The Sandwich Islands- Concluding Views of Mark Twain

By Mark Twain
New York Tribune (Jan. 9, 1873).


Sir: Having explained who the 3,000 whites are, and what sort of people the 50,000 natives are, I will now shovel in some information as to how this toy realm, with its toy population, is governed. By a constable and six policemen? By a justice of the peace and a jury? By a mayor and a board of aldermen? Oh, no. But by a King -- and a Parliament -- and a Ministry -- and a Privy Council -- and a standing army (200 soldiers) -- and a navy (steam ferry-boat and a raft) -- and a grand bench of supreme justices -- and a lord high sheriff on each island. That is the way it is done. It is like propelling a sardine dish with the Great Eastern's machinery.

Something over 50 years ago the natives, by a sudden impulse which they could not understand themselves, burned all their idols and overthrew the ancient religion of the land. Curiously enough, our first invoice of missionaries were sailing around the Horn at the time, and they arrived just in season to furnish the people a new and much better means of grace. They baptized men, women, and children at once and by wholesale, and proceeded to instruct them in the tenets of the new religion immediately afterward. They built enormous churches, and received into communion as many as 5,000 people in a single day. The fame of it went abroad in the earth, and everywhere the nations rejoiced; the unworldly called it a "great awakening," and even the unregenerated were touched, and spoke of it with admiration. The missionaries learned the language, translated the Bible and other books into it, established schools, and even very complete colleges, and taught the whole nation to read and write; the princes and nobles acquired collegiate educations, and became familiar with half a dozen dead and living languages. Then, some twenty years later, the missionaries framed a constitution which became the law of the land. It lifted woman up to a level with her lord; placed the tenant less at the mercy of his landlord; it established a just and equable system of taxation; it introduced the ballot and universal suffrage; it defined and secured to king, chiefs, and people their several rights and privileges; and it instituted a parliament in which all the estates of the realm were to be represented, and, if I remember rightly, it gave this parliament power to pass laws over the King's veto.

Things went on swimmingly for several years, and especially under the reign of the late King's brother, an enlightened and liberal-minded prince; but when he died and Kamehameha V. ascended the throne, matters took a different turn. He was one of your swell "grace of God" Kings, and not the "figure-head" some have said he was; indeed, he was the biggest power in the Islands all his days, and his royal will was sufficient to create a law any time or overturn one.

He was master in the beginning, and at the middle, and to the end. The Parliament was the "figure-head," and it never was much else in his time. One of his very first acts was to fly into a splendid passion (when his Parliament voted down some measure of his), and tear the beautiful Constitution into shreds, and stamp on them with his royal No. 18s! And his next act was to violently prorogue the Parliament and send the members about their business. He hated Parliaments, as being a rasping and useless incumbrance upon a king, but he allowed them to exist because as an obstruction they were more ornamental than real. He hated universal suffrage and he destroyed it -- at least, he took the insides out of it and left the harmless figure. He said he would not have beggars voting industrious people's money away, and so he compelled the adoption of a cash qualification to vote. He surrounded himself with an obsequious royal Cabinet of American and other foreigners, and he dictated his measures to them and, through them, to his Parliament; and the latter institution opposed them respectfully, not to say apologetically, and passed them.

This is but a sad kind of royal "figure-head." He was not a fool. He was a wise sovereign; he had seen something of the world; he was educated and accomplished, and he tried hard to do well by his people, and succeeded. There was no trivial royal nonsense about him; he dressed plainly, poked about Honolulu, night or day, on his old horse, unattended; he was popular, greatly respected, and even beloved. Perhaps the only man who never feared him was "Prince Bill," whom I have mentioned heretofore. Perhaps the only man who ever ventured to speak his whole mind about the King, in Parliament and on the hustings, was the present true heir to the throne -- if Prince Bill is still alive, and I have not heard that he is dead. This go-ahead young fellow used to handle His Majesty without gloves, and wholly indifferent to consequences; and being a shade more popular with the native masses than the King himself, perhaps, his opposition amounted to something. The foregoing was the common talk of Honolulu six years ago, and I set the statements down here because I believe them to be true, and not because I know them to be true.

