Whose Place of Refuge?

Hale o Keawe, a Hawaiian sacred structure at Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Park, aka Place of Refuge. Photo by KK.

Mark Twain did come to Hawaii. It was 1866, at the very beginning of his journalism and humorist career. He hadn’t written novels yet–no Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer, or Pudd’nhead Wilson. He had just published a novelty story about a jumping frog, when the Sacramento Union decided to give him a go, and sent him off as a correspondent to the Sandwich Islands.

Twain followed in the path of other tourists, missionaries, and entrepreneurs. He followed the British, after Captain Cook, after those intrepid Polynesians who had sailed up from Tahiti and Samoa. There were also French, Spanish, Japanese, and eventually the Americans, with their navy, who decided to anchor more firmly than Cook proved able. After that came a never-ending stream of more tourists, including yours truly.

Like any jewel, the history of Hawaii includes a stream of struggles from those people, over discovery and ownership.

Twain in the 1860s, photo from Library of Congress.

Roughing It in Hawaii

Twain’s Letters from Hawaii cover the long voyage across the Pacific; he curses Magellan for naming the uncooperative waters “peaceful.” Twain writes of being seasick much of the time, despite knowing his way around boats, as he would later describe steering steamboats in Life on the Mississippi. Upon arrival in Honolulu, Twain is smitten by “luxurious banks and thickets of flowers, fresh as a meadow after a rain, and glowing with the richest dyes.”

He is impressed by the presence of the Hawaiian royalty, the kings and queens who governed Hawaii at the time. But the locals are characterized as lazy and flea-ridden, though Twain says virtually the same about his “traveling companion,” the irascible Mr. Brown, a likely mythical figure who complaints constantly of the heat and insects. Upon viewing the plantations for pineapple and coffee, Twain urges the Americans to hurry up and come on over before the Brits and French take everything. American farmers would eventually take him up on the idea.

Of Maui, Twain says he went for a week, stayed for five, and never had a more pleasant time. He writes no more–almost as if he does not want to advertise. The secret gets out anyway.

Twain writes in surprisingly positive terms about the missionaries, suggesting that they fed and clothed the poor and helped them throw off the autocracy of their royal leaders “…given them freedom and the right to enjoy whatever their hands and brains produce with equal laws for all…” In this, he seems to confuse the autocracy of the church with democracy, the forced indoctrination of children into Christianity with “a good education.” While Twain was well known as a satirist, and his descriptions are sometimes tongue-in-cheek, he doesn’t seem to speak with irony when he writes:

…the benefit conferred upon this people by the missionaries is so prominent, so palpable and so unquestionable, that the frankest compliment I can pay them, and the best, is simply to point to the condition of the Sandwich Islanders of Captain Cook’s time, and their condition today….

Twain in Letters from Hawaii

Let’s talk a little more of those conditions, starting with Captain Cook.

The End of Cook’s Voyages

When Cook first “discovered” the shores of Kauai in 1778, he named the island after the British lord of the Admiralty, the Earl of Sandwich. It was Cook’s third voyage, and he had already made landfall on dozens of islands from New Zealand to Fiji. From Hawaii, he sailed up the northwest coast of the U.S., around the Bering Straits then returned to the warmth of the tropics, back to the Big Island, setting anchor in Kelekekua Bay. Here, as Twain and others wrote, Cook was “murdered.”

Cook and his men came during a festival time. They were treated well by the locals, although it’s subject to great debate (more on that shortly) whether this was because the natives believed Cook to be one of their gods or because the natives were hospitable. Traders often bring useful things, and one can welcome a guest, provided the guest acts equally cordial.

Some of the masts on Cook’s ship were damaged. Cook ordered his men to take wood for repairs, possibly from sacred ground. The natives, in turn, took one of Cook’s boats and acted “insolent,” even when some of Cook’s party waived rifles at them. Cook then attempted to kidnap the king, Kalaniʻōpuʻu, to press for return of his boat.

Death of Captain Cook painted by John Webber

A large crowd formed and the king determined that he was perhaps not being led to the ship to enact cordial trade. Cook was attacked while attempting to get his party into the cutter. His men had rifles and fired on the crowd, but they were heavily outnumbered and reloading musket-style rifles of 1779 was a slow process. Cook and several others were killed.

Afterward though, Cook’s body was pulled out of the surf and prepared for ritual burial by the natives because whether they thought he was a good or just a revered guest, they did wish to treat him with respect. Some writers later suggested the natives ate the British leader, but, in fact, his bones were considered sacred and the flesh removed in order that the bones be better preserved. Those bones were later returned to the rest of the crew and buried at sea. A plaque was left in Kelekekua Bay to mark the spot (and damaged and restored and replanted, as often happens with plaques).

Captain Cook plaque in Kelekekua Bay, photo from BigIslandNow.

Whose Murder? Whose Insolence?

So many of the words and phrases of the islands make assumptions. “Murder” suggests the act was wrong, punishable by statute, and self-defense must be added as a counter-argument. Being killed while trying to kidnap the local authority would not be considered murder. And who exactly was being “insolent” in this situation?

Might this be the time to point out that when Cook landed on the Hawaiian shores, there were somewhere between 600,000-1,000,000 islanders? That by 1920, that number had dwindled to 24,000 due to repeated outbreaks of viral diseases brought by Europeans: mumps, measles, syphilis, tuberculosis, and leprosy. As Westerners “discovered” leprosy, they exiled the diseased to a separate island. The vast majority were natives, and many at the time weren’t diseased. At the same time, the Americans and others continued to move in, eventually overwhelming the native population and eyeing the native resources that Mark Twain had extolled.

