Hawaii, by James A. Michener, is a novel which covers, on both a
fictional and a non-fictional level, the total history of Hawaii from its
beginning until approximately 1954. The work traces Hawaiian history from
the geological creation of the islands (“From the Boundless Deeps) to the
arrival of its first inhabitants, (“From the Sun-Swept Lagoon”), then to
the settlement of the islands by the American missionaries, (“From the Farm
of Bitterness”). In the novel, as the island’s agricultural treasures in
pineapple and sugar cane were discovered, the Chinese were brought as
plantation workers to Hawaii (“From The Starving Village”). Years later,
when it was realized by the island plantation owners that the Japanese were
more dedicated workers, and did not feel the need to own their own lands as
the Chinese did, they too were shipped in vast amounts to Hawaii, (“From
The Inland Sea”). The final chapter deals with what Michener refers to as
“The Golden Men”: Those who lived in Haw (not necessarily Hawaiians) who
contributed a great deal to the islands and their people.
Since Hawaii covers such a huge time span, there are a great many plots
and sub-plots, all of which show the different situations that each of the
many “types” of Hawaiians are confronted with. Michener uses mostly
specific, fictional details to support the general ideas of the islands and
their various people, that he conveys through Hawaii. I will go into more
detail about the plot in the “Documentation” section.
Michener’s Hawaii is a superb example of a great work of literature.
He paints vivid literal pictures of various scenes throughout the novel.
For example, in the first chapter, the Pacific Ocean is described:
“Scores of millions of years before man had risen from the shores of
the ocean to perceive its grandeur and to venture forth upon its turbulent
waves, this eternal sea existed, larger than any other of the earth’s
features, vaster than the sister oceans combined, wild, terrifying in its
immensity and imperative in its universal role.”
Many other stylistic devices are employed; most of them fall into the
category of figurative language, (i.e. metaphors, similes, etc.). As Abner
Hale, a missionary, was teaching Malama Kanakoa, a Hawaiian ruler, to
rebuild a fish pond for the survival of the village, Malama “ordered her
handmaidens to help, and the three huge women plunged into the fish pond,
pulling the back hems of their new dresses forward and up between their
legs like giant diapers.” Although it is not the most pleasant example of
a simile in Hawaii, it is used.
James Michener tells the story of Hawaii in the language of Hawaii; he
mixes, at times, English with Hawaiian, Japanese, and Chinese. As readers
may encounter these foreign words, the meanings of the words usually become
evident to them as they read. Not only does Michener explain Hawaii to a
reader in highly descriptive detail, he also makes the reader part of
Hawaii, aware that the story lines are just small examples of how life in
Hawaii really was for so many people of diverse ethnic backgrounds.
The major events that take place in Michener’s Hawaii follow history
closely, however, the characters, except for one, are fictional. Likewise,
most of the historical events which Michener writes about did take place
under the circumstances that he included; however, the people involved and
some of the events that take place may only resemble what actually
happened. For example, a comparison of Hawaii to actual history can be
made through selected events in each chapter of the novel. In order to
compare the events in Michener’s Hawaii, it is necessary to recap the
events of the novel. The following selected events from each chapter will
serve this purpose.
The first chapter of Hawaii, “From the Boundless Deep”, describes the
formation of the islands, very descriptively. It states that the creation
of Hawaii took place “millions upon millions of years ago, when the
continents were already formed, and the principal features of the Earth had
been decided.” Although the creation is a purely fictional account, it is
known that the Hawaiian Islands are volcanic islands, and it is possible
that they were created in the way that Michener describes.
Next, in the second chapter entitled “From the Sun-Swept Lagoon”,
Michener describes, once again in great detail, who the first settlers of
Hawaii were, and how and why they went there. According to Michener, they
were from the island of Bora, which is near the island of Hawaii, and
northwest of Tahiti. It is known for a fact that the first people to
arrive in Hawaii were from the South Pacific. The Bora-Borans, according
to the novel, on their trip to Hawaii, sailed in a long double canoe, with
a platform between and a small hut in the center. According to historians,
“on voyages of exploration, the courageous sea men used double canoes –
from 60 to 80 feet long and three to five feet wide, joined with several
pieces of bamboo. They built a platform, 16 to 18 feet wide, straddling
the large canoes and, on top of it, constructed a crude shelter.”
