Blue Hawaii: Sheldon Dibble of Skaneateles

When Adam and Eve learned they were naked and had to leave the Garden, Hawaii did not get the memo. The islanders lived in an earthly paradise until Captain Cook’s chance arrival in 1778. It was Cook who alerted the civilized world, which put together a welcoming basket of venereal disease, deforestation, firearms, land ownership, avarice and Calvinism — this last gift carrying with it restrictive clothing, shame, and no more swimming.

Hiram Bingham led the first Calvinist missionaries, who arrived in 1821. After seeing the laughing surfers — men, women and children — who paddled out to meet the ship, Bingham wrote home:

“The appearance of destitution, degradation, and barbarism, among the chattering and almost naked savages, whose heads and feet, and much of their sunburnt skins were bare, was appalling. Some of our number, with gushing tears, turned away from the spectacle. Others, with firmer nerve, continued their gaze, but were ready to exclaim, ‘Can these be human beings?!… Can such things be civilized?'”

The task of teaching industry and guilt to millions of carefree natives was a big one, and so Bingham sent for reinforcements. Among the Fourth Company were the newlywed Reverend and Mrs. Sheldon Dibble, who arrived in Honolulu after a voyage of 161 days, on June 7, 1831.

Born in the Village of Skaneateles in 1809, Sheldon Dibble studied at Hamilton College and the Auburn Theological Seminary, and was ordained in Utica, New York. He married Maria Tomlinson three weeks after his ordination and less than two months after that the Rev. and Mrs. Dibble sailed from New Bedford, Mass., bound for the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) to heed the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19), to go and make disciples of all nations. And, for God’s sake, to get some clothes on them.

Sheldon Dibble was very much a product of Skaneateles. In 1833, the Village fathers aptly expressed the moral rigor of the era when they decreed, “No person shall play with balls or any similar game in any of the streets or public grounds. Neither shall any person fly or carry a kite on any street or public square.” And of course, it was “forbidden to bathe or swim in any of the waters of the corporation of said Village.”

I am not sure what the legal penalty for taking a dip was, but Samuel Edwards, recalling his Village boyhood in Leslie’s History of Skaneateles, describes being “brutally flogged in the Columbian office,” by his employer, for swimming in the lake on a Sunday afternoon. Such was the faith that Sheldon Dibble took to Hawaii.

I am sure Dibble meant well. He taught at the missionary school, the Hawaiian College, in Lahainaluna. When whaling ships and other vessels were in the harbor of Hilo, Dibble and his wife entertained the sailors, gave them reading-matter and cultivated their spiritual interests. And Dibble committed the islands’ oral history to paper, publishing its first written history, “A History of The Sandwich Islands,” in 1834, including the map below, engraved and printed by Dibble’s students from copper sheeting.

dibble map

But his history came with an agenda. Whether it was his own, or one fed to him by earlier arrivals, I do not know. Americans in Hawaii, seeking to influence the Hawaiian monarchy, and far outnumbering British settlers, were frustrated by the rulers’ friendship with Britain. Both nations wanted the islands for their own. Humiliated by the War of 1812 and seeking to discredit Britain, Americans sought to poison the reputation and memory of the first Englishman, Captain Cook.

In his history, Dibble accused Cook of accepting deification by the Hawaiians, an act of blasphemy. Dibble accused Cook of having sex with a Kauai princess, Lelemahoalani, who was eight years old at the time. Dibble accused Cook of encouraging the passing of venereal disease to Hawaiians. (Shipboard journals and the flogging list show that Cook actually sought to prevent it.)

Much closer to home, this son of the lake condemned “rough” sports such as surfing. If Skaneateles Lake was one long occasion for sin, imagine how much evil lay in the vast Pacific Ocean. Dibble wrote:

“The evils resulting from all these sports and amusements have in part been named… But the greatest evil of all resulted from the constant intermingling, without any restraint, of persons of both sexes and of all ages, at all times of the day and at all hours of the night.”

