Unfamiliar Fishes–Sarah Vowell


After a trip to Hawaii this summer and as part of my growing interest in all things eastern, I asked for who knew what books were good on Hawaiian history.  My brother suggested this one by Sarah Vowell, who had earlier written a book on the Puritans.

Her interest in the Puritan mindset continues in Unfamiliar Fishes as she explores the flood of haoles overflowing Hawaii after the landing of Captain Cook.  Vowell uses discrete events, like the death of Henry Obookiah’s parents at the hands of the conquering army of Kamehameha, who “unified” the islands in a tide of death.  Obookiah’s orphan status propels his fate forward, landing him in New England, where he was taken in by the President of Yale (founded because Harvard wasn’t puritanical enough).  His memoirs, assembled after his death, pushed the agenda of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missionaries, which in 1820 sent missionary couples to bring Christianity to heathen Hawaii.  Vowell’s story candidly portrays the ways in which Hawaiian natives, particularly elites, cooperated in their own westernization as traditional culture was subverted for profit and prestige.  Her missionaries clash with New England whalers and diverse sailors who come to port after months at sea looking for fun.  All of these visitors bring death to the Hawaiians, whose population falls from 300,000 to less then 35,000 from the arrival of Cook to the annextation of Hawaii.

Vowell traces the change of western business from God to sugar and the declining fortunes of the descendents of Kamehameha, one of whom dies of measles on a trip to England to secure protection from American interests and another of whom dies in California after being ousted by sugar plantation-owning descendents of the original missionaries backed by outrage over greed and rapacious governing.  Her discussion of King Kauikeaoluli’s creation of a constitutional monarchy and the Great Mahele, alienating of crown lands, reminded me of the story of Joseph II of Austria, whose Enlightened good intentions for his people led to misery for them and him.  Kauikeaoluli’s constitutional monarch required an infrastructure that invited non-natives to dominate his government and the sudden privatization of land in a culture that had not practiced such a concept led to the gobbling up of land by haoles and the separation of natives from their own lands.  Even here Vowell does not blame a straw haole, but acknowledges that 19th-century capitalists acted as 19th-century capitalists and bought land that came up for sale and exploited it for profit. 

Vowell also does not shrink from the present anger of many Hawaiians at the events that led to their annexation.  Despite the complicity of Hawaiian elites in the destruction of their own culture and infrastructure, Vowell’s explanation of the American government’s shoddy pretense of a joint resolution to annex the islands when Congress would not vote through the treaty of annexation makes it difficult not to empathize in their anger and feel, once again, shame at the imperialist self-righteousness of my (figurative) ancestors.

My only complaint with the book, besides my wish that a trained historian had written it, is Vowell’s frequent references to Obama’s Hawaiian birth and his election as president–like, I wonder what King so and so would think of this fact or Queen somebody or other.  Read your own narrative.  Some would be pleased.  Others would roll in their graves.  He is not native Hawaiian, not part of the royal bloodline.  The logical conclusion on this issue based on Vowell’s telling of events is that Obama’s election as president is the capstone in the imperialist project that was begun with the commissioning of missionaries in the early 19th century. Even the first Hawaiian president is not Hawaiian. 

Finished 12/30/13  


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