Although the second chapter is mainly about a pre-historical time
period, historians have made some inferences and come to some conclusions
about how life may have been before and after the settlement of Hawaii by
the various people that planted their roots there. In the novel, there was
only one race that arrived; however, historians feel that, because of
linguistic reasons, the first people to arrive were Negroids. Next were
Polynesians, and finally, Caucasians.
In the third chapter, “From the Farm of Bitterness”, the reader is
introduced to the New England Missionaries before they depart for Hawaii. A
Hawaiian named Keoki Kanakoa gave a sermon at Yale University, which had
great impact upon many people who attended. He stated that in his
“father’s islands immortal souls go every night to everlasting hell
because… there has not been any missionaries to Hawaii to bring the word
of Jesus Christ.” Abner Hale, who attended the sermon, was deeply moved;
so moved that he went to apply to the mission, along with his friend and
classmate, John Whipple.
Similarly, in 1809, in truth, history records that a certain Henry
Obookiah stirred the emotions of religious New Englanders. He was sent to
school, for he was a promising candidate to return to Hawaii and preach
Christianity. Unfortunately, in 1818, he died of typus or pneumonia. His
death caused much grief, and among those who felt the impact were Reverend
Hiram Bingham, and Reverend Asa Thurston.
It is possible that Abner Hale and John Whipple represent Bingham and
Thurston in Hawaii. In the novel, eleven missionary couples and Keoki
Kanakoa went to Hawaii on the brig the Thetis. They left on September 1,
1821, after prayers . In fact, there were seven missionary couples, and
three Hawaiians, who were trained as teachers, that went to Hawaii on the
Thaddeus, also after prayers. All of the missionaries, in fact and in the
novel, were selected by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign
After the missionaries arrived in both cases, they targeted their
efforts on introducing Christianity to the King, Queen , and the High
Priests. After a while, both Kaahumanu, the real Queen, and Malama, the
Queen in the novel, became interested in learning to read. Next, the
missionaries built churches built churches; but membership was difficult to
attain. In both cases, one had to have been truly converted in order to
become s member through a long and grueling process. After establishing
themselves in Hawaii, the missionaries tried to keep control of the
islanders and help them break from old customs, such as the system of tabus
and the worshipping of idols and the ancient system of gods.
In chapter IV, “From the Starving Village”, Michener gives a quick
history of a Chinese village. The farmers, in the early 800’s A.D., due to
a famine, had to travel and find food. Eventually, they decided to sell a
daughter for food and double-cross the buyer. They killed the rich man,
took all of his food, and fled to the mountains. A village was established
there and then the time shifts back to the late 1800s.
Next the Kee family is introduced. They were from a Chinese clan, in
the Punti village. Three hundred Chinese were selected to go to Hawaii to
work on plantations. They were put in the hold of a ship, and were treated
like livestock, not human beings. The captain of the ship feared a mutiny
by the “Chinese pirates” he was transporting. “Compared to the brightness
of the day on the deck, all was gloom and shadowy darkness in the hold.”
After they arrived, most of the Chinese were sent to work on plantations;
however, Kee Mun Ki and his wife, Char Nyuk Tsin, were offered jobs as
cooks by Dr. Whipple, a former missionary. Dr. Whipple was the man who
arranged the experiment of bringing the Chinese to work on the plantations.
The pay was lower, but Kee Mun Ki would learn English and become skilled.
History notes that in 1852, the labor problems in the fields in Hawaii
had become serious. “In desperation, the owners turned to oriental labor
and, as an experiment, in 1852, brought a total of 280 coolies from China,
to work under contract for five years.”
With the Chinese came the mai Pake – the Chinese sickness – otherwise
known as leprosy. Kee Mun Ki began to get sores, and eventually, was
shipped off to the leper island. Char Nyuk Tsin accompanied him as a
kokua, or helper, and after he died she later returned to Hawaii.
The description of the island was a fairly accurate one, comparing it
to the historical leper colony of Molokai. Conditions were terrible. When
a leper died, his or her body would either remain where it was or be thrown
into a lake by other lepers. Those who had a kokua were sometimes buried.
When leprosy actually came to Hawaii is not known; some say about
1840. However, 1863 was the first public concern over the disease. The
Board of Health set up the colony at Molokai. Those sent were confirmed
lepers. Since conditions were so bad, “attempts were made to improve the
situation, but most of them proved ineffectual.” This was partly because
not many people realized the mental as well as physical anguish that the
lepers suffered from.
