fbpx

History versus Ideologies of Oppression

The trip to Hawaii I wrote about in my previous post yielded some interesting Ricardian, Schumpeterian, and Hayekian lessons, as I noted. It was also enlightening in terms of how prevailing conceptions of our 50th state compare to its actual history.

The reader of  James L. Haley’s excellent 2014 book, Captive Paradise: A History of Hawaii, will see sobering disparities that match a larger trend in our society: the tendency to distort the historical record so as to exaggerate the vices of the early European settlers while exaggerating the virtues of pre-contact indigenous cultures. This revisionism has the (desired?) effect of minimizing the benefits of Western influence, and even—in the case of Hawaii—calling into question the legitimacy of its statehood.

The popular narrative, evident in National Park Service brochures and the talks given by docents in Hawaii’s museums, is that Hawaii was a tropical paradise before the English arrived in the late 18th century. Europeans, after introducing diseases that nearly decimated the natives, imposed their religion and customs on an unwilling population that was perfectly content with the bucolic status quo. Then, rapacious businessmen stole the land, exploited the natives, and ultimately engineered annexation by the United States, leading in 1959 to a statehood that few who lived there desired.

Tourists are led to believe that prior to Captain James Cook’s landing in 1778, life in Hawaii resembled a continual luau, with chaste maidens happily performing hula dances under the swaying palm trees. This does not match the facts. True, the Europeans unintentionally brought with them diseases to which the island-dwellers had no immunity, a devastating—but inevitable—consequence of contact between an isolated people and people from the Continent of Europe.

Looking back in time from that point hardly yields an idyllic picture, however. The Hawaiian Islands, formed by volcanic activity over the past 40 million years, were first inhabited by Polynesian voyagers (probably from the Marquesas Islands) over 1,500 years ago. With the arrival of Tahitian explorers in around 1200 A.D., the original settlers of Hawaii were conquered and enslaved, beginning centuries of conflict and subjugation in the most remote islands in the world.

The Tahitians initiated a rigidly-hierarchical social structure in Hawaii, pursuant to which competing members of the royal class—the ali’i—ruled over each island (and sometimes, different parts of the larger islands) with absolute authority. The ali’i owned all the land and—with the conscripted support of the kanaka class (the 99.9 percent of the population that were virtual serfs of the ali’i and the non-royal high chiefs and lesser chiefs who ministered to the ali’i) —constantly warred with each other, and for succession upon the death of the reigning royalty.

The pre-contact culture was characterized by strict taboos or kapu, such as: women could not eat with men; women could not eat certain types of food, such as bananas and pork; and no one’s shadow must fall on the shadow of an ali’i. Violations of kapu were invariably punishable by death. Various gods and fearsome idols, or ki’i, were worshipped, and human sacrifice was routine.

Kanakas, when not conscripted into war or other service to the ali’i, engaged in subsistence farming and were forced to deliver about two-thirds of their meager crop of taro or fish to the chiefs on whose land they toiled. A major staple of the Hawaiian diet was dog, especially for women (since they were not allowed to eat pork). There was no written language and no alphabet. Pre-contact, the Hawaiians had never seen iron.

Infanticide was common, and not just for infants. Unwanted children would be summarily killed up to the age of two. Sexual relationships began at an early age and were aggressively promiscuous. Marriages were polyamorous. The first hula dances (performed by naked female natives for British sailors) were libidinous sexual invitations. The male ali’i engaged in homosexual liaisons with attractive young servants, known as aikane. The superstitious Hawaiians believed that the bones of a powerful man contained magic (mana), and for that reason they baked Captain Cook’s corpse—to more easily remove the flesh—after he was killed in 1779.

Generations of inbreeding among the Hawaiian royal family eventually rendered them sickly and infertile. King Kamehameha I, credited with “unifying” rule of the islands in 1810, managed this feat only through 28 years of bloody and nearly constant warfare, fueled by incessant human sacrifice.

