Sunday, June 27, 2010

Representations: Boki and the Russians


Mikhail Tikhanov, (portrait of Boki aboard the sloop Kamchatka, c1818)
Scientific Research Museum of the Russian Academy of Arts, Saint Petersburg, Russia

What's with the sour face? Was Boki being a party pooper? I doubt it. He was probably just drunk. Maybe he was a tad uncomfortable, too. Here he is on the deck of a ship in Honolulu harbor. Everyone around him is speaking Russian. He's had too much to eat and too much to drink, and perhaps the Russian fare that they brought up from down below was not sitting well in his stomach. With the sun beating down on his head, he is sweating in his oppressive ʻahuʻula (feathered cape) and mahiole (feathered helmet). Boki wore this outfit only on important state occasions, and this was one of them: feasting with the visiting Russian explorer, Captain Vasily Golovnin.

The ship's resident artist, Mikhail Tikhanov, was apparently more interested in the traditional Hawaiian feathered garments than he was in the men wearing them. That's why he added a profile view of Kahekili Keʻeaumoku, the Governor of Maui, behind Boki, in order to feature the distinctive shape of the mahiole helmet. And another mahiole of a different style was placed right in front of Boki, seemingly floating or being held by Boki's left hand. Compared to the better-known portrait of Boki and his wife by John Hayter (see this image in an earlier post), Tikhanov's representation shows us a rather weak, unromantic individual, almost the butt of the Russians' joke here, which may well be that: we'll make you feel special today as we wine and dine you in your feathered garments, but once the alcohol sets in (as Boki's eyes reveal it already is), we'll take what we need and want from you. We (Russia) are the great empire, and you (the Hawaiian Kingdom) are our potential colony.

Why were Russians in Honolulu in 1818?

So what is this all about? What were Russians doing in Honolulu in 1818? Well, Captain Vasily Golovnin was an explorer who, in the tradition of the great Russian navigators Vladimir Atlasov and Vitus Bering (the Bering Strait is named after him), was sent by the Russian state to explore the Pacific world in even greater detail. See, Imperial Russia in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was much like Imperial USA of the nineteenth century, except where the Americans desired to keep pushing further west, the Russians desired to go east. These forces eventually met on the Pacific coast of North America from California in the south to Alaska in the north. But Hawaiʻi, too, was a meeting ground of the world's great empires: the Russians had conquered much of Alaska, establishing their colonial capital of Sitka there by the turn of the nineteenth century; they had also established Fort Ross near San Francisco, California, by 1812. Russians had visited Hawaiʻi as early as 1804, and in the 1810s they began to turn up the juice on their imperial plans to include Hawaiʻi within their great Pacific empire!

Golovnin had already traveled the world once, in 1807-1809. When he wasn't sailing, he lived on the very outskirts - the frontier - of imperial Russia. He lived in Kamchatka, on the Pacific Ocean, and elsewhere in Russia's Far East, even in Alaska (or Russian North America as it was then called). But even though he was a frontiersman and explorer, his reports traveled somewhere totally different: to the imperial capital of Saint Petersburg. The knowledge that he gained about the different peoples, places, and resources of the Pacific world were meant to inform the Russian government of what was out there for the taking.

From 1817-1819 Golovnin traveled across the Pacific as captain of the Kamchatka. This time he made important stops along the Alaska coast and in Hawaiʻi where his crew, including the artist Tikhanov, observed and studied the indigenous peoples. When Golovnin and his crew arrived in the Hawaiian Islands in October 1818, they encountered the tail-ends of a surprising scene of Russian-Hawaiian conflict. A german doctor, Georg Schaffer, had taken it upon himself, after arriving in the islands upon a Russian-American Company ship, to seize the islands on behalf of the Russian empire! He failed, but what he did accomplish was to cause the Hawaiian Kingdom to lose trust in their Russian trading partners. Schaffer had joined up with the defiant aliʻi (the ruling chief) of Kauaʻi, Kaumualiʻi, who had long refused to submit to Kamehameha's conquest of his islands: Kauaʻi and Niʻihau. These islands were now "vassal states" of the Hawaiian Kingdom, but throughout the 1810s and early 1820s Kauaʻi and Niʻihau teetered on the edge of the Hawaiian empire, always ready to regain their sovereignty should the decisive opportunity arrive. Schaffer's plans may have looked like that opportunity for a while: he built a grand fort, Fort Elizabeth, adjacent to the Waimea River where most of Kauaʻi's trade took place. But in the end it simply took the Russian government to step in and say "who is this Schaffer guy, and what is he doing in Hawaiʻi in our name?" to end the whole ordeal. Without government support, Schaffer's plan for the Russian conquest of Hawaiʻi ended quickly and quietly.