Prince William is about 35 years of age, now, I should think. There is no blood relationship between him and the house of the Kamehamehas. He comes of an older and prouder race; a race of imperious chiefs and princes of the Island of Maui, who held undisputed sway there during several hundred years. He is the eleventh prince in direct descent, and the natives always paid a peculiar homage to his venerable nobility, which they never vouchsafed to the mushroom Kamehamehas. He is considered the true heir to the Hawaiian throne, for this reason, viz.: A dying or retiring king can name his own successor, by the law of the land -- he can name any child of his he pleases, or he can name his brother or any other member of the royal family. The late king has passed away without leaving son, daughter, brother, uncle, nephew, or father (his father never was king -- he died a year or two ago), and without appointing a successor. The Parliament has power now to elect a king, and this king can be chosen from any one of the twelve chief families. This has been my understanding of the matter, and I am very sure I am right. In rank, Prince William overtops any chief in the Islands about as an English royal duke overtops a mere earl. He is the only Hawaiian, outside of the royal family, who is entitled to bear and transmit the title of Prince; and he is so popular that if the sceptre were put to a popular vote he would "walk over the track."

He used to be a very handsome fellow, with a truly princely deportment, drunk or sober; but I merely speak figuratively -- he never was drunk; he did not hold enough. All his features were fine, and he had a Roman nose that was a model of beauty and grandeur. He was brim full of spirit, pluck and enterprise; his head was full of brains, and his speech was facile and all alive with point and vigor; there was nothing underhanded or two-faced about him, but he always went straight at everything he undertook without caring who saw his hand or understood his game. He was a potent friend of America and Americans. Such is the true heir to the vacant throne -- if he is not dead, as I said before.

I have suggested that William drinks. That is not an objection to a Sandwich Islander. Whisky cannot hurt them; it can seldom even tangle the legs or befog the brains of a practiced native. It is only water with a flavor to it, to Prince Bill; it is what cider is to us. Poi is the all-powerful agent that protects the lover of whisky. Whoever eats it habitually may imbibe habitually without serious harm. The late king and his late sister Victoria both drank unlimited whisky, and so would the rest of the natives if they could get it. The native beverage, awa, is so terrific that mere whisky is foolishness to it. It turns a man's skin to white fish-scales that are so tough a dog might bite him, and he would not know it till he read about it in the papers. It is made of a root of some kind. The "quality" drink this to some extent, but the Excise law has placed it almost beyond the reach of the plebeians. After awa, what is whisky?

Many years ago the late King and his brother visited California, and some Sacramento folks thought it would be fun to get them drunk. So they gathered together the most responsible soakers in the town and began to fill up royalty and themselves with strong brandy punches. At the end of two or three hours the citizens were all lying torpid under the table and the two princes were sitting disconsolate and saying what a lonely, dry country it was! I tell it to you as it was told to me in Sacramento.

The Hawaiian Parliament consists of half a dozen chiefs, a few whites, and perhaps thirty or forty common Kanakas. The Kings ministers (half a dozen whites) sit with them and ride over all opposition to the King's wishes. There are always two people speaking at once -- the member and the public translator. The little legislature is as proud of itself as any parliament could be, and puts on no end of airs. The wisdom of a Kanaka legislature is as profound as that of our ordinary run of State legislatures, but no more so. Perhaps God makes all legislatures alike in that respect. I remember one Kanaka bill that struck me: it proposed to connect the islands of Oahu and Hawaii with a suspension bridge, because the sea voyage between these points was attended with so much sea-sickness that the natives were greatly discommoded by it. This suspension bridge would have been 150 miles long!

