Revisionist, evenhanded look at Hawaiian dynastic tenacity against ceaseless challenges by larger imperialist powers.
The United States’ annexation of Hawaii in 1898 was not quite a clear-cut, naked act of economic and military rapacity; it required decades of collusion in the Americanization of this highly strategic Pacific archipelago. Novelist and historian Haley (The Texas Supreme Court: A Narrative History, 1836-1986, 2013, etc.) presents a nuanced history that first takes into account the complex and oppressive relationship between the chiefs and the kanaka, the people of the land, in an enormously stratified society that was controlled by a system of kapu (“set apart, holy, forbidden”). Arriving in 1778, Capt. James Cook, declaring the islands the Sandwich Islands, recognized the culture as Polynesian, and while their iron and white skins rendered the English sailors godlike in the eyes of the natives, familiarity bred contempt (the native women avidly mated with these otherworldy men yet the venereal diseases’ spread might have originated from previous contact with Japanese sailors and others), and in a melee, Cook was overwhelmed and stabbed to death. With the help of American weapons, King Kamehameha became undisputed chief of the islands, creating central authority and wealth. However, the allure of the islands attracted Russian, British, French and American vessels as a Pacific crossroads in which exotic fruits like pineapple from the Philippines were introduced, as well as the inevitable “resource extraction” begun in the form of the harvesting of sandalwood trees by American entrepreneurs. The efforts by Christian missionaries and American advisers, the destruction of the kapu system by Queen Ka’ahumanu and the addiction to luxury items (sugar) by the chiefly class all helped undermine the native culture. Haley underscores how remarkable it was that the islands were able to withstand coercion by French, British and American forces for as long as they did.
A pertinent work of keen understanding of the complex Hawaiian story.