Tag Archives: Makana Chai

Book Review of Pacific Gibraltar by Makana Chai

Pacific Gibraltar: U.S.-Japanese Rivalry over the Annexation of Hawai’i, 1885-1898 (2011) by William Morgan is a book that has mostly flown under the radar in Hawai‘i, or has received negative reviews such as that in the 2012 Hawaiian Journal of History. Although there are problems with the book, beginning with the title, sub-title, and cover, the strength of this book is as a compendium of primary source documents particularly on the movements of the USS Boston and its troops, the correspondence of U. S. minister John Stevens, the Blount and Morgan reports, and the Congressional debates about annexation. Written by a professor at the U. S. Marine War College, this book changed my understanding of history.

The author does criticize Lili‘uokalani for not having a standing army given the clear threat posed by the anti-royalists. However, he also concludes that Stevens violated even the loose diplomatic standards of the times in involving himself in the overthrow. For me, the most touching episode was his recounting of the shooting of Leialoha, a Hawaiian police officer, by haole revolutionaries. Somehow this incident never made much of an impression on me before, but as Morgan tells it, it seems to be a pivotal moment where neighbor shoots neighbor and the question of bloodshed is no longer an academic one. Another interesting aspect of the book, though one sure to be controversial, is his dismissal of the ku‘e petitions as irrelevant to the discussions in Washington. Whether or not I agreed with his conclusions, his extensive quotations of the source documents provided valuable information for me to make my own decisions. I highly recommend it.

Makana Risser Chai

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Review of Patrick Kirch’s A Shark Going Inland is My Chief – Makana Risser Chai

Whether you have read all the books on Hawaiian history, or are new to the subject, A Shark Going Inland is My Chief by Patrick Kirch is essential reading. Someone who has never read the old books can start with this one and get a fantastic introduction to Hawaiian society from its roots in Asia and the Lapita culture up to European contact with Captain Cook. I am not aware of any other book for the general public that goes so deeply into the pre-historic record.

For those who have read on the subject through the years, you may be as astonished as I was by how much of the old information is now proving to be wrong through the latest scientific methods. In this highly readable book designed for the general public, the author, a kama’aina who is a highly respected professor at the University of California at Berkeley, brings in new insights from archaeology as well as the study of pollen and snails in order to date when Polynesians first landed in Hawai’i. Unlike earlier estimates of 100, 300 or 600AD, he presents persuasive evidence that the islands were settled after 900! Other authors had placed Pa’ao, the immigrant priest who introduced human sacrifice, in the 11th to 13th centuries, but Kirch says it was the end of the 14th.

In addition to changing what we thought we knew, this book adds new levels of complexity to our understanding. One fascinating aspect of the book is its emphasis on O’ahu as likely one of the earliest settled islands, and perhaps the most technologically advanced. It was Ma’ilikukahi of O’ahu who Kirch credits with developing the system of ahupua’a and konohiki. As he writes, “the fifteenth century would become O’ahu’s golden age, a time of peace and great prosperity, when chiefs from all the other islands would visit and return to their own lands filled with desire to emulate what O’ahu’s rulers had accomplished.” O’ahu and Kaua’i also differed from Maui and Hawai’i in that the former worshipped Kane while the latter focused on Lono and Ku. From this, we can see how some of the classic authors of mo’olelo such as Kamakau and Malo may have focused on big island practices that might not be applicable to other islands.

The book also has some very interesting ideas about the orientation of heiau and how that may relate to the god for which each heiau was built. In email correspondence with Professor Kirch, he informs me that his next book will explore that issue in depth, but in the mean time, it is worth reading what he has written here.

This book is a spectacular contribution to the field and sorely needed. And it has inspired me to read some of the author’s other books, starting with How Chiefs Became Kings. That book is written for a technical audience and contains much of the same material, but it does fill in some additional information.

What kept me racing through Shark was the great hope that it would answer the burning question in my mind, which is about Pa’ao and the introduction of human sacrifice. Pa’ao is largely ignored in this book, and so it was that I resorted to How Chiefs Became Kings. What we learn is that he probably came from Tahiti (Porapora, anciently known as Vavau) and that he did introduce human sacrifice. We also learn that human sacrifice was not practiced in Tahiti or anywhere else in Polynesia (though it is in the mythology of the Maori). So how and why did this blood-thirsty immigrant convince the ruling chiefs of Hawai’i island to adopt the practice? When I asked Professor Kirch he replied that no one knows. He does point out in the book that many archaic states, such as the Maya and the Egyptians, practiced human sacrifice, so that it is not uncommon. This is one mystery that may never be solved.

