Leaving Paradise: Indigenous Hawaiians in the Pacific Northwest, 1787-1898
November 4, 2013
Review By Jennifer Brown
In this book, Jean Barman and Bruce Watson tell a remarkable and little-known story – that of the many hundreds of Hawaiian Islanders who, for more than a century, came to work in the Pacific Northwest. Barman and Watson have organized massive amounts of detailed and often fragmentary material into a clear and insightful narrative. This book is a comprehensive study of the indigenous Hawaiians who came to the Pacific Northwest from the late 1700s to 1898, when Hawaii was annexed to the United States. Scholars of the western fur trade are familiar with the terms “Kanaka” and “Sandwich Islanders,” which refer to the Hawaiians who worked for the North West Company (NWC) and, later, for the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) in the early to mid-1800s. But until now they and other students of Pacific Northwest history have had no means of grasping the dynamics and scale of the Hawaiian presence in the region during this period.
The first half of the book consists of nine chapters that track the Hawaiians in the northwest from the earliest maritime arrivals to the sojourners and residents who found themselves in either the United States or British territory after the Oregon Treaty of 1846. At first, a few Hawaiians joined the ships’ crews of explorers, and then of entrepreneurs, who exploited the sea otter trade in the early 1800s. Others joined the early land-based fur trade to work for the short-lived American trading enterprise at Fort Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia River in 1811- 12. When the nwc took over that post in 1813, it acquired and benefited from the productive labour of the twentytwo Hawaiians who were serving there (54). The book effectively lays out the social changes and pressures in Hawaii that encouraged these men and their successors to “leave paradise” as missionaries and other newcomers challenged and changed lifeways and traditional governance and socioeconomic structures on their home islands.
When the NWC and the HBC merged in 1821, the NWC Hawaiians were “seamlessly absorbed into the HBC’s workforce” and praised for their usefulness. Often employed as guards against possible hostilities from Aboriginal people, the Hawaiians were seen as ethnically distinct from the latter, even though they themselves were lumped together, unnamed or known only by nicknames, owing to their employers’ inability to comprehend their language (63-64). Although numbers of Hawaiian men eventually established families with Aboriginal women, the groups were distinguished from one another both by observers and by their own members.
From the 1830s onward, Hawaiians increasingly found work in the mission stations that began to be founded in the Pacific Northwest. American missionaries had been busy converting Hawaiians in their home islands, but in this region the missions were focused on Aboriginal people with whom relations were sometimes hostile. As it turned out, the Hawaiians in this region, rather than being objects of conversion, were often “the missionaries’ protectors against the very people they were there to save” (132).
The Oregon Treaty of 1846 imposed a new dynamic on the Hawaiians who had made the region their home as they found themselves under two rather different regimes. The HBC was obliged to move its main base from Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River to Fort Victoria on Vancouver Island. Incoming American settlers in the Oregon Territory had negative views of the local Hawaiians, owing both to their former British hbc connections and to their perceived racial features. “Dark Hawaiians,” as they were described in the US Census of 1850, were uneasily lumped with Native people or blacks (or both), and prejudice flourished (138-39). To the north, the British authorities and their successors (British Columbia became a province of Canada in 1871) did not impose the racial laws that prevailed in Oregon, but newcomers during the BC gold rushes and after brought racial views that had high costs for both Hawaiians and Aboriginal people.
The authors follow their comparative study of conditions south and north of the forty-ninth parallel with a con clusion entitled “Moving across the Generations.” Here they trace, through documents and interviews, descendants who have maintained family memories and Hawaiian identity to varying extents over the following century. The second half of the book, “Hawaiians and Other Polynesians in the Pacific Northwest,” presents about eight hundred biographical entries documenting all the individuals whom Barman and Watson have been able to trace in the period up to 1898. Both scholars and descendants of these people will value this treasury of information on individuals who never got to record their own stories in their own words, yet who proved themselves to be resourceful survivors. In times when the indigenous population in Hawaii was being decimated and submerged by outside forces, the men who came to the Pacific Northwest found new livelihoods and established families and communities that still endure. Their story needed telling, and this book does a wonderful job of doing so.