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?