Monday, 24 October 2016

A History of the World in 50 Novels. 44 - "Hawaii," by James A. Michener

The volcanic islands of the Hawaiian Archipelago are spread out over 1500 miles of the Pacific. They are among the most remote land masses on Earth, and among the most recently settled by humans. The first Polynesian settlers seem to have arrived in around 124 AD, but most indigenous Hawaiians are descended from a later wave of voyagers who set sail from Tahiti in around 1200, bringing with them pigs, chickens and dogs; taro, breadfruit, bananas, coconuts and sugar-cane.

Hawaii from Space. Photo: NASA (image is in the Public Domain). 
A Polynesian double-hulled "vaka," of the sort used in the initial colonisation of Hawaii. Photo: Teinessavaii (licensed under CCA).

Captain James Cook visited the islands in 1778, and went on to lose his life there the following year, in the course of a dispute with the native people. From Cook's crew, and from subsequent interactions with Europeans, the Hawaiians acquired firearms, which were used by King Kamehameha I (1736-1819) in the forcible unification of the disparate island communities under his sovereignty.

The Hawaiian ritual site of Kailua-Kona in 1819, by Jacques Arago (image is in the Public Domain).

Unlike many other territories in the Pacific, Hawaii was not forcibly settled by an imperial power. Protestant missionaries came peaceably from the United States from the 1820s, and, in their wake, came commercial settlers. The American, William Hooper, in 1835, leased 980 acres of land from King Kamehameha III, and developed the islands' first commercial sugar plantation. Others followed, to establish pineapple plantations. Within a few decades, much of Hawaii's land was in the control of a handful of intermarried Haole (white) families, all of them descended either from missionaries or from businessmen from the United States.

A pineapple field near Honolulu in 1907. Photo: California Historical Society (image is in the Public Domain).
Pineapple canning in Hawaii, 1928. Photo: US National Archives & Records Administration, NWDNS-86-G-5F (8) - image is in the Public Domain.

The indigenous population, meanwhile, had been devastated by diseases, including smallpox, measles and chickenpox, brought to the islands by the American settlers, whose plantations became increasingly dependent on immigrant labour. Between 1852 and 1920, 50,000 Chinese, and 200,000 Japanese, men, women and children made their way to Hawaii, the Chinese bringing with them yet another deadly disease, leprosy.

A Chinese family in Honolulu in 1893. Photo: Hawaii State Archives (image is in the Public Domain).
"Plantation," by Joseph Dwight Strong, 1885, showing Japanese labourers in a sugar plantation (image is in the Public Domain) 

By 1893, the indigenous population had become so weakened, and the five largest American companies on the islands so powerful that, with limited assistance from the United States Navy, the commercial interest was able to stage a coup d'etat, deposing the last native Queen, Lili'uokalani. The "Republic of Hawaii" that replaced her monarchy was entirely dominated by white American oligarchs.

Queen Lili'uokalani in 1898 (image is in the Public Domain).
The Provisional Government of Hawaii in 1893. Photo: Hawaii State Archives PP-28-7-012 (image is in the Public Domain).

In 1898, US President William McKinley annexed Hawaii as an overseas territory, appointing one of the oligarchs, Sanford B. Dole, as its first (Republican) governor. During the decades that followed, indigenous, Chinese and Japanese Hawaiians struggled to achieve equality, both politically and in the workplace, with their white neighbours. In 1954, following a wave of strikes and civil disobedience, the stranglehold of the oligarchy was finally broken, the Democrats beating the Republicans in territorial elections. In 1959, Hawaii became the 50th State of the Union, and, in 1993, President Bill Clinton formally apologised for the coup of 1893.

James A. Michener's novel, Hawaii covers the whole period of the islands' human history, from initial settlement down to the time of the book's publication in 1959. Its six inter-related story-lines deal with the environment; and with the lives of several generations of an indigenous family; an American missionary/commercial family; a Chinese family; and a Japanese family; before bringing these stories together in an exploration of post-Second World War Hawaii.

"In 1946, when Nyuk Tsin was ninety-nine years old, a group of sociologists in Hawaii were perfecting a concept hose vague outlines had occupied them for some years, and quietly among themselves they suggested that in Hawaii a new type of man was being developed. He was a man influenced by both the west and the east, a man at home in either the business councils of New York or the philosophical retreats of Kyoto, a man wholly modern and American yet in tune with the ancient and the Oriental. The name they invented for him was the Golden Man."

"In 1946, when the war had ended and Hawaii was about to explode belatedly into the twentieth century, Hoxworth Hale was forty-eight years old; and one morning, when the trade winds had died away and the weather was unbearably sticky, he happened to look into his mirror while shaving, and the thought came to him: 'This year I am as good a man as I shall ever be in this life ... ' as the hot, muggy day closed in on him he was forced to inspect the two areas in which he was no longer so good a man as he once had been. First, there was the gnawing, never-ending pain that started when his son Bromley was shot down during the great fire of Tokyo in 1945, when the air corps practically destroyed the city ... he picked up the thoughts that is son had laid down: 'We live in a web. Sugar cane, Hawaiian ghosts, pineapple, ships, streetcar lines, Japanese labour leaders, Aunt Lucinda's memories.' The web became most tenuous, and at the same time most cruelly oppressive, when it involved the upstairs rooms where several of the great families kept the delicate women whose minds had begun to wander past even the accepted norm, and in one such room Hoxworth's own wife passed her days."

"Hong Kong thought of himself as pure Chinese, for his branch of the family had married only Hakka girls, and whereas there were a good many Kees with Hawaiian and Portuguese and Filipino blood, he had none, a fact of which he was quietly proud. Of course, from past adventures of the Kee hui Hong Kong's ancestors had picked up a good deal of Mongolian blood, and Manchurian, and Tartar, plus a little Japanese during the wars of the early 1600s, plus some Korean via an ancestor who had traveled in that peninsula in 814, augmented by a good deal of nondescript inheritance from tribes who had wandered about southern China from the year 4000 BC on, but nevertheless he thought of himself as pure Chinese, whatever that means."    

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon. He is currently working on The Cheapside Tales, a London-based trilogy of historical novels.

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