'Unfamiliar Fishes' details takeover of paradise

Apr 4 2011 - 11:46am


"UNFAMILIAR FISHES." By Sarah Vowell. Riverhead Books. $25.95.

When it comes to history, Sarah Vowell ("The Wordy Shipmates," "Assassination Vacation") does the homework so we don't have to.

"Unfamiliar Fishes," her latest historical travelogue laced with humor and occasional personal digressions, describes "how Americans and their children spent the 78 years between the arrival of Protestant missionaries in 1820 and the American annexation in 1898 Americanizing Hawaii, importing our favorite religion, capitalism, and our second-favorite religion, Christianity. It is also the story of how Hawaiians withstood these changes, and how the Hawaiian ruling class willingly participated in the process."

Vowell introduces readers to such important figures as Kamehameha, who conquered the various islands and united them into the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1810; Opukaha'ia, or Henry Obookiah, the first native Hawaiian Christian, whose early death at a New England seminary in 1818 catalyzed the first American missionary expedition to the islands; and David Malo, the first real writer in the Hawaiian language who "happened to be one of the most knowledgeable keepers of the oral tradition."

Hawaii signifies "vacation" to typical Midwesterners, but don't underestimate the work ethic or intelligence of its natives. Between 1822 and 1863, Hawaii went from "having no written language here on the islands to seventy-five percent of all Hawaiians learning to read and write in their native language," compared, a Hawaiian historian notes, to the 1863 literacy rate in the United States of roughly 40 percent.

Beyond missionaries, the other early white visitors to Hawaii were from whaling ships. Vowell playfully describes the culture clash as "... swarms of haole gate-crashers representing opposing sides of America's schizophrenic divide -- Bible-thumping prudes and sailors on leave. Imagine if the Hawaii Convention Center in Waikiki hosted the Value Voters Summit and the Adult Entertainment Expo simultaneously -- for forty years." After one conflict over prostitutes, a whaler ship fired five cannonballs in the direction of the mission house.

Vowell sets aside humor for most of the final section, a straightforward account of how Queen Liliuokalani, Hawaii's final reigning monarch, was deposed in 1893 by a group, including Americans and Europeans, that sought annexation by the U.S. In that year, President Grover Cleveland refused to submit a treaty of annexation to the Senate, referring to the "lawless occupation of Honolulu under false pretenses by the United States forces." A temporary Republic of Hawaii endured until a new president, William McKinley, took office, recognized the strategic military value of the islands, and signed the annexation bill into law in 1898.

Unfortunately, Vowell's book has no index. The publisher is clearly underestimating the value of "Unfamiliar Fishes" as a durable historical read. Let's hope one is added in the paperback edition.

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