Susanna Moore’s “Paradise of the Pacific: Approaching Hawaii” is an evenhanded history of how Hawaii has weathered successive ways of colonization, from missionaries to those intent on exploiting its resources, including its paradise-like climate and topography.
‘Paradise of the Pacific: Approaching Hawaii’
by Susanna Moore
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 303 pp., $26
In 1959, James Michener’s sweeping overview of the history of the Hawaiian Islands took readers from the islands’ birth as volcanic rock to its emergence as one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations. Although fiction, it accurately portrayed how missionaries arriving in the 19th century began a process of education and re-education that supplanted the native culture.
The accomplished novelist Susanna Moore (“In the Cut,” “The Life of Objects”), who grew up in Hawaii and has written two evocative memoirs about her childhood home, refines the record in her finely detailed “Paradise of the Pacific: Approaching Hawaii.” Focusing on the period after Captain James Cook made the first recorded contact in 1778, she gives us an evenhanded history of what was lost, and how, with the coming of the West.
She starts by dispelling the notion that Hawaii was a benign place of warm breezes and hula dancers until grim-faced Christian soldiers spoiled the fun. Hawaiian culture was based on an elaborate hierarchy and system of kapu (taboo) which, if violated, often meant punishment by death. Human and animal sacrifice were standard practice, and curses and death spells were so powerful that those afflicted with them were known to perish from fear.
Even the legendary Kamehameha, who consolidated his rule over an archipelago formerly run by rival tribes, had a violent streak that terrorized everyone, including his favorite wife (and future regent), Ka’ahumanu. “Agile, swift and cunning, he was said to be utterly without fear, not only in battle, but, perhaps more important, in his acceptance of new and strange ideas and people,” Moore writes.
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This receptivity to the new came in handy as the “trees moving about on the sea” — one Hawaiian’s poetic perception of sailing ships — appeared with increasing frequency. Kamehameha became rich by exploiting the sandalwood forests — and destroying the old system of mutual dependence — before his death in 1819. His ability to go with the flow accelerated the inevitable decline of native culture and beliefs.
Missionaries from New England arrived within months of Kamehameha’s death to offer his people a new spiritual path. Moore notes that they were greeted with tolerance rather than the tomahawk that some Native American tribes employed. Yet the clash of cultures was immense. The Hawaiians’ playfulness and easygoing attitude about sex — their language contained no word for adultery — were met with humorless disgust.
Still, those who brought the Good Book offered a gentler presence than those who came for commerce. They educated the Hawaiians and gave them a written version of a language that formerly had been only oral. They created “cabinets of curiosity,” sending minerals, seeds and the remnants of small animals back to the mainland for the benefit of science.
Where the missionaries failed, Moore says, was in their inability to recognize the “racial grief,” her words for the sense of loss that could be felt more than seen.
“Incapable of imaginative sympathy,” she writes, “they could not begin to ameliorate the sorrow that was overtaking the Hawaiian people.”
Moore uses Hawaiian spellings (with apostrophes, as in Hawai’i) and provides a glossary of “gods and personages” — a valuable addition given the complicated family structures. “Paradise of the Pacific” is that rare book about Hawaii that will resonate with the serious reader, especially those who have been there and can compare Moore’s meticulous account to the version of native culture that’s delivered to tourists now.