The Waimea River, Kauaʻi.
Here occurred the first sighting of haole in Hawaiian history (1778: Cpt. Cook) and here also was once a bustling port of trade in the early nineteenth century, a great location for a fort...

A view from inside Russian Fort Elizabeth in Waimea, Kauaʻi. Built in 1816 by Hawaiians under the direction of Georg Schaffer, the Russian flag came down pretty soon after it was built. The Hawaiian Kingdom utilized the fort until the 1860s. Today it stands as a testament to the once-possibility that Hawaiʻi could have become a Russian colony!


Dinner with Golovnin and Boki

Who was Mikhail Tikhanov? Hard to say. He was a Russian painter, but perhaps he was so many other things. All we know are his paintings from this one trip (1817-1819) with Cpt. Golovnin. He was apparently told to capture what makes the different peoples of the greater Pacific unique: so he focused on clothing, jewelry, hairstyles, tattoos, anything cultural about the way that Pacific peoples used their bodies and their material resources. He also made images of the flora and fauna of the places where he went. All of this information was useful to the Russian Empire, especially information on the habits, wants, and needs of the indigenous people within and on the borders of their empire; if Russia could satisfy these peoples, then they could achieve access to the resources they wanted from these peoples: furs from the Alaskans and sandalwood from the Hawaiians.

Tikhanov, Aleut in Festival Dress in Alaska (1818)
Scientific Research Museum of the Russian Academy of Arts, Saint Petersburg, Russia
(Source: Wikipedia)
Tikhanov focused on the unique material cultures of the peoples he and Golovnin encountered. Understanding how different peoples used and valued material goods was useful information for an empire attempting to gain access to both new products and new consumers.

More examples of Tikhanov's paintings can be found on the website for the California Academy of Science's exhibit, Russia's Great Voyages.

I want to know more about how Boki and Tikhanov interacted. David Forbes, in his book Encounters in Paradise, tells us that on October 27, 1818, Cpt. Golovnin of the Kamchatka dined in Honolulu with a number of Hawaiian and haole officials, including William Heath Davis Sr., an American merchant and soon-to-be father of William Heath Davis Jr.; Boki, the Governor of Oʻahu; and Kahekili Keʻeaumoku, the Governor of Maui.

The following day, Cpt. Golovnin returned the invitation and hosted the Hawaiians on board his ship, the Kamchatka. Boki, Kahekili, and others, showed up dressed in their finest, most traditional aliʻi costume: including all the feathered garments they could muster (see my earlier post on feathers and featherwork to understand what these garments symbolized). The Hawaiians ate dinner with the Russians in the afternoon onboard the ship. Gifts were exchanged: Boki gave Golovnin ten pigs - useful food for a long voyage at sea; Golovnin gave Boki a telescope - a foreign material object embodying the mana of Russia's most powerful men.

After the food and the gifts, then what? How long did Boki and his fellow aliʻi and their wives spend onboard the ship? Was there music? Was there dancing? Did Boki actually pose - stand still - for Tikhanov, or had Tikhanov whipped off a pencil sketch during the ceremonies and then created Boki's stance and facial expression only after the fact? 

Tikhanov, Boki and Hekili on the sloop "Kamchatka" (1818)
Scientific Research Museum of the Russian Academy of Arts, Saint Petersburg, Russia

Thankfully we have this more involved painting by Tikhanov to help us better understand the context of Boki's, and the Hawaiian aliʻi's, relationships with the Russians onboard the ship. Here the frame of Tikhanov's portrait has zoomed out, revealing the world around sour-faced Boki. There is surprisingly not much more to Boki's costume than the headshot already revealed. Boki dressed traditionally, with nothing but a kapa (tapa) malo (loincloth) on his body underneath the ʻahuʻula and mahiole. But Boki's costume is not complete without the material objects in his hands: in his left hand is a half-full bottle of alcohol; in his right hand is a glass full of the drink. So that explains why Boki looked so drunk in his headshot! He really was drunk! But what does Tikhanov care? Well, we have to imagine how this image would have been viewed back in Saint Petersburg. What would the imperialists in Saint Petersburg have learned about Hawaiians from this image? For one thing they would have learned that Hawaiian leaders, such as Boki, enjoyed alcohol. That's actually really important information: Boki is depicted as "won over" by the niceties of the Russians. Alcohol works. Just think how much harder building the Russian empire would have been if none of the indigenous peoples of the Pacific world enjoyed Russian liquor!

