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Book Review: Unfamiliar Fishes

unfamiliar fishes cover

I found this book to be one of the most readable and entertaining texts on the history of Hawai’i since Cook, and I’ve read a lot of them. It’s practically the history of Hawai’i as a beach read. In fact, I read most of it on a beach in Hawai’i.

Vowell’s writing is accessible and her sources are contemporary. Contemporary is good, because a lot has been learned about Hawai’i history in the last 30 or so years, and a whole generation of Hawaiian academics have changed the way we understand the traditional English language historical materials while adding Hawaiian language resources that were mostly excluded in earlier accounts.

Those Hawaiian sources tell a very different story than that told by English-language historians. The new story of Hawai’i addresses the massive resistance to colonization and annexation among the Hawaiian people. Most American-centric accounts try to make the argument that there was very little resistance to annexation to the U.S. because they rely so heavily on accounts of that history told from the perspective of missionaries and their capitalist counterparts (often the same people) who toppled the last Hawaiian queen while an American warship sailed in Honolulu Harbor prepared for war. Not exactly the historic history you want passed down to your great grand kids.

Vowell’s account doesn’t spare the missionaries and American investors. It also makes a strong case for viewing the takeover of Hawai’i in the context of the expansion of the American empire in the Caribbean and the Pacific in approximately the same historical period. It’s not just sugar profits that drove the U.S. to acquire new territories and possessions in the Caribbean and the Pacific. The general expansion of the American empire and America’s military presence around the world were also powerful motivations.

My one critique of Vowell is that I found her to be blinded by the (en)light(enment) of the American myth of progress, and therefore, in no small bit, ethnocentric. Her understanding of the Hawaiian constitutional monarchy is riddled with the typical sort of prejudice rooted in the myth of American exceptionalism that supposes that somehow a constitutional monarchy is necessarily improved upon by, say, the kind of government we have in the U.S. I would argue that’s simply not true, and, in fact, that the assumption is based in a flawed understanding of the Hawaiian culture, the Hawaiian constitutional monarchy, and U.S. “democracy.” Sorry, but I’ll take Queen Liliuokalani’s constitutional monarchy over Barack Obama’s or George W. Bush’s brand of “democracy” any day.

Nonetheless, I liked it, found it easy to read, and, most of all, an improvement over some of the old histories of Hawai’i like the classic Shoal of Time which, while pretty exhaustive, tends to douse history with a big dose of white wash.

Scot Nakagawa

By Scot Nakagawa

Scot is a community organizer, activist, cultural worker, and political writer. He has spent the last four decades exploring questions of racial injustice and racial formation and effective forms of resistance and strategies for change through community campaigns, cultural organizing, popular education, writing, and direct political advocacy.

Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against vigilante white supremacist groups, white nationalism, Nativism, and authoritarian evangelical political movements. In this work, he has served as a strategist, organizer, and social movement analyst. Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow and the Association of Asian American Studies 2017 Community Leader. He is busy at work on a number of projects, including writing a playbook for anti-fascists, and a primer on race and power. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition; Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence; and Eyes Right!: Challenging the Right Wing Backlash.

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