After Kamehameha’s death in 1819, and before the arrival of the first Christian missionaries in 1820, his successors abolished many of these practices, including human sacrifice, the worship of idols, and taboos against men eating with women. So it was not Westerners who dictated that the islanders’ idolatrous religious beliefs be abandoned. The missionaries did, however, reduce the Hawaiian language to writing, create a 12-letter alphabet, and introduce Hawaiians to education, hygiene, books, Christianity, and, against great resistance, Western sexual mores.

Private property in Hawaii was not recognized until the reign of Kamehameha III. In 1850, ordinary kanakas—commoners—were finally assigned parcels of land, a reform (the Great Mahele) that backfired when many of the unsophisticated natives promptly sold their land for a pittance, leaving them worse off than they had been as unpropertied serfs.

In the mid-1800s, the fledgling Kingdom of Hawaii, tired of repeated militaristic overtures from the covetous Russians, French, and British, sought a treaty relationship with the United States. It was America that had supplied most of the missionaries, and had a key economic tie to the islands in the form of the capital-intensive sugar trade. There followed decades of erratic and corrupt rule by the often short-lived royal family, and in the wake of hapless coups and counter-coups, Hawaii’s relationship with the United States ripened into annexation in 1898. This happened only after President McKinley framed the matter as a joint resolution requiring majority support of both houses of Congress (instead of a treaty requiring two-thirds approval by the Senate). In 1959, following a plebiscite in which 94 percent of Hawaii’s voters approved statehood, the territory of Hawaii became the most recently admitted state in the Union.

My point is not to denigrate Hawaiian history or to whitewash the actions of self-interested businessmen or landowners who benefited from Hawaii’s loss of independence, but to point out the wide variance between myth and reality here. History—as opposed to ideology—consists of more than victims and oppressors. It is ideology that drives a modern-day Hawaiian “independence movement,” which variously seeks reparations, sovereignty for native Hawaiians similar to that granted to Native Americans, and “de-occupation” of Hawaii by the United States.

It was in this spirit that, in 1993, President Clinton apologized on the centenary of  the overthrow of Queen Lili’uokalani by sugar businessmen (prior to annexation by the United States) after she attempted to set aside the Hawaiian constitution and restore absolute royal rule.

As Haley concludes:

In old Hawai’i 999 people in 1,000 were kanakas, digging taro, netting fish, trying to hide their one pig from the chief’s steward, being throttled on an altar if their shadow crossed an ali’i.  Modern cultural sensitivity obscures an important fact: Hawai’i never was a paradise.

Revisionists tend not to consider inconvenient counterfactuals, either—for had the United States not absorbed Hawaii, then Russia, France, Spain, Germany, Britain, or Japan would have, leaving Hawaii worse off than it would have been if Hawaiians were not today Americans. Hawaii’s real history—like the story of America—has a happy ending. Why can’t it be left that way?

Reader Discussion

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

on March 28, 2016 at 08:49:14 am

Mark--

You write at the beginning of the essay that revisionist history accentautes the vices of the original European settlers. But much of your essay focuses not on a) demonstrating that this claim is true, nor on b) correcting these distortions by offering an account of their character. Rather, you focus instead on the inverse. You show, convincingly, that public history in Hawaii tends to over-emphasize the virtues of the natives, and offers an account of the character of their society that demonstrates just how vicious and unenlightened it was.

These two tendencies (overemphasis on European depravity and overemphasis on native virtue) are of course related, but they are not the same thing. In the circles in which I travel, modern historiography tends to focus on the equivalence of the cultures in contact, and tends to endorse a realist, even Augustinian understanding of universal human nature. I refer you, for example, to the opening chapter of Richard White's THE MIDDLE GROUND, which is a now canonical work that every graduate student studying early America is expected to know. White focuses there on genocidal warfare between native American societies, and on the accompanying atrocities, which were quite brutal. Similarly, see Bernard Bailyn's THE BARBAROUS YEARS, which convincingly shows European savagery in the new world. Most scholars now point out that the years of English colonization were also the years of the thirty years war, so European savagery was not reserved just for the new world. It is all rather Hobbesian, and spares no one.