To Boki's right are two Hawaiian women - aliʻi wives (we can tell from their costume) - sitting atop of Russian cannons. Here is a great contrast: docile, semi-clad women and a drunk leader, all seemingly impervious to the cannons and cannonballs right beneath them, impervious to the military and/or geopolitical posturing underscoring the whole Russian performance: the feast, the exchanging of gifts. Of course, Boki and his friends would have known exactly what they were getting into. They were more than willing to give sandalwood to the Russians in exchange for goods of foreign manufacture, including alcohol. The cannons surely did not scare them: they had just expelled Georg Schaffer from the Hawaiian Kingdom and had reasserted their sovereignty...

What else is going on in the painting? Kahekili Keʻeaumoku, Governor of Maui, is facing away from Tikhanov, apparently talking to someone, perhaps showing off his spear. Hidden behind the aliʻi women is a servant holding a kahili (feather standard).

Isn't it interesting that these five Hawaiians are lingering off alone in a corner of the ship? Where are the Russians? Why are these two different groups not mingling and laughing together? Can you imagine how awkward that afternoon must have felt for the Hawaiians? How much Russian could they speak? What about English? Was English their lingua franca? What if, under the circumstances of being the Russians' guests, Boki felt obligated to hold the bottle of alcohol, obligated to drink? Clearly we cannot overestimate the performative aspect of that afternoon upon the Kamchatka. Not only were the Russians performing (and posturing as I've said), but so were the Hawaiians. This was grand performance art; the layers of meaning caked up like paint by Tikhanov are incredibly hard to peel away after the fact.

Of all the Hawaiians, I imagine Boki most enjoyed himself that day. Why? Because for the next ten years he seems to have always gotten himself into these situations. He was well known for making many haole (foreigner) friends, for being attached to drink, for giving haole whatever they wanted or needed in exchange for what he wanted: status, power, and the material goods to prove it. Boki's life is actually easiest to understand backwards: starting with his untimely death at sea on an incredible mission to colonize a South Pacific island to support Hawaiʻi's sandalwood trade, and then tracing backwards from this moment of insanity to understand how sandalwood become important for him, how material wealth became important for him. This view of Boki helps illuminate how the seeds planted on the deck of the Kamchatka in 1818 - the overture of Boki's foreign relations - eventually led him to sacrifice his own world and his own life for the pursuit of power and profit. 

For more on Boki and Russian representations of Hawaiʻi, see:

Gavan Daws, "The High Chief Boki," Journal of the Polynesian Society 75, no.1 (1966): 65-83.

David W. Forbes, Encounters with Paradise: Views of Hawaii and its People, 1778-1941 (Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press, 1992).

And of course, if you happen to be in Saint Petersburg, visit the Scientific Research Museum of the Russian Academy of Arts.

Mahalo!

Monday, June 14, 2010

Hawaiians in North America, 1834-1865

This is a post about the remarkable lives of Hawaiians who lived and worked in North America during the mid-nineteenth century. Growing up on the US mainland my whole life, I always thought that Hawaiʻi was part of North America! All the maps and atlases my family has ever owned, or that I have ever seen, always included Hawaiʻi as part of the US, and the US as part of North America. In fact, most of these atlases either failed to include any chapter on Oceania, and the many island nations of the Pacific were left out altogether, or rather the islands were split up imperially, and assigned to the various continents from whence came their conquerors. 

Ever seen Hawaiʻi depicted in an oddly-shaped box in the lower-left hand corner of a map of the US mainland? That's what I'm talking about: Hawaiʻi as part of North America makes geographic nonsense!

A standard map of the United States, excluding all territories such as Puerto Rico, Guam, etc. (as if we are not an empire), and representing Alaska and Hawaiʻi as "Halaska" (as John Whitehead has called it):
the 49th and 50th states have been stuffed into western Mexico! 

