Aloha, Jacksonville!

Unleash a historian in an archive and you never know what she’ll find. I recently stumbled upon this copy of He mau Himeni e ori ia Iehova, a 60-page, pocket-sized hymnal published in the Hawaiian language on Oahu, Hawaii in 1826. A hand-written inscription indicates it was a gift to Illinois College from a Mrs. Blatchely, “who has been a missionary to the Sandwich Islands.” Thus far I’ve focused on women who resided in Jacksonville, but this little gift is a reminder that this small, Midwestern city was also a crossroads for women on the move making national and international connections.

wp-1468090818392.jpgI had just finished reading Megan Marshall’s The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism and was feeling somewhat Transcendental, when I decided to explore the uncatalogued section of the Rare Books collection (this, after perusing IC’s original copies of The Dial). Marshall discussed the many books that the Peabodys read, edited, and published, and I wondered if I might find any in the collection of Dr. Hiram K. Jones and his wife, Elizabeth, founding members of the Concord School of Philosophy. One of these days I need to get serious about researching Transcendental Jacksonville, and that’s actually what I was trying to do when I spotted a tiny, brittle book with covers made perhaps from a sea shell or highly polished wood.

The book itself is an artifact of western imperialism in Hawaii. According to Hawaiian Language Imprints 1822-1899: A Bibliography (The Hawaiian Mission Children’s Society and The University Press of Hawaii, 1978), edited by Bernice Judd, Janet E. Bell and Clare G. Murdoch, the first American missionaries arrived in Hawaii in March 1820, “armed with zeal, press, and printer.” As New Englanders affiliated with the Boston-based American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, they believed the printed word to be vastly superior to oral traditions in transmitting a consistent, Calvinist Christianity to scattered island communities. Yet in order to do this, they first had to devise a written Hawaiian language. By 1826, the missionaries (with a little input from native speakers) finalized a Hawaiian alphabet with just twelve letters: a, e, i, o, u, h, k, l, m, n, p, w (xiii). The book in the Khalaf Al Habtoor Archives, titled He mau Himeni e ori ia Iehova, translates as “Hymns, sung to Jehovah, the true God” (9) and was among the first publications printed using the written language. A previous edition appeared in 1824 using a slightly modified alphabet, but after 1826 this little volume proliferated the islands. In 1827 alone, the missionaries’ printing press on Ohau churned out 10,000 copies with subsequent editions in 1828 and 1830 (see also: Albert J. Schütz, The Voices of Eden: A History of Hawaiian Language Studies. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1994). I’m interested to know more about what the Hawaiian people thought of it, but that’s going to take a bit more reading.

So for now we’ll ask who was Mrs. Blatchely, what role did she play in all of this, and how did He mau Himeni e ori ia Iehova end up at Illinois College? Let’s start with Mrs. Blatchely herself. A bit of sleuthing identifies her as Jemima Marvin Blatchely, born March 28, 1791 in Lyme, Connecticut. The daughter of Phoebe and Joseph Marvin, a Revolutionary War veteran. In 1810, she joined the church in North Lyme and at the age of 30, on December 14, 1821, she married the Yale-educated Dr. Abraham Blatchely. The following year was one of trials for the couple. In September 1822, Jemima gave birth to a daughter who lived only one week and is buried in Madison, Connecticut. On November 6, Jemima’s mother passed away. Then, on November 19, Jemima and Abraham boarded the Ship Thames and sailed from New Haven, Connecticut with sixteen other missionaries.