Anyway, thank you for the essay--enlightening stuff. I find it dispiriting that the public history in Hawaii has not caught up with the modern historiography, as has happened at, say Historic Jamestowne, here in Virginia.

Well wishes,
Kevin

read full comment
Image of Kevin R. Hardwick
Kevin R. Hardwick
on March 28, 2016 at 08:53:41 am

Yikes. I mangled a sentence, above, which should have read: "You show, convincingly, that public history in Hawaii tends to over-emphasize the virtue of the natives, and you offer instead an account of their society that demonstrates just how vicious it really was."

read full comment
Image of Kevin R. Hardwick
Kevin R. Hardwick
on March 28, 2016 at 10:15:22 am

I am just waiting for Obama to conclude his latest apology tour with a sincere and heartfelt "apology" to his home state of Hawaii.

But ought he to apologize for the behavior of 19th century Americans or for his own Administration. Which do you think it WILL be?

read full comment
Image of gabe
gabe
on March 28, 2016 at 11:20:05 am

Of course the scales were diversities were much greater, but for scholars like Kevin Hardwick, the comparison of the effects of the insertion (or overlay) of Western Civilization into other cultures ( e.g., Polynesian, "Indian," Sinic, "African") is a useful reference for learning and understanding the cultural bases of political structures - including our own.

read full comment
Image of R Richard Schweitzer
R Richard Schweitzer
on March 28, 2016 at 11:44:00 am

Kevin:

On a more serious note than below:

"public history in Hawaii has not caught up with the modern historiography, as has happened at, say Historic Jamestowne..."

The same may be said of, say, The Crusades. Ample literature is available to provide the interested reader with a more balanced assessment of the *excesses* of all the parties involved, European, Muslim AND Byzantine. Yet, as you say, the *public* history is still rather one sided.

Why do you think this is? If a scholar(s) of the various periods undertake a fair study of a period, and the results of such a study refute or at a minimum provide a broader perspective of motivations, actions and results AND no change in the *public* perception (history) is to be observed then perhaps something other than a concern for solid historiography may be at play.

What, then, is necessary to overcome the rather persistent historical narratives that have imbedded themselves in our Public understanding(s)? And why are we so resistant to a change in narrative?

Your comment re: Thirty Years War is, to my mind, the type of observation and commentary that is necessary to provide perspective. It demonstrates both insight and a willingness to look anew at a particular historical period / incident AND it requires nothing more than a willingness to fairly assess the myriad inputs, factors and motivations / impulses AND traditions of a specific time period.

Yet, somehow we refuse to do this.
I suspect because too much *history* nowadays is focused not on the *past* but on the future and what we wish the future to be - a future without the "barbarity" we impute to past Western Civilization.

In order to make the world anew, we must remake the past!

Lotsa luck with that!

take care
gabe

read full comment
Image of gabe
gabe
on March 28, 2016 at 17:20:53 pm

Editor Mark Pulliam oddly wraps American exceptionalism-mystic around a lament of its 2016 presidential campaign. But by presenting his arguments as views about a book on Hawaii, Pulliam does not address the interests of America’s 99%. In America, traditional opinion-based laws, adapted by the American Bar Association competitively imposing Blackstone and its protestant-Christianity on the preamble to the constitution for the USA produced today's failed status. US law needs to be slowly reformed to physics-based ethics, as Pulliam’s essay unintentionally suggested.

The two posts begin with explicit reference to “economic change, comparative advantage, and creative destruction.” Pulliam points out that these trade-driven forces are often made inefficient if not ruined by government interference, a major assertion in Matt Ridely’s book The Rational Optimist, 2010. Pulliam, perhaps unintentionally, states the pertinent first principle of physics-based ethics: “The laws of economics are as unyielding as the law of gravity.” It seems like Pulliam is drawing from Albert Einstein, "The Laws of Science and The Laws of Ethics," 1941. (There are many parallel first principles of physics, such as, civic lying eventually yields to the objective truth, and red-light runners cannot trust green lights let alone yellow ones. I would add to Pulliam’s supporting sentences in that paragraph: Facing starving children, hopeful laborers accept low wages and non-benefits their employers do not recommend for persons.

