The Sandwich Islands- Views of Mark Twain

By Mark Twain
New York Tribune (Jan. 6, 1873).

Sir: When you do me the honor to suggest that I write an article about the Sandwich Islands, just now when the death of the King has turned something of the public attention in that direction, you unkennel a man whose modesty would have kept him in hiding otherwise. I could fill you full of statistics, but most human beings like gossip better and so you will not blame me if I proceed after the largest audience and leave other people to worry the minority with arithmetic.

I spent several months in the Sandwich Islands, six years ago, and if I could have my way about it, I would go back there and remain the rest of my days. It is paradise for an indolent man. If a man is rich he can live expensively, and his grandeur will be respected as in other parts of the earth; if he is poor he can herd with the natives, and live on next to nothing; he can sun himself all day long under the palm trees, and be no more troubled by his conscience than a butterfly would.

When you are in that blessed retreat, you are safe from the turmoil of life; you drowse your days away in a long deep dream of peace; the past is a forgotten thing, the present is heaven, the future you leave to take care of itself. You are in the center of the Pacific Ocean; you are two thousand miles from any continent; you are millions of miles from the world; as far as you can see, on any hand, the crested billows wall the horizon, and beyond this barrier the wide universe is but a foreign land to you, and barren of interest.

The climate is simply delicious -- never cold at the sea level, and never really too warm, for you are at the half-way house -- that is, twenty degrees above the equator. But then you may order your own climate for this reason: the eight inhabited islands are merely mountains that lift themselves out of the sea -- a group of bells, if you please, with some (but not very much) "flare" at their bases. You get the idea. Well, you take a thermometer, and mark on it where you want the mercury to stand permanently forever (with not more than 12 degrees variation) Winter and Summer. If 82 in the shade is your figure (with the privilege of going down or up 5 or 6 degrees at long intervals), you build your house down on the "flare" -- the sloping or level ground by the sea-shore -- and you have the deadest surest thing in the world on that temperature. And such is the climate of Honolulu, the capital of the kingdom. If you mark 70 as your mean temperature, you build your house on any mountain side, 400 or 500 feet above sea level. If you mark 55 or 60, go 1,500 feet higher. If you mark for Wintry weather, go on climbing and watching your mercury. If you want snow and ice forever and ever, and zero and below, build on the summit of Manna Kea, 16,000 feat up in the air. If you must have hot weather, you should build at Lahaina, where they do not hang the thermometer on a nail because the solder might melt and the instrument get broken, or you should build in the crater of Kilauea, which would be the same as going home before your time. You can not find as much climate bunched together anywhere in the world as you can in the Sandwich Islands. You may stand on the summit of Mauna Kea, in the midst of snow-banks that were there before Capt. Cook was born, maybe, and while you shiver in your furs you may cast your eye down the sweep of the mountain side and tell exactly where the frigid zone ends and vegetable life begins; a stunted and tormented growth of trees shades down into a taller and freer species, and that in turn, into the full foliage and varied tints of the temperate zone; further down, the mere ordinary green tone of a forest washes over the edges of a broad bar of orange trees that embraces the mountain like a belt, and is so deep and dark a green that distance makes it black; and still further down, your eye rests upon the levels of the seashore, where the sugar-cane is scorching in the sun, and the feathery cocoa-palm glassing itself in the tropical waves, and where you know the sinful natives are toiling about in utter nakedness and never knowing or caring that you and your snow and your chattering teeth are so close by. So you perceive, you can look down upon all the climates of the earth, and note the kinds of colors of all the vegetations, just with a glance of the eye -- and this glance only travels over about three miles as the bird flies, too.

The natives of the islands number only about 50,000, and the whites about 3,000, chiefly Americans. According to Capt. Cook the natives numbered 400,000 less than a hundred years ago. But the traders brought labor and fancy diseases -- in other words, long, deliberate, infallible destruction; and the missionaries brought the means of grace and got them ready. So the two forces are working along harmoniously, and anybody who knows anything about figures can tell you exactly when the last Kanaka will be in Abraham's bosom and his islands in the hands of the whites. It is the same as calculating an eclipse -- if you get started right, you cannot miss it. For nearly a century the natives have been keeping up a ratio of about three births to five deaths, and you can see what that must result in. No doubt in fifty years a Kanaka will be a curiosity in his own land, and as an investment will be superior to a circus.

