Letter from Captain Metcalf, 1790

Hawai‘i State Archives

Capt. Simon Metcalf letter.
March 22, 1790.
Series 402, F.O.&Ex. 1790

John Young at age 75.
ca. 1819
Lithograph. Artist: J. Arago
M-483: Brickwood Collection, #297


The oldest surviving document in the Hawaiian Islands at 213-years old and preserved in the collection of the Hawai‘i State Archives is a letter dated March 22, 1790.

The ship Eleanora had anchored off of Kealakekua and its boatswain went ashore but did not return. Simon Metcalf, the captain, wrote the letter and addressed it to four foreigners living there at the time. The letter demanded the return of his boatswain and that the “head chief” be made aware of the revenge that would be imposed for non-compliance. Some weeks earlier, Metcalf was responsible for the “Olowalu massacre” where a hundred or so Hawaiians were intentionally killed by cannon fire in an act of revenge.

The “head chief” was none other than Kamehameha, and the boatswain was John Young. Young was unable to return to the ship due to a kapu (restriction) Kamehameha had placed on outgoing canoes to isolate the Eleanora. Metcalf sailed away several days later, stranding Young in Hawai‘i. Kamehameha befriended Young who became his close and trusted advisor. Young took the Hawaiian chiefess Ka‘ō‘ana‘eha for his wife. Their granddaughter would later become Queen Emma.

Below is a transcription of the letter:

Eleanora Off Owhyhe 22 March, 1790.

As my Boatswain landed by your invitation if he is not returned to the Vessel consequences of an unpleasant nature must follow, (to distress a Vessel in these seas is an affair of no small magnitude) if your Word be the Law of Owhyhe as you have repeatedly told me there can be no difficulty in doing me justice in this Business, otherwise I am possessed of sufficient powers to take ample revenge which it is your duty to make the head Chief acquainted with.

I am Gentlemen

Simon Metcalf

S.I. Thomas
I. Ridler
Jos. Mackey
John Young