- from On Water
Years ago, when I was first traveling in the Pacific, Hawai‘i seemed to me the westernmost point of the United States. A colony, yes, but American. Avis, McDonald’s, Hertz, Hilton, United. A further California. But then one day, jogging in Kapi‘olani Park in Honolulu, in the shadow of Diamond Head, I stopped to watch an incredibly violent rugby game, one team Samoans, the other Tongans. And, suddenly, it came clear: Hawai‘i was the northeastern corner of Polynesia, Easter Island the southeastern corner, the Marquesas, Tahiti, Tonga, Samoa, and New Zealand thus Polynesian points west and south. Honolulu, in this view, a kind of Rome of the Pacific, various islanders making their way north and east to the imperial city.
Imagine the exploration and colonization of the Pacific—“a third of the Earth,” as Kenneth Brower calls it—by Polynesians and Melanesians, “out on the monotonous blue, when the horizon had come back around to meet itself and obliterate land behind them.” Their “canoes” often seventy to one hundred feet long, “longer and faster than the…European vessels that first came among them.” When Captain Cook arrived at Kealakekua Bay, for instance, he was surrounded by three thousand “canoes.” In a particularly bravura section of his A Song for Satawal, Brower chants the evolution over millennia—and dispersion through Oceania—of this vehicle “for all the human speciation,” which was itself “speciating all the while…Of the thousands of dead ends and wrong turns…impasses and retrogressions, we have no record.” Of the terminal stages of dispersion, however, witnessed by whites, we do know something. The canoe paddle, for instance, “had become ovate in Fiji, approximately ovate in Hawai‘i, an elongated oval at the Torres Straits, and an elongated oval painted with red-and-black human faces in the northwestern Solomons. It was a finepointed oval painted like a fish in the southeastern Solomons and a broad oval with a beaklike tip in the Marquesas. It was obovate in Raivavai, spatulate in Tuamotu, lanceolate in Nauru, broadly lanceolate in Rapa, lanceolate with acuminate tips in the Carolines, lanceolate and plano-convex in cross section in New Zealand, lanceolate and stiletto thin in the Tanga group of the Bismarck Archipelago, lanceolate and lightly carved in the Mailu Islands, [End Page 152] lanceolate and decorated with carved snakes in New Ireland, lanceolate and inlaid with disks of pearl shell in Manihiki. It was diamond shaped at Cape Direction of Queensland, heart shaped in Orokaiva, spade shaped in the Hermit Islands, banana-leaf shaped in Mangareva, and fountain-pen-nib shaped in the Cook Islands.”
On Easter Island, Brower concludes, “that remotest and easternmost of Polynesia’s outposts,” timber for building canoes was used up, and the paddles “suffered a devolution, or perhaps it was a sublimation. The Easter Island paddle was doublebladed, like a kayak paddle, but with hardly any shaft separating the blades. One blade of each pair was decorated, and the other was plain. The decorated blade was carved in low relief into a radically simplified semblance of a human face, and in some paddles the face was painted with black-and-white patterns identical to the facial tattoos of the Marquesas, the ancestral homeland. The plain blade of each pair was obovate and businesslike. With a longer shaft, and without the encumbrance of its tattooed twin, it might actually have propelled a canoe.”
The Polynesian past. History is, as they say, written by the victors, but it is also a Rorschach test: we read in it what we are able to see. By 1870, after a century of contact with Europeans, there were perhaps forty thousand Native Hawaiians, down from a population that may have been more than five hundred thousand. There was now also leprosy, which Hawaiians called ma‘i Pākē, Chinese disease. Transmitted by the imported Chinese laborers or not, leprosy, as the Hawaiians well knew, came from outside. Despite the developing science of bacteriology, no vaccine had been devised for the recently discovered bacillus leprae. Many haoles, Gavan Daws explains, believed leprosy was associated with venereal disease or a form of it: Hawaiians were...