photo & text by nacrowe
generally whenever the topic of MANIFEST DESTINY is broached in history classes or public discourse, there always seems to be this subtext that everything worked out for the better. that the AMERICAN way of life is good and therefore the relocated native inhabitants benefited in the long run. for a country that broadly boasts and self-identifies with ideals such as LIBERTY and FREEDOM, the question always comes back to exactly whose LIBERTY and whose FREEDOM is being forwarded. definitely not members of the CHEROKEE, WEST AFRICAN or PUERTO RICAN nations among many many others.
UNFAMILIAR FISHES (RIVERHEAD, 2012) by SARAH VOWELL focuses its attention on the annexation of HAWAI'I and the gradual integration of outside RELIGIOUS, COMMERCIAL and MILITARY interests over generations that ultimately supplanted economic and power structures and effectively desecrated their culture and eviscerated their way of life. this is a case study in AMERICAN EXPANSIONISM and how our unchecked IMPERIALIST IMPULSE to satiate our domestic economy is paid in the loss of LIBERTY and FREEDOM of nameless, forgotten others from far reaches of the globe. a legacy that continues to this day in the exploitation of resources and labor by weak foreign governments, who effectively act as complicit lackeys in our global supply chain. the title comes from scholar DAVID MALO who warned that after a big wave, foreign unfamiliar fish come and effect the ecosystem by eating the domestic population. this being a metaphor for allowing foreign influence on the island. unfortunately that prophecy materialized.
before we sold unadulterated CAPITALISM to the natives of HAWAII, we sold them CHRISTIANITY. VOWELL goes to great lengths to showcase how NEW ENGLAND RELIGIOUS and COMMERCIAL (initially WHALING) interests first brought people from the UNITED STATES over to HAWAI'I. it is easy to knock these early PURITAN missionaries. i want to be upfront. i despise missionaries. i loathed them as a PEACE CORPS volunteer in ALBANIA, where they often deliberately conflated being CHRISTIAN with being AMERICAN to the locals. i found myself constantly confronting their ideas in my students at the university as well as locals i tutored. in my mind, all missionaries in general are the height of EGOTISM and XENOPHOBIA since their charter is to change foreign belief structures, not learn from them. i could go on but i wont. just suffice to say that despite all these qualities, the missionaries in HAWAI'I were successful in spreading literacy among all classes of native society and even codified their language with a modified latin alphabet. so i will give them that.
but with those early RELIGIOUS communities came close behind with commercial BUSINESS interests that over time saw the un-utilized land as perfect for the development and exploitation of sugar. with those interests came the imported notion of PROPERTY RIGHTS and a likewise transplanted JUDICIAL SYSTEM to oversee them with foreign lawyers and the like. basically a CIVIL SOCIETY sprung up and within a few generations ultimately outmaneuvered the existing monarchy. as is the case with AMERICAN history, issues regarding COMMERCE and PROPERTY RIGHTS supersede that of HUMAN RIGHTS, or at worse the latter is always contextualized by the former.
it is ever maddening and deeply troubling.
but that is the gift this book provides about a forgotten segment of our history. it seems even more tragic that the annexation was an afterthought during the manufactured SPANISH-AMERICAN WAR. it was a land grab that didnt even need a formal treaty of annexation. within the new context of the UNITED STATES as an imperial power that stretched as far as the PHILIPPINES, for the powers in WASHINGTON DC it was a forgone conclusion. at the expense of the natives, much like those that came before.
this book is thoroughly researched and well-written. it is worthy of investigation of anyone interested in the annexation of HAWAI'I and the distinctly AMERICAN theology of MANIFEST DESTINY that continues unabated to this day.