I have called Once There Was Fire, my historical novel about Kamehameha the Great, who founded the Kingdom of Hawaii, “the story of old Hawaii James Michener never told.” Michener’s 1,095-page book, Hawaii (Dial Press paperback), is the novel about Hawaii most familiar to U.S. mainland readers. First published in 1959, the novel is still in wide circulation and may be the single-most influential fictional work where U.S. mainlanders’ understanding of Hawaiian history is concerned.
Michener’s historical sweep is majestic. After recounting the islands’ violent emergence from the ocean floor–over millions of years–and their slow, steady population over millions more by migrating seabirds, fish, coral, insects, and plants, Michener turns to the arrival of the first people from distant Bora Bora sometime in the 9th century. He portrays these first immigrants as heroic figures–as indeed they are, having braved thousands of miles of empty ocean with no assurance of finding land. Michener’s story then jumps 1,000 years into the future, to 1820 and the arrival of the Congregationalist missionaries from New England. By this time, Kamehameha has founded his kingdom and been dead for the better part of a year.
I don’t fault Michener for skipping over Kamehameha’s story. He would have needed at least another 500 pages to do it justice. (It took me 562 pages.) Michener set out to tell the story of a latter-day Hawaii, where the descendants of the immigrants from New England, China and Japan who arrived in the 19th century were merging into a multi-ethnic gene pool by time his story comes to a close a century later.
Surprisingly, native Hawaiians barely register in Michener’s book. And when they do, they appear as cartoon-like, tragicomic foils for Michener’s other characters. One of the first of these Hawaiian characters to enter Michener’s narrative–at the time of the first missionaries’ arrival in 1820–is named Malama, who is the islands’ ali’i nui, or high chiefess. Michener describes Malama as an “enormous woman”, six feet four inches tall, whose “massive forearms were larger than the bodies of many men, while her gigantic middle, swathed in many layers of richly patterned tapa seemed more like the trunk of some forest titan than of a human being.”
Michener most likely based Malama on Ka’ahumanu, who was the most important of Kamehameha’s more-than-20 partners, and who ruled the Hawaiian kingdom in tandem with Kamehameha’s son, Liholiho (King Kamehameha II), when the missionaries landed there. The Hawaiian nobles–the ali’i–were big people, and by all accounts, Ka’ahumanu was a huge woman, weighing hundreds of pounds. She was famous for pulling the much smaller missionary wives into her enormous lap. But that is where the resemblance ends.
In Michener’s telling, the missionaries encounter Malama at Lahaina, on Maui, where they make their first landfall. In fact, the first Congregationalist missionaries arrived at Kailua, on the Big Island, where Ka’ahumanu and Liholiho (who never appears in Michener’s story) were then in residence. This is a minor quibble, compared to Michener’s portrayal of Malama/Ka’ahumanu.
Malama greets the missionaries aboard their ship at Lahaina after the crew raises her from the dock to the deck in a “giant” canvas sling, like a massive piece of cargo. Michener describes the scene:
“… slowly, the gigantic Ali’i Nui was swung aboard the Thetis. As her big dark eyes, ablaze with childish curiosity, reached the top of the railing, while her chin rested on the edge of the canvas and her body sprawled happily behind, she waved her right hand in a grand gesture of welcome and allowed her handsome features to break into a contented smile.”
Contrast Michener’s description of Malama/Ka’ahumanu with the description of the real-life Ka’ahumanu by the 19th-century Hawaiian historian Samuel Kamakau (1815-1876):
“Ka’ahumanu was the most beautiful woman in Hawaii in those days …. A handsome woman, six feet tall, straight and well-formed was Ka’ahumanu, without blemish and comely. Her arms were like the inside of a banana stalk, her fingers tapering … graceful in repose, her cheeks long in shape and pink as the bud of a banana stem … her nose narrow and straight, in admirable proportion to her cheeks; her arched eyebrows shaped to the breadth of her forehead …”
Writing in the mid-19th century, Kamakau described a woman whom he had in all probability seen as a youth (Ka’ahumanu died in 1832). Michener, writing in the 1950s, perpetuated a disdainful, mid-20th century stereotype of native Hawaiians.
Michener does a disservice to the kingdom Kamehameha founded, summarily writing off all the Hawaiian monarchs who followed him over the next 74 years as “corrupt.” Hawaii’s monarchs were no saints, for sure. Nevertheless, they did their best to negotiate their people’s passage from a preliterate feudal society to a modern, 19th-century nation. This, while their people were beset by ever-growing haole encroachment and decimated by European diseases to which they had no immunities. The Hawaiians of the 19th century were remarkable people. With their leaders’ encouragement, they took to the formal education the missionaries proffered like fish to water, establishing a public school system and implementing universal education by the 1840s. Learning first to read and write in Hawaiian, they achieved the world’s highest literacy rate within a single generation. By the 1840s, they had also transformed Kamehameha’s feudal kingdom into a constitutional monarchy.
Eager to join the family of 19th-century western nations, Hawaii’s monarchs welcomed newcomers from America, Britain, and Continental Europe, embraced them as fellow citizens, and installed them in the highest councils of their new government. In other words, they did their damnedest to adapt, but by the 19th century’s end, the Hawaiian monarchs could no longer withstand the political forces they had unleashed by welcoming and assimilating of so many haole immigrants. It certainly didn’t help matters that by that time, diseases like measles, mumps, and chicken pox had reduced Hawaii’s native population to a few tens of thousands of people. In fact, if haole diseases had not carried away so many Hawaiians during the 19th century, 20th century Hawaii might have looked very different–and so would Michener’s novel.