Before 1898, Hawaiʻi was an independent kingdom, and North America was a far-away land. The history of Hawaiians in North America during the mid-nineteenth century is truly remarkable. Did you know that decades before Chinese came to California to work in mining and on the railroads, and even before many Euro-Americans were out there seeking gold, when California was still part of Mexico, that Hawaiians lived in all the major port cities of California, and that Hawaiians comprised approximately 10% of the population of San Francisco? (Compare that with the 2000 census which recorded Hawaiians comprising only 0.06% of the city's population!) Or did you know that suburban Long Island, NY, was once home to a number of communities of Hawaiian ex-patriate sailors and whalers, and that the Hawaiian language could be heard spoken among the streets and taverns of Cold Spring Harbor, NY? Or did you know that citizens of the Hawaiian Kingdom served in the American Civil War?

Hawaiians in Mexican California, 1834-36

I recently finished reading Richard Henry Dana Jr.'s Two Years Before the Mast. The book tells the story of Dana's voyage from Boston to California and back during the years 1834-36. His ship was engaged by the firm Bryant & Sturgis to procure animal hides (cattle hides, I believe) from the Spanish mission towns along the California coast. Once procured, Dana and his fellow sailors spent much of their time curing the hides so that they could stay preserved during the long voyage back to Boston. The curing process was quite interesting:

The hides were skinned off the cows and holes were punctured in either end of the hide. The hides were then suspended on stakes in the sun to dry (and get "as stiff as boards," according to Dana). Oxen and mules were used to transport hides from the mission towns to the beach. Many beaches, however, were unreachable from above due to soaring cliffs along the ocean's edge: so they had to fling the hides down from above. But sometimes hides got stuck in cavities in the cliff wall, so, some adventurous sailor had to scramble down the cliff wall with ropes in order to dislodge the hide and send it soaring to the beach below. Down on the beach, the hides were cured: staked in the ground exposed at low tide and allowed to soak in the sea water when the tide came in; rolled up and thrown into vats of brine (sea water with extra salt added) and brined for 48 hours; stretched and staked to sun dry again; all the bad parts were then cut off with knives; then the hides were scraped to remove the grease which the sun brought out; dried in the sun some more; then staked and beaten to remove dust; then stowed in the beachside hide-house for later pick-up. Eventually, the hides then made their way (in a boat like the one Dana was in) to Boston. The hides were then tanned and made into shoes and other leather products in New England. Whew!

A sculpture representing a man throwing a cowhide off the cliff's edge at Dana Point, California. The cliffs off which Dana and his colleagues threw their hides are visible in the background. (Source: Wikipedia)

Dana soon discovered that this lengthy process of hide procurement and curing was impossible without the help of Hawaiian labor. Indeed, I think fewer New England consumers would have worn nice leather shoes in the 1830s and 40s if not for the Hawaiians who helped process the animal hides that eventually became those shoes! The most conspicuous Hawaiian community that Dana met with was in San Diego, but Hawaiians also lived in Santa Barbara and elsewhere. In Santa Barbara, Dana met Hawaiians employed by a British vessel collecting hides. Hawaiians were favored for this type of work because of their "amphibious" skills: as strong swimmers and comfortable with ocean surf, Hawaiians were depended upon for carrying the hides (1 or 2 at a time) on their heads to a boat waiting waist-deep offshore. They carried the hides on their heads to keep them dry from the water. Dana admired these "water-dogs" as he called them, who are "very good in boating" and "very good hands in the surf."

Dana's first impression of Hawaiians was altogether negative. This was due, I think, to his immediately racial response: he considered Santa Barbara "...a little dark-looking town, a mile from the beach; and not a sound to be heard, or anything to be seen, but Sandwich Islanders [Hawaiians], hides, and tallow-bags" [emphasis added]. Associating Hawaiian laborers with stinky hides, tallow-bags and darkness (racial language), he thought unfavorably of Santa Barbara when compared to the more "Christian" parts of California he had seen.

