Aloha, Imperialism: Sarah Vowell’s Unfamiliar Fishes

March 22, 2011 | 7 4 min read

covercoverSarah Vowell is most frequently called a popular historian, but really she’s a nerd. In Partly Cloudy Patriot, a collection of her essays, she describes being a nerd as “going too far and caring too much about a subject,” and by her own admission she fits that description. After all, she barfed her way through a long ferry ride just to visit an island prison where an alleged Lincoln assassination conspirator had been jailed while she was researching Assassination Vacation. But she goes on to say that being a nerd is “the best way to make friends I know.” Or, in her case, legions of fans.

Vowell is most specifically a civics nerd, researching and writing about the little known, salient clues hidden in American history. She is something of a patriotic anomaly – an educated cynic whose understanding of how routinely America screws up doesn’t dampen her national pride. It helps that she habitually develops a fondness for her research subjects, whether they be presidential assassins or Hawaiian missionaries, so that even when she’s writing about their detrimental contribution to the American story, you can tell she gave them a fair trial. This double-sided approach – a keen insight into the forces of history combined with an appreciative delight in the coincidental – is so unmistakably her own it might as well be called Vowelling.

coverIn her new book, Unfamiliar Fishes, she Vowells the story of Hawaii’s Americanization – from the first American immigrants in 1820 to the annexation of Hawaii in 1898. Although we hear little of it on the mainland, there is a small but ardent group of Hawaiians who maintain that the annexation was invalid, and don’t consider Hawaii a U.S. state. Not surprisingly, they have something of a point. Annexation was passed by a joint resolution, which, as Vowell says, is what New Jersey would ask for if they wanted Congress to proclaim tomorrow “Bon Jovi Day.”

The decades of American presence leading up to annexation, however, are much more nuanced. The American Board of Commissions for Foreign Missions sent its first batch of missionaries to Hawaii in 1820 to use the influence of “the school, the pulpit, and the press” to civilize, educate, and convert the Hawaiians. Imperialist intentions aside, they enacted a lot of good.

Upon their arrival, there was no written form of the Hawaiian language. Looking to translate the Bible, the missionaries developed the 12-letter Hawaiian alphabet – with its kooky 5/7 vowel to consonant ratio that make half the words sound like yawns – and taught the Hawaiians to read. By 1863, the literacy rate had jumped from zero to 75%, as compared to 63% in Europe, and 40% in the United States (including slaves).

The missionaries started schools and churches, and helped developed the Hawaiian economy. After a brief, rocky assimilation, the missionaries worked closely with the Hawaiian royal family. Generations of Hawaiian kings and queen sought and followed the advice of the Americans (and, a tip: keep a running family tree of those kings and queens while you read, their names are bonkers to keep track of).

All this friendly coexistence, which started out as a few Americans with some helpful ideas, eventually caused a power shift, but it’s hard to say exactly when. Unlike other instances of American helpfulness, no Hawaiians were forced out, shipped off, or disenfranchised (just yet). In essence, the Americans just kept coming in bigger numbers, and nobody stopped to point out that their influence was becoming overwhelming. The missionary ranks swelled, and Hawaii became a favorite getaway for the whaling industry. “The sailors as well as the missionaries, most of them born with 150 miles of Boston Harbor, established a new front of America’s time-honored culture war halfway around the world. ‘Evidently the Pacific was a Boston suburb,’ Earl Derr Biggers wrote in 1925.”

The Hawaiian royals, as far as conquests go, were remarkably pliant. In the 1820s, when the death of his brother made him the heir to the throne, “Kauikeaouli was around twelve years old and the princess was eight to ten. There is much gossip (but no evidence) that by this early age brother and sister were already sleeping together, per the Hawaiian custom.” Custom or no – gross, right? But less than 20 years later, “King Kauikeaouli hired missionary William Richards to tutor him and the other high chiefs at Lahaina in political science,” eventually turning Hawaii into a constitutional monarchy.

By no means am I relaying these facts as a way of absolving American’s eventual takeover. Rather, Vowell’s book makes it clear that the Americanization of Hawaii was uniquely welcomed. It’s a puzzle exactly how much to bemoan annexation, or who to blame for Hawaii’s loss of independence, when the road to it was free of resistance.

By the time Hawaiians did start pushing back, it was far too late. American settlers owned loads of land and high government positions, and they really wanted a naval base. Hawaii’s last queen, Liliuokalani, attempted to organize a resistance, but she was imprisoned and forced to abdicate the throne. It was open-hearted of the Hawaiians to assume that the settlers would educate and modernize their society out of pure generosity, but ultimately naïve. Their history was already too intertwined with that of America to reverse. Perhaps this moment – when they realized their best interests had been undermined while they sat idly by – was when they truly became Americans.

Queen Liliuokalani, on a trip to Washington to lobby against annexation, attended William McKinley’s inauguration. Vowell writes, “I wonder what she would have thought if she had known, witnessing that inaugural parade, that 112 years later, the first Hawaiian-born president of the United States would be inaugurated and in his parade, the marching band from Punahou School, his alma mater (and that of her enemies), would serenade the new president by playing a song she had written, “Aloha ‘Oe.”

I personally think her head would have exploded. “Aloha ‘Oe” is about saying farewell, which she wrote after she took a horseback ride on Oahu and saw two lovers doing just that. It’s a beautiful, elegiac song, and has become an anthem for the lost Hawaii – the simple, independent Hawaii that Americans co-opted. To see a bunch of high school kids playing it on the streets of the U.S. capital definitely would have been weird for her.

The weird eventualities of a complicated past are Sarah Vowell’s expertise. It’s easy to see why she was attracted to this project, where there are no clear villains or heroes, just two worlds colliding to create a third, hybrid world. In her blunt, pithy way, Vowell shows us around that world and lets us draw our own conclusions.

is a staff writer for The Millions. Janet is a freelance writer and semi-professional baker living in Chicago. Her writing has appeared in The Awl, The AV Club, the Chicago Reader, and Chicago Magazine. She is the co-host of YouTube's The Book Report and blogs about presidential biographies at At Times Dull. Follow her @sojanetpotter.