April 21, 2011 / 10:26 AM / 6 years ago

Missionaries, monarchs and whales: a Hawaiian tale

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.

"When Hawaiian hospitality has cornered me into one of these awkward nose-touching acquaintance-sniffing situations, I have two moves: head-butt the other person, and then wheeze inward as though I were about to dive into a river to pull a baby out of car that went off a bridge," she writes.

About the missionaries, whom she learned about through three years of research, she said that if one removes the irritating traits of xenophobia, condescension, spiritual imperialism and self righteous disdain, "they have an astonishing aptitude for kinship and public-spirited love."

The book begins with the story of how Hawaiians were doing well enough until the arrival of Cook. The explorers and missionaries were followed by whalers, adventurers and then their progeny. Trade links and a steady expansion of U.S. influence virtually assured Hawaii would be subjugated.

Commercialization of the islands accelerated when the U.S. Civil War necessitated a new source of sugar for the mainland. By 1890 when Hawaiian sugar, first planted in 1835, needed to be stamped as grown in the domestic U.S. or lose its trade competitiveness, there was too much at stake for the sugar planters. There were also the growing global ambitions of U.S. politicians, who saw a permanent presence in Pearl Harbor as the perfect base for a Pacific fleet.

What Vowell views as something akin to legislative sleight of hand tied Hawaii permanently to the U.S. in 1898, expanding both the U.S. global presence and justifying a permanent base at Pearl Harbor as necessary for U.S. defense.

Less than 50 years later the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor pulled the United States into World War Two and at its end the nation cemented its role as a superpower.

"It seems most people on the mainland U.S. just picture a beach and sunshine and nothing further inland or the people now, or who have lived there for centuries," Vowell said.

She hopes people will think a little bit about the history of a Hawaii "swallowed up by the U.S."

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