But Dana soon learned to respect, admire, and make friends with the California Hawaiian community, especially the community in San Diego. In San Diego, Dana encountered approximately 20 Hawaiian males living and working on the beach. They had each worked on various vessels, had been paid their lay (their earnings), and were basically living it up on their own, living off their savings, and just relaxing on the beach. They all lived together in an abandoned brick oven built by Russians at some previous time. It was a big brick bread oven, and 15-20 Hawaiian men lived together inside it! Dana got to calling the oven the "Kanaka Hotel" or the "Oahu Coffee-house." ("Kanaka" means "person" in Hawaiian, and was apparently the way that Hawaiians referred to themselves when among haole [foreigners]; Dana writes that his Hawaiian friends told him that there were but two types of people in this world: kanaka and haole.) He visited the Hawaiians at the oven often for evenings of companionship. The oven was decorated with mats for carpeting and bedding. The Hawaiians lived on cow meat (they purchased and slaughtered one cow per week from the mission town) and on "fruit, liquor, and provisions" also purchased in town.

Dana's captain eventually hired four of these San Diego Hawaiians to help with hide collection and hide curing on the beach. They were "Mr. Bingham" (named after the missionary Hiram Bingham), "Hope" (named after a vessel he had served in), "Tom Davis" (named after his first captain), and "Pelican" (named after a bird he fancied he resembled [or someone else fancied he resembled]). I believe that these Hawaiian men actively chose these names (with the possible exception of "Pelican") as a way of appropriating the best of what they admired about haole people and their culture, and as a way of liberating themselves from their past lives and beginning new, adventurous lives under new identities. I believe these aspirations were part and parcel of why men like "Hope," "Tom Davis," and "Pelican" went abroad in the first place....

Some of the Hawaiians in San Diego could read and write English and Hawaiian; and some were illiterate. Some had been in the United States; and some only knew Mexican California; and some only knew of Hawaiʻi before arriving in California. Now and then, Dana gave the Hawaiians a voice in his narrative, such as when the captain of Dana's ship attempted to persuade some of the San Diego Hawaiians to work for him:

“ ‘What do you do here, Mr. Mannini?’ said the captain.

‘Oh, we play cards, get drunk, smoke—do anything we’re a mind to.’

‘Don’t you want to come aboard and work?’

Aole! Aole make make makou i ka hana. Now, got plenty money; no good, work. Mamule, money pau—all gone. Ah! Very good, work!—maikai, hana hana nui!

‘But you’ll spend all your money in this way,’ said the captain.

‘Aye! Me know that. By-‘em-by money pau—all gone; then Kanaka work plenty.'”

There is a nice sense given here of the Hawaiians' agency; they refused to work for the haole captain, choosing instead to enjoy their earnings in whatever way they pleased. Surely they appeared to be in no rush to return home to Hawaiʻi with their savings, although their families back home might have wished that they would.

My favorite image from Dana's book is of one night in San Diego when itinerant laborers of all ethnicities came together to sing and dance the songs of their native countries for each other. Dana recorded that 2 Englishmen, 3 Yankees, 2 Scotchmen, 2 Welshmen, 1 Irishman, 3 Frenchmen, 1 Dutchmen, 1 Austrian, 2-3 Spaniards, 6 Spanish-American creoles, 2 Native Chileans, 1 African-American, 1 African-American "mulatto", 20 Italians, 20 Hawaiians, 1 Marquesan, and 1 Tahitian all attended, performed, and shared their heritage as part of this multicultural extravaganza! Oh, how I wish I could have been there, for that; so it is no wonder to me that these Hawaiian men sought out such remarkable experiences, just as I would have...

View of the historic "Plaza Church" in the Pueblo de Los Angeles. Dana, and maybe some Hawaiians, too, would have seen and perhaps visited this church during the 1830s when Los Angeles was but a small mission town.

View of San Francisco Bay from Angel Island. Dana did not specifically mention Hawaiians living in tiny San Francisco at the time, but other data suggests that Hawaiians comprised fully 10% of San Francisco's population in the 1840s.

View of the Pacific Ocean and the beach at Santa Monica. It did not happen precisely here, but I can easily imagine the Hawaiians living in their brick oven on this beach, looking west out upon the Pacific, thinking about their home beyond the horizon.

Hawaiians in Long Island, New York

Just as Hawaiians "jumped ship" in Honolulu or Lahaina and ended up living and working on the coast of California, other Hawaiians ended up "jumping" onto whalers and finding themselves "let go" in New England and Long Island whaling ports. Few of the Hawaiian men who signed ship's articles in Honolulu to serve on the bark Alice likely knew where Cold Spring, New York, was. But after a few seasons of chasing whales across the North Pacific in the early 1860s, these Hawaiian men may have ended up there (today's Cold Spring Harbor, NY) upon the completion of their voyage. Arriving in Cold Spring would have been a homecoming for the ship's captain and mates (many of whom probably began their journey there); but for the Hawaiians, however, we can only guess what emotions they felt upon first arriving in Long Island; for some of them, it may have been their first experience of the United States. We know that some Hawaiians stayed in Cold Spring instead of returning to Hawaiʻi.

