Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell

unfamiliar fishes

I visited the Hawaiian island of Maui last year and their unique mix of being aware of their long-term history and having an ancient culture yet still being part of the USA got me wondering how and why that had happened. I wanted to know how the US had come to annex Hawaii, so that is why I suggested we read this book for the Las Vegas Non-Fiction Book Club.

Vowell summarises the reasons as being America’s favourite religion of capitalism and it’s second favourite religion of Christianity. To be more specific, and chronological, it was the Christian missionaries who started things off and the capitalists who almost finished it. The USA’s relatively new favourite thing – defence – sealed the deal.

The book is a short 230 pages, but I still feel that Vowell digresses an awful lot, which makes me wonder if there was really a book in this subject after all. She often makes sarcastic and witty asides or tells us of amusing things her friends or family have said. I quite liked this, and it did break up the monotony of lots of dates and Hawaiian names that I forgot the instant I read them.

One thing I had wondered about when visiting Hawaii was their flag. It has the very lovely British Union Flag in it’s corner, and when I asked the Hawaiians why, they said it was because the British protected them for a time. Vowell seems to think that the British were largely unaware of this and did not in fact do a great deal to help them.

It was interesting to learn the details of how events unfolded. The well-meaning (but interfering?) missionaries turned up with their bibles and gave the people of Hawaii a written language and a god. They also gave them all sort of horrible white people diseases that killed many of them off. Then the capitalists came along and built a sugar industry, but then the US enforced a heavier tax on foreign sugar, which affected Hawaiian sugar sales, and made the Hawaiians wonder if perhaps they should stop being foreign. Then someone decided that being the strongest nation in the world involved having the “sea power” of a great navy and the possession of a few islands to act as naval stations. Before you know it lots of white people turned up and drew lines on maps of Hawaiian islands, marking out where the white people’s land would be, and awarding voting rights to all the white people, even some women. Hooray for democracy. The US uses the term annexation, it sounds a lot like colonisation to me.

The title of the book is taken from a quote from Hawaiian historian David Malo. “If a big wave comes in, large and unfamiliar fishes will come from the dark ocean, and when they see the small fishes of the shallows they will eat them up. The white man’s ships have arrived with clever men from the big countries. They know our people are few in number and our country is small, they will devour us.”

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2 Responses to Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell

  1. Carrol Kuhlow says:

    I find I enjoy her more when I hear her speaking. She is funny and more entertaining then, although I can hear her voice in her writings.

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