John Kanaka


A considerable trade has been carried on for several years between California and the Sandwich Islands, and most of the vessels are manned with Islanders; who, as they, for the most part, sign no articles, leave whenever they choose, and let themselves out to cure hides at San Diego, and to supply the places of the men of the American vessels while on the coast. In this way, quite a colony of them had become settled at San Diego, as their headquarters....

During the four months that I lived here, I got well acquainted with all of them, and took the greatest pains to become familiar with their language, habits, and characters. Their language, I could only learn, orally, for they had not any books among them, though many of them had been taught to read and write by the missionaries at home. They spoke a little English, and by a sort of compromise, a mixed language was used on the beach, which could be understood by all. The long name of Sandwich Islanders is dropped, and they are called by the whites, all over the Pacific ocean, "Kanákas," from a word in their own language which they apply to themselves, and to all South Sea Islanders, in distinction from whites, whom they call "Haole." This name, "Kanaka," they answer to, both collectively and individually. Their proper names, in their own language, being difficult to pronounce and remember, they are called by any names which the captains or crews may choose to give them. Some are called after the vessel they are in; others by common names, as Jack, Tom, Bill.... But by whatever names they might be called, they were the most interesting, intelligent, and kind-hearted people that I ever fell in with. I felt a positive attachment for almost all of them; and many of them I have, to this time, a feeling for, which would lead me to go a great way for the mere pleasure of seeing them, and which will always make me feel a strong interest in the mere name of a Sandwich Islander.

-Richard Henry Dana, Jr., Two Years Before the Mast

As sung by Holdstock & Murphy on San Francisco Shanties and Sea Songs of California's Gold Rush

I thought I heard the old man say,
John Kanaka-naka tulai-ae.
There's work tomorrow but no work today.
John Kanaka-naka tulai-ae.

Tulai-ae, oh, tulai-ae,
John Kanaka-naka tulai-ae.


We're bound away from 'Frisco Bay,
John Kanaka-naka tulai-ae.
We're bound away at the break of day.
John Kanaka-naka tulai-ae.

Tulai-ae, oh, tulai-ae,
John Kanaka-naka tulai-ae.


It's just one thing that grieves my mind,
To leave my wife and child behind.

They'll wave farewell down on the key,
They'll wait and fear and weep for me.

We're bound away around Cape Horn,
Where you'll wish to Christ you'd never been born.

The bosun said before I'm through,
You'll curse your mother for havin' you.

It's rotten wheat and weevily bread,
And it's pump or drown, the old man said.

It's one more pull, and that'll do,
And we're the bullies for to pull her through.


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