Book Review: Unfamiliar Fishes

Reviews

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.

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