Last Updated on May 15, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1365
Anahulu: The Anthropology of History in the Kingdom of Hawaii is a monument of interdisciplinary scholarship. The work is divided into two volumes: Volume 1, Historical Ethnography, was written by Marshall Sahlins with the assistance of Dorothy Barrère; volume 2, The Archaeology of History, was written by Patrick Kirch with the assistance of Sahlins, Marshall Weisler, and Matthew Spriggs. Introducing their respective volumes, however, Sahlins and Kirch both emphasize the thoroughly collaborative nature of their enterprise.
Sahlins is an anthropologist who has been influential both as a specialist in Polynesian culture and as an anthropological theorist; among his many books are Culture and Practical Reason(1976), The Use and Abuse of Biology: An Anthropological Critique of Sociobiology (1976), andIslands of History (1985). Kirch is an archaeologist who has published widely on the archaeology of the Pacific; his previous books include The Evolution of the Polynesian Chiefdoms (1984) andFeathered Gods and Fishhooks: An Introduction to Hawaiian Archaeology and Prehistory (1985). Both Sahlins and Kirch are members of the National Academy of Sciences.
In some respects, Anahulu resembles the five-volume, French-based project, A History of Private Life, published in English translation by Harvard University Press (see Magill’s Literary Annual, 1988-1992). Like that series, Anahulu has two principal claims on our attention: the interest of its specific subject, clearly, but also its claim to exemplify an innovative interdisciplinary method.
In another respect, however, Anahulu differs markedly from A History of Private Life. While the scholars who contributed to the latter project sometimes drew on their own archival research, their essays were largely works of synthesis. In contrast, Anahulu is primary scholarship. From facsimiles of mid-nineteenth century land documents to the intricacies of carbon dating, these two volumes demonstrate the nearly surreal mastery of detail of which late-twentieth century scholarship is capable. Kirch’s volume in particular will be studied primarily by specialists.
Precisely because Sahlins and Kirch’s investigation ramifies into such fine detail, it is important to keep in mind the contexts that give their work meaning: both the explicit context which they provide and the larger, implicit contexts. Sahlins and Kirch summarize their intention with admirable clarity. As Sahlins explains in the introduction to volume 1, they want to trace the impact of the capitalist “World System” on Hawaii following the “discovery” of the islands by Captain James Cook in 1778:
From London and Boston, Canton and Kamchatka, the political and economic forces of the World System converged on the Islands, principally the ports of Honolulu and Lahaina, whence the effects were carried to remote places such as Anahulu. The modest aim of the present volume, then, is to bring the history of the world into the Anahulu River valley. What we would show is how Hawaii’s entrance into this world history, through a series of local mediations, was realized in the cultural forms of Anahulu history.
Anahulu thus reflects several of the dominant trends in current scholarship in the social sciences and the humanities. First and most obvious is the vogue for microhistory. The Anahulu Valley takes its name from the Anahulu River, the longest river in O’ahu. In focusing his “historical ethnography” on this region, Sahlins never loses sight of the themes that might be treated on a large scale in a more conventional history. For example, in reproducing records of church membership between 1834 and 1863 in Waialua (the territorial division encompassing the Anahulu Valley), Sahlins graphically documents the impact of the evangelical “Great Awakening” of 1837 among Hawaiian Christians and the “backsliding” that followed, in the context of a larger discussion of the missionaries’ limited success and the interaction between Christianity and the rapidly collapsing traditional Hawaiian order.
Another fundamental aspect of Anahulu that reflects dominant trends in the humanities and the social sciences is the moral cast of the work. The epigraph to Sahlins’ first chapter is from Saint Augustine: “Thou didst at first desire a farm; then thou wouldst possess an estate; thou wouldst shut out thy neighbours; having shut them out, thou didst set thy heart on the possessions of other neighbours; and didst extend thy covetous desires till thou had reached the shore: arriving at the shore, thou covetest the islands…” (ellipses Sahlins’). Here, just as much as in any collection of saints’ lives, history is seen in moral terms, the object being to document and analyze the malign influence of capitalism, imperialism, colonialism, particularly as those forces have impinged on the lives of indigenous peoples around the world.
Certainly the entry of the World System was devastating for Hawaiians, as it had been for Native Americans, contributing to a severe decline in population and massive cultural dislocation. At the same time, Sahlins and Kirch do not portray their subjects as helpless pawns: “Hawaiians too were authors of their fate and not merely its victims. While capitalism (in all its cultural manifold) was imposing itself on them, and precisely as it could not be denied, Hawaiians synthesized the experience in their own cultural terms.” If the long-term effects of European contact were more severe in Hawaii than in other Pacific societies, that was in part attributable to Hawaiian distinctives that “culturally amplified the impact of capitalism.” Sahlins shows at length, for example, how the destabilizing effect of European contact encouraged the ali’i or chiefs to indulge in “unrestrained competition among themselves in conspicuous accumulation and consumption.” This “consuming frenzy” was inspired not only by quotidian greed but also by Hawaiian cosmology.
That is one instance of a problem that has long preoccupied Sahlins: the relationship between history and culture. Here is another way in which Anahulu takes its place in a larger context of cultural studies. Current work in cultural studies is full of references to various forces or historical processes which are said to shape social life. Crudely applied, as in classic Marxism, such theories offer what Sahlins ironically refers to as “a physics of the world-historical forces.” To clarify his more complex sense of the relation between historical forces—such as those associated with capitalism—and the particular cultures in which they are played out, Sahlins has coined the term “structure of the conjuncture,” which he defines in Islands in History as “the practical realization of the cultural categories in a specific historical context, as expressed in the interested action of the historical agents.”
Sahlins’ definition sounds frightfully abstract, but in fact the concept of the “structure of the conjuncture”—which figures prominently in Anahulu—is intended to undercut facile abstractions. As Sahlins observes, “the culture of imperialism in Hawaii (as elsewhere) is not reducible to an abstract calculus of greed and gain.” He goes on to list some of the conflicts among the diverse agents of imperialism: conflicts between missionaries and merchants, between Protestant missionaries and Catholics, between American interests and those of Britain and France. In turn, members of these diverse groups formed shifting alliances with different factions among the Hawaiians, creating “complex, interethnic ‘structures of the conjuncture.’”
Such nuanced analysis is welcome. Even so, Sahlins does not manage to escape the demons of abstraction. When he writes of “personages…who synthesized the historical forces as biographical dispositions,” he lays himself open to the charge of having a defective sense of what constitutes an individual human being.
In January, 1993, amid the ongoing stories reporting bloodshed and near anarchy in the aftermath of the breakup of the Soviet Union, there was a small flurry of stories from the corner of another empire. That date marked the one hundredth anniversary of the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893, which paved the way for the annexation of Hawaii by the United States in 1898.
Reflecting on the centennial, John Waihe’e, the governor of Hawaii and the first native Hawaiian to hold that office, wrote that “The overthrow of the Hawaiian…was a hostile act, an armed takeover of a legitimate government that was an established member of the community of nations.” Among native Hawaiians there are increasing calls for some degree of sovereignty, with demands ranging from a “nation- within-a-nation” status comparable to that of Native Americans to complete independence. That is another context in which Anahulu is meaningful.
Sources for Further Study
Library Journal. CXVII, August, 1992, p. 126.
The Times Literary Supplement. February 5, 1993, p. 25.
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