Pulliam ends the first post with lament for “vague denunciations of ‘failed left-wing policy’,” not examining so-called conservative opinion, as he segues to the double tendencies to “exaggerate the vices of the early European settlers while exaggerating the virtues of pre-contact indigenous cultures,” labeling them “revisionism.” Like racism, "revisionism" is a competitive game of little interest to chemical engineers and other prudent students. But Pulliam combines establishment of civic morality after 1819 with subsequent introduction of Christianity and Western values such as property ownership. The perpetrators of property law do not educate the 99% as to the significance of assets for building financial security. Pulliam concludes “Hawaii never was a paradise.”

Exceptionalist America was never a paradise and is far from it today, as the 2016 presidential campaigns indicate. Greedy capitalists, instead of teaching the way of building financial security—saving and investing—teaches family, faith, community and work as the way to the American dream. Meanwhile, the capitalists collect dividends, not needing to work. The sinister capitalist’s plot is to keep the poor hanging on as consumers, never coaching them to also become share holders: Owners.

It seems to me the candidate most likely to help the people recover from their ignorance about saving and investing is Donald Trump, who says he prays in private and publicly attempts to perform well and learn from his mistakes, yet has the ability to rebuke ugly hypocrites plainly and in kind. I’m willing to take a risk on Trump but no other candidate.

The conclusion of the two-post essay seems to posit, “the story of America [has] a happy ending.” I don’t see how anyone could make that statement, not having examined the timeline of Christianity’s establishment of slavery in America and America’s 2016 chaos brought on by black church’s argument that white Christianity has proven itself erroneous; also, the negative Muslim categorization; also, failure to manage favoritism toward the Mexican work ethic while refusing to educate black Americans. Again, Trump can justly address these hypocrisies.

As long as the right continues to try to impose Christianity and Blackstone-elitism on American governance, there will be chaos in America, and the remedy is being made plain, continually, on this forum. I purposefully avoid reading posts because I learned that most posts are fertile for expression that could lead to attention to Abraham Lincoln’s 1861 statement about “the ultimate justice of the people: “Is there any better or equal hope in the world?” I do not have enough life to address the many posts on this forum. It's up to the editors of the forum to articulate physics-based ethics in their logic--make statements like Pulliam's "The laws of economics are as unyielding as the law of gravity,” fully aware that they express physics-based ethics.

Only a civic people collaborating with a civic people can establish civic morality. The liberal preamble to the constitution for the USA adequately limits and coordinates the civic issues for both adults and personal posterity: children, grandchildren and beyond. Since opinion-based law is such a dismal failure (250 supreme Court reversals), it is clear that opinion’s progeny, religion, cannot be the bedrock of civic morality, but physics-based ethics seems practicable. Under physics-based ethics, every economically-viable, no-real-harm tradition, including Christianity, can thrive.

America can have a happy ending and it can come with this principle: when all persons are coached to be not only consumers but also owners in American civic morality, all classes, justified on actual contributions rather than government contrived advantages, rise to their physic-based excellence.

read full comment
Image of Phil Beaver
Phil Beaver
on March 28, 2016 at 19:12:20 pm

" It’s up to the editors of the forum to articulate physics-based ethics in their logic–make statements like Pulliam’s “

Phil, Old Boy, now you have really gone over the top.
Rather presumptuous of you, I would think, to provide a new task and operating vision for the Editors here at LLB.

Well, I suppose to a certain type of mind that is rather CIVIC.

read full comment
Image of gabe
gabe
on March 29, 2016 at 01:01:50 am

Tourists are led to believe that prior to Captain James Cook’s landing in 1778, life in Hawaii resembled a continual luau, with chaste maidens happily performing hula dances under the swaying palm trees.

Someone thinks that promoting a vision of chaste Hawaiian women would promote tourism – really?

