Wednesday, March 30, 2011

"Unfamiliar Fishes" by Sarah Vowell

You may have seen Sarah Vowell on Jon Stewart's "Daily Show."  She's a gamine with a pout who says incredibly funny things with a straight face.  I now know that she is also a splendid writer with the wit of an 18th c. rake.

"Unfamiliar Fishes" is her history of Hawaii from the mid-18th c. to the early 20th c.  If that sounds dry and pedantic, let me assure you it isn't.  Unfamiliar fishes is the term used to describe the white men--and women--who, in their wisdom, decided that Hawaiians needed a good dose of New England Puritanism along with a new alphabet and decent clothes.  The book is a cautionary tale (it turns out) about the consequences of importing an alien culture into a land where the native population is perfectly agreeable about the one they already have. 

Along with trousers for the men and dresses to the ankle for the women, a few dozen missionaries managed to introduce smallpox, measles, democracy, and Christianity to the Hawaiian people, each of which had what can only be called disastrous results.  The native population was diminished by two-thirds, traditional practices were discouraged if not forbidden, and the plentiful resources of the Pacific paradise were exploited for the benefit of the "haoles" (white men) who schemed, cajoled, rationalized, and finally forced themselves into the ascendancy.  The United States as good as plucked Hawaii out of the sea and put it in its own pocket.  Vowell's account of the step-by-step process that led ultimately to statehood for what had been a sovereign nation is cumulatively chilling, and it raises important questions about how the world should be divided up.

The Christian missionaries' view was that whoever developed land, whether in New England or in the Pacific, and imposed Christian values and practices had the right to a land its original owners didn't even realize could belong to them, private property being a European enlightenment notion that was totally unfamiliar.  It is poignant to see how welcoming the Hawaiians were to those early interlopers and how assiduously they tried to accommodate themselves to new ways of thinking.  Muddying the waters were the whalers who hit Hawaii's shores with all the appetites of sailors who had been long at sea.  When ship captains demanded native women to serve their crews as prostitutes, not even motivated missionaries could stop them.  Venereal disease was another "gift" from the white man.

Vowell never makes it explicit, but it would be a dim reader who did not compare the missionaries' zeal to Christianize heathens to contemporary America's passion to spread democracy.  Yes, the Hawaiians had their own wars before the white men came, but the dust had settled, and life was, if not bountiful, pleasant.  Unrestricted sex, even between siblings, eating poi, and surfboarding were all delightful things to do.  Being forced to go to school, where Hawaiian children were beaten and starved, must have  hurt like hell.

The descendants of those early missionary families are today's elite, and the number of pure Hawaiians and part-Hawaiians is pitifully small.  White plantation owners replaced taro with sugar, brought Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Philippino workers to till the fields and made sure to keep each group segregated so they couldn't organize.  Today every race in Hawaii is a minority, and of all the states it is undoubtedly the least racist.  We all know what Hawaii has become.  Is there any other state whose mere mention evokes such sensual pleasure?  Was this the inevitable outcome all along?

A question Vowell does not ask but that is intrinsically part of her book is, were the missionaries right?  Do the world's resources belong to the people who just happen to live on top of them, or do they belong to those would make the most use of them?