6 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Hawaii…

23 Jan

…Unless You Read Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell

Unfamiliar Fishes

When I told Robin I was heading to Hawaii, she texted me demanding I read Unfamiliar Fishes.  I generally trust Robin for recommendations, especially when they have a slight nature bent, so I downloaded the book.  Only later did I discover that Robin had never read the recommended piece of literature.  While aghast at her deception, I am glad that she trusted the author enough to recommend one of her books word unread.  As my boyfriend will attest, I’ve spent the last three weeks telling anyone who will listen the last 200 years of Hawaiian history.  Since you, my friends, are yet another captive audience I’d like to share a few interesting factoids about the history of the islands.

There’s a reason for that British flag on their state flag.  When the missionaries first landed in Hawaii, they were left chilling in the ocean for awhile.  You can’t blame the Hawaiians.  Imagine if a Jehovah’s Witness knocked at your door and then asked to move into your second bedroom.  I’d leave them hanging awhile, too, but that’s not the reason the Hawaiians were leery.  They believed (incorrectly) that they were a British protectorate.  They thought inviting in the New Englanders would offend the crown, but they eventually caved.  Britain was too occupied with colony-building or tea-tasting or whatever it is that Britain does to bother.  Oops.

Is that a banana in your hand? DIE! In the Hawaiian religion, there were various kapus that restricted people’s actions.  Some of these were beneficial, such as preventing overfishing.  Others were kind of ridiculous, such as women being put to death for eating bananas or eating at the same table as a man.  These practices were stopped by the mother of King Kamehameha II, when she sat down at the same table as her younger son at a banquet.  From then on, the kapu system ceased.

Whale oil was a hot commodity. Anyone who’s watched Whale Wars knows that whalers are bad dudes.  They hunt some of the most amazing animals into extinction and use water cannons on hippies.  Back in the day, whale oil was used for pretty much everything though, from oil lamps to margarine.  It was used by NASA in its rockets as recently as 1986, when it was banned.  Whaling also brought sailors, jobs and plenty of STDs to the islands, until kerosene, vegetable oils and petroleum came into fashion.

Hawaiians were avid readers.  Say what you will about the missionaries, one thing they were amazing at was spreading education.  Sure, their goal in teaching the Hawaiians how to read was so they could read the only book worth owning (that’s The Bible), but the result was a highly literate nation.  In 1863 while the literacy rate in the US was 40% and the rate in Western Europe was 65%, the rate in the islands 75%.  And that’s from a society that had no written language 40 years earlier (thanks again missionaries!).

Canada was the big bad. You’d think that picking up from your quaint New England life and heading around an entire continent to make a new home in the Pacific Ocean would be a big deal.  Especially when there were so many souls close at hand that needed saving, like in say, Canada.  The missionaries didn’t even want to deal with that though and considered it “an immense region of palpable darkness.” I wasn’t aware Montreal = Mordor.

We didn’t really want Hawaii, at first. Well, Teddy Roosevelt wanted Hawaii, but he wasn’t president at the time and so couldn’t make the decisions.  Grover Cleveland, on the other hand,was offered Hawaii after the overthrow, and asked the usurpers to put Hawaii’s queen back on the throne.  Having had their advances spurned, the usurpers denied the request and instead went about doing their best to disenfranchise the natives.  Soon, Roosevelt got his chance and as secretary of the Navy for William McKinley pushed almost successfully for the annexation of Hawaii – which was overturned after a bunch of native Hawaiians lobbied Congress.  Not cowed, McKinley signed a joint resolution to annex Hawaii, claiming the country needed it a “good deal more than we did California.”  Despite further protests, the nation became our 50th state.  That’s the short version anyway.

I had never been interested in Hawaii in the slightest before this book, except hoping to visit one day.  Now I’m a walking fact dispenser for the islands.  I’m not sure I’ve ever been more successfully recommended a book by someone who never read the book.  Thanks Robin!

~ April


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