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Lahaina and a little bit of Hawaiian history

February 14th, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

Lahaina is a gorgeous little town in the western part of Maui. Today, it is bustling with tourists. Shops and restaurants dot the water-front main street.

As I researched into its past, I am confronted with a number of emotions. Foremost, the aloha spirit is abound.  So far, we have met travelers from the mainland U.S., Germany, China, and even Lithuania.

The aloha spirit is contagious. People readily greet each other with smiles and take time to be curious, helpful, and generally pleasant. Drivers are usually not in the rush and waves at pedestrians to cross first.

Tourists looking at straw hat.

Shops dot Front Street which faces the ocean.

Popular Cheese Burger restaurant with ocean view.

Kamehameha sacked it in 1795, ending the Pi’ilani family’s reign over Maui. Lahaina would eventually become the capital after Kamehameha subjugated all of the Hawaiian islands (1820-1845).

During Kamehameha’s time, Lahaina was also a popular destination for whaling ships. After discovery of oil and the outbreak of the American Civil War, the whaling industry declined. Sugarcane plantations took off, especially with the advent of steam engine, allowing sugar to be readily transported across the pacific.

The following snippet from Wikipedia.org tells how Hawaii slowly got her sovereignty eroded, and the intractable relationship with the United States lead to 75% of her land grabbed by foreigners:

Industrial sugar production started slowly in Hawaii. The first sugar mill was created on the island of Lanaʻi in 1802 by an unidentified Chinese man who returned to China in 1803. The first sugar plantation, known as the Old Sugar Mill of Koloa, was established in 1835 by Ladd & Co. and in 1836 the first 8,000 pounds (3,600 kg) of sugar and molasses was shipped to the United States.

By the 1840s, sugar plantations gained a foothold in Hawaiian agriculture. Steamships provided rapid and reliable transportation to the islands, and demand increased during the California Gold Rush. The land division law of 1848 (known as The Great Mahele) displaced Hawaiian people from their land, forming the basis for the sugar plantation economy. In 1850, the law was amended to allow foreign residents to buy and lease land. Market demand increased even further during the onset of the American Civil War which prevented Southern sugar from being shipped northward. The price of sugar rose 525% from 4 cents per pound in 1861 to 25 cents in 1864. The Reciprocity Treaty of 1875 allowed Hawaii to sell sugar to the United States without paying duties or taxes, greatly increasing plantation profits. This treaty also guaranteed that all resources including land, water, human labor power, capital, and technology would be thrown behind sugarcane cultivation. The 1890 McKinley Tariff Act, an effort by the United States government to decrease the competitive pricing of Hawaiian sugar, paid 2 cents per pound to mainland producers. After significant lobbying efforts, this act was repealed in 1894. By 1890, 75% of all privately held land was owned by foreign businessmen.

The bottom-line was that Hawaii was powerless and the majority of her land would be usurped by White plantation owners.

Some would argue corrupt chiefs traded land for weapons and other goods. If not for the plantations and subsequent modern development, perhaps Hawaii would never enjoy the high standards of living that exist today.

Thinking back to 1778, when British navy captain, James Cook, first ‘discovered’ Hawaii, I wondered how the natives would have initially greeted him had they known how India was colonized or how China was being turned into a nation of opium addicts; again, all for profits. James Cook was a scoundrel who served the atrocious British Empire.

The Hawaiian narrative is that Cook was initially thought to be a god. Cook exploited that belief initially and took advantage of the local’s hospitality. On his subsequent visit, the Hawaiian witnessed the death of one of Cook’s crewmen. Realizing they have been duped, the Hawaiians took a much less welcoming stance. Some incidents broke out, culminating in number of Hawaiians killed as well Cook clubbed and stabbed to death.

Some discount the Hawaiian narrative, but I think it’s very plausible. The Conquistadors where greeted the same way by the natives. Cook, being an “explorer (click for BBC’s narrative),” would have undoubtedly been familiar with those accounts.

If the Hawaiians have their way today, they would insist on a very different narrative being taught in schools about Cook.

Sad as Hawaii’s history have been, the quality of life that exists there today is indeed undeniably great. That should be celebrated.