Patrick Vinton Kirch

Professor Kirch will be in Honolulu talking about his book at the Hawai’i Book and Music Festival, which runs May 18 and 19, 2013 (not sure which day he is speaking). Also, he notes that a large number of his publications are available for download on his profile at Academia.edu. It’s very easy to register to join Academia.edu, and it is free. Once you have a logon you can look up any scholar who is on the site and get access to publications, etc. He also posts a blog from time to time there about issues in Polynesian and Hawaiian archaeology and history.


Makana Risser Chai


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Book Review by Makana Risser Chai of Lost Kingdom: Hawaii’s Last Queen, the Sugar Kings and America’s First Imperial Adventure

As the author of a book on the history of Hawaiian traditions published by the Bishop Museum, I appreciate a mainland journalist and publisher taking interest in our history. Perhaps their hearts were in the right place, but this book fails on many levels. It contains numerous errors, both major and “minor.” Human sacrifices were not made to the goddess Pele (p. xix), and ancient Hawaiians did not have a tradition of bodies lying in state for weeks (21). In recounting the riots after Kalakaua got elected, the author says that the people in the streets rioted against the Legislature which had elected him in “effectively a race riot,” implying that the legislators were all haole, but she never talks about the racial makeup of the Legislature. In fact, almost 3/4 of the legislators were Hawaiian. Yes, Kalakaua was preferred by Americans but also by Hawaiians in the Leg. If anything it was more of a class riot than a race one.

More important, this book fails the most critical duty of a history book, which is to place events in context. It fails to do this in two, opposite, ways. First, because the book jumps into the middle of history, it does not explain Hawaiian tradition before white contact. In perhaps an effort to bring that tradition into the narrative, the author makes it sound like the modern Hawaiian kings and queens descended from barbarians and continued to be “uncivilized.” One paragraph (31) begins by describing the wood-framed home of King Kamehameha IV and his wife, Emma, and ends noting that they wore the latest fashions from London. But squeezed between those thoughts the author notes, “In earlier decades, the royal family’s informal manner of dress and deportment–often barefoot, with the king wearing a traditional malo, or loincloth, and the queen wearing only a tapa, a bark cloth skirt–startled some Western visitors.” The way this sentence is placed seems to imply that Kamehameha IV and Emma were wearing malo and tapa. There is no evidence they ever had worn traditional garb, and in fact, it had been over 60 years since any king had worn a malo, at least in front of Western visitors.

There are other examples of referring back to Hawaiian’s distant past that constantly reinforce the fiction that these people were primitive. In commenting on an oft-quoted newspaper report that Lili`u danced the waltz as if she was in love with her every partner, the author speculates, “Perhaps she had simply harnessed the sensuality that hula dancers knew.” Did hula dancers know sensuality? That is not in the book, but seems rather to be a Western fantasy. Even if it is true, had Lili’u ever seen a sensual hula performed? Everything in the book up to this point is about her upright Christian upbringing.

On the opposite end, context is almost completely ignored when talking about the role of the United States in the overthrow. Alexander Mahan and Theodore Roosevelt, whose imperial visions drove American interest in Hawai`i, are mentioned on two pages, rather than being made the central figures they were. The Spanish-American War is similarly virtually ignored. Never mentioned is the fact that within a 6 month period, the U.S. had invaded Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam, and annexed Hawai`i.

The author gives two sentences to the petitions against annexation sent by tens of thousands of Hawaiians. She makes no mention that as a result of this and other opposition, the treaty of annexation was defeated on February 27, 1898, when only 46 senators voted in favor. She states (284), “a joint resolution on annexation passed Congress with a simple majority,” without noting that annexation, under the U. S. Constitution, cannot take place by resolution. It was a procedural move by Republicans who could not get the two-thirds majority they needed for a treaty.

The worst failing of this book is that it makes the fascinating history of Hawai`i a dry, boring read. If you want to read an accurate, entertaining introduction to this particular part of Hawaiian history, I highly recommend Sarah Vowell’s Unfamiliar Fishes. If you want to go deeper, Tom Coffman’s book Nation Within: The History of the American Occupation of Hawaii is excellent, as well as Noenoe Silva’s Aloha Betrayed: Native Hawaiian Resistance to American Colonialism (a John Hope Franklin Center Book). There is not, to date, a really good book on the overall history of Hawai`i. Another reviewer recommended Michener’s Hawaii as a better history. Newsflash: it’s a novel.

Makana Risser Chai

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