Category Archives: History Books

Unfamiliar Fishes, by Sarah Vowell: Hawaiian history, American imperialism

I have been to Hawaii before, and I hope to go again, not too long from now. There’s a lot of reasons. I mean, it’s beautiful, for one thing. It’s the picture of an island paradise. Its picture should be next to “island paradise” in the dictionary. It’s kind of ridiculous—palm trees, waterfalls, warm water, white beaches, green mountains, gentle breezes, the whole nine yards. The other thing is, plate lunches. I coincidentally had one the other day, at the L&L on Homestead and Lawrence Expressway in Santa Clara, in the strip mall across from the Kaiser, made up of BBQ chicken, rice, and macaroni salad. It was perfection.

The last thing about Hawaii is more complicated.

hawaii, landl, plate lunch, bbq chicken

Nothing complicated about this, though. It’s delicious.

Sarah Vowell starts off her popular history, Unfamiliar Fishes, with plate lunches, which was part of what drew me into the book. “Why is there a glop of macaroni salad next to the Japanese chicken in my plate lunch?” she asks in the first sentence. Ah yes—immediately inviting her readers to grasp the deeper implications of cultural mixing (and behind that, imperialism, colonization and globalization) found in the entirely quotidian experience of local fast food. I liked this book right away.

unfamiliar fishes, hawaii, history, missionaries

I also like Sarah Vowell. I knew she wrote popular histories, including The Wordy Shipmates (about Puritans) and Assassination Vacation (about U.S. presidents who got assassinated). I knew that she was the voice of Violet in Pixar’s The Incredibles (I truly believe Pixar is pure goodness, sent from heaven in the shape of children’s films). I have seen her do segments on “The Daily Show.” So, all in all she seems pretty freaking awesome. Her writing is, not surprisingly, a mix of serious scholarship and Daily Show-esque humor, reminiscent of America: The Book. (My favorite of her many historical zings: calling Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” a “slasher sermon.”)

actress, voice actress, Violet, historian, comedienne

During my childhood my parents and I used to take tropical vacations in Mexico, but would often entertain the notion of going to Hawaii instead (and yes, I know what ridiculous privilege I grew up with). I was against it, because my mental picture of Hawaii was like this resort outpost of America, paved over in concrete and built up with hotels and filled with daily luaus aimed at fat Ohioans in aloha shirts. I thought, Hawaii isn’t a real cultural destination, the way Mexico is. This was my view until in high school I finally went to Hawaii. I was wrong about the culture. I was right about the fat Ohioans in aloha shirts.

luau, maui, hotels, americans, tourists

My first and only luau. I mostly remember a pig and a white Las Vegasy MC who sang “Tiny Bubbles.”

I finally realized Hawaii did have a culture, a history, that lived outside of America and Sheratons, in 2003 when we visited the Big Island. I was 17 and two things stick out in my memory. First, visiting the bay where part of Waterworld was supposedly filmed (of all the things to make a place a destination, right?), just north of Kona. A local – Hawaiian – family was having a barbecue nearby. Two little kids, playing roughly, were laughingly reprimanded by one of the men: “You kids want to be like the white man? Killing everything you see?”

Two, sitting in a parking lot in a Hilo shopping center, on the other side of the island. A few locals – white – male – were having a chat, having run into each other on the way to the store. They were discussing local elections. They referred to “the Japanese” (meaning, Japanese Hawaiians) in some way that surprised me—something like, “the Japanese voted for him” or “the Japanese got a lot of seats this year.” “The Japanese” as a group, “the Japanese” as other. (I immediately disliked them.)

Hawaii, Maui, Iao Valley, kamehameha

Iao Valley, 2002. Please ignore… everything I am doing in this picture, and focus on the grandeur of the rock needle behind me instead.

These are insignificant events on their own, and the place from which they come seems obvious now, but they were my first indication that there was anything underneath the surface of Hawaii’s glossy exterior, or its unquestioned inclusion in the U.S. 50. I think this occurs to very few tourists. Instead hordes of sunburned mainlanders experience the islands as an American resort (now Disney has one too) and the extent of their cultural appreciation is a luau outside the hotel lobby. And their kids, Hunter and Tanner, will experience it the same way. (Big Island, 2007, some young middle American boys playing football with their burly blond dad in our hotel pool—I mostly remember because of their next-generation names and the forlorn little brunet boy nearby, whose father couldn’t elicit a similarly healthy enthusiasm for sports from his son.)

Despite my experience with Hawaii, and my epiphany that “Hawaii has history too!”, and my intense interest in imperialism (only recently, however, of the American variety), it actually took Sarah Vowell’s book to get me extremely enthused about Hawaiian history.