Like the Blatchelys, most in their group were married couples. The company also included two Hawaiian men returning home and a teacher, Betsey Stockton, an African American woman born into slavery. As a teenager, her owner Robert Stockton of Princeton, New Jersey, gifted Bestey to his son-in-law, the Rev. Ashbel Green. Betsey gained her freedom at the age of 20, but continued to work as a domestic servant for Green. According to historian Sandra Wagner, Stockton was active in her church and expressed interest in serving as a missionary in Africa, but joined this group as an assistant to Green’s friends, the Rev. Charles and Harriet Stewart. Though listed as a teacher, the white missionaries considered her a servant. Abraham Blatchely asserted that the Hawaiian climate withered the frail white women, requiring the men to take time from their Christian mission to help with domestic chores. He believed Stockton to be the solution and complained that the Stewarts refused to share the services of their “colored girl” (quoted in Sandra Elaine Wager, “Sojourners Among Strangers: The First Two Companies of Missionaries to the Sandwich Islands,” PhD diss. (University of Hawaii, 1986), 37). 

The Thames sailed into Honolulu on April 27, 1823, but sources reveal that the Blatchely’s sojourn in Hawaii was not especially fruitful. Abraham tended to the sick and participated in the development of the Hawaiian alphabet. As tensions emerged between members of the committee, linguist Albert J. Schütz noted: “As light relief, Dr. Abraham Blatchely offered a medical parody, comparing the swollen alphabet with a disease and suggesting that b, d, r, t, and v were foreign substances to be removed” (Schütz, 123). Abraham then played a direct role in the development of He mau Himeni e ori ia Iehova, making the book all the more valuable to Jemima as physical artifact attesting to their work. The book was perhaps the only tangible product of an otherwise disappointing experience.

Abraham complained endlessly about the climate, especially as his fellow missionaries fell ill. By 1825, Harriet Stewart was so ill he recommended they (and Stockton) return home (Wagner, 207). The Blatchelys departed the following year, in 1826 when He mau Himeni e ori ia Iehova rolled off the press.  As Abraham wrote, “The climate is more debilitating than I expected, I have at no time been able to do but little, have been subject to frequent billious affections which have as frequented prostrated my strength” (Wagner, 225). We can’t be entirely sure of Jemima’s perspective, but upon her return home she seemed to blame herself for their hardship when she wrote to a friend, “how sad… is the feeling that I can no more be associated with those who are engaged in spreading the Gospel among benighted pagans, tho’ at the same time I am overwhelmed with a consciousness of my own unworthiness… in such service” (Wagner, 207).

The available census records indicate that the Blatchelys lived in Connecticut until Jemima died in Madison, Connecticut on October 26, 1856. Two years later, Abraham remarried and one source mentioned that the died in Illinois in 1860. So the question becomes, how did Jemima’s book end up at Illinois College? Did their Yale connections and status as missionaries connect them some how to the Beechers or the Sturtevants? Did Jemima actually visit Jacksonville or did she send it through the post? Because the book was gifted to Illinois College and not the JFA, I wonder whether Abraham was a guest speaker at some point and Jemima provided this as a token of thanks for the invitation. That will take some more digging. What is significant here is that even in antebellum Jacksonville, Illinois, people were curious about the wider world. Today, we tend to see Midwestern communities as insular and fearful of outsiders, but Jemima’s gift and its subsequent preservation over 175 years reveals a different story.

The little book caused quite a diversion in my research, but as I pieced Jemima’s story together I was continuously reminded of the theme that ran through  The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism. That is, well-known women of the nineteenth century were subject to the whims and failures of the men in their lives. The Peabody sisters, Elizabeth in particular, was compelled to write and publish in order to support her family. Similarly, Jemima was listed in Portraits of American Protestant Missionaries to Hawaii (1901),  as “Abraham Blatchely, M.D. and wife.” The white missionaries’ attitudes toward Betsey Stockton reveal that white women like Jemima enjoyed an elevated status that theoretically exempted them from drudgery, but their work as missionaries was neither valued nor voluntary. It is tempting to read Jemima’s inscription in He mau Himeni e ori ia Iehova and assume she was an adventurous, free spirit who traveled across the world in the 1820s, and perhaps when she married Abraham, they already had plans to join the ranks of missionaries overseas, but as her actual experience tells us: it’s complicated.

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