'Paradise of the Pacific' traces the early centuries of Hawai‘i’s history

A transporting immersion into the history of Hawaii, and the ways its native peoples held on to their way of life in the face of colonial exploits.

Paradise of the Pacific: Approaching Hawaii by Susanna Moore Farrar, Straus and Giroux 320 pp.

Susanna Moore’s stately and graceful history of the early centuries of Hawai‘i’s history, Paradise of the Pacific, is here to entertain, effortlessly, and to instruct, slightly more demandingly. Begin, for example, by repeating this list: Ka‘ahumanu, Kamehameha, Kamehameha II, Kauikeaouli, Kapuāiwa, Kaheiheimālie, Kahekili, Ka‘iulani, Kalaniōpu‘u, Kailikolamaikapaliokaukini. Once more, roll these names around on your tongue. They are songs in themselves. Try to fathom what they mean, and take as a fact that they are names of people who shaped the history of Hawai‘i. As the political and cultural landscape of Hawai‘i was for many centuries a place of intrigue and war, secrecy and old night — and, no, we aren’t flirting with the Oriental-romantic here (though many a missionary had his libido twisted into a knot). This was the chaos of battle — for gain, for whim, revenge, dynastic hegemony — in a culture in which a clueless insult to the spirit world could result in death or shift the alignment of power relations. So it’s important to keep the names right — that’s Ke‘eaumoku (Ka‘ahumanu’s brother), not Ke‘eaumoku (Ka‘ahumanu’s father) — as they slip in and out of the picture.

The meat of this history lies between the rise and rule of King Kamehameha I, and then the de facto rule of his widow, Queen Ka‘ahumanu, who served as regent to the boy who would never really be king: Liholiho, son of Kamehameha I. As material for storytelling goes, in Moore’s capable hands, this is top shelf. These years marked the first great shattering of Hawai‘i. Not far down the road would come the sugar barons, the Bayonet Constitution, and the fiasco of Liliuokalani, the last queen of the islands. Moore concentrates on the internal dynamics of pre-missionary Hawaiian ruling circles, and then the coming of the first missionaries at an especially vulnerable instant in Hawai‘i’s progress. Moore doesn’t affect to know it all and is diligent in letting you know the firmness of the ground she is standing on.

First, Moore starts with some scene setting, as in the volcanic creation of the Hawaiian Archipelago. Geology, as it morphs into geography, is ideal for gaining that sense of where you are. And where you are is to-hell-and-gone in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Hawai‘i is a 1,600-mile-long archipelagic chain — from the Big Island to French Frigate Shoals, Gardner Pinnacles, Pearl and Hermes Reef, to Midway (Midway to where is anyone’s guess) — but it might as well be a lonely Higgs boson in all that water. How voyagers landed on its shores in the sixth century is unknown, and pretty boggling, but they were provisioned, so they weren’t just lost. Neither were the Tahitians who comprised the second wave in the eleventh century and profoundly altered the existing — for 500 years existing — customs, beliefs, and polity. This may well have been the first great shattering, but there isn’t enough known to get dramatic.

The life arrangements fashioned by this second wave, with plenty of royal decrees fiddling with the superstructure, lasted for another 800 years. What did evolve was a hierarchy of royalty on each of the main islands, ruling with the help of priests, chiefs (male and female) under the watchful eye of great gods — lords of creation, sunlight, fertility, canoe making, war, peace, agriculture — and lesser gods who handled music, empty houses, strange noises, and revenge, to the spirit world of trees, stones, and stars. “The Hawaiians’ trust in magic, their dependence on similarities and analogies to reveal meaning, and their belief in the chance omens found in nature were stimulated by fear, superstition, and the empirical folk wisdom that had been strengthened and justified over many generations.” Everything was covered, sometimes taboo, sometimes lifted from taboo, and the respect of the kings hinged on finding harmony in the issuing of decrees and success in whatever endeavor they embarked upon, from locating fresh water to warfare.

Undoubtedly there had been landfalls before Captain James Cook stood on Waimea in 1778, but the captain’s would prove decisive. Exchange was established, diseases were passed out along with firearms and nails (distilled spirits would have to wait until 1791 and Captain James Maxwell), and perhaps an inkling of common humanity was established. Cook was killed in what appears to be a misunderstanding — he had been given seven cloaks, called‘ahu‘ula, each of which required the feathers of tens of thousands of little birds, took a generation to make, and were only given to avatars of gods, so he was unlikely killed for sport — which anyway didn’t stop Honolulu from shortly becoming the port of call for deserters, repo men, escaped convicts, traders, seamen, and beachcombers, most of whom wanted something: sandalwood, supplies, and a good time were for sale, and ethnographic artifacts were there to loot.

Kamehameha I had his eye on unification of the main islands. Even before he accomplished this, he understood his precarious position. “Kamehameha was well aware of the rich and powerful kingdoms beyond the Pacific . . . mindful that at any moment, one of these powers could take possession of the Islands.” He ceded his kingdom to the British, retaining the kingdom’s self-government and laws, but it was never clear how ceding was understood, either by Kamehameha, Ka‘ahumanu, or the well-meaning Captain George Vancouver, the grand British go-between after Cook. Then he rallied his troops and canoes and “at last consolidated the unruly island chiefdoms,” founding a dynasty that would endure for 100 years.

But along the way Kamehameha I died. Pity, that. Now would come that great shattering of a civilization, which Moore draws with bell-like clarity and subtle shadings. The king’s son was too inexperienced to ascend; Queen Ka‘ahumanu would rule. In a land of allusion and metaphor when it came to communication, she was direct and uninhibited. At the urging of Ka‘ahumanu, the kapus — all that was forbidden, sacred, privileged, and exempt, the guides to life on the Islands — were lifted. The queen may have been angling to “control the distribution of land that traditionally followed the death of a king, and to solidify the newly established supremacy of the Kamehameha family.” She may have wanted to undermine the authority of the nobles’ claims to divinity, stripping their source of power through the death of the gods. “The ali‘i [chief or chiefess] relinquished the stability and order that came with tradition, and the organizing structure, even if restrictive, of social relations and responsibilities.” Nor did they offer anything in its place.

“A moral crisis is inevitable when a people lose their belief in myth,” writes Moore, “as it is a link with that part of the psyche that is independent of and beyond consciousness. Without their gods, the Hawaiians were suddenly alone, with neither the old or the new; lost in a profound uncertainty that left them particularly vulnerable to the god Jehovah, who was bearing down on them.” At this critical juncture, into port hove a ship full of New England Congregationalists, moved there by a wave of piety, “their members troubled by a new and growing awareness of the legions of heathens living in sin at the far reaches of the world.”

Not a few Hawaiians held on to their way of life, but many others — though they found the missionaries strange and joyless — bent their ears to Christianity, so readymade for the situation it could have been signed by R. Mutt. With the death of Queen Ka‘ahumanu, Moore’s story effectively comes to an end, just as the Islands begin to take on greater and greater merchant debt in pursuit of their new cravings, the indigenous government enters the free-fall of colonial annexation, and the sugarcane fields are overrun with rats.

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