The next problem that confronted the characters in Hawaii dealt with
the sugar and agricultural industries. Whipple Hoxworth, the grandson of
Dr. John Whipple, decided to utilize a large area of the Hawaiian islands.
But they were barren, with no water to support the produce he wished to
grow. He thought of boring miles through the neighboring mountains, but
instead took a more practical approach. He found a man named Mr. Overpeck,
who had studied Artesian water – fresh water that was trapped under
pressure in the earth. He proposed to build a well (which he designed),
and as he predicted, he found millions of gallons of water.
Factually, before Artesian wells were bored, huge ditches were dug to
carry the water to the plantations. “The first Artesian well was bored in
July, 1879, at Ewa Plantation, and thereafter, with the aid of great pumps,
the underground water supply of Oahu was made available for use.”
After whip had succeeded in buying up more than six thousand acres of
land, he turned the management of his sugar lands to Janders and Whipple,
and set out, once again, to see more of the world. When he did so, he
usually brought back various fruits. The first time he had mangoes. The
next time, he returned with orange trees, coffee beans, and ginger flower.
He did so in order to try to introduce new agricultural goods to Hawaii,
thereby gaining entrance in to new markets.
It was very important to Char Nyuk Tsin that one of her five boys be
educated at an American college or university. Since each one was well
rounded (spoke four languages, were above high school level in some
subjects, etc.), her decision was a difficult one. She consulted
Uliassutai Karakoram Blake, the only character who “is founded upon a
historical person who accomplished much in Hawaii.” Blake was a teacher at
the school that the Kee children attended. Char Nyuk Tsin finally decided,
after a lot of debate, to send Africa, one of her sons, to Michigan to
become a lawyer.
The importance of an education was not underemphasized in Hawaii.
“Among the people of oriental or mixed background, most of whose parents or
grandparents were plantation workers, education [was] a cherished
privilege.” The reason why the Orientals worked so hard was because they
did not want to revert to the “ko-hana,” hard physical work, of their
parents and grandparents.
Meanwhile, in the novel, Wild Whip Hoxworth, as he was now called, was
concentrating on getting the United States to annex Hawaii. His motive was
that he, and the eight other prominent men who owned sugar plantations in
Hawaii, were losing money to the New Orleans, Colorado, and Nebraska sugar
tycoons. Pretty soon they would all be bankrupt. The McKinley Tariff
protected the United States sugar producers by penalizing those who
imported Hawaiian sugar, and subsidized those who sold American sugar. So
Whip and the eight others devised a plan to begin a revolution, seize
control of the government, and turn the islands over to the United States.
Queen Liliuokalani was the new queen, succeeding her brother after he died.
She wished that the non-Hawaiian enterprises would leave; this included
Whip and his companions. The coalition planned to begin a revolution, with
the help of their friend and relative Micah Hale – a minister. There were
two problems, though. First, would the rican warship at Honolulu send US
troops ashore to fight the revolutionaries, and second, if they seized
control of the government, would the United States recognize them as the
legal government of Hawaii? Both questions were answered at the same time:
The ships men would have the simple orders to “protect American lives” (the
revolutionaries were Americans also), and if they seized control of the
government, they would be the de facto government, and the American
Minister would immediately recognize them.
Whip fooled Micah into wanting to get the United States to annex
Hawaii, because he scared him with stories that Japan, England, or Germany
might want to take over the islands. When the revolution began, the troops
marched ashore. The sugar plantation owners immobilized the queens troops,
and Liliuokalani abdicated the throne. But before the Treaty of Annexation
could get through the Senate in February, 1893, Cleveland was President: A
Democrat protecting the sugar companies of the United States. He dropped
the discussion of the Annexation of Hawaii, and sent investigators to see
how Liliukalani would like her government restored. She said she would
have to behead the sixty or more Americans that aided in the revolution if
her government was restored. This outraged everyone. Despite Whips own
many outrages to Hawaii and America, on July 6, 1898, the American Senate
finally accepted Hawaii by a vote of 42 to 21.
