“No man is an island.”
John Donne (1572-1631)
On January 20, 2009, Hawaii unwittingly became the focus of the nation when Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States. Obama was born and raised in Honolulu, Hawaii, and although he has undoubtedly had a remarkable influence on the country so far, Gary Okihiro would argue that this is just one of many examples of the phenomenal influence Hawaii has had on the mainland United States. “Island World” serves to dispel the disparaging characterization of the Hawaiian archipelago as insignificant bits of land where mainlanders have long felt entitled to be entertained and pampered on its idyllic beaches.
The book offers a panoramic view of the land, water and people through the lens of history. As much as the people have been tied to the water and the water tied to the people, the oceans have carried the Hawaiian people far and wide for centuries. Many have returned because they are answering the call of their ancestors, but many have chosen to carry on their ancestors’ influence to other communities and nations. As much as the United States has tried to make Hawaii its own, the Hawaiians, with their talent and labor, have inserted themselves into the national psyche far deeper than most Americans realize.
The most compelling case the book makes is that without Hawaiians’ labor and their innate knowledge of the sea the United States’ expansion to the west and increasing trade with Asia, especially with China, during the 1800s would have been daunting to say the least. Hawaiians were instrumental in plying the coves, bays and sounds, and navigating up and down the rivers, of the Northwest for British, French and American businessmen and pioneers. These men were then pressed to help hunt and gather otter and beaver pelts for worldwide trade. The tasks of maintaining the ships and vessels, and loading and unloading cargo, were also assigned to these men.
Okihiro’s research is well documented as evidenced by the large Notes section at the back of the book. When he alludes to Hawaiians participating in the War of 1812 and the Civil War, you can be confident that these facts are no fairy tales. The reason why they may seem stranger than fiction is that these people’s stories were undervalued and simply went untold, until now.
Island World is a book that takes a large academic subject and distills it down to several integral parts that will intrigue the casual, yet curious, reader. It explains the ebb and flow of human migration, emigration and immigration in naturalistic terms that plants the seeds of doubt in the traditional plains of thought.
Long before the Europeans ever started to explore outside their sphere of influence, the Polynesians were traveling over waves and walking upon shores to establish their own civilizations or to trade with already established communities. The Hawaiian islands constituted only a few of the many pieces of land found within an earthly constellation. For the United States, Hawaii slowly became its brightest star.