June 22, 1898. Cameramen James H. White and W. Bleckyrden of the Edison Manufacturing Company were in Honolulu, Hawaiʻi capturing moving images on film. The very first movies were made in the 1890s, and as far as I know, this is the earliest film footage ever taken in Hawaiʻi.
To be a bit more accurate, White and Bleckyrden were in the capital city of the Republic of Hawaii, an independent country founded five years earlier, in 1893, by Euro-American businessmen who disposed Queen Liliʻuokalani and overthrew her state.
What strange timing. White and Bleckyrden were traveling across the Pacific Ocean by steamship in the midst of America's first Pacific war: the Spanish-American War. The U.S. was fighting on multiple fronts: the Philippines, Cuba, Puerto Rico. And don't forget Guam, although there was little fighting there.
The Spanish-American War was a short war: it began and ended in the spring and summer of 1898. And Thomas Edison's movie-makers were in the midst of it. They were filming in Hawaiʻi at the exact same time as the U.S. Congress in Washington was considering annexing the Hawaiian archipelago. This is because the war in the Philippines (which would drag on for years and years as we fought Filipino independence fighters even after vanquishing Spain) was a war fought with steamships. And steamships need coaling stations. This is why America was eyeing the independent Republic of Hawaii in 1898. This is also why, incidentally, we came to an agreement with Britain and Germany in 1899 to split up the Samoan archipelago. This is the origin of American Samoa: just as Pearl Harbor was a U.S. naval coaling station in Hawaiʻi, Pago Pago Harbor was a U.S. coaling station in Samoa.
Anyway, so Edison's men are filming away in Honolulu while in Washington, D.C. the U.S. Congress is debating annexation. Within two to three weeks the deed would be done, and the Hawaiian archipelago would become part of the United States (July, 1898).
Kanakas Diving for Money
Watch this short film produced by the Edison company, and you see how the Hawaiian world was in flux. First of all, who were the "kanakas" in this film? It is hard to tell, but they look like young boys, perhaps 8-14 years old. All are dark skinned. It is not clear if they are wearing Western-style full body bathing suits, or if they are naked above the waist. I keep seeing different things when I look at the footage.
Yes, they are diving for money, but also jumping and trying to catch the coins in mid-air. It is clear that someone on the shore is throwing coins at them. Sometimes the boys catch them in the air; more often they miss and dive down to retrieve the coins from the water.
It's strange, but a person paddling an outrigger canoe calmly glides by during the footage, and you have to wonder if this was staged. The angle of his trajectory across the film frame is perfect, and he seems to care little about either the filming process (that we can't see) or the boys jumping and diving for money.
Then, talk about an eerie stage set; what we see behind the boys and the canoeing man is seemingly some part of Honolulu harbor. There is a small steamship up front, and a HUGE steamship on the side of what must be a dock/pier. I have read descriptions of this short film suggesting that men are loading/unloading cargo in the background, but I don't actually see that. In the far back, to the left, appear to be more ships. At least we see the forest of tall masts, suggesting that these are ships. Notice how the ships up front have huge smokestacks, too, reminding the viewer that these are coal-fired steamships.
Is any of this scene representative of wartime activity? Not sure. I would guess that the U.S. navy was operating solely out of Pearl Harbor - which they already had access to, even before annexation -, and that Honolulu harbor was still primarily used for import/export of commodities, as usual. The number one commodity of the time was sugar. I wouldn't be surprised if some of these ships were transporting Hawaiian sugar to the United States.
Before moving on to other representations of "Kanakas" in America, it is necessary to return to the jumping and diving boys and think through what's really going on here. When I watch this clip, I always think how humiliating and racist it is: that these two white men from America with movie cameras are throwing change at young Hawaiian boys and watching them fight over it for entertainment. In this interpretation, the Edison film portrays the quintessential colonial encounter, and speaks to the disparate political and economic power relations between Euro-Americans and Native Hawaiians at the time. In my dissertation I will be demonstrating how Native Hawaiians once dominated as wage laborers in a variety of industries across the Pacific World in the nineteenth century. But by the 1890s, when this film was made, all the extractive industries they had engaged in had disappeared, replaced by a new plantation economy reliant on imported Asian immigrant labor. Indeed, even in the sugar industry, Native Hawaiians were the dominant labor force until the early 1880s, when Chinese overtook them and became the majority. By 1898, Japanese were the majority. These swift Pacific-wide economic, ecological, and demographic transformations meant the closing of myriad doors for Hawaiian men. Thus we are left with these boys fishing for coins in Honolulu harbor. In my dissertation young Hawaiian boys travel the world searching for work and adventure. In Edison's dystopian representation of fin-de-siecle Hawaiʻi, this world has collapsed on itself.
