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Cast in print: The nineteenth -century Hawaiian imaginary

Lydia K Kualapai, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


The rhetorical construction of the nineteenth-century Hawaiian imaginary is the product of U.S. imperialism and a reflection of its shifting political discourse. Native Hawaiians first enter the Western imagination in 1779 as the “murdering savages” who killed the “Great Navigator,” Capt. James Cook. The question as to whether or not Hawaiians mistook Cook for the god Lono has generated a contentious debate between anthropologists Marshall Sahlins and Gananath Obeyesekere. In defending their disparate interpretations, both Sahlins and Obeyesekere construct Hawaiians as the objects—rather than the agents—of articulation. I avoid these terms of the debate and return instead to Cook's expedition journals wherein I locate a point of intervention suggesting that at least one subaltern Hawaiian man gave signs of knowing that something horrible was being visited upon Hawai'i, and it was not Lono. I then reassess the U.S. missionary construction of Hawaiians by introducing two recovered texts, Karahman: An Owhyeean Tale (1822) and Betsey Stockton's missionary journal (1823–25). The former contests the centrality of the missionaries' “introduction” of Christianity to Hawai'i, the latter, written shortly after Stockton's 1818 manumission, rejects the (white) missionary interpellation of Hawaiians as “morally polluting savages” and instead situates Hawaiians within their own cultural context, a narrative strategy that ultimately undermines hegemonic missionary discourse. I trace the missionary influence in the impact of mid-century travel writers, especially Samuel Clemens, and demonstrate how reiteration creates an imaginary landscape of “grass huts” and “hula hula girls,” and, at the same time, packages Hawai'i for economic exploitation. I argue that this final rhetorical shift sustains the U.S. annexation campaign, bringing it to fruition in 1898. By exposing the inconsistences of the dominant discourse, I destabilize the Hawaiian imaginary and, in the process, help reestablish a rhetorical space where Native Hawaiian voices can be heard on their own terms. The closing argument thus appropriately considers Queen Lili'uokalani's 1898 memoir, Hawaii's Story by Hawaii's Queen.

Subject Area

American literature

Recommended Citation

Kualapai, Lydia K, "Cast in print: The nineteenth -century Hawaiian imaginary" (2001). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI3034383.