Kamehameha, Big Island, Hawaii, statue, history

Photo courtesy my dad. Kamehameha and an (I think) unintentionally ominous fragment of U.S. flag.

The gist of Unfamiliar Fishes is this. Hawaii’s main islands were ruled as separate kingdoms up until the early 19th century, when King Kamehameha I “united” the islands through a series of bloody wars. (Vowell brings up the theory that it was Captain Cook’s arrival to the “Sandwich Isles” in the late 18th century that disrupted the previous way of life. Indeed, though I’m skeptical of such simplistically divergent narratives, when the Americans arrived half a century later, certain court Hawaiians wore Western clothes.) Some crazy New England Protestant missionaries were sent to the islands in the 1820s, where they, as per usual, tried to Christianize and civilize the Hawaiians. Schools were built, old laws were discarded, God was adopted. (And, though Vowell doesn’t spend a lot of time talking about this, diseases decimated, particularly after Manifest Destiny and the Gold Rush made sea passage from the mainland quicker and more efficiently pathogen-transporting.) Though the monarchy survived until the 1890s, the missionaries and their descendants increasingly got wrapped up in local government, and during the Civil War non-Hawaiian sugar planters bought up large tracts of land, as per usual 100% legally (as if that means anything). With the growth of the plantation economy, foreign laborers flooded in, including Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Portuguese, and later Filipino (partly accounting for Hawaii’s current demography). In 1893 there was a coup against Hawaii’s last monarch, Queen Liliuokalani, led by white missionary descendants. Some ass named Sanford Dole ruled the Republic of Hawaii for those last few years before it was annexed to the U.S. in the orgy of worldwide imperialism and violence that was 1898.

Vowell makes frequent reference throughout the book to all of the places where you can still tangibly see this history. Kamehameha’s statue, the old schoolhouse that privileged missionary kids attended (still a high school—Obama went there), an old Hawaiian religious site abandoned after the abandonment of kapu, the Iao Valley where one of the bloodiest inter-island battles was fought. There’s so much to see! Besides Pearl Harbor! It makes me really want to go back armed with what slightly greater degree of historical understanding I now have.

(A super-brief anecdote to illustrate Hawaii’s American retreat island status—Disneyland for adults—in 2002 when I went to a luau at a hotel on Kaanapali Beach on Maui, my parents and I ended up sitting at the same table as my middle school band teacher, Mr. Guzman, and his wife. Side note: His wife was super loud.)

USA, Missouri, battleship, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii

For the record, THIS is what greets you at the USS Missouri, at Pearl Harbor. A flagtacular flagasm.

My most recent research paper focused on the American liberal project in the League of Nations mandates of the Middle East, specifically the American University of Beirut in Lebanon, which has its roots in the missionary project (founded as the Syrian Protestant College in 1866 by American missionary Daniel Bliss). To the extent that I’m fascinated by the British and French imperial projects, the American is like a whole ‘nother animal—empire for the new century (millennium), coded empire, empire as liberation. I’m super fascinated by the goings on of the Spanish-American War, shit McKinley and TR and Taft said (and did), the annexations of Hawaii and the Philippines. WTF America! (A research inquiry.)*

Anyway. End of the day, Vowell’s book is a super quick and digestible and entertaining (though also upsetting) account of Hawaii in the nineteenth century, as it went from self-ruling set of kingdoms to American territory. It’s part of a much larger story, but I think it’s a very worthwhile read for – well, anyone. You might not even think you’re interested in Hawaii, but you will be. Try and see. And maybe you, too, will be inspired to write a too-long blog post about it and all its attendant themes and your tangential personal experiences. From this side I can say, it was worth it.**

“When Yale’s Timothy Dwight delivered the founding sermon at Asa Thurston and Hiram Bingham’s alma mater, Andover Theological Seminary… Dwight preached that, ‘Come over to Macedonia, and help us,’ is audibly resounded from the four ends of the earth… The nations of the East, and the islands of the sea, already wait for his law.’

“Acts 16:9 is the meddler’s motto, simultaneously selfless and self-serving, generous but stuck-up. Into every generation of Americans is born a new crop of buttinskys sniffing out the latest Macedonia that may or may not want their help.

“For the Thurstons and their brethren, it was Hawaii.” (82)

Unfamiliar Fishes in bookshelf. Book powers unleashed, activated. Put in inventory.

*WTF America?: Empire and Expansion in America’s Long Twentieth Century. Best dissertation title ever.

**Next related to-read: Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen, by Liliuokalani (1898). Would especially love to read about her trip to England (including a train ride across America) to attend Queen Victoria’s jubilee. Also, where she got the ideas for her songs.