Missionaries, monarchs and whales: a Hawaiian tale

Thu Apr 21, 2011 6:24am EDT
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By Nick Olivari

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - Tropical sun over a cast of puritan missionaries, incestuous monarchs, licentious whalers and greedy sugar barons could make for a compelling soap opera.

But for Hawaii the story ends badly, at least according to Sarah Vowell's book "Unfamiliar Fishes," which explores the year 1898 through the annexation of Hawaii and the political machinations in the decades preceding.

Vowell, 41, is passionate and to the point about what at least the local population of Hawaii probably sees as a dark point in its history. But she also places the year in wider context.

For her it was the moment the U.S. "lost its way", beginning its rise to global superpower.

After years of wrangling by various factions in the islands and the mainland, the United States, on the heels of its victory in the Spanish-American War and the resultant control of a vast swathe of the Pacific, tacked Hawaii on to its list of possessions.

"There was no turning back from empire but empire really goes against what the country stands for," Vowell said in a telephone interview. "I'm not saying the U.S. has not done some good but saying it was a change in direction."

Vowell informs readers that in 1778 when British sailor Captain James Cook was the first European to land, the Hawaiian population was estimated at 300,000. By the 1890 census, pure Hawaiians were recorded at just 34,346, due to illnesses such as small pox, cholera, influenza, typhoid, measles and venereal disease.

She said researching Hawaiian culture has made her more aware of her own biases and prejudices.   Continued...