Cemetery of the Week #3: Seamen’s Cemetery

Seamen’s Cemetery, Lahaina

Seamen’s Cemetery
Waine’e Street, between Panaewa and Dickenson Streets
next to Maria Lanakila Church
Lahaina, Maui
Established: in the early 1800s
Number of interments: Unknown. Many are no longer marked.

By design, the city of Lahaina still reflects old Hawaii. Not the oldest, pre-contact times, but Hawaii in its “Sandwich Island” days, when libertine sailors and strait-laced missionaries wrestled over the future of the Hawaiian people. Modern city ordinance requires that the buildings remain as they did when Lahaina served as the capital of the American Pacific whaling fleet.

More than half of all humpback whales in the world still winter in the waters between Maui and nearby Lana’i. They travel down from Alaska to calve and breed in the warm, shallow waters. In the 1800s, they were easy pickings.

Lahaina used to be a loud, lawless town where sailors drank and brawled and died. In addition to the old grog shops (now tourist bars) and the missionary home-turned-museum, the U.S. Seamen’s Hospital represents history. The State Department funded it to serve sailors, particularly whalers, who swarmed the island between 1820 and 1860. In 1859, the government investigated rumors that it was being charged per diems for patients who’d already transferred to the Seamen’s Cemetery. Charges were never filed.

Not much survives of the Seamen’s Cemetery. Although it was originally much larger, only a small remnant currently memorializes it. Most of the men buried in the Seamen’s Cemetery were young, victims of their rigorous life at sea and primitive shipboard health care. Some sailors drowned as the surf swamped their boats when they tried to land at Lahaina.

Among the dead lies one of Herman Melville’s cousins, along with a shipmate of Melville’s from the whaler Acushnet, a Black sailor named Thomas Johnson who died at the Seamen’s Hospital of a “disreputable disease.”

Markers once crammed the cemetery, but those were of necessity inexpensive and impermanent. Ships came and went from Lahaina, leaving behind sick or wounded men to the mercy of strangers. Charity bought most monuments, so they were usually simple painted wood. Currently, only one or two tombstones still mark the graves of sailors.

The cemetery is listed on the Historic Walking Tour of Lahaina, but doesn’t have its own webpage. Even the venerable Find A Grave has very little information. All the same, Seamen’s Cemetery is lovely and very much worthy of a visit.

Useful links:

Lahaina Historic Trail Tour

A greener photograph than mine


6 responses to “Cemetery of the Week #3: Seamen’s Cemetery

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