case, summarized), for the Hawaiian language audience.

Just because the Pacific Commercial Advertiser after 1883 cannot be found online, that does not mean that they do not exist.]

(Pacific Commercial Advertiser, 7/25/1901, p. 2)


Pacific Commercial Advertiser, Volume XXXIV, Number 5918, Page 2. July 25, 1901.

4 thoughts on “Mary Mahiai, the original story, in English, 1901.

  1. Pingback: Mary Mahiai, what a story! 1901. | nupepa

  2. Pingback: Hawaiian-language versus English historical documents, 2014 and beyond. | nupepa

  3. i wonder if she could speak Hawaiian anymore by the time she returned to Hawaii, as an adult. And considering she had lived with haole people for much of her life (approximately 1820 to 1850), I also wonder why her speech (as quoted here) sounded so pidgin.

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