by Sarah Vowell
Reviewed by Jeff Baker
History is everywhere in Hawaii. Imagine the three sides of a triangle in Honolulu: at one point is Pearl Harbor, home of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and site of the Japanese attack on Dec. 7, 1941, arguably the most momentous day of the 20th century. At another corner is the Iolani Palace, the only palace in the U.S. and the place where the last queen of Hawaii, Liliuokalani, was locked up after the Hawaiian monarchy was overthrown in 1893.
The third point of the triangle is above the city at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, known as Punchbowl. It's a stunning spot, a volcanic crater filled with the graves of more than 34,000 veterans of World War I and II, Korea and Vietnam. Many of the men and women who died in the attack on Pearl Harbor are interred at Punchbowl, and many of them are Native Hawaiians. A series of maps on the walls of the memorial charts the relentless march of the U.S. and its Allies across the Pacific in World War II.
The earlier history of Punchbowl -- its Hawaiian name, Puowaina, means "hill of sacrifice," and human sacrifices were performed in the crater -- is not mentioned. Neither is the day in 1820 when Hiram Bingham, a missionary from New England, climbed the hill on his first day in Honolulu and vowed that what he saw "was now to be the scene of a bloodless conquest for Christ."
Within 75 years of Bingham's arrival, the U.S. had taken control of Hawaii. The missionaries' efficient, righteous and mostly bloodless conquest of an ancient culture is recounted in "Unfamiliar Fishes," Sarah Vowell's new book. It's a sad story told in a lively way by Vowell, who is developing into a more thoughtful historian in her sixth book. She's still good for a laugh and a pop-culture reference, but now when she notes that it's tempting to compare "the initial encounters between Hawaiians and missionaries to some sort of clunky prequel to 'Footloose,'" she follows with the more subtle observation that both Hawaiians and missionaries were traditionalists, coming from very different cultures.
The Hawaiian culture that Bingham and Asa Thurston and their wives encountered when they got to Hawaii was (and is) fascinating, constantly evolving and contradictory. The islands had only recently been unified under Kamehameha the Great, a fierce warrior who ended the practice of human sacrifice but was a strict follower of the traditions of kapu, which prohibited all sorts of contact between men and women, most notably eating together. Incest and polygamy among royals was encouraged, and a strict class system was followed.
Foreign traders had been stopping by the islands since Capt. James Cook stumbled onto them in 1778. The arrival of the missionaries, and the conflicts between them and the traders, is colorfully described by Vowell as "representing opposing sides of America's schizophrenic divide -- Bible-thumping prudes and sailors on leave. Imagine if the Hawaii Convention Center in Waikiki hosted the Values Voters Summit and the Adult Entertainment Expo simultaneously -- for forty years."
The missionaries were incredibly industrious and developed a written Hawaiian language, an education system, printing presses and newspapers, among many other things. They and the settlers and businesses that inevitably followed them also introduced the idea of private land ownership and turned much of the islands into vast sugar plantations. Asians, mainly Chinese, were brought in to work in the fields. By the time Liliuokalani was overthrown, the strategic military importance of Hawaii to the U.S. was obvious and the monarchy's fate was sealed. Grover Cleveland called the whole affair "a miserable business" and said he was ashamed. His successors as president, William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, were delighted.
Vowell notes that Liliuokalani attended McKinley's inauguration in 1897 and "intensely enjoyed the grand procession."
"I wonder what she would have thought," Vowell writes, "if she had known ... that 112 years later, the first Hawaiian-born president of the United States would be inaugurated and in his parade, the marching band from Punahou School, his alma mater (and that of her enemies), would serenade the new president by playing a song she had written, 'Aloha 'Oe.'"