Or am I reading too much here? There is something else worth saying though. The Hawaiian laborers in my dissertation often fascinated the minds of Euro-American employers. These Euro-American men wondered in letters, diaries, and even in the public newspapers about the particular types of work and environments that Native Hawaiian male bodies were most "fit" for. One chapter of my dissertation will look at this issue of Euro-American conceptions of Hawaiian workers' bodies. Initially, one thing I can say is that I have already found tons of sources suggesting that many Euro-American employers saw Hawaiian workers as particularly fit for working in water. Many even called the Hawaiian workers "amphibious," or likened them to marine animals like "sea dogs." Indeed, I have found numerous accounts of employers taking great delight in watching Hawaiian workers both play and work in the water - delighting in watching them surf, dive, swim, and play in the waves. Their sentiments are a weird mixture of genuine admiration and racist dehumanization, and I am still making sense of it all. Anyway, of all the footage these Edison cinematographers must have taken in Hawaiʻi, think about why we are left with these 30 seconds. What are we supposed to know about Hawaiʻi and "Kanakas" from these 30 seconds? Does it have anything to do with the relationship between "Kanaka" bodies and amphibiousness?
Now for "Kanakas in America" Item #2:
Unfortunately, in 1898 when the Edison crew were filming Hawaiʻi, there was no technology for capturing sound and lining it up with the motion pictures. Not that we would have heard much more than splashing waves in "Kanakas Diving for Money," but surely the ability to sync sound would have altered the Edison crew's choices about what to film. They may have filmed Hawaiian musicians. That would have been fitting with the whole colonial ethnographic approach. They most certainly would not have filmed a bunch of American seamen singing old sea shanty songs from the whaling days.
Well, thanks to Youtube we can watch the film they never made! And, of course, thanks also to those who carry on the Pacific maritime traditions like singing sea shanties. Like these guys. I don't know where they are from, but of all the renditions of "John Kanaka" I found on Youtube, I like theirs the best because they all actually look like seamen! They look like they could tell many a "yarn" about life in the fo'castle. You want to imagine they've actually lived the life they are singing about: traveling around Cape Horn (an incredibly dangerous voyage throughout the nineteenth-century for American ships heading to the Pacific), and visiting San Francisco (or "Frisco Bay" as they sing).
The lyrics actually help us situate the song quite a bit (although the lyrics of course have changed over time, and today there are multiple versions). When the guys sing "We're bound away for 'Frisco Bay," and "We're bound away 'round Cape Horn," we can most certainly pinpoint the seamen's port of origin as somewhere in the Atlantic. I would venture to say New England, but in some version I have heard the line that they are "Liverpool born and bred." So they're English sailors, eh? Or they might be New England seamen. Rounding Cape Horn into the Pacific, heading to San Francisco. From the reference to "Frisco," we can guess this is probably the post-Gold Rush period, for I see little other reason why English or American sailors would be stopping in San Francisco Bay before 1848. I mean, they did stop there, but not nearly as often as after 1848.
Anyway, the next question must be: why are these seamen going to San Francisco Bay? All we are really left with are the many references to "John Kanaka-naka" and some phony Polynesian-sounding phrase "tu rai ay" (or, too lai ay, or whatever orthography you like). On various Youtube posts I have read numerous comments going back and forth about whether this is a Samoan phrase, or perhaps a Hawaiian phrase, or perhaps just a made-up Polynesian-sounding phrase. Who knows. But I wouldn't put it past European and Euro-American seamen to come up with something "Polynesian" sounding, for they also adopted Polynesian tattooing in the nineteenth century. Indeed, those who spent years in the Pacific on whaling ships and other vessels sometimes fell in love with all things Polynesian, including, at times, Polynesian women. This is why I consider that anyone studying nineteenth-century American maritime history must also understand Polynesian peoples, languages, culture, and history, because American mariners built their world around the world that Polynesians had created. Thus it comes as little surprise that they would be singing about a Polynesian, too: John Kanaka.
