Mark Twain (and the missionaries) in Hawaii

Mark Twain (and the missionaries) in Hawaii


Liz and I have recently returned from two months overseas visiting a friend in Alaska and family in Canada. En route to Alaska we stayed for a few days in Hawaii. When we got outside the urban cocoon of Honolulu we were struck by the beauty of the island of Oahu, especially the beaches and rugged, bush-clad hills of the north-east coast. We also discovered a little literary gem there.

In 1866, at the age of 31, Mark Twain arrived in the Hawaiian Islands to spend four months as a correspondent for the leading newspaper on the Pacific Coast of America. In 1872 he drew upon these articles and his personal notes for the Hawaiian chapters in his travel book, Roughing It. In recent times the Hawaiian material has appeared on its own in a little volume titled Mark Twain in Hawaii: Roughing it in the Sandwich Islands (Mutual Publishing, 1990, 106 pages). It is a fascinating and engaging read. It includes photos and engravings of Hawaiian scenes from the time – particularly striking is a scene of Hawaiians surfing on wooden boards.

Mark Twain in Hawaii

The self-deprecating humourist describes his first experience of surfing: “In one place we came upon a large company of naked natives, of both sexes and all ages, amusing themselves with the national sport of surfbathing. Each would paddle three or four hundred yards out to sea, then face the shore and wait for a particularly prodigious billow to come along; at the right moment he would fling his board upon its foamy crest and himself upon the board, and here he would come whizzing by like a bombshell! It did not seem that a lightning express train could shoot along at a more hair-lifting speed. I tried surfbathing once, but made a failure of it. I got the board placed right, and at the right moment, too; but missed the connection myself. The board struck the shore in three-quarters of a second, without any cargo, and I struck the bottom about the same time, with a couple of barrels of water in me.”

The book is rich in historical interest and enlivened by Twain’s robust sense of humour. He describes, for instance, what happened when the missionaries imported and distributed clothes in order to get the people not to come to church naked: “And they did not; but the national spirit of unselfishness led them to divide up with neighbours who were not at the distribution, and next Sunday the poor preachers could hardly keep countenance before their vast congregations. In the midst of a hymn a brown, stately dame would sweep up the aisle with a world of airs, with nothing on but a “stovepipe” hat and a pair of gloves; another would follow tricked out in a man’s shirt, and nothing else; another would enter with a flourish, with simply the sleeves of a bright calico dress tied around her waist and the rest of the garment dragging behind like a peacock’s tail off duty.”

Mark Twain’s take on the missionaries is at times satirical – “How sad it is to think of the multitudes who have gone to their graves in this beautiful island and never knew there was a hell!” But I was struck by how positive he is about their overall impact upon the lives of the Hawaiians. He writes of the tyranny of the chiefs before the missionaries came, and sums up the impact of their arrival: “ the missionaries have clothed them, educated them, broken up the tyrannous authority of their chiefs, and given them freedom and the right to enjoy whatever their hands and brains produce with equal laws for all … The contrast is so strong – the benefit conferred upon this people by the missionaries is so prominent, so palpable and so unquestionable, that the frankest compliment I can pay them, and the best, is simply to point to the condition of the Sandwich Islanders of Captain Cook’s time, and their condition today. Their work speaks for itself.”

A major transformation brought by the missionaries, to which Mark Twain refers several times, is the ending of human sacrifice. The extraordinary change which has taken place becomes vivid as he visits the national Legislature and contemplates the figure of the eighty year old President: “This man … has charged at the head of a horde of savages against other hordes of savages more than a generation and a half ago, and revelled in slaughter and carnage; has seen hundreds of his race offered up in heathen temples as sacrifices to wooden idols, at a time when no missionary’s foot had ever pressed this soil; has believed his enemy could secretly pray him to death; has seen the day, in his childhood, when it was a crime punishable by death for a man to eat with his wife, or for a plebeian to let his shadow fall upon the King – and now look at him; an educated Christian; a high-minded elegant gentleman; a man practiced in holding the reins of an enlightened government, and well versed in the polities of his country.”

Also intriguing is Twain’s account of the death of paganism just before the missionaries arrived. When a new king broke a number of ancient taboos without suffering any ill effects, belief in the old gods quickly withered. As a result, the nation was effectively without a religion when the first missionaries arrived. Twain writes, “The missionary ship arrived in safety shortly afterward, timed by providential exactness to meet the emergency, and the Gospel was planted as in a virgin soil.”

Mark Twain famously described the Hawaiian group as “the loveliest fleet of islands that lies anchored in any ocean” and more than twenty years after his visit he wrote this poignant tribute:

“No alien land in all the world has any deep strong charm for me but that one, no other land could so longingly and so beseechingly haunt me, sleeping and waking, through half a lifetime, as that one has done. Other things leave me, but it abides; other things change, but it remains the same. For me its balmy airs are always blowing, its summer seas flashing in the sun; the pulsing of its surf beatP1070512

is in my ear, I can see its garlanded crags, its leaping cascades, its plumy palms drowsing by the shore, its remote summits floating like islands above the cloud wrack; I can feel the spirit of its woodland solitudes, I can hear the splash of its brooks; in my nostrils still lives the breath of flowers that perished twenty years ago.”

5 thoughts on “Mark Twain (and the missionaries) in Hawaii

  1. William Shepard

    Hi Ron,

    Thanks for this. I have not read this book or even known about it until now. It appears to give a fairer evaluation of missionaries than one often gets from secular sources. Many years ago I read Mitchener’s book Hawaii, which has a lot on missionaries, not as favorable as I remember. Our family stopped in Hawaii for a few day when we first came to New Zealand. I don’t think we got outside the “urban cocoon”, however.

    Best wishes, Bill Shepard



  2. Hi Bill,
    Thanks for your comments. It’s always good to hear from you. I haven’t read Michener’s book, but I did see a movie years ago which I think was based on his book.

    Warm greetings to you both,


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