A list of the sailors shipping out from Honolulu on the bark Alice in December 1860 for a whaling voyage. The Alice was a Cold Spring Harbor whaling ship. 

The Hawaiians taking part in this voyage included:
William Frazer, 15 years old
Haole, 37 years old
Naono?, 29 years old
Kanaka, 26 years old
Akalu? or Lohu?, 17 years old
Pua Kalehoa or George?, 17 years old
Kapali or Bill ___?, 20? years old

[Note that "Haole" is the Hawaiian term for a foreigner. This man, however, was not non-Hawaiian; the list confirms him to be of "copper" skin tone, so we know that he was a Native Hawaiian. Why he took a name that basically means "white man" is up for debate, but what better name to take by someone hoping to reinvent himself on an adventure away from home?]
[Also note that "Kanaka" is the Hawaiian term for person, and is the term used by Euro-Americans to refer to all Polynesian peoples. We can assume that someone else has given "Kanaka" this essentially name-less name. Sometimes this happened when Euro-Americans had trouble writing the person's true Hawaiian name]
[You can probably tell I am fascinated by this process of (re-)naming!]

Also onboard were at least 2 Easter Islanders, 4 Tahitians, and one New Zealander...

Imagine the fun all these young Polynesian men had once they had finally unloaded all the whale oil, &c, at Cold Spring Harbor. We don't know exactly what Polynesian life was like in Cold Spring, but we do know that Hawaiians lived in apartments on Bedlam Street (today's Main Street); Hawaiians and other Polynesians also hung out on the porch of the Stone Jug, a tavern/inn? on Bedlam Street. There they sat and carved bone ornaments. Carving whale bone ornaments, also known as scrimshaw, was hardly unique to the Polynesians, as it was a pastime of the Euro-American sailors as well. I have visited two whaling museums on Long Island - Cold Spring Harbor Whaling Museum and Sag Harbor Whaling Museum. Both museums hold large collections of scrimshaw carved and decorated by Euro-American whalers, but I have yet to see any piece attributed to a Polynesian whaler/sailor. I have often looked the scrimshaw over for any Polynesian-style designs or representations of Polynesian people or places on the scrimshaw, but always in vain. Someday I hope to find examples of the ornaments that these Hawaiians carved on the porch of the Stone Jug in Cold Spring!

The North Shore of Long Island / The Long Island Sound. Hawaiian sailors would have seen this beach on their journey west towards Cold Spring Harbor. What were their emotions upon seeing this foreign land?

 Cold Spring Harbor

Further east lay Sag Harbor, on the north shore of the South Fork of Long Island. Sag Harbor had an even larger whaling fleet than the one at Cold Spring. However, when I visited the Sag Harbor Whaling Museum, I was unable to find any reference to Polynesian peoples living and working in and around the town. In fact, the only Pacific Islander objects in their collection were some artifacts of Micronesian manufacture from the Gilbert Islands:

Shields and spears from the Gilbert Islands, either stolen or received as gifts by Euro-American whalers from Sag Harbor on a nineteenth-century Pacific whaling expedition.

Hawaiians were as essential to the American whaling industry as they were to the cowhide industry on the California coast. Although they were noted as particularly good whale-spotters, boatsmen, and harpooners - all very necessary skills - most Hawaiians were hired as "waisters": a general term for the lowest-paid sailors on the ship who did whatever dirty, grunt work had to be done. Being a "waister," though, was okay because this was still a means of seeing the wider world for thousands of young Hawaiian men in the mid-nineteenth century. Indeed, in the 1840s it is assumed that during any given year approximately 3,000 young Hawaiian men were either working on the seas or living abroad.

Hawaiians and the American Civil War

There is so much more research to do regarding Hawaiian experiences in North America during the mid-nineteenth century. But until I can snoop around on Long Island some more, much of this history will have to remain unknown to me and left to our imaginations. A recent article in the Honolulu Advertiser uncovered and shared the history of Hawaiians who served on both sides in the American Civil War, a war that had nothing to do with them....or did it? Where the economics of the Civil War and of Pacific whaling intersected, and where the racial identities of Polynesian peoples and African-Americans intersected, is, perhaps, where the Civil War and the lives of Hawaiians intersected, too. But again, this demands yet more research!

