Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell

35 of 52 in my 2011 book blogging challenge.

I listened to the audio version of Unfamiliar Fishes, and I’m so glad I did. Sarah Vowell reads it herself. She has the perfect voice to match the dry wit of her book. And that’s not even the best part. She has a cast of other readers helping out. When she quotes from a diary or letter or other document from days gone by, someone else reads it to represent the voice of the person speaking in the document. This is wonderfully done.

Unfamiliar Fishes is about the Americanization of Hawaii. Like most places that are swallowed up by imperialist interlopers, it was conquered first by missionaries, then by opportunists, and then by politicians. Vowell gives us the story of Hawaii from the time the first New England missionaries arrive until the time it is annexed by the United States, a move that was actually quite unpopular with the native people.

I found the story of the missionaries the most fascinating. They operated as you might expect, without any appreciation whatsoever of the culture they came to convert to their own way of thinking. They learned the language so that they could establish schools and churches, but their goal the entire time was a complete overhaul of the native way of life into something that looked more like the New England way of life. This, combined with the efforts of financial opportunists, resulted in the extinction, not just of Hawaiian customs, but of Hawaiian birds and plants as well. They took over land to grow crops that would sell back home and thus support their own causes, and in doing so they made the islands uninhabitable for several species that existed nowhere else.

The missionaries were also not the nicest of people if you look at things from the native point of view. They were strict in ways that were antithetical to the culture. They put the children in their schools on very sparse diets and beat them if the children tried to forage food for themselves. This, I’m sure, was about building character, but it didn’t work out so well. Some of the better known native students of these early missionary schools, about whom records were kept, grew up to be famously alcoholic, spending whole lives overindulging to make up for the harsh deprivations of childhood.

I’m sure the missionaries had no idea they were to blame. What might have created dutiful, serious-minded children in New England had no good translation into the culture they were attempting to tame.

Still, the missionaries were successful in converting the islands. When annexation by the United States eventually became a real probability, even the native people opposed to becoming Americans invoked the will of God as part of their argument.

It’s easy enough today to sit in judgment of missionaries who were full of vigor but not much sympathy for native people and native customs. The idea of not annihilating one culture in order to enforce your own is really more of a 20th century invention. Back in the day, this was just how empires were born, both for nations and religions, which of course go hand in hand. If you can win them to your religion, it’s so much easier to bring them into your nation. This is why the missionaries always go in first.

All that considered, though, we would still have a hard time accepting some of Hawaii’s native practices as simply the rights of cultural diversity. For one, in the royal families, incest was common. They believed a marriage between a royal brother and sister produced the purest and most powerful kind of royal. For another, they married these royal children to each other when they were only children. You can’t afford to waste time in these matters, I suppose, but like Vowell says, “Reading about these children makes me want to call a social worker.”

These early missionaries very much believed they were fighting the good fight for the Kingdom of the Lord. They had all the best intentions. Yet their methods were often cruel by the standards of the people they went to help, and their efforts went toward furthering the kingdoms of men. They were part of the machinery of imperialism. Missionaries have been serving the causes of imperialism since the days of the Romans. If you can control people through belief, you don’t have to control them through weapons. Governments have always used this fact to their advantage, and the United States is no exception.

That’s what this book is about. Hawaii represented a strategic naval location for the United States, so we acquired it. You can think this is good or bad or whatever else as you will. The fact still remains that we were the imperialists in a country that was not big enough to resist us.

Vowell offers a fascinating and witty account of how this happened. She is in fact hilarious. She may be the first historian I’ve run across who turns history into a stand up comedy routine. I have not read any of her other books, but I certainly plan to now.

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