Friday, October 24, 2014

Notes on Daws, Shoal of Time: A History of the Hawaiian Islands



I did some research last week at the UW-Madison archives on Walter Mirisch’s papers concerning the movie, Hawaii (1966), which didn’t initially turn up the much of value to me, other than realizing that the film was originally intended to cover the Missionary period of the islands, which is does, up through the annexation by US, and culminating, as I understand it, with Pearl Harbor.  That’s crazy ambition—eventually a lot of the material about late 19th Century, including the annexation, was put in the follow-up, Hawaiians (1970), but the 20th Century stuff was cut altogether. One possible conclusion from the project’s original plans is not only the centrality of Dec. 7th to the Mainland’s collective vision of the islands, but also how much of a blur everything before it was to America—seeing as how there was this assumption as I see it that all this colonial history could be cramped into one three hour epic. More rewarding from my time in Madison is that there are actually a lot more papers on Hawai’i in the film and TV archives there, that I will have to return to and explore when I have more time.


Anyway, in trying to jump start my Hawai’i project, I’ve been working on a reading list of sorts on the subject. First up was Gavan Daws’ The Shoal of Time: A History of the Hawaiian Islands (1968). I had read much of this epic account a couple of years ago—this time I revisited it only with an eye towards its account of the islands from roughly the 1930s to 1960s (generally, the timeframe of my project). I decided to start with this book because I wanted a general overview of the history itself before looking at more specialized and theoretical perspectives on the same period.

Here are some of the interesting observations I took away from it:


  • Most of Daws’ account of the period overall places a heavy emphasis on labor histories, which is useful in and of itself, but also because of this part of Hawai’i’s recent history is predictably absent in the Mainland’s representation of the islands in film and TV (the only exception I know of for now is Big Jim McClain [1952], an amusing John Wayne spy film which of course equates the labor movement in Hawai’i with the spread of communism in America—a period of witch-hunting in Hawai’i that Dawes also does a good job of documenting).
  • Relatedly, the book seems to suggest that a lot of the rhetoric around communism in the islands during the 1950s was related more to stopping the Statehood movement—as opponents would often raise the idea of inviting an openly communist friendly outpost into the Union. Also, another big obstacle to statehood, which I already knew about, was openly racist factions in the US which did not want a state which wasn’t dominated by white people in the Union—and, even worse, abhorred the idea of Asian-Americans in Congress.
  • The statehood movement began in earnest with the 1930s—as the industrialists became increasingly nervous about not having control over how they were being taxed and other forms of economic discrimination, and realized they needed more stable political clout as a state of self-representation, rather than a territory completely at the mercy of the federal government. This is interesting to me for two reasons: 1) the same powerful few initially pushing for statehood would eventually find themselves opposite a rapidly growing local population using the possibilities of statehood to gain increasing political power to combat those same powerful few. And 2) this is also the time when Hawai’i begins to rebrand itself as a tourist destination (hence the starting point of my project) instead of mainly a manufacturer of pineapples and sugar. I had always assumed that this shift had to do with the unsustainability of the plantation economy (which is probably did), but hadn’t previously thought much about how the question of statehood might have been at play here too.
  • This to me is the one big absence in Daws’ account—the book doesn’t talk at all about Hawai’i’s tourism industry until the very end, positing it as a distinctly post-WWII phenomenon that really didn’t fully materialize until the 1960s. I don’t dispute this, but I envision at least a third of my book as filling in the gaps of what happened prior to the 1960s that laid the foundation for this undeniable explosion of popularity.
  • The book does a good job of explaining how Hawai’i slowly and awkwardly became a model—however illusory—of racial harmony to the mainland, despite a long history of racial tensions. Again, much of the island’s diversity was the direct result of labor issues, and the exploitation of immigrant workers on the plantations—but this eventually had the effect of creating a massive, if delicate, pool of political power in opposition to the white Republican plantation owners, and the “Big Five” the select group of wealthy industrialists who ran the islands from the time of annexation (1898) up to WWII.
  • The attack of Pearl Harbor, of course, changed everything—for one, it planted the seeds of statehood in the rest of the US by reminding the mainland of the islands’ central strategic, and symbolic, value to the US. For other, though, it essentially ended the Big Five’s economic and political reign when the islands became quickly overrun by a flood of new investors and businesses in some way directly, or indirectly, supporting the war effort. But it also brought to a head the delicate issues of race in America, and racism’s hypocrisy as it became difficult to untangle the racial diversity of the islands in the wake of conflict with the Japanese in a way that was less clear than the older entrenched racial hierarchies of the mainland. “To intern one-third of the [local] population was impossible” (347). In short, it forced Americans to think about the presence of “diversity” to perhaps an unprecedented degree—even while, as mentioned above, Hawai’i was historically hardly a model of true racial harmony (though, of course, relative to the Mainland at the time, it kind of was).
  • On that note, the islands’ reputation for such harmony was probably rooted first and foremost in political ends—the wide mix of different types of Asians, Hawai’ians, and Europeans needed to find common political ground in order to have any political power in the eve of statehood (and Daws also makes the claim that the foundation for this was first laid a decade or two earlier by the islands’ union organizers, who first saw the value of uniting around class more so than race if anything was to be achieved).
  • Also, after statehood, Gov. Jack Burns was reportedly an active proponent of the idea of Hawai’i as a model of racial diversity for the rest of the country—an important discourse which shaped a lot of Mainland media during the 1960s.
  • A good account of the Massie Affair, which seems to me to be the one structuring absence in Hawai’i’s complicated historical relationship with both racial tensions and the US’s military long presence—but also a good marker of how the islands’ changed in the US's collective imagination from a lawless, racially dangerous frontier pre-WWII to a model of racial harmony after the war.

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