Who was John Kanaka? He was the John Doe of Polynesians. And he must have been on the ship to 'Frisco, or else he was there waiting for them. If you read the writing of Euro-Americans in the Pacific you see the term "Kanaka" used all the time, often to refer to Native Hawaiians, but sometimes referring to any Pacific Islander, especially a laboring person. The connection between the transmigration of the term "Kanaka" from Hawaiian to English and the importance of Pacific Islander labor in the Pacific World has not really been analyzed that much. I will certainly try and tackle this in my dissertation. I argue that the term "Kanaka" really did come to signify a particular type of labor/laborer in the nineteenth-century Pacific World. It wasn't just the term for Native Hawaiian people. For that purpose, Euro-Americans used the term "Sandwich Islander" well into the late nineteenth century. The one term you won't see much of in the nineteenth-century is "Hawaiian." If you were a Hawaiian then, to a haole you were a "Sandwich Islander." But if you were digging, hauling, cutting, scraping, lifting, or in any way hanahana (working) for a haole, you were a "Kanaka." Thus, if you worked on a European or Euro-American ship, you were a "Kanaka" sailor. If your name was too hard to pronounce, your haole shipmates might just call you John Kanaka.
Now, this song begs the question: why sing about John Kanaka? Because he was interesting? Because he was foolish and awkward? Because he was brave and strong? Because he was the best lookout or harpooner on the whaling ship? Because he could dive and swim better than any haole could? Because he looked different? Because the captain treated him like an animal? Because he taught you something about the Pacific World? Because he was never anything to you except your pre-conceived notion of him?
Who really knows. I've discovered that a scholar at UC-Santa Barbara wrote a dissertation on this very topic in 2006: "In the Wake of John Kanaka: Musical Interactions between Euro-American Sailors and Pacific Islanders, 1600-1900." I can't wait to check it out. If you get to it before I do, I'd love to hear about it.
"Kanakas" in the U.S. Census
My latest project is researching the history of Native Hawaiian labor in nineteenth-century California, before, during, and after the Gold Rush. So I thought I'd turn to the U.S. Census to see if I can find any Hawaiians living in California in 1850 (the earliest census to include California), or in later decades. Now keep in mind that "Hawaiian" was not a racial category on the census until the year 2000. So there were no hard numbers recorded for how many Hawaiians were in any given place. You have to look at the manuscript schedules page by page and figure it out yourself. I've been playing with familysearch.org, a good (and free) source for looking at U.S. census manuscript schedules, and here was one particularly page I found that really stopped me in my tracks:
Just in case you can't read that, here is a close-up of the top of the page:
Detail from 1850 U.S. Census, excerpt from the manuscript schedule for Sutter County, California
The top of the page identifies this part of the census schedule as concerning two locations in Sutter County, California: Lacy's Bar and Manhattan Bar. I am totally unclear as to where these places are, and the names may no longer be in use anyway. But we do know that Sutter County was an important site of gold mining in the 1850s, and "bars" were (I think) parts of streams where placer mining took place. (Can anyone help me on this? Someday I will learn my mining lingo!) Anyway, we should not be surprised then, to find Native Hawaiians here looking for gold.
Back in 1850, we didn't fill out census forms and mail them in like we do today. Instead, white men working for the government traveled around and took stock of the people in different locations. If you were white, they probably jotted down your true name, occupation, and the sex and age of everyone in your household. If you were a slave, you certainly didn't end up in this census (it was for "Free Inhabitants" only, as it states on top), but maybe there was a separate slave census? Or were they truly considered only property and not counted as humans? But the census workers found more than just whites and blacks. In California, particularly, they found many South Americans, Chinese, and even Pacific Islanders. So how did they record these people in the census?