I can imagine what is going on in Honolulu now, during this month of mourning, for I was there when the late King's sister, Victoria, died. David Kalakaua (a chief), Commander-in-Chief of the Household Troops (how is that, for a title?) is no doubt standing guard now over the closed entrances to the "palace" grounds, keeping out all whites but officers of State; and within, the Christianized heathen are howling and dancing and wailing and carrying on in the same old savage fashion that obtained before Cook discovered the country. I lived three blocks from the wooden two-story palace when Victoria was being lamented, and for thirty nights in succession the morning pow-wow defied sleep. All that time the Christianized but morally unclean Princess lay in state in the palace. I got into the grounds one night and saw some hundreds of half-naked savages of both sexes beating their dismal tom-toms, and wailing and caterwauling in the weird glare of innumerable torches; and while a great band of women swayed and jiggered their pliant bodies through the intricate movements of a lascivious dance called the hula-hula, they chanted an accompaniment in native words. I asked the son of a missionary what the words meant. He said they celebrated certain admired gifts and physical excellencies of the dead princess. I inquired further, but he said the words were too foul for translation; that the bodily excellencies were unmentionable; that the capabilities so lauded and so glorified had better be left to the imagination. He said the King was doubtless sitting where he could hear these ghastly praises and enjoy them. That is, the late King -- the educated, cultivated Kamehameha V. And mind you, one of his titles was "the Head of the Church;" for, although he was brought up in the religion of the missionaries, and educated in their schools and colleges, he early learned to despise their plebeian form of worship, and had imported the English system and an English bishop, and bossed the works himself. You can imagine the saturnalia that is making the night hideous in the palace grounds now, where His Majesty is lying in state.

The late King was frequently on hand in the royal pew in the Royal Hawaiian Reformed Catholic Church, on Sundays, but whenever he got into trouble he did not fly to the cross for help -- he flew to the heathen gods of his ancestors. Now this was a man who would write you a beautiful letter, in a faultless hand, and word it in faultless English; and perhaps throw in a few graceful classic allusions; and perhaps a few happy references to science, international law, or the world's political history; or he would array himself in elegant evening dress and entertain you at his board in princely style, and converse like a born Christian gentleman; and day after day he would work like a beaver in affairs of State, and on occasion exchange autograph letters with the kings and emperors of the old world. And the very next week, business being over, he would retire to a cluster of dismal little straw-thatched native huts by the sea-shore, and there for a fortnight he would turn himself into a heathen whom you could not tell from his savage grandfather. He would reduce his dress to a breech-clout, fill himself daily full of whisky, and sit with certain of his concubines while others danced the peculiar hula-hula. And if oppressed by great responsibilities he would summon one of his familiars, an ancient witch, and ask her to tell him the opinion and the commands of the heathen gods, and these commands he would obey. He was so superstitious that he would not step over a line drawn across a road, but would walk around it. These matters were common talk in the Islands. I never saw this King but once, and then he was not on his periodical debauch. He was in evening dress attending the funeral of his sister, and had a yard of crepe descending from his stovepipe hat.

If you will be so good as to remember that the population of the islands is but a little over 50,000 souls, and that over that little handful of people roosts a monarchy with its coat-tails fringed with as many mighty-titled dignitaries as would suffice to run the Russian Empire, you will wonder how, the offices all being filled, there can be anybody left to govern. And the truth is, that it is one of the oddest things in the world to stumble on a man there who has no title. I felt so lonesome, as being about the only unofficial person in Honolulu, that I had to leave the country to find company.

After all this exhibition of imperial grandeur, it is humiliating to have to say that the entire exports of the kingdom are not as much as $1,500,000, the imports in the neighborhood of that figure, and the revenues, say $500,000. And yet they pay the King $36,000 a year, and the other officials from $3,000 to $8,000 -- and heaven knows there are enough of them.

The National Debt was $150,000 when I was there -- and there was nothing in the country they were so proud of. They wouldn't have taken any money for it. With what an air His Excellency the Minister of Finance lugged in his Annual Budget and read off the impressive items and flourished the stately total!

The "Royal Ministers" are natural curiosities. They are white men of various nationalities, who have wandered thither in times gone by. I will give you a specimen -- but not the most favorable. Harris, for instance. Harris is an American -- a long-legged, vain, light-weight village lawyer from New Hampshire. If he had brains in proportion to his legs, he would make Solomon seem a failure; if his modesty equaled his ignorance, he would make a violet seem stuck-up; if his learning equaled his vanity, he would make von Humboldt seem as unlettered as the backside of a tombstone; if his stature were proportioned to his conscience, he would be a gem for the microscope; if his ideas were as large as his words, it would take a man three months to walk around one of them; if an audience were to contract to listen as long as he would talk, that audience would die of old age; and if he were to talk until he said something, he would still be on his hind legs when the last trump sounded. And he would have cheek enough to wait till the disturbance was over, and go on again.

