Leave it to Sarah Vowell to visit Hawaii and spend her trip indoors, wearing a cardigan and tracking down the historical narratives of early English settlers. A wry history nerd who fixated upon America’s Protestant predecessors in The Wordy Shipmates, Vowell’s new book, Unfamiliar Fishes, sails off the mainland to trace the annexation and conversion of our 50th state.
Unfamiliar Fishes sweeps us through juicy accounts of saltine-cracker-dry Puritans hellbent on “civilizing” Hawaiian natives—and horny New England seamen with other plans for the locals. Also featured: prostitutes, fanatics, and an incestuous queen. Even Vowell’s adorable nephew Owen makes the cut, popping up from time to time in the narrative to do impressions of King Kamehameha and begrudgingly trail after his aunt on yet another hike to an island landmark. Vowell spoke with Mother Jones recently about Hawaiian secessionists, Polynesian greetings, and King Kamehameha III’s big mistake.
Mother Jones: Did you decide to write Unfamiliar Fishes so you could get a tan in Hawaii?
Sarah Vowell: Well, a lot of my time in Hawaii was spent wearing a cardigan sweater and sitting in archives that are climate-controlled, researching old missionary letters and correspondence between the men who got the United States to annex Hawaii. There are probably better plans for knocking around than writing a book about Hawaii in the 19th century.
MJ: So you didn’t see the sun all that much.
SV: I mean, I did a lot of traveling around. I got to do things like try and find a queen’s birth cave and go to the valley on Maui where a particularly brutal battle occurred that is all the more beautiful a place in contrast. There was a lot of mixing it up in the out of doors—just not that much sitting around drinking umbrella drinks.
MJ: You describe the Hawaiian custom of touching noses and “breathing each other in.” You say that you kind of freaked out the first time you had to do that. Did you ever get used to it?
SV: It’s the traditional Polynesian greeting. I mean I love watching them do it, because it’s so beautiful and graceful and just weirdly loving and respectful. And you know, when they say hello, they really say hello. When I moved to the East Coast and people would do that kissing hello thing to people they barely even know—I’m used to it now, but at the time I thought, “gosh, I have to kiss this guy who I’ve only met twice?” I’m reserved generally in any kind of public celebration, I’m a certain kind of New York person. And Hawaiians just have this way of moving and talking, this all-around gracefulness, that I would say is just not true about the average New Yorker. We have other good qualities.
MJ: Well, the weather might have something to do with it.
SV: Yeah, maybe all that hula.
MJ: What drew you to Hawaii instead of Guam or Puerto Rico, which are also islands that the US owns?
SV: Well, for one thing, Hawaii is the only one that is a state. But like Guam and Puerto Rico, it was annexed in the year 1898, a year I’m kind of obsessed with because it’s the year America became a world power, became what it is now.
But there’s something about the peculiarities of the Hawaiian experience and how it ended up being in American possession that appeals to me because of the missionary component. My last book was on the puritans who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and it was essentially missionaries from New England as well as sailors and whalers from New England who started showing up in Hawaii in 1820. They kind of established a bulkhead of American culture there starting in 1820, which is so early. Americans were settling in Hawaii a good couple of decades before the American West was settled by Americans. And all of the communication was basically between the East Coast and Hawaii, so it was almost like this Boston suburb in some ways. I’m kind of interested in that aspect of Protestant Christianity, the Protestants showing up there and trying to remake Hawaii in New England’s image.
But then at the same time the missionaries were showing up, the New England whalers started going to the Pacific and back and forth between the whaling grounds off Peru and Japan. Hawaii is sort of smack dab in the middle of those two lucrative whaling grounds, and so the whalers, they used Hawaii as a stopping place, as a place to restore themselves and pick up supplies and new crew members and to just kind of air out their crews and stuff. So when those New Englanders are coming to Hawaii in the 1820s and ’30s, what they want to do there is pretty much the exact opposite of what their missionary brethren would like them to do, so that contest between Saturday night and Sunday morning is going on too. Which is especially interesting in Maui and Oahu because of the whaling ports of Lahaina and Honolulu.
So you have the missionaries who are having more and more sway over the Hawaiian aristocracy and getting all these very specific laws passed against fornication and adultery, words that don’t exist in the Hawaiian language before the missionaries show up. Then the whalers come, and fornication and adultery are pretty high on their to-do list of what they want to do in their time off, in between hunting whales in the Arctic. At one point, a whaling ship is firing its cannons at the mission house in Lahaina because they’re mad at the missionaries for getting prostitution outlawed, and on Oahu some sailors are attacking the mission house there for the same reason. So America gets brought to Hawaii in a pretty interesting way. The distinction between our finer, upstanding impulses versus the American impulse towards fun, fun, fun.
MJ: You mentioned that one the first missionaries to go to Hawaii, Hiram Bingham, wrote that the weapons of the first Christian soldiers would be “the school, the pulpit, and the press.” Which of those do you think ended up being the most potent in the colonization of Hawaii?
SV: I mean obviously the coming of the Americans cost the Hawaiians their country, their way of life. The natives are just dropping like flies because of all the Western diseases. But it’s kind of like the story in Genesis about the tree of knowledge. The thing the missionaries brought with them is books and knowledge and reading. Basically within a generation, most of the Hawaiians not only learned to read, but the missionaries had to invent a written Hawaiian language, and then they brought the printing presses with them, and they printed thousands, maybe millions, of pages all in Hawaiian for Hawaiians to read. Even though to the Hawaiians the cost of what happened to them was pretty dear, I guess you could say that the upside of what they got out of this is learning, is books.