Look at the manuscript schedule above. In dwelling house #421, lived "Kanaka." Occupation: "Mining." Place of Birth: "Sandwich Islands." That's it. We don't get his age. We don't get his sex, but I'm assuming he is male. (In fact, there were Hawaiian women in California, too...so we can't be positively sure.) We don't get his "color"; presumably, we already know what it is. We don't get the "value of real estate" he owns. He likely doesn't own any. Well, at least not in California. We don't know if he's married. He very well might be married back home, and within the 1850s many of his Hawaiian friends would marry Native American women in California. But we aren't told any of this. We don't know if he can read or write, whether in English or in Hawaiian. Et cetera. All we are told is that in this building lives someone named "Kanaka" who mines gold and is from Hawaiʻi.
In fact, the next three rows on the census say the exact same thing. Actually, they say "ditto." Thus, four people named "Kanaka" live in this building. They all mine and they are all from Hawaiʻi. We know that they are not all named "Kanaka." Indeed, to the census taker they literally are "Kanakas." It is what they are; it is a type of person. Even though they have to tell us that they are from the Sandwich Islands (Hawaiʻi) anyway - and so we might guess that they are Native Hawaiians - they still feel like writing down "Kanaka" under Name. That seems strange to me. But look at other pages of the schedule for Sutter County and you will see people named "Chinaman" who are from China. I ask myself: what is the purpose of this naming? Is it a racial designation? Is it a labor designation? (But for that, we have "mining" listed as occupation.) Why call them "Kanaka"?
Notice that building #422 has twenty-two "Kanakas" living there. Must be some kind of boarding house. What is a historian to do with this mass of unnamed "Kanakas"? Thankfully we have all the letters written to Hawaiian-language newspapers from California. But that is a bigger topic - much bigger. More on that in future posts.
"Kanaka" in Print
Have you heard of Google's Ngram viewer? Apparently some younger, tech-savvy historians have begun using it to mine the prevalence of various terms in the history of English-language print. (They have other languages, too, but Google admits their English-language data is strongest.)
This is how it works: type in a search term (or two), and Google automatically mines all of its scanned books, magazines, etc., in Google Books for that term. It instantaneously creates a graph showing the prevalence of that term (or several terms) over time. I have heard that there are one million and one caveats to using this data, and I'm not surprised. I'm still not even sure what the data is actually telling me. So, I'm not going to make any broad conclusions from the following, but I thought I'd share it with you. And then you can always experiment on your own.
Let's start with this. Take the historical period I am covering in my dissertation (roughly 1780s to 1890s). What is the prevalence of the term "Kanaka" in print?
You can see the term "Kanaka" slowly grew in usage in English-language print throughout the nineteenth-century as Americans came to know Hawaiʻi and Hawaiian people. But look at the dramatic increase of the use of the term "Kanaka" in the 1880s and 1890s, reaching a fever-pitch around 1898, the year of U.S. annexation.
This one just shows what happens when you compare "Kanaka" with a capital "K" to "kanaka" with a lower-case "k." Was lower-case "k" really more prominent in the 1820s and 1830s? Why? Something to do with the missionaries' orthography for the Hawaiian language they came up with in the 1820s?
When you throw "Hawaiian" into the mix, though, "Kanaka" and "kanaka" fall way behind. It's interesting because I always thought the term "Hawaiian" did not come until later. Clearly, "Hawaiian" grew stronger over time, especially in the 1890s with the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi (1893) and U.S. annexation (1898).
So I then tried to throw in "Sandwich Islander," but that made little difference. Here, though, is the term "Sandwich Islands" thrown in for good measure. You can see that the term was used more frequently than "Hawaiian" was up until the late 1880s. There is something about the overthrow (1893) and annexation (1898) that really pushed the term "Hawaiian" to prominence. But Captain Cook's term "Sandwich Islands" really held on for quite some time, at least into the 1870s or 1880s.
Here we go: "Sandwich Islanders" versus "Kanaka" and "kanaka." Notice how in the 1880s "Kanaka" soars ahead of "Sandwich Islanders."
Here we compare Captain Cook's term "Sandwich Islands" to our more modern "Hawaii." Again, it's around 1890, when American power is rising in the islands, that "Hawaii" overtakes "Sandwich Islands." The hump(s) in the 1830s, 1840s, 1850s speak, I think, to the importance of Hawaiʻi and Hawaiians during this period. Or at least I will claim something like that in my dissertation. That was the peak of whaling in the Pacific, and also the period of California settlement. All these things are related.