Supposedly, in history, an underground organization which included many
well known business men, under the title of “Committee for Safety,”
acquired ammunition, rifles, and other arms. On January 16, 1893, with
help from the marines on the USS Boston, who were “protecting American
property”), the revolution was started. Since most of the Queen’s cabinet
was made up of Americans, she was helpless, and decided to abdicate the
throne until the Americans reinstated her position. The revolutionaries
went under the title of the Provisional Government, and had Judge Sanford
Dole as their President. President Grover Cleveland denied the request for
annexation because he was alarmed by the events at Honolulu. Secretary of
State John Gresham declared that “it would lower our national standards to
endorse a selfish and dishonorable scheme of a lot of adventurers.” When
Albert S. Willis, the new Secretary of State, informed Liliukalani that
Cleveland would restore her throne, she said th according to Hawaiian law,
Thurston, the leader of the revolution should be beheaded. Unlike the
novel, she was willing to forgive and forget, but the Provisional
government refused the idea of abdicating.
On July 4, 1894, the Provisional government established a minority
government, the Republic of Hawaii because hopes for annexation in the near
future were crushed. However, when the strategic importance of Hawaii in
the Spanish American war was recognized, annexation occurred on August 12,
Once again the novel turns to the Kee Hui and the Chinese community. A
hui is a large family, bonded together for economic interests. On December
12, 1899, an old man died of the bubonic plague. Others began to catch it.
If nothing was done it would quickly become an epidemic. The four houses
of the victims were ordered burned after much controversy. But there were
still many hiding from the quarantine of thousands of Chinese. It was
proposed that the fire department should burn half of Chinatown, to save
the other half and the rest of the islands. Unfortunately, when the blaze
was started, the wind threw it in the wrong direction and All of Chinatown
was quickly engulfed in a great conflagration. The hardest hit out of all
were the Kees – they had the most to lose.
Again the novel is fairly accurate in its account of history. In 1899,
Bubonic plague did break out in Hawaii.
“A strict quarantine was placed around the area, and military guards
were stationed at the boundaries of Chinatown. All schools were closed,
and no Oriental was permitted to leave the city.” Suspicion was roused
when the Chinese found that the precautions taken for them were not taken
for the few haole (Caucasian) cases.
The houses of five plague victims were ordered burned. As in the
novel, the fire began under control. But when the wind shifted, it turned
toward Chinatown. There was a riot when people rushed to their houses to
get their belongings. A total of 38 acres were burned, and 4500 people
were left homeless. Once again, when the Chinese could not be convinced
that the Board of Health had not purposely destroyed their homes, it is
seen that Michener follows history closely. The Chinese took it
personally, and would not forget the cruel act.
The fifth chapter, “From the Inland Sea,” involves the arrival of the
Japanese plantation workers, the introduction of a good breed of pineapples
to Hawaii, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and the Japanese-Americans from
Hawaii in World War II.
Kamejiro Sakagawa was the Japanese immigrant to Hawaii that Michener
followed most closely. In 1902 his family decided he would go to Hawaii
for five years on a work contract. Before he left he fell in love and
swore that he would return. Like most of the other 1850 Japanese laborers
how left that day, in September, 1902, Kamejiro would not return. After
arriving, the Japanese were sent to their new houses on the plantations.
They were told to obey the lunas (the plantation officials). A few days
later Kamejiro approached Whip Hoxworth to get some corrugated iron for a
hot bath. After a long, tense period of time, Hoxworth gave him the metal.
The Japanese needed to take daily hot baths. But they were better workers,
so Whip did not mind.
Historically, in 1868, 148 Japanese went to Hawaii. Various
misunderstandings occurred, as they did in the novel. For example,
whenever a language barrier or a misunderstanding was reached, the lunas,
usually Germans, violently subdued the Japanese workers.
Whip once again turned to his agricultural fancies. He had a theory
that pineapple and sugar were natural partners – sugar needs a lot of water
(one ton for one pound of water), and pineapples do not. Sugar thrives on
low fields, and pineapples thrive on the higher lands. Since he had tried
to grow pineapples unsuccessfully many times before, and was having
problems importing a special breed of pineapples (Cayennes, from French New
Guinea), he decided to enlist the help of a certain botanist, Dr.
Schilling. Schilling sold him 2000 prime Cayenne crowns that he would grow
in Hawaii. The Cayennes grew beautifully, and Whip was pleased.
Nobody actually knows who brought the first pineapple to Hawaii.
“After annexation, when the American customs duties were no longer charged
on Hawaiin fruit, a band of farmers from southern California settled around
the town of Wahaiwa, in the middle of the island of Oahu. They grew
several kinds of crops, including pineapples.” James D. Dole later started
the Hawaiian Pineapple Company.