Such is (or was) His Excellency Mr. Harris, his late Majesty's Minister of This, That, and The Other -- for he was a little of everything; and particularly and always he was the King's most obedient humble servant and loving worshiper, and his chief champion and mouthpiece in the parliamentary branch of ministers. And when a question came up (it didn't make any difference what it was), how he would rise up and saw the air with his bony flails, and storm and cavort and hurl sounding emptiness which he thought was eloquence, and discharge bile which he fancied was satire, and issue dreary rubbish which he took for humor, and accompany it with contortions of his undertaker countenance which he believed to be comic expression!

He began in the islands as a little, obscure lawyer, and rose (?) to be such a many-sided official grandee that sarcastic folk dubbed him, "the wheels of the Government." He became a great man in a pigmy land -- he was of the caliber that other countries construct constables and coroners of. I do not wish to seem prejudiced against Harris, and I hope that nothing I have said will convey such an impression. I must be an honest historian, and to do this in the present case I have to reveal the fact that this stately figure, which looks so like a Washington monument in the distance, is nothing but a thirty-dollar windmill when you get close to him.

Harris loves to proclaim that he is no longer an American, and is proud of it; that he is a Hawaiian through and through, and is proud of that, too; and that he is a willing subject and servant of his lord and master, the King, and is proud and grateful that it is so.

Now, let us annex the islands. Think how we could build up that whaling trade! [Though under our courts and judges it might soon be as impossible for whale-ships to rendezvous there without being fleeced and "pulled" by sailors and pettifoggers as it now is in San Francisco -- a place the skippers shun as they would rocks and shoals.] Let us annex. We could make sugar enough there to supply all America, perhaps, and the prices would be very easy with the duties removed. And then we would have such a fine half-way house for our Pacific-plying ships; and such a convenient supply depot and such a commanding sentry-box for an armed squadron; and we could raise cotton and coffee there and make it pay pretty well, with the duties off and capital easier to get at. And then we would own the mightiest volcano on earth -- Kilauea! Barnum could run it -- he understands fires now. Let us annex, by all means. We could pacify Prince Bill and other nobles easily enough -- put them on a reservation. Nothing pleases a savage like a reservation -- a reservation where he has his annual hoes, and Bibles and blankets to trade for powder and whisky -- a sweet Arcadian retreat fenced in with soldiers. By annexing, we would get all those 50,000 natives cheap as dirt, with their morals and other diseases thrown in. No expense for education -- they are already educated; no need to convert them -- they are already converted; no expense to clothe them -- for obvious reasons.

We must annex those people. We can afflict them with our wise and beneficent government. We can introduce the novelty of thieves, all the way up from street-car pickpockets to municipal robbers and Government defaulters, and show them how amusing it is to arrest them and try them and then turn them loose -- some for cash and some for "political influence." We can make them ashamed of their simple and primitive justice. We can do away with their occasional hangings for murder, and let them have Judge Pratt to teach them how to save imperiled Avery-assassins to society. We can give them some Barnards to keep their money corporations out of difficulties. We can give them juries composed entirely of the most simple and charming leatherheads. We can give them railway corporations who will buy their Legislatures like old clothes, and run over their best citizens and complain of the corpses for smearing their unpleasant juices on the track. In place of harmless and vaporing Harris, we can give them Tweed. We can let them have Connolly; we can loan them Sweeny; we can furnish them some Jay Goulds who will do away with their old-time notion that stealing is not respectable. We can confer Woodbull and Claflin on them. And George Francis Train. We can give them lecturers! I will go myself.

We can make that little bunch of sleepy islands the hottest corner on earth, and array it in the moral splendor of our high and holy civilization. Annexation is what the poor islanders need. "Shall we to men benighted, the lamp of life deny?"








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