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  • Sharks upon the Land: Colonialism, Indigenous Health, and Culture in Hawai‘i, 1778–1855 by Seth Archer
  • Juliet Nebolon
Sharks upon the Land: Colonialism, Indigenous Health, and Culture in Hawai‘i, 1778–1855. By Seth Archer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. xv + 285 pp. Appendices. Bibliography. Illustrated. Index. $49.99 cloth.

In Sharks upon the Land, Seth Archer traces the role of health and disease in Hawai‘i during the period of 1778–1855. Archer emphasizes the chronic impact of health crises—including disease epidemics, infertility, infant mortality, reduced lifespan, and daily discomfort and pain—upon Hawaiian history and culture. Archer endeavors to illustrate how Hawaiian ali‘i and maka‘āinana encountered and negotiated these health crises, and further, the various ways in which this history of health intersected with and affected the histories of colonial land dispossession, increasing class inequality, and the marginalization and displacement of Native Hawaiians.

Beginning with Captain James Cook’s expedition to Hawai‘i in 1778, Archer tracks the transmission of venereal diseases to sexual relations between British explorers and Hawaiian women, and connects this transmission to a rise in infant mortality and birth defects, as well as infertility among Hawaiians. He argues that despite attempts by Cook to quarantine those with the [End Page 168] disease and kapu imposed by Hawaiian ali‘i, diseases such as gonorrhea and syphilis continued to spread, along with discord that eventually escalated to an armed conflict in which many Hawaiians, as well as several explorers and Cook himself, were killed (p. 39). Archer then traces Hawaiian exchanges with other nations through the next two generations. Again, he points to relationships between Hawaiian women and British sailors, and what he describes as a “growing sex trade” that expanded from coastal ports to inland communities between 1786–1795, as well as a growing trade in commercial and material goods (pp. 75–79). He also uses a combination of travel journals and a Hawaiian language medical book to theorize that, while George Vancouver and other British travelers had assumed that Kahekili had died from old age or excessive ‘awa consumption, his death was actually likely due to a disease such as tuberculosis, which was often treated with ‘awa (pp. 80–81). In the period from 1800–1820, Archer traces the consolidation of Kamehameha’s rule over the islands and discusses the ‘ōku‘u (perhaps cholera or typhoid) epidemic of 1804 that contributed to rapid depopulation during this period. While British visitors such as William Robert Broughton believed this depopulation to be due to constant warfare (p. 94), Archer illustrates how this was actually due to a myriad of health factors, including diseases like tuberculosis and scabies; the trade in sex, liquor, and tobacco; and the increased class inequality and labor of maka‘āinana in the sandalwood trade.

Next, Archer analyzes the “cultural revolution” of 1818–25. The author emphasizes the role of elite Hawaiian women’s health experiences, including sexual and reproductive health and low fertility, in consolidating this transition. At the same time, Archer argues that these reforms, such as the ending of ‘ai kapu, allowed American Protestantism to strengthen its influence in the islands (pp. 126–127). Beginning in 1826, Archer emphasizes the extent to which widespread poor health, depopulation, and infertility affected the culture and life views of Hawaiians. Significantly, during this period, up to 22,000 people died in Hawai‘i, yet there was no reported epidemic during this time (p. 200). He credits what he refers to as this “Great Fatalism” with the further Christianization of Hawai‘i, during which time New England missionaries were able to rise to positions of influence in the islands, which had long and far-reaching effects on the intensification of American colonial control (p. 170). Finally, Archer tracks the role of health problems— including smallpox and other epidemics, decreased fertility, early death, and rising poverty and economic inequality—in the political transitions of the 1840s, including the 1845 Organic Acts and the Māhele (pp. 212–216). Concluding with the smallpox epidemics in the late 1840s and early 1850s, Archer connects this rapid depopulation with the importation of immigrant contract labor, which would irrevocably change the political, economic...


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