The next major event in Hawaii was the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the
Japanese. It took everyone totally by surprise – no one knew that the
Japanese fleet was moving in, and they were now bombing. Shigeo Sakagawa,
on of Kamejiro’s sons, was delivering a telegraph cable when it happened.
The announcements on the radio that he heard at the house of one of his
deliveries went as follows: “I repeat. This is not a military exercise.
Japanese planes are bombing Honolulu. I repeat. This is not a joke. This
In truth, at 7:55 in the morning (Hawaiian time), on Sunday, December
7, 1941, “366 Japanese bombers and fighters struck at the American warships
lying at their moorings at Pearl Harbour. Four of the American battleships
were blown up, or sank where they lay at anchor.” Four battleships and
eleven other ships were badly damaged or sunk. The damage was phenomenal:
2330 Americans were dead or heavily wounded. The Japanese only lost 29
airplanes, five small submarines, and 64 men. One Japanese was captured by
“With Hawaii under martial law, the army and navy could do as they
pleased. Japanese language radio programs were ordered off the air, and
Japanese newspapers were forbidden to publish.”
Both in the novel and in history lies the fact that many Japanese
Americans were persecuted. It is said that only one percent of the
Japanese Americans were detained for security reasons. One of those, in
the novel, was Kamejiro Sakagawa. He was taken because he refused
citizenship (he still intended to return to Japan) and had worked with
dynamite. Later on, however, Hoxworth Hale persuaded the authorities to
let Kamejiro and other Japanese that he knew, go free.
Many of the Japanese Americans, to prove their loyalty to America,
joined the armed forces. At first they were not welcomed; later on, when
they had won a great victory in Italy by saving 300 trapped soldiers from
Texas, they won back their pride. But it cost them over 800 men to save
300. The Sakagawa children proved to be heroes in the battle – two of them
died in combat.
History tells us that after the bombing, the ROTC units were activated.
Over 300 Japanese Americans, though, were discharged without explanation.
150 of them wrote a complaint to Washington, and on June 5, 1300 Japanese
Americans went to the mainland for training. They were stationed at Camp
McCoy in Wisconsin, where many fights broke out when people called them
Japs. Two Japanese battalions joined forces and went to Italy to aid in
the cause. They quickly built a good fighting reputation for themselves.
There actually was a Texan regiment that needed saving and the Japanese
battalion did so. When they returned, “President Harry Truman reviewed the
men and attached the Seventh Presidential Citation to their colors. ‘You
fought not only the enemy, but you fought prejudice – and you have won,’
Truman said” The price for winning was 650 dead.”
The sixth and final chapter of Hawaii, “The Golden Men”, deals with the
characters in the novel who had made the most contributions to Hawaii, and
were good, well rounded people. Because there are many events in this
final chapter that have no historical bearing, (and due to the lengthiness
of this section – it is, after all, only an injustice to compare a thousand
page novel to history in so few pages – I have chosen not to compare the
events with the actual events in history. Conclusions
Michener’s Hawaii gives a total history of Hawaii until just before
statehood. Reading Hawaii gives a historical view of the islands;
something other than the pomp and splendor most commonly seen on the
popular travel guides. Hawaii gives a fictional account of the true story.
Never before had I realized that so much transpired in the years that
Hawaii was inhabited by Americans. The pain and suffering of the
immigrants, both Chinese and Japanese, was unknown to me. The novel cast a
whole new light on the subject of the Hawaiian islands.
Hawaii will probably last a long time as a work of literature. Lorrin
A. Thurston, a grandson of the missionary Asa Thurston, condemned Jack
Londons depiction of Hawaii because of the poor account of history. He
wrote that, of the impressions given, most of them are false. They are
also given as facts. “Thurston charged London with the same general crimes
which James Michener would be charged with after publication of Hawaii
nearly a half a century later.” Even though, I feel that, with my research
as a basis, Michener created a fairly accurate representation of Hawaii,
given the understanding that it is a fictional novel.
Hawaii serves in history possibly to educate those who read it on the
subject of Hawaii. It is especially important because the novel shows
history not from the general public’s point of view, but rather from the
diverse ethnic groups that it is about. The story is told through the
natives, missionaries, Chinese, Japanese, and the large land holders. This
total spectrum of the social class sheds light on all of the views in
Hawaii. For this reason, Hawaii is very important in American history. If
truly accurate in some areas that are difficult to research, Hawaii could
even become part of history: A history of all of the nations involved.