Wm. HEATH DAVIS’S ENIGMATIC MOTHER, HANNAH HOLMES
Hannah Holmes Davis Jones was born in 1800 to former Bostonian Oliver Holmes and Mahikalanihooulumokuikekai (last name unknown), a Polynesian princess with whom he had six children. Hannah, Holmes’ eldest daughter, married William Heath Davis, Sr. in 1817 and became a widow just five years later. Hannah’s father arrived in Hawaii from Boston in 1791 on the ship, Margaret, one of the first to trade among New England, the northwest American coast and China. Oliver Holmes was originally en route to China, but upon reaching Honolulu determined to remain here for the next 32 years and adopted the dress and customs of the locals, living in a grass hut and even serving dog meat at celebrations. He became Governor of Oahu for Hawaii’s King, Kamehameha I, basically serving the royal government as second in command. In disputes between the missionaries who arrived in 1820 and the commercial trade of sailors, Holmes was a steadfast supporter of the missionaries.
Hannah was known to be a woman of temper in Oahu. She lived in the Holmes property at Fort and King Street, and at one time after the birth of her second son, William, had a nurse/uncle by the name of Kino. After the Kanai war of 1825, Hannah’s home burned down, and some sort of quarrel ensued with Kino; she apparently ran him off from her property. Such a display of temper was noteworthy in Hawaiian society.
Hannah was known as a celebrated hostess in Fair Haven/Honolulu. It was once reported that she entertained early missionaries to the Islands by first seating them near four stones which were called “gods,” and then offering Christian prayers to Jehovah.
When William Heath Davis was three years old the diary of a local Hawaiian recorded the first balloon flights in Hawaii. Late in 1840 Davis’s mother, Hannah Holmes, was entertaining some 60 American officers on an exploratory expedition in Hawaii. At 10 p.m. she invited her guests outdoors to watch a large hot air balloon ascend. This was the first recorded flight witnessed in Hawaii, based upon an account by Hannah.
And Hannah was also known as somewhat of a gossip in Hawaiian circles. The social and spiritual life within Honolulu after the birth of William Heath Davis was largely regulated by the missionary society from New England that had taken root on the Island in 1820. One of the earliest missionaries was Hiram Bingham, who figured prominently in early western Hawaiian culture. Bingham had instructed his missionaries no longer to preach to the natives twice each day since not enough work was being done to develop Oahu. One of Bingham’s underlings named Reynolds had a native wife who would sneak out from the family home to be a part of the religious fervor. In order to maintain domestic tranquility, her husband forbade her from her continued absences and handed her a written “recipe for future domestic harmony,” which contained a list of things NOT to do and things to do. On the TO DO list were items such as “to do nothing secretly or covertly,” and on the NOT TO DO list were broad prohibitions against adultery, casting off her children, and lastly “not to listen to Hannah Holmes.”
In March of 1847 while living in California Davis learned that his mother was very ill in the Sandwich Islands, so he sailed for the Islands and arrived quickly in only 20 days. Hannah died four days after his arrival at the age of 46, “after a long and distressing illness.” Davis recalled in writings in his later years that the death of his mother, which was noted in the Hawaiian press as impressive for its large, native language funeral, was “the first real sorrow I have ever experienced, a blow from which it will take a long time from which to recover. He was 25 years old.
Text from the 2009 exhibit “William Heath Davis in Hawaii”