What reasons were given for enacting laws against hula?
Most people interested in hula know that missionaries in the islands in the 1800s considered hula an "abomination" and preached vehemently against it. But few people know that their influence in government actually resulted in the enactment of laws that restricted the practice of hula for nearly a half-century. What were these laws? Were they ever repealed? Before addressing those questions, a little background is necessary. Prior to the Protestant missionary's arrival in 1820, hula was an integral part of everyday life. Some dances were sacred and could be performed only by selected individuals, while others were enjoyed by the population at large. Hula was one of the primary forms of Hawaiian artistic and religious expression. Its status was radically altered with the arrival of New England missionaries, whose ultraconservative religious sensibilities were severely shaken by the sight of "half-naked heathens" engaging in "lewd and lascivious" dances. Hiram Bingham, leader of the first group of missionaries, wrote that practically the entire Hawaiian population was "wasting their time in learning, practicing or witnessing the hula, or heathen song and dance," instead of tending to fields and families or attending church services. The preaching did not fall entirely on deaf ears. Kuhina Nui (regent) Ka'ahumanu, co-ruler with King Kamehameha II, was an early convert to Christianity and in 1830 issued an oral edict making hula forbidden, along with chants (olioli), songs of pleasure (mele), "foul speech and bathing by women in public places." Since written laws had not yet been instituted, the edict carried the full measure of traditional Hawaiian law (kapu), possibly to the extent of banishment or death for noncompliance, although Ka'ahumanu never issued such consequences. But after she died in 1832, her edict was largely ignored, and the people once again indulged in hula openly, although cautiously. According to noted Hawaiian historians Dorothy B. Barrere, Mary Kawena Pukui and Marion Kelly in their book "Hula Historical Perspectives," "Missionary influence, while strong, never wiped out the hula as a functional part of the Hawaiian society. Faced with this undeniable fact, the authorities sought to curb performances by regulation." The first written laws were enacted in 1840, but it was not until 1851 that the first law pertaining to hula was instituted. In that year the legislature adopted "An Act to Provide for the License of Public Shows," which required a license for any "public show, theatrical, equestrian, or other exhibitions of any description" for which admission was charged. The law did not specify a fee for the license, but did say that anyone found without one could be arrested and fined up to $500. It is interesting to note that the public display of hula was seen in the same light as certain questionable "theatricals" and "public shows" being promoted throughout the United States and Europe by master showman P.T. Barnum, with his traveling show of "human curiosities and circus wonders." Barrere and the others state that the hula performed for money was designed for an audience more "uncouth" than was traditional. "Many, if not most, of these dances were far from being stately, or dignified, or graceful hula performed for visiting dignitaries, and some were part of the repertoire of those dancers who performed for transient sailors, especially during the visits of the whaling fleets." The 1851 law did not regulate hula in private, so the dance continued to be practiced and enjoyed throughout the islands. In June 1858, in an attempt to extend the reach of the law, the Hawaiian Evangelical Society -- composed entirely of missionaries -- submitted a letter to Prince Lot Kamehameha, then minister of the interior, to plead for change. The letter described hula as "a very great public evil, tending ... to demoralize the people ... to divert them from all industrial and intellectual pursuits ... to lay waste their fields and gardens by neglect ... to interfere materially with the prosperity of the schools; to foster poverty and distress among the people." The missionaries' belief that Hawaiians should be participating less in hula and more in cultivating the land was shared by most of the sugar barons, who were struggling to obtain Hawaiian laborers. It was not that the Hawaiians refused to work, but that foreign diseases had decimated the work force. Opponents of hula did not quite achieve the impact desired -- an outright ban -- but their efforts did result in further legal restrictions. In 1859 the 1851 law was amended to include a $10 charge for a license -- a very large sum at the time. The penalty for violations was a fine of up to $500 and imprisonment of up to six months at hard labor. In a further attempt to restrict access, public hula was allowed only in Honolulu. In an article published in the Hawaiian Journal of History, "The Political Economy of Banning the Hula," Noenoe Silva, an assistant professor in political science at the University of Hawaii, sites six court cases that tested what constituted "public" hula. All the cases involved dancing at private residences where money was given to the host family or dancers. The first case was in 1863 on Kauai, when eight men and four women were convicted and fined $3 each. The case was appealed and the convictions overturned. Presumably, dissent from the Hawaiian community over the next five years put pressure on the Legislature to change or abolish these laws. In 1864 the penalty for performing hula commercially was reduced from a maximum $500 to a maximum $100, and possible imprisonment was reduced from six to three months. In that same year, on Kauai a man was convicted of dancing hula and fined $5. In 1866, four men and one woman were convicted on Kauai -- one man was fined $10; the rest, $5. In 1867 one man went to court but was acquitted, and in 1868 one man on the Big Island was convicted. In 1870 the fee for a license was reduced from $10 to $5, and the requirement that all commercial hula be restricted to Honolulu was repealed. In 1872 yet another case came before the court. As reported in the newspaper, eight people were arrested and arraigned in the Police Court on a charge of "promoting ... and abiding and assisting ... at a Hawaiian hula." A plea of not guilty was entered on behalf of the defendants, on the grounds that it took place in a private home. The article indicated that the case had "aroused much public interest" on both sides of the hula debate and that people were anxious to hear the ruling of the police magistrate so they could "understand what is actually the law of the land." A little more than one month after the incident, the newspaper published Police Magistrate Montgomery's ruling in Rex v. Kaluaioahu. He found all nine people innocent. His ruling was based largely on a witness's testimony that the dancing occurred at a child's first-birthday party in a private home. The child's grandmother "sat on a mat ... and gathered sums of money thrown to her ... that the sums contributed were free gifts and not a tax or charge, and that ... $80 may have been collected; that all the nine respondents took part in it, sitting on the floor and monitoring with their hands, and never performed standing." This case seems to have put the issue of what constituted public and private hula to rest, but the law of 1870 stayed in effect until 1896, three years after the overthrow of the monarchy, when it was finally repealed. According to Silva, this was largely due to the fact that "lawmakers of the new republic wanted to open Hawaii to more tourism, and they saw commercial hula as one means to do that." Today, hula is practiced freely and openly throughout the world. What a different Hawaii it would be if hula had been legally extinguished.