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