Captive Paradise: A History Of Hawaii, by James L. Haley, read by Joe Barrett
This book has a difficult task and the author manages to succeed in that difficult task fairly well. On the one hand, the author clearly wanted to write a factual and honest history of Hawaii that did not whitewash the past and the recognition that there never was a paradise in Hawaii. On the other hand, though, the author has some clear advocacy and he is intensely critical about American interest in Hawaii as well as the corrupt and underhanded ways by which Hawaiian self-rule was sabotaged and an independent Polynesian republic was brought into the United States under less than honorable means. This is a hard balance to maintain, writing with a clear goal of supporting some repayment being made to native Hawaiians for their losses while not presenting the rule of Hawaiian elites as being civilized or benign for the kanakas under their domination. By and large I think this balance works, even if I would have not been as harsh on the American missionaries, even if they were Calvinists. The end result is a history of 19th century Hawaii that is compelling and exciting.
This audiobook was 11 cds long and most of it covers the period of the 19th century, with a focus on the political history of Hawaii during this time. The book begins with a look at Hawaii when Captain Cook first visited the islands and detailed the insatiable hunger of the islands for iron given their recognition of its superiority to their own technology. After that the authors discuss the unification of Hawaii and the change in culture that came with the introduction of Christianity and its appeal to both elites and masses who had been brutalized by centuries of exploitative rule. The author explores changes in land ownership and the struggle of the Hawaiians to maintain their demography in the face of diseases as well as the dissipation of the Hawaiian ruling dynasties, many of whom were alcoholic, wanted to marry close relatives, or struggled from weight issues and various other ailments. As the book winds its way through various political machinations and the decline of the Hawaiian people and attempts by people on the ground from the UK, France, and finally the US seeking to gain control over Hawaii to add it to colonial empires, there is an understandable mood of sadness and frustration in the material, until it ends with a melancholy look at the end of dynasties and the rule of Hawaii by haoles.
This book tells a tale that is scarcely known outside of Hawaii, and perhaps even there, and it presents the struggles of Hawaiian monarchs to preserve the independence of Hawaii in the face of imperialism on all sides as a Greek tragedy. We know how things turn out, that the Hawaiians will eventually cease to be independent and that a great many parts of Oceania will remain to this day under the rule of European nations or their settler colonists, from Tahiti being under French rule to American rule over Guam, American Samoa, and Hawaii itself, but it is still fascinating to see the rulers of Hawaii struggle to obtain money and preserve their power in the face of imperial ambitions and melancholy to see the death of so many Hawaiians from diseases they simply had no immunity to. The tragedy of this story, that with a bit of wisdom and decency Hawaii could have been preserved under its own rule, is tempered with the author’s realization that in the 19th century no one was going to let Hawaii remain free of some sort of protectorate status, and eventually even with the American reluctance to annex places that had dark-skinned populations that the geopolitical importance of Hawaii in the pacific was simply too much to ignore.