“Captive Paradise” by James L. Haley

Captive Paradise

Was a Hawaiʻi a paradise? When we think of a paradise, we imagine a place where there is peace, where people are free to make their own choices, and where there are abundant resources. Historian and author James L. Haley argues that ancient Hawaiʻi was not the paradise we believe it was.

In “Captive Paradise: A History of Hawaiʻi” (2014), Haley presents a narrative history of Hawaiʻi, from Captain James Cook’s first visit in 1778 to annexation by the United States in 1898, with a brief overview of the 1900s. After acknowledging that “History is rooted in the reigning ‘politically correct’ paradigm of race, gender, and exploitation” (page xiii), Haley focuses on Hawai’i political history.

From the start, Haley strips the idealism from Hawaiʻi, presenting a Native Hawaiian culture that was diametrically different from Western culture. Native Hawaiians practiced early sexuality and sexual permissiveness, open marriages, polygamy, infanticide, and human sacrifice, at least among the aliʻi. Because there was no continuity of power – when an aliʻi died, his successors fought for land and power – daily life for kanaka (commoners) was filled with warfare, terror, uncertainty, broken families, and the fear of being sacrificed for breaking kapu.

I was challenged by Haley’s conclusion that Native Hawaiian life was sharply defined by two things: kapu (that which is prohibited) and mana (power). He argues that kapu allowed aliʻi to maintain power and justified going to war to build and maintain mana. It was a society in which loyalty to an individual aliʻi was stronger than loyalty to a royal family or bloodline. However, by focusing on aliʻi power struggles, we see kanaka as victims of warring aliʻi, and learn little about the majority of Native Hawaiians’ daily lives and traditions.

Interestingly, it was two high-ranking aliʻi women, Kaʻahumanu and Keopuolani, who began to destroy the kapu system in 1819 – “The only known time in the history of the world when a people threw over a long-established religious system with nothing to replace it” (page 46). And it was five Native Hawaiians – three war survivors and two sons of aliʻi – who brought a new religion and new morality to Hawaiʻi, spurring the first mission to Hawaiʻi in 1820.

I was engaged by the honest characterizations, anecdotes, and commentary about historical figures:
* Kamehameha is portrayed as a strong and ambitious warrior, who wasn’t afraid of new ideas or challenging tradition, but “who was defeated as often as he was victorious” (page 13).
* Keopuolani, Kamehameha’s royal wife of the sacred niʻaupiʻo rank, is described as a woman who was kind, tolerant, and willing to break traditions to raise her own daughter and support the breaking of kapu – even when it reduced her power and privilege.
* Jonah Kuhio Kalaniʻanaole, is depicted as a world traveler and soldier, a confident and daring prince who volunteered and fought in the Second Boer War in South Africa. It was entertaining to read that “While touring Europe, in one happy aftermath of the Germans’ behavior to his aunt at Queen Victoria’s jubilee, a German duke made an unkind observation about their skin color; Kuhio, drawing upon his superior rank and boxing skill, punched him out” (page 339).

I won’t summarize Hawaiian history, but it was sobering to read about the decline in the Native Hawaiian population, and an equal waning of Native Hawaiian culture. While the change of land ownership from ahupuaʻa to fee simple ownership was meant to empower kanaka, encourage Hawaiian families, and appease foreign citizens, it did have unintended consequences. As Haley observes, “Between the [foreign] marriages and the Mahele, much of the wealth of the islands passed out of purely native control” (page 201). The Hawaiian monarchy lasted just 83 years, and there is one flat note in the account of the overthrow of the monarchy: Haley’s remark that “Once again in Hawaiian history, royal overreach led to mayhem” (page 292).

The very last chapter, “Angry Luaus,” offers an overview of Hawaii in the 1900s, but glosses over the tension between a culture of hospitality, the commercialization of the islands, and a historical loss of self-government. “With annexation in 1898 the capture of paradise was accomplished” (page 337), Haley writes with a flourish at the beginning of the chapter. He ends with a statement that “Hawaiʻi was never a paradise” (page 351) and a call to “put right” the economic and cultural exploitation of Hawaii.

“Captive Paradise” offers a thoughtful and compelling narrative, focusing on 120 years of Hawaiian history. It is rich in detail and political commentary, focusing on ali‘i, the monarchy, foreign religious and cultural influences, and foreign governments. Interestingly, the cover art shows a modern map of Hawaiʻi with Hawaiian place names, instead of a historical map of the Sandwich Islands.

* * * 

Note: I would like to thank the publisher, St. Martin’s Press, for sending me an Advance Reading Copy of “Captive Paradise.” No money or other compensation was exchanged for this review; but thanks to their generosity, I was able to read and review “Captive Paradise” sooner than I expected.

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