I am truly sorry that these people are dying out, for they are about the most interesting savages there are. Their language is soft and musical, it has not a hissing sound in it, and all their words end with a vowel. They would call Jim Fisk Jimmy Fikki, for they will even do violence to a proper name if it grates too harshly in its natural state. The Italian is raspy and disagreeable compared to the Hawaiian tongue.

These people used to go naked, but the missionaries broke that up; in towns the men wear clothing now, and in the country a plug hat and a breech-clout; or if they have company they put on a shirt collar and a vest. Nothing but religion and education could have wrought these admirable changes. The women wear a single loose calico gown, that falls without a break from neck to heels.

In the old times, to speak plainly, There was absolutely no bar to the commerce of the sexes. To refuse the solicitations of a stranger was regarded as a contemptible thing for a girl or a woman to do; but the missionaries have so bitterly fought this thing that they have succeeded at least in driving it out of sight -- and now it exists only in reality, not in name.

These natives are the simplest, the kindest-hearted, the most unselfish creatures that bear the image of the Maker. Where white influence has not changed them, they will make any chance stranger welcome, and divide their all with him -- a trait which has never existed among any other people, perhaps. They live only for today; tomorrow is a thing which does not enter into their calculations. I had a native youth in my employ in Honolulu, a graduate of a missionary college, and he divided his time between translating the Greek Testament and taking care of a piece of property of mine which I considered a horse. Whenever this boy could collect his wages, he would go and lay out the entire amount, all the way up from fifty cents to a dollar, in poi (which is a paste made of the taro root, and is the national dish), and call in all the native ragamuffins that came along to help him eat it. And there, in the rich grass, under the tamarind trees, the gentle savages would sit and gorge till all was gone. My boy would go hungry and content for a day or two, and then some Kanaka he probably had never seen before would invite him to a similar feast, and give him a fresh start.

The ancient religion was only a jumble of curious superstitions. The shark seems to have been the god they chiefly worshiped -- or rather sought to propitiate. Then there was Pele, a goddess who presided over the terrible fires of Kilauea; minor gods were not scarce. The natives are all Christians, now -- every one of them; they all belong to the church, and are fonder of theology than they are of pie; they will sweat out a sermon as long as the Declaration of Independence; the duller it is the more it infatuates them; they would sit there and stew and stew in a trance of enjoyment till they floated away in their own grease if the ministers would stand watch -- and -- watch, and see them through. Sunday-schools are a favorite dissipation with them, and they never get enough. If there was physical as well as mental intoxication in this limb of the service, they would never draw a sober breath. Religion is drink and meat to the native. He can read his neatly printed Bible (in the native tongue -- every solitary man, woman, and little child in the islands can), and he reads it over and over again. And he reads a whole world of moral tales, built on the good old Sunday-school book pattern, exaggerated, and he worships their heroes -- heroes who wale the world with their mouths full of butter, and who are simply impossibly chuckle-headed and pious. And he knows all the hymns you ever heard in your life, and he sings them in a soft, pleasant voice, to native words that make "On Jordan's stormy banks I stand" sound as grotesquely and sweetly foreign to you as if it were a dictionary grinding wrong end first through a sugar-mill. Now you see how these natives, great and small, old and young, are saturated with religion -- at least the poetry and the music of it. But as to the practice of it, they vary. Some of the nobler precepts of Christianity they have always practiced naturally, and they always will. Some of the minor precepts they as naturally do not practice, and as naturally they never will. The white man has taught them to lie, and they take to it pleasantly and without sin -- for there cannot be much sin in a thing which they cannot be made to comprehend is a sin. Adultery they look upon as poetically wrong but practically proper.

These people are sentimentally religious -- perhaps that describes it. They pray and sing and moralize in fair weather, but when they get into trouble, that is "business" -- and then they are tolerably apt to drop poetry and call on the Great Shark God of their fathers to give them a lift. Their ancient superstitions are in their blood and bones, and they keep cropping out now and then in the most natural and pardonable way.