An intense scholarly debate was also launched in the 1980s between Marshall Sahlins and Gananath Obeyesekere, professors at the University of Chicago and at Princeton, over whether the natives thought Cook was a god. Sahlins argued with a great deal of research to back him up that the Hawaiians though Cook a god and killed him only when his behavior suggested he was not. This was what Twain himself had written. Obeyesekere countered that the Hawaiians were simply acting pragmatically and out of self-preservation, that it was a colonial viewpoint to believe that deification was part of the interaction.

Sahlins, an expert on Pacific island archaeology, was incensed to be challenged and wrote a scathing rebuttal in How Natives Think: About Captain Cook, For Example. Sahlins accused Obeyesekere of sloppy argument and claimed that he lacked contextual knowledge of the Hawaiians. Obeyesekere responded in Cannibal Talk: The Man Eating Myth and Human Sacrifice in the South Seas that white scholars have frequently overstated or misinterpreted cultural practices. At heart their debate covered a fundamental question: do all cultures share rational and practical points of view or might different cultures have different thinking systems?

But, at heart, their debate also highlighted another fact, which was that neither was Hawaiian. Who indeed ought to speak on behalf of Hawaii? It’s a point still debated.

How Hawaii Became a State (Colonized)

Queen Liliuokalani, photo from wikipedia

The travel blog Skyline Hawaii describes Hawaiian admittance as a U.S. state thusly:

The Republic of Hawaii was established on July 4th, 1894. Sanford Dole became the first president of the Republic. There was a brief effort in 1895 to restore the monarchy and Queen Lili’oukalani to the throne, but this effort was quickly ended. In 1898, a wave of nationalism was caused by the Spanish-American War. Because of these nationalistic views, President William McKinley annexed Hawaii from the United States.

“How Hawaii Became a State” from SkylineHawaii.com

Like the story of Captain Cook, there’s a lot to unpack in that paragraph. Thirty years earlier, Twain had written about the numerous groups of colonizers–the businessmen, the missionaries, and the explorers. In the mid 1860s, native Hawaiians ruled and were treated with respect, at the time having more machetes than the colonizers had guns. By 1894, the guns outnumbered the Hawaiians.

Sanford Dole, a descendant of missionaries, helped create the first republic. In other words, he and other European-descendants who owned land created a constitution that declared voting would go to those who owned land. While the monarch Queen Lili’oukalani originally admitted him to her council of advisers, she likely regretted it once the monarchy was overthrown. Dole’s cousin, James Dole, later founded the Hawaiian pineapple company.

Then, there is the “wave of nationalism” referenced above. But whose nation? Not the Hawaiian nation. The nationalists here were Americans, finally acting on Twain’s suggestion. Hence, Hawaii in 1894 was “annexed” under U.S. President McKinley, much like the Crimea, Tibet, and other places that Americans often protest against.

The Future of Hawaiian Governance and Shorelines

Many native Hawaiians have been pressing for a different governance model. This, too, has created intense debate among the Hawaiians. Obama, who was from Hawaii, supported the recognition of a native Hawaiian government as does the Biden administration. Some Kanaka Maoli, native Hawaiians, have pushed hard for this recognition, arguing that they weren’t even treated as other indigenous Americans have been. Protests have sprung up at governmental buildings and institutions, such as the observatories.

Hawaiian protesters, 2015. Photo by Holly Johnson, AP.

Other groups of natives are disdainful of recognition and are pressing harder for something bigger: getting all their land back. The majority of Hawaiians (90% in some polls) have argued that federal recognition would simply legitimize the annexation and have pushed for a return to the Hawaiian monarchy or other form of self-rule, by Hawaiians.

It seems unlikely that Hawaii would be returned to self-rule or that the land would be “ceded” back to the natives. Yet it’s been less than 800 years since anyone first arrived on the shores. A little over 200 years since Cook showed up, 150 years since Twain talked of the missionaries, only a century since a republic was established. In geologic and historic times, these aren’t long.

Plus, global warming will also be a game-changer. Seventy-five percent of Hawaiian shores will be affected; Maui may lose half its beaches. That will dramatically alter who comes and who spends money in Hawaii’s future. Such a change in the economy may change who wants to deal with the mess. The future in Hawaii may be best handled by those who extol practices of living with the land rather than against it, whether “native” Hawaiians or not.

Ki’i carvings at the Pu`uhonua o Hōnaunau Park. Photo by NPS.

The Pu’uhonua o Hōnaunau Park, also called the Place of Refuge, was near Kelekekua Bay where Cook landed and met his eventual demise. Many of the structures in this U.S. National Park are replicas, rebuilt to teach and remind of the practices brought by the first visitors. This includes the many ki’is, carved images of different gods–spirits–to help preserve the important things like sun, life, ocean, fertility, crops, wisdom, creation, and peace.

Maybe it isn’t really a question of ownership or rulership of these things, but of stewardship. Many of us could, like Twain, become a lover of the “garlanded crags, its leaping cascades, its plumy palms drowsing by the shore, its remote summits floating like islands above the cloud-rack.” In that, we all share a part to keep this a place of refuge.

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