Here's the long view, from Captain Cook to today (or 2008, to be exact). Now we see that "Sandwich Islands" really become out-of-style after 1898. And English-language print culture kept mentioning "Hawaii" with increasing frequency until hitting a fever pitch during World War II and the attack on the Pearl Harbor. Then a big drop after the war. A little hump for 1959: Hawaiian statehood. Damn, and what's with the huge drop since 2000? No one cares about "Hawaii" anymore? (Or is it that there is just so much in print these days that the percentage mentioning "Hawaii" gets smaller and smaller? I think that's how this works.)
This is fascinating. From 1780 to 2008, "Sandwich Islanders" versus "Kanakas" versus "Hawaiians." Note that "Sandwich Islanders" is the dominant term into the 1840s. Then "Sandwich Islanders" kicks the bucket around 1898 as "Kanakas" and "Hawaiians" both rise. Interesting how "Hawaiians" falls circa 1910 but "Kanakas" and "Sandwich Islanders" get a bump. The rest is predictable. But notice how important the word "Hawaiians" is in the 1990s! More on that in a second; I think it has to do with the centennial of the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom (1993) and the power of the Hawaiian sovereignty movement, as well as the Hawaiian Renaissance in general, to grab the nation's attention at that time. But has it all slipped away in the 2000s?
Here I focus solely on territorial Hawaii (1898-1959), from annexation to statehood, to see what terms were used in the beginning of Hawaiʻi's colonial era. Nothing too surprising here. Notice how immediately after annexation nobody even wants to talk about "Hawaiians." The term drops for about 15 years before it picks up into the 1920s (thanks to the debates over the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act?). Again, after World War II the same drop, and then rising up again for 1959 statehood.
Now to the era of Hawaiian statehood (1959-present). This is "Hawaiians" versus "Kanaka," but I also throw in the term "Maoli," often used as part of the term "Kanaka Maoli" to denote a Native Hawaiian person. Notice how "Maoli" only begins to be used in English-language print in the 1990s, thanks to much Kanaka Maoli activism calling for use of this term. But this exposes the fallacy of the argument some activists make that "Kanaka Maoli" is a traditional term for Native Hawaiians. Everything I've read in Hawaiian-language newspapers does not back that up. That said, I think the term "Kanaka Maoli" is very meaningful and useful today, not least because "Kanaka" on its own has so much baggage from the nineteenth century. And "Hawaiian," of course, is not a Hawaiian-language term but rather an English-language term. Anyway, notice how after statehood "Hawaiians" weren't much discussed until the 1990s. This graph truly shows the great influence Hawaiians had in getting the attention of English-language print at that time.
This is for statehood (1959-present): "Kanaka" versus "kanaka" versus "Maoli" versus "maoli." Taking into account different capitalizations. Look how lower-case "kanaka" lines up with lower-case "maoli" in the 1990s! Very cool. Lots of people were writing "kanaka maoli" at the time. But of course the proper form today is capitalized: "Kanaka Maoli." We can see a shift from the early 90s to the late 90s with the rise of the capital "Maoli" instead. All in all, we see that the term "Kanaka"/"kanaka" is still very important today, no matter what it meant in the nineteenth century.
Well, anyway, this was fun. As usual, I have shared way too much for one blog post. Mahalo nui for reading with care and patience. The history of the term "Kanaka" is worthy of a dissertation all by itself. I hope this post has opened some doors for future thinking on this topic.
Last one. I wanted to see if we can track the use of the ʻokina (glottal stop) in the spelling of Hawaiʻi. This chart is "Hawaii" (without ʻokina) versus "Hawaiʻi" with. But note that Google would not let me use the true ʻokina. I had to use an apostrophe instead. It is interesting to see the slow rise of the ʻokina usage in the 1980s, perhaps thanks to the 1978 Hawaiʻi State Constitution which mandated orthographic reform including use of the ʻokina. ʻOkina usage rises continuously up to 2000 and although it declines since, notice that its decline is not as great as that for "Hawaii" without the ʻokina. This means that from 2000 to 2008, "Hawaiʻi" with the ʻokina has been used much more than "Hawaii" without it. Or, at least I think that is what the data is saying!