I am one who regards missionary work as slow and discouraging labor, and not immediately satisfactory in its results. But I am very far from considering such work either hopeless or useless. I believe that such seed, sown in savage ground, will produce wholesome fruit in the third generation, and certainly that result is worth striving for. But I do not think much can reasonably be expected of the first and second generations. It is against nature. It takes long and patient cultivation to turn the bitter almond into the peach. But we do not refrain from the effort on that account, for, after all, it pays.

The natives make excellent seamen, and the whalers would rather have them than any other race. They are so tractable, docile and willing, and withal so faithful, that they rank first in sugar-planters' esteem as laborers. Do not these facts speak well for our poor, brown Sunday-school children of the far islands!

There is a small property tax, and any native who has an income of $50 a year can vote.

The 3,000 whites in the islands handle all the money and carry on all the commerce and agriculture -- and superintend the religion. Americans are largely in the majority. These whites are sugar-planters, merchants, whale-ship officers, and missionaries. The missionaries are sorry that most of the other whites are there, and these latter are sorry the missionaries don't migrate. The most of the belt of sloping land that borders the sea and rises toward the bases of the mountains, is rich and fertile. There are only 200,000 acres of this productive soil, but only think of its capabilities! In Louisiana, 200,000 acres of sugar land would only yield 50,000 tons of sugar per annum, and possibly not so much; but in the Sandwich Islands, you could get at least 400,000 tons out of it. This is a good, strong statement, but it is true, nevertheless. Two and a half tons to the acre is a common yield in the islands; three and a half tons is by no means unusual; five tons is frequent; and I can name the man who took fifty tons of sugar from seven acres of ground, one season. This cane was on the mountainside, 2,500 feet above sea level, and it took it three years to mature. Address your inquiries to Capt. McKee, Island of Mani, S.I. Few plantations are stuck up in the air like that, and so twelve months is ample time for the maturing of cane down there. And I would like to call attention to two or three exceedingly noteworthy facts. For instance, there you do not hurry up and cut your cane when it blossoms, but you just let it alone and cut it when you choose -- no harm will come of it. And you do not have to keep an army of hands to plant in the planting season, grind in the grinding season, and rush in frantically and cut down the crop when a frost threatens. Not at all. There is no hurry. You run a large plantation with but a few hands, because you plant pretty much when you please, and you cut your cane and grind it when it suits your convenience. There is no frost, and the longer the cane stands the better it grows. Sometimes -- often, in fact -- part of your gang are planting a field, another part are cutting the crop from an adjoining field, and the rest are grinding at the mill. You only plant once in three years, and you take off two ratoon crops without replanting. You may keep on taking off ratoon crops about as long as you please, indeed; every year the bulk of the cane will be smaller, but the juice will grow regularly denser and richer, and so you are all right. I know of one lazy man who took off sixteen ratoon crops without replanting!

What fortunes those planters made during our war, when sugar went up into the twenties! It had cost them about ten or eleven cents a pound, delivered in San Francisco, and all charges paid. Now if any one desires to know why these planters would probably like to be under our flag, the answer is simple: We make them pay us a duty of four cents a pound on refined sugars at present; brokerage, freights and handling (two or three times), costs three cents more; rearing the cane, and making the sugar, is an item of five cents more -- total, 12 cents a pound, or within a cent of it, anyhow. And today refined sugar is only worth about 1212 cents (wholesale) in our markets. Profit -- none worth mentioning. But if we were to annex the islands and do away with that crushing duty of four cents a pound, some of those heavy planters who can hardly keep their heads above water now, would clear $75,000 a year and upward. Two such years would pay for their plantations, and all their stock and machinery. It is so long since I was in the islands that I feel doubtful about swearing that the United States duty on their sugars was four cents a pound, but I can swear it was not under three.

I would like to say a word about the late King Kamehameha V. and the system of government, but I will wait a day. Also, I would like to know why your correspondents so calmly ignore the true heir to the Sandwich Islands throne, as if he had no existence and no chances; and I would like to heave in a word for him. I refer to our stanch American sympathizer, Prince William Lunalilo, descendant of eleven generations of sceptred savages -- a splendid fellow, with talent, genius, education, gentlemanly manners, generous instincts, and an intellect that shines as radiantly through floods of whisky as if that fluid but fed a calcium light in his head. All people in the islands know that William -- or "Prince Bill," as they call him, more in affection than otherwise -- stands next to the throne; and so why is he ignored?

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