Don Francisco de Paula Marin was a productive man. He arrived in Hawaii two hundred years ago after deserting a Spanish naval ship in the Northwest. Marin was an important figure in the beginning years of the Hawaiian kingdom, serving as Kamehameha I’s business advisor, bookkeeper, sometime physician, and interpreter. We know he had at least three wives and 23 children, though most historians agree there were more of each. Despite his business acumen and his patriarchal finesse, Don Marin is today known mainly for his green thumb. As most accounts attest he was an exceptional horticulturist. Many visitors noted his gardens on O’ahu and popular accounts tell us he was responsible for many of the food plants we now have in the islands. I have heard and read many contradictory lists of Marin’s plant introductions. What plants did Marin actually introduce into Hawaii? Once, I was told by a prominent island biologist that Marin brought 75 species to Hawaii. That sounded good to me. Over the years I’ve repeated that number perhaps hundreds of times. He was wrong. I dispensed erroneous information for nearly three years. That’s what I get for swallowing as fact a tidbit of botanical history from a geneticist. The historical record reveals a much different story of Marin’s imports. Two different historical works help set the record straight. The first is Ross H. Gast’s biography of Don Marin published in 1973. The second is Kenneth Nagata’s excellent paper published in The Hawaiian Journal of History in 1985 entitled “Early Plant Introductions in Hawaii.”
Marin came to Hawaii aboard the Lady Washington either in 1793 or ‘94. He was twenty years old. Within two years of his arrival he was married with children and by the early 1800s already had a reputation as “by far the most respectable of the white set” in the islands. Through service to the ali’i, most importantly Kamehameha and Ka’ahumanu, he soon acquired land and wealth. On these lands he planted. Early descriptions of his gardens revealed numerous fruits and vegetables; many of these species accounts were the first noted in the islands. As Nagata writes, “His gardens attracted the attention of tourists and botanists alike, and it is fortunate that these visitors often wrote of his plants because the diary which he kept, although a valuable source of information, is incomplete.” Within Marin’s gardens were onion, pineapple, horseradish, cabbage, asparagus, corn, chili pepper, lime, lemon, orange, coffee, carrot, plum, fig, mango, lettuce, olive, avocado, parsley, pea, guava, apricot, peach, pear, apple, papaya, eggplant, potato, tea, cotton, and cocoa. Perhaps his most famous plantings were those of his vineyards from which he produced the first wine in Hawaii. Vineyard Boulevard was named so because it cut through the orchard. For a while he owned half of Moku’umeume, or Ford Island, on which he planted, among other things, prickly pear cactus. While it can be argued that Marin was the first to successfully cultivate many of these plants, did he bring them to Hawaii? Both Nagata and Gast say probably not.
Some of the species, such as potato, pineapple, and oranges were already noted by botanists before Marin’s arrival. Quite a few were brought by James Macrae aboard the H.M.S. Blonde and given as gifts to Kalanimoku, who then gave them to Marin to cultivate. Marin’s letters often included requests for plants and seeds to be sent to him. The Winship brothers, early sandalwood traders, contributed to Marin’s collection, as did Captain Chamberlain. If Marin did bring many of the plants to Hawaii himself, he would have to have made at least a few voyages. Besides one trip to Alaska and California, we have no evidence of Marin’s travels. Nagata documents 44 species associated with Marin, but only lists five as definitely introduced by the Spaniard: olive, prickly pear cactus, tamarind, peach, and grape.
This small number of introductions should not diminish Marin’s role in Hawaii’s agricultural history. He must have had to experiment greatly to discover the right soils and locales for the variety of tropical and temperate crops he grew. One story in particular sheds light on the difficulties Marin must have faced and the difficulty early naturalists encountered with the islands’ unique flora. In 1816, Adelbert von Chamisso arrived on O’ahu aboard a Russian ship. While on a collecting trip behind Honolulu he found in a taro pond a “remarkable specimen [of grass] unknown in botany.” Upon picking some samples he was immediately harassed and scolded by a Hawaiian. Chamisso says, “I related the incident to Mr. Marin and showed him the grass. The [Hawaiian] was his tenant, the grass was rice, which after many earlier trials had at last germinated this year in the Islands.” Chamisso’s story is the first account we have of rice in Hawaii. Was it a Don Francisco de Paula Marin introduction or did he cultivate it from the gift of some seafaring visitor? We’ll probably never know. But it is likely that many of our well known edible species pineapple, guava, coffee, papaya, mango, avocado, and citrus are here today because of the skill and determination of a Spanish deserter named Don Marin.