Six Months in the Sandwich Islands

Wow, that’s a terrible cover being pulled in by Amazon. I luckily read a peaceful white hardback 1964 edition sprinkled with photos taken by someone else that show the islands as Isabella Lucy Bird saw them in the 1870s. I became familiar with Bird’s fearless traveling after reading A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains a few months ago. In this book about her Hawaiian travels, she’s just as much of a badass, setting off alone or with companions on horseback or mules, spending hours in active volcanic craters, precariously wending her way up cliff sides and through rushing river torrents. She doesn’t originally intend on spending time on the islands, but her journey to San Francisco had a seven month detour (although the title suggests six?) after a friend’s son took ill. She gallivants around Oahu, Maui, Hawaii (the Big Island), Kauai, and even the leper colony of Moloka’i. Her letters home to a sister in Scotland make up this book, and describe a fun loving people who don’t worry about tomorrow, who laugh and embody Disraeli’s “happiness is atmosphere,” whose women are free from the patriarchy that strangled the rest of the world – men are helpmates, women frequently hand over their children to be cared for by others. She visits the live volcano several times, with rich descriptions of fire fountains and lava pools. “It was all confusion, commotion, force, terror, glory, majesty, mystery, and even beauty.”
Bird’s Victorian manners lead her to independence but sometimes saying dumb things about wishing a white man were along with them to convince them not to do something dangerous. She travels in full thick skirt, boots, proper Victorian attire, wading into water, going shockingly native in rejecting the traditional “side saddle” manner of riding where a lady’s legs are primly together on one side of the horse – she notes that this saved her life many a time, to ride as men and the native women do, to not get swept off a horse in a raging current thusly. She also touches on the eye-opening mortality rate of native Hawaiians, populations dropping to fractions of what they were 100 years prior (due to disease, thanks foreigners).

I am quite interested with a native lady here, the first I have met with who has been able to express her ideas in English. She is extremely shrewd and intelligent, very satirical, and a great mimic. She very cleverlly burlesques the way in which white people express their admiration of scenery, and, in fact, ridicules admiration of scenery for itself. She evidently thinks us a sour, morose, worrying, forlorn race. “We,” she said, “are always happy; we never grieve long about anything; when any one dies we break our hearts for some days, and then we are happy again. We are happy all day long not like white people, happy one moment, gloomy another: we’ve no cares, the days are too short. What are haoles always unhappy about?” Perhaps she expresses the general feeling of her careless, pleasure-loving, mirth-loving people, who, whatever commands they disobey, fulfil the one, “Take no thought for the morrow.”