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  1. perspectivehere
    February 14th, 2013 at 08:18 | #1


    If you have time, a great historical novel about Hawaii well worth reading is James Michener’s “Hawaii”. It’s a thick novel but don’t let the size scare you; it covers a vast historical period, and each section focuses on a different set of visitors to arrive and settle on the Hawaiian Islands: the Polynesians, the Christian missionaries, the Chinese and the Japanese. Although a work of fiction, the novel frames the story with actual historical events (like the fire that destroyed much of Chinatown). It is a great way to get the flavor of the period, and Michener does a wonderful job describing the heroism, struggles, sufferings and cowardliness of each group of people.

    I really enjoyed reading about the Chinese immigrants and how they came initially as coolie slave labor but eventually worked their way up to independence and wealth. One of the main Chinese characters in the book, Hong Kong Kee, is supposedly based on a real life person, according to this NYTimes 1987 obit of Chinn Ho.

    For those who like their books in movie form, see this review.

    Recently a book came out about Hawaii that focuses more on how the native Hawaiians lost their island to the American missionary power play, called “The Last Aloha” by Gaellen Quinn. There is a blurb about it here and an interview with the author on Youtube here.


    “Why I wrote The Last Aloha

    Since the mid-1960s, I’ve traveled to Hawaii numerous times. I was vaguely aware that Honolulu had “the only royal palace on American soil,” and that there was a “King Street,” and a “Royal Hawaiian Hotel,” and other places named for Hawaiian royalty. But in those days, I never heard a discussion or saw any books about the royal Hawaiians.

    Like many others, I read James Michener’s, Hawaii, and learned about the natural history of the islands, the pre-contact period before Captain Cook, the missionary period, the immigration of the Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese and others, and the territorial period. But Michener’s book, first published in 1959 when Hawaii became a state, skips over the period of the monarchy completely. Michener was a magnanimous man, a thorough researcher and totally against racial prejudice, as his book and the subsequent play, South Pacific, attest.

    How could he miss this important era of Hawaiian history? From my research, I believe he knew little or nothing about it. Information on this period was suppressed by missionary descendents who kept documents in private collections and controlled the writing and dispensing of “official” Hawaiian history well into the 1960s.

    A different story of Hawaii

    Some years ago, my brother married a Hawaiian woman and I began to hear a different story of Hawaii. My sister-in-law was raised by her grandmother in the old Hawaiian way. Her ancestors were alii, from the royal class. They were the “navigators” who had sailed the great canoes up from southern Polynesia a thousand years ago. (Her ancestors have “star” names and her family still has a stone icon that sat at the front of one of those ancient sailing canoes.) In the 19th century, her family was involved in many of the momentous happenings during the time that the monarchy was overthrown. I asked her and my brother for material that might shed light on the period of the Hawaiian monarchs. They directed me to a few books, first published in the 1980s and I was stunned to learn facts I’d never heard in all my travels to Hawaii.

    The royal Hawaiians had developed a constitutional monarchy with democratic elections. Over 90% of Hawaiians could read and write. King Kalakaua, the last king of Hawaii, was the first monarch ever to circumnavigate the globe (and was received with royal honors in the courts of Asia and Europe, including an audience with the Pope in Rome, Queen Victoria and the President of the United States). Queen Victoria was godmother to one of Hawaii’s crown princes and Queen Kapiolani and Princess Lili’uokalani, who became the last queen of Hawaii, attended Queen Victoria’s Jubilee celebration as a specially invited guests. Hawaiian monarchs were accomplished writers, musicians and statesmen, entertaining such luminaries as Robert Louis Stevenson and the dignitaries and ambassadors of many nations.

    Why had I never heard any of this before?

    Then I learned of the intrigue of the descendents of missionary families who’d left the mission field and gone into business. They’d become extravagantly wealthy under the reign of the Hawaiian sovereigns, but considered themselves better suited to rule. In the 19th century, a number of them were educated at Columbia University where the political science department was based on the philosophy of Social Darwinism–-that only the Teutonic races were fit for self-rule. The machinations of these missionary descendents ultimately toppled the throne and they took over Hawaii.

    While researching the era, I had the image of a lavish 19th century period film–-the sort produced by Miramax or Merchant Ivory–-but instead of being set in England or Europe, the caste of characters would be a mix of royal Hawaiians, Americans and adventurers of many nations, living in the exotic culture of a charming island kingdom. It struck me that a book set in this period could evoke a fascinating, vanished world.