Mahalo!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Representations: A Very Fishy Painting


Hubert Vos, Study of Hawaiian Fish (1898)
Honolulu Academy of Arts

Dutch painting is world-renowned for its incredible still lifes: I am thinking of the many seventeenth century paintings I have seen in American art museums. A dark, nearly black, room is punctured by a table and on the table is a cornucopia of foodstuffs: not just your normal fruits and breads, but also dead birds, dead mammals. Sometimes it looks as if the most egregious hunt ever has just taken place, and the most gluttonous meal of all time is about to commence.

I think that Dutch painter Hubert Vos (1855-1935) engaged this tradition in a very clever way in his 1898 painting, Study of Hawaiian Fish. But why Hawaiʻi? What was a man like Vos doing there in the first place?

The Painter and the Princess

Apparently, Vos, who was born in the Netherlands, and had worked in England during the 1880s and early 1890s, had made his way to the United States sometime during the 1890s. Meanwhile in Hawaiʻi, American businessmen had overthrown the century-old Hawaiian Kingdom in 1893, ousting Queen Liliʻuokalani from power. I do not know very much about this time period in Hawaiian history as of yet, but simply enough: U.S. President Grover Cleveland abhorred that Americans had overthrown the indigenous Hawaiian government. He offered himself as an ally to Liliʻuokalani to help restore the Hawaiian Kingdom. Queen Liliʻuokalani did not visit her unusual ally of the moment (the U.S. government), however, because the Republic of Hawaiʻi (the new government led by President Sanford Dole, cousin to the pineapple guy, James Dole) had placed her under house arrest at ʻIolani Palace.

Statue of Queen Liliʻuokalani in downtown Honolulu. 
Interestingly, she stands facing the Hawaiʻi State Capitol building. I like to think that she is there to remind state government workers that they are illegal occupiers of her country.

View of ʻIolani Palace, the royal palace of the Hawaiian Kingdom from 1882 to 1893, the site of Liliʻuokalani's house arrest in 1895-96, and today a beautifully restored historic site that is open to the public.

All of this is to say that when Liliʻuokalani was finally released from house arrest in 1896, she made her way to the United States to meet President Cleveland and devise a strategy for taking back Hawaiʻi. Traveling with Liliʻuokalani to Washington, D.C. was another woman, Princess Eleanor Kaikilani Graham. According to a New York Times article about their sensational romance, Vos, the painter, met Graham, the princess, while she was in Washington, and on the third day, he asked her to marry him.

Vos and his Hawaiian wife planned a sensational world-tour honeymoon, including visiting Hawaiʻi, where apparently Vos had never been before. They visited Hawaiʻi in 1898.

Vos in Hawaiʻi

Vos visited Hawaiʻi at a remarkable time in history. The year he visited, 1898, Hawaiʻi was handed over to yet another government, this time to the United States. President Cleveland was now out of office, and the forces in Washington, ratcheting up for the Spanish-American War, including a major front in the Philippines, saw Hawaiʻi as a most valuable territory, as a coaling station for naval boats, as well as a source of sugar and other profitable commodities.

Vos' Hawaiʻi was also remarkably diverse, with haole (Europeans and Euro-Americans), as well as Japanese, Chinese, and other Asian peoples crowding out the remaining Hawaiians, of which perhaps less than 40,000 remained in the islands due to disease, intermarriage, and emigration. And furthermore, his wife, Kaikilani, and her kin, once affiliated with the Hawaiian monarchy, now had no special status in society. In short, following the 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom, and continuing after Hawaiʻi became a US territory in 1898, Hawaiian people were increasingly marginalized from politics, business, and society.

Thus, Vos' portraits of common Hawaiian people are all the more remarkable. One of his portraits is of a Hawaiian troubadour, ʻukulele in hand, with quite the Iberian-style regalia on for show. How remarkable that this man, whomever he is, has adopted an instrument brought by Portuguese immigrants just a decade earlier - migrants who came to work on the sugar plantations - and has made the instrument, and the look, his own. You wonder: who he is playing for? Is he a common laborer putting on a special show for Vos' portrait? Or does he live in Honolulu, making his living by entertaining tourists as a professional minstrel? Some clues are offered in this insightful blog article I found on the website Nalu Music.