Like in the Book of Genesis, when Eve bites the apple, the thing she gets in punishment is to be expelled from the garden of Eden, this is the Original Sin. But even as a kid, when I heard that story in Church I always thought, “yeah, but, we got knowledge, we got books.” Sure we got expelled from the Garden, but as someone who prizes books over just about everything, that part of it is kind of intriguing to me.
MJ: More on the private property thing: I thought it was very interesting that 90% of the land was owned by foreigners in 1890, and that actually happened legally under an act that the Hawaiian government established allowing anyone to buy unclaimed land. And so, so much of the subjugation of Hawaiians seemed to be owed to the fact that the Hawaiian culture wasn’t prepared for how capitalism worked.
SV: Well, I don’t know about that. The one thing to keep in mind is that it kind of occurred because essentially one Hawaiian king had the best of all intentions. The Hawaiian king controlled all of the land. And this one king, Kamehameha III, he decided to privatize the land and essentially give up two thirds of the land that he had control of. Sort of as an act of generosity, really. He’s also the one who framed a constitution, and turned the Hawaiian monarchy into a constitutional monarchy, thereby purposefully giving up a lot of his power. While these two things certainly make him seem very forward thinking, the upshot of those two innovations is that foreigners ultimately control all the land, and foreigners have increasing control over the government, especially over the judiciary and in the legislature and so forth. So, the Hawaiians are a generous people, and it’s a lot of times the generosity of their rulers that had such dire consequences in the end.
MJ: The actual annexation of Hawaii you describe as somewhat precarious for a couple of years. What was the event that tipped the scales and led the American government to ignore Hawaii’s queen and annex the country?
SV: There’s some disagreement on that. But I would say, generally it kind of happened in the flurry of events that happened with the Spanish-American War in 1898. Once we get into the war with Spain in 1898, things happen just crazy fast. Normally, for things to be on the up-and-up to annex another country, you need a proper treaty of annexation. And they didn’t have the votes for that, because the Queen and the Hawaiian people had successfully lobbied Congress against that and a proper treaty means 2/3 majority I think in the Congress to pass. So they passed annexation on this simple, joint resolution—which if the state of New Jersey wants Congress to proclaim “Bon Jovi Day” in New Jersey, a joint-resolution is how they would do it. So that’s how Hawaii was annexed, and it all kind of got swept up during the Spanish-American War because Hawaii was thought of as a good naval station in between the American West Coast and the Philippines. Basically, in three or four months, we invade Cuba, we invade the Philippines, we take over Guam and Puerto Rico, and annex Hawaii. It was also when we got the permanent lease on Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, and it was all a part of this idea to specifically build America into this empire of world power, which is pretty much what happened. And Hawaii is still a huge part of America’s presence in the world militarily.
MJ: I want to talk to you a little bit about your experience in Hawaii while writing the book. I’ve heard from friends who’ve lived in Hawaii for a while that they sense that native islanders still feel quite a bit of animosity towards tourists and whites living on the island. To what extent did you experience this or witness this when you were there?
SV: Personally, I only received a great deal of welcoming and warmth and generosity. And I spent a lot of time with some native Hawaiians who protest being part of the United States and literally carry protest signs saying “We are not Americans.” And they have no real warmth for being the 50th state. Even so, all they did was give of their time and it seemed very important to them to share their story with me, and make sure I understood their point of view. Generally, yeah, the word for white people and for tourists and vacationers is haole. And mostly that word is not pejorative, it’s just the word for white people. But there can be animosity depending on the modifier of that noun. I mean clearly if I was talking to a Hawaiian and I expressed some incredibly Eurocentric opinion they would call me on it, but it was always, they’re an incredibly congenial, humorous people. I never had a bad time anywhere, I never felt unwelcome.
MJ: The Hawaiian activists who are holding “We are not Americans” signs: what do you think they want at this point? To secede and become their own country?
SV: Yeah. Yeah, they do. And some of them want their voices to be heard about this, others are actively suing the United States government, I even met some who believe that one day Hawaii will be a sovereign nation again. I mean, I, uh, personally I wouldn’t hold my breath.
MJ: What’s a favorite Hawaiian word or phrase you learned while researching this book and what does it mean?
SV: It’s not that there’s any particular word that I grew fond of, it’s more this: I liked asking Hawaiians what Hawaiian words mean because each Hawaiian word, especially each noun, can mean so many different things. Like one of the words I was trying to understand was the word kupuna. And that word means a lot of different things. It means ancestor or grandparent or elder. If you ask a Hawaiian what a Hawaiian word means, they will get this kind of far-away look in their eyes where they try to call forth all the actual words the word can connote. But also, certain words, like ones that have the word ku, then you think of Ku, the God of War. Every word has this rabbit hole of meaning. And sometimes even if I knew the meaning of the word, I would ask, “What does that word mean?” just because I loved seeing that look in their eyes. Because they would always have to stare out to the horizon for a second, and you knew every word was a story in a way. As a meaning junkie, I loved that about their words. How every word meant so many different things.