    But what finally impelled me to write the book was the story of Queen Lili’uokalani’s tragic struggle to save the Hawaiian kingdom. When every way was blocked, she made profound choices which, I believe, preserved the spirit of aloha in the islands. Hawaii is a beautiful place, but there are many beautiful places in the world. Hawaii has a special spirit and almost anyone who goes there will confirm it. The Last Aloha shows there are powers apart from political and material powers that can restore the human spirit in a turbulent world.


    I knew almost nothing about Hawaii until I visited a few years ago. I went to Oahu and Maui and thoroughly enjoyed the islands’ beauty. I hope you enjoy your stay.

  2. Mulberry Leaf
    February 14th, 2013 at 08:51 | #2

    On a tangent, Japan’s South Manchuria Railway Company issued a report in 1934 justifying that country’s colonial seizure of northeast China with reference to Hawaiian history:

    “When the Hawaii Islands were annexed to the United States, the ruling American citizens were vastly outnumbered by the native Hawaiians as by the Japanese immigrants, and even today Americans and native Hawaiians are far less in number than the Japanese. Finally, the independence of Manchoukuo [sic] was brought about by a spontaneous movement of the Chinese inhabitants acting in concert with Manchu and Mongolian natives.”

    More on the population issue, claimed the Japanese:

    “Regarding the population of Manchuria in modern times, the Lytton report, stating that the great majority of the present inhabitants are Chinese settlers who came to Manchuria from Shantung and Honan Provinces of China proper and “took possession of soil which is now unalterably Chinese Manchuria”, awaiting “a favourable opportunity for China to reassert her sovereign right”, suggested that those millions of Chinese farmers who came to Manchuria carried with them the right of sovereignty. Many of these Chinese in Manchuria, however, being seasonal labourers, have permanent homes in native Chinese provinces. Moreover, mere size of population cannot be a substantial test of the sovereign right in a particular territory.”

    We see an echo of Japanese colonial rhetoric in activists’ chants that Han people in Xinjiang and Tibet should “go home” to their ancestral villages. (Somehow, this unseparable bond does not apply to Taiwan residents of Han descent: it’s hard to be both Sinophobic and logically consistent!)

  3. February 14th, 2013 at 10:54 | #3

    @perspectivehere and @Mulberry Leaf ,

    You folks are such pools of knowledge. I’ll have to pick up on the two books you recommend: Michener’s “Hawaii” and Quinn’s “The Last Aloha.”

    I had no idea that the Christian missionaries were the ones to have become the plantation owners and responsible for siphoning much of Hawaii’s land from her people.

    Of course, one may point to the plurality in narratives: after all, Michener and Quinn are Americans. However, unless the general American public seek such narratives out on their own, the mainstream is always what is taught in the schools.

    How the mainstream narrative is taught in school is much like the snippet example I quoted from Wikipedia in the OP. It’s dry and at arms length. The perpetrators are painted ‘objectively.’ It is almost impossible for the lay person to grasp the cruelty of the powerful against the powerless. That lesson does not get taught, because the Christian missionaries would be put under bad light. That’s the injustice which still haunts the native Hawaiians today.

    And, Mulberry Leaf, that’s the same sort of education in Japan too today. The Nanjing Massacre would be glossed over and that Japan’s invasion of China was to bring prosperity to the Chinese.

    So, yeah, poor and weak countries around the world – beware of the modern day missionaries – they come preaching “freedom of the press,” “human rights,” and “democracy.”

  4. perspectivehere
    February 15th, 2013 at 18:45 | #4


    It’s often been said that in Hawaii, the Protestant preachers came to Hawaii to do good but wound up doing well.”

    The story is very complicated. The process of Hawaii coming under the control of the missionaries happened rarely with the missionaries themselves but rather their children and descendants. As the U.S. power on the mainland expanded westward and began its imperial growth into Asia, the Hawaiian islands took on greater strategic importance and interest.

    The story of native Hawaiians today seem to be attracting more social and cultural interest in the U.S. A book, and later a movie in 2011 starring George Clooney, called “The Descendants” explores the legacy today on Hawaiian royal landowners who intermarried with the missionaries’ descendants.

    The Descendants: A Step Down From Sideways

    Reclaiming Identity in The Descendants

  5. February 16th, 2013 at 00:03 | #5

    Thanks for the correction. Right, their children or descendants make sense.

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