And with unbuttoned collars at that. Dark days lay ahead for Hawaii. As the missionaries gained influence with the ruling family, surfing and other traditional sports fell into disrepute.

In 1873, Mark Twain summed it up nicely in his Letter from the Sandwich Islands:

“The traders brought labor and fancy diseases – in other words, long, deliberate, infallible destruction: and the missionaries brought the means of grace and got them ready. So the two forces are working together harmoniously, and anybody that knows anything about figures can tell you exactly when the last Kanaka will be in Abraham’s bosom and his islands in the hands of the whites.”

* * *

Historian Patricia Grimshaw sheds more light on the motivations of the Rev. and Mrs. Dibble:

“The missionaries were talented young people, typically ministers and teachers in their 20s or early 30s, healthy and energetic. They had been raised in rural communities, educated in male theological or ladies’ seminaries, and had formed missionary ambitions during the excitement of the religious revivals.

“Their closest companions would be spouses they usually had met only weeks before the departure day: The men, once assigned to Hawaii, anxiously sought and won mission-minded young women who would see the marriage offer as God’s call to a personal dedication to ‘uplifting’ non-Christian people.

“These couples were driven by the powerful conviction shared by their evangelicals everywhere that non-Christians faced an eternity in Hell unless brave Christian pilgrims relinquished the comforts of home to spread Christ’s word. If they could pluck just one soul from the burning flames, the mission wives proclaimed, their sacrifice would not be in vain.

” ‘The die is cast,’ Laura Fish Judd, 23, wrote in her diary, shortly after her marriage proposal and a mere month before leaving Massachusetts in 1827. ‘I have in the strength of the Lord, consented Rebecca-like, I WILL GO, yes, I will leave friends, native land, everything for Jesus.’ “

— Patricia Grimshaw (Chair, History Department, University of Melbourne) “Religious Hope, Hardships, Fuel Missionary Lives” Honolulu Star-Bulletin June 16, 1999

* * *

Richard Snedeker, of West Windsor, New Jersey, archived hundreds of family papers from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries and found a “daybook” kept by his great grandmother, Annis Dunbar, of Natchez, Mississippi. On one page, handwritten in pencil was The Lord’s Prayer in Hawaiian. A note at the bottom said, “Inserted by your sincere friend S. Dibble. At Home April 30, 1839.”


Mr. Snedeker wrote, “What was the Rev. Dibble doing in Natchez, Mississippi, in 1839, and how did he know my great grandmother?”

Thanks to a letter of June 17, 1998 — and The Missionary Album of the Hawaiian Missionary Children’s Society — sent by W.S. Fleishell (a descendant of Dibble) to the Skaneateles Historical Society, I have an answer to the first question.

After the Rev. Dibble’s first wife, Maria Tomlinson, died in 1837, Dibble returned to the United States with their two children. In 1838 and 1839, he lectured and toured in the south and southwest, which is how he came to be in Natchez, Mississippi, on April 30, 1839, inscribing the Lord’s Prayer in Hawaiian in the daybook of 18-year-old Annis Dunbar who was about to be married to John C. Jenkins.

Mr. Snedeker noted, “I know from other diaries, etc., that the women were quite devout (Presbyterians and, later, Episcopalians), read the Bible every day and went to church more than once a week. The Dunbars and Jenkins’s were very interested in the latest news about many things. I think it likely that Dibble stopped at Natchez and was introduced to prominent people there and was invited to visit at The Forest, the Dunbar’s mansion near Natchez. That may be why he wrote ‘at Home’ at the bottom.”

Later that year, Dibble married Antoinette Tomlinson of Manlius, New York, a relative of his first wife, and the Dibble family sailed from New York City, returning to Hawaii. Dibble died in the islands on January 22, 1845, at Lahainaluna, Maui. His wife and four surviving Dibble children returned to the mainland. Mrs. Dibble died in Washington, D.C., in 1897.

* * *

My thanks to Richard Snedeker for sending this story and a copy of the page with the Lord’s Prayer, and to Pat Blackler and the Skaneateles Historical Society for sharing their files with me when I first learned of Sheldon Dibble


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