Hubert Vos, Hawaiian Troubadour (1898)
Honolulu Academy of Art

It is not clear where Vos stayed while in Hawaiʻi, but he apparently spent much time near fishermen. His portrait of ʻIokepa, a young man engaged in the fishing industry shows the young Hawaiian seemingly carrying something - perhaps a basket full of fish - as he looks away from the portraitist, either disturbed by Vos' interruption of his work, or embarrassed by Vos' desire to witness him and his labor. Where the troubadour, above, may have been the type of Hawaiian who most haole (foreigners) noticed on the streets of Honolulu, this young man must have been most invisible to haole who could have cared less about the labor that supported their diet and/or economy.

Hubert Vos, ʻIokepa, Hawaiian Fisher Boy (1898)
Honolulu Academy of Arts

A Very Fishy Painting

I, however, am most interested in Vos' painting, Study of Hawaiian Fish. According to David Forbes, this still life showcases 57 varieties of local fish and crustaceans. I assume that all the species shown were marketable ones that were commonly harvested and consumed by Hawaiians and foreigners. But perhaps not. I doubt that Vos was able to see all 57 of these species at the fish market in Honolulu (or wherever he was), and perhaps instead he used some naturalists' collections as the source of his fishy designs. Or perhaps he used a publication of Hawaiian fish taxonomy. I cannot ascertain if Vos has painted these species accurately. Perhaps some of them are imaginary species that he concocted in the studio. But for the meantime, let's take Vos' word for it and assume his painting speaks only truths about Hawaiʻi's offshore ocean ecology!

An aged Hawaiian man, shirtless - a hard-working laborer - dumps a remarkable cornucopia of sea life out onto a table. His lauhala basket - made of woven pandanus (hala) tree leaves - appears wholly incapable of holding that many creatures inside it. He is some kind of "superman" fisherman, having captured so many remarkable things in one basket. Indeed, Vos' fisherman has few tools of trade: a fishing net hanging in the background; a large calabash pot, reminiscent of a poi bowl. And the black background, so reminiscent of seventeenth century Dutch still life, actually appears to comprise schools of fish jumping and swimming through space. Oh the wondrous bounty of these waters! Right?

I think of Vos as a portraitist; indeed, his other Hawaiian paintings are all portraits of common laborers in their various costumes, engaged in acts of labor, whether it be performing for the public, or fishing for someone's dinner. Study of Hawaiian Fish is also a portrait. It is a portrait of a man who is nearly pushed out of the frame of his own scene. I think the old man represents the dying Hawaiian people - as it may have appeared to Vos and Kaikilani at the time. The Hawaiian people were literally being pushed off of their own stage by Americans, who, above all else, had an agenda of economic and environmental exploitation for these islands. I don't think the fishing industry was really that big of a deal in 1898 - not compared to sugar and rice production - but we must consider the great mess of sea life on this table to be representative of American capitalist desires for exploitation of Hawaiʻi's resources. It was in the territory's best interests from 1898 forward to have a clear and complete taxonomic survey of the islands' biological resources at hand, including the 57 varieties of marketable sea creatures. The mess on the table thus represents the colonial project of cataloguing and mastering control of these resources. The old man, and his technology, on the other hand, are "old school": they represent a Hawaiian tradition that had lasted from ancient times to the 1890s, of subsistence on fish and poi, staples of the traditional Hawaiian diet. But the 57 species on the table are too many and too large to ever fit in his simple basket: just like the haole and other foreign peoples, and their agency, were becoming too great and too powerful to be contained any longer by the Hawaiian nation.

In Study of Hawaiian Fish, Vos captured his subject - the elderly Hawaiian man, perhaps the Hawaiian nation itself - in a most difficult moment of transition. It was unclear at the time - in 1898 - what U.S. annexation would mean for Hawaiʻi and its people. But clearly, the imminent future could no longer fit into the fisherman's simple lauhala basket.

For more on Hubert Vos and visual representations of Hawaiʻi, see:

David W. Forbes, Encounters with Paradise: Views of Hawaii and its People, 1778-1941 (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1992).

And of course, visit the Honolulu Academy of Art (if, and when, you are in Hawaiʻi), or visit their website online.