Why not promote tourism with Mark Twain’s reports about swimming with naked locals in the Sandwich Islands? “It was no place for a Presbyterian, and I did not long remain one.” (Ok, in that quote Twain was describing Nevada, but Hawaii could borrow it when Nevada’s not using it.)

read full comment
Image of nobody.really
nobody.really
on March 29, 2016 at 01:21:09 am

My point is … to point out the wide variance between myth and reality here. History—as opposed to ideology—consists of more than victims and oppressors. It is ideology that drives a modern-day Hawaiian “independence movement,” which variously seeks reparations, sovereignty for native Hawaiians similar to that granted to Native Americans, and “de-occupation” of Hawaii by the United States..

Indeed.

I really don’t know what people get taught about Hawaiian history; I learned basically none. But I did get a regular dose of myth regarding the US independence movement.

You know, how burdened colonialists were by taxes – designed to raise funds to pay for the troops used to defend the colonists during the French and Indian Wars. And how colonists were, on average, wealthier than the rest of England’s subjects, so when colonists objected to paying taxes they were, in effect, shifting the cost of their own defense onto the backs of their poorer compatriots across the pond.

But whatever. Perhaps Americans teach a self-justifying creation myth – but at least it’s a story we remember.

In short, history is always told to address contemporary concerns. Don’t like the victimization narrative? Fine, go with a self-justifying narrative. But you need to find some narrative, or else no one will care about the historical account you offer. Accuracy is important, but unless the audience perceives that a story has a point, no one will remember it. And that’s the problem: Reality doesn’t have a point. Rather, it is the perceiver who imposes the point on the reality he perceives.

read full comment
Image of nobody.really
nobody.really
on March 29, 2016 at 10:34:48 am

You are correct about "history is always told to address contemporary concerns." - at least, generally. some do seem to move beyond an attempt at justifying the present, but not many care, or are able to do so.

Yet, I must say that the history of US independence you apparently learned IS somewhat faulty and may be representative of the very type of narratives of which you speak.
Just one example: The colonists did not object to paying for British troops, and almost all colonial Legislatures allocated funds for such purposes. It was, rather, the forced quartering of troops that raised the ire of the colonists - the tax burden - not so much!

More than anything it was the *presumption* of Parliament to "legislate in all cases whatsoever" that finally pushed them to open rebellion. Thus, this is not a case of the rich colonists seeking to transfer costs to their poorer brethren across the ocean. It was not an early precursor of today's "income inequality" issues.

read full comment
Image of gabe
gabe
on March 31, 2016 at 11:59:41 am

Relating to tradition, from www.iep.utm.edu/natlaw/, “Aquinas distinguishes four kinds of law: (1) eternal law; (2) natural law; (3) human law; and (4) divine law.” In our work, “physics-based ethics” extends “eternal law” to cover all civic issues to the extent physics has been discovered and understood. For example, a civic person does not lie, because he or she wants the people's response to express the objective truth. A similar effort, PEEP Physics Ethics Education Project: About PEEP , seems to stop at eternal law.

"Divine law" is restricted to privacy, as it should be, and as people have always known but some deny. I appreciate Christians who can read the Bible and not misuse its misleading words, such as those that many popes and other Christians used to justify slavery. However, the record of Bible hermeneutics respecting slavery establishes sufficient concern to require a revision from opinion-based ethics to physics-based ethics or better. Today, some use hermeneutics to elucidate evidence that the Christian god is black (as if a god has skin). This message is not about Phil Beaver or editors. It stands on its own merit. Borrowing words from R. W. Emerson, it screams from the very walls.

Contrary to your childish, I suppose emotional, attacks, gabe, my work and motives are humble and my work is constant. Your record of attacks would seem shameful to most people who might review it. I feel connected with Michael Polanyi (mh riip), who might be urging you to go with him to worship his god instead of attacking Phil Beaver, a humble person expressing what he thinks.

read full comment
Image of Phil Beaver
Phil Beaver

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.