The Hawaiian Archipelago, by Isabella L. Bird

Letter XXXI.

Hawaiian Hotel, Honolulu. August 6th.

My fate is lying at the wharf in the shape of the Pacific Mail Steamer Costa Rica, and soon to me Hawaii-nei will be but a dream. “Summer isles of Eden!” My heart warms towards them as I leave them, for they have been more like home than any part of the world since I left England. The moonlight is trickling through misty algarobas, and feathery tamarinds and palms, and shines on glossy leaves of breadfruit and citron; a cool breeze brings in at my open doors the perfumed air and the soft murmur of the restful sea, and this beautiful Honolulu, whose lights are twinkling through the purple night, is at last, as it was at first, Paradise in the Pacific, a bright blossom of a summer sea.

I shall be in the Rocky Mountains before you receive my hastily-written reply to your proposal to come out here for a year, but I will add a few reasons against it, in addition to the one which I gave regarding the benefit which I now hope to derive from a change to a more stimulating climate. The strongest of all is, that if we were to stay here for a year, we should just sit down “between the sun and moon upon the shore,” and forget “our island home,” and be content to fall “asleep in a half dream,” and “return no more!”

Of course you will have gathered from my letters that there are very many advantages here. Indeed, the mosquitoes of the leeward coast, to whose attacks one becomes inured in a few months, are the only physical drawback. The open-air life is most conducive to health, and the climate is absolutely perfect, owing to its equability and purity. Whether the steady heat of Honolulu, the languid airs of Hilo, the balmy breezes of Onomea, the cool bluster of Waimea, or the odorous stillness of Kona, it is always the same. The grim gloom of our anomalous winters, the harsh malignant winds of our springs, and the dismal rains and overpowering heats of our summers, have no counterpart in the endless spring-time of Hawaii.

Existence here is unclogged and easy, a small income goes a long way, and the simplicity, refinement, kindliness, and sociability of the foreign residents, render society very pleasant. The life here is truer, simpler, kinder, and happier than ours. The relation between the foreign and native population is a kindly and happy one, and the natives, in spite of their faults, are a most friendly and pleasant people to live among. With a knowledge of their easily-acquired language, they would be a ceaseless source of interest, and every white resident can have the satisfaction of helping them in their frequent distresses and illnesses.

The sense of security is a very special charm, and one enjoys it as well in lonely native houses, and solitary days and nights of travelling, as in the foreign homes, which are never locked throughout the year. There are no burglarious instincts to dread, and there is no such thing as “a broken sleep of fear beneath the stars.” The person and property of a white man are everywhere secure, and a white woman is sure of unvarying respect and kindness.

There are no inevitable hardships. The necessaries, and even the luxuries of civilization can be obtained everywhere, and postal communication with America is now regular and rapid.

When I began this letter, a long procession of counterbalancing disadvantages passed through my mind, but they become “beautifully less” as I set them down in black and white. If I put gossip first, it is because I seriously think that it is the canker of the foreign society on the islands. Its extent and universality are grotesque and amusing to a stranger, but to live in it, and share in it, and learn to enjoy it, would be both lowering and hurtful, and you can hardly be long here without being drawn into its vortex. By GOSSIP I don’t mean scandal or malignant misrepresentations, or reports of petty strifes, intrigues, and jealousies, such as are common in all cliques and communities, but nuhou, mere tattle, the perpetual talking about people, and the picking to tatters of every item of personal detail, whether gathered from fact or imagination.

A great deal of this is certainly harmless, and in some measure arises from the intimate friendly relations which exist between the scattered families, but over-indulgence in it destroys the privacy of individual existence, and is deteriorating in more ways than one. From the north of Kauai to the south of Hawaii, everybody knows every other body’s affairs, income, expenditure, sales, purchases, debts, furniture, clothing, comings, goings, borrowings, lendings, letters, correspondents, and every thing else: and when there is nothing new to relate on any one of these prolific subjects, supposed intentions afford abundant matter for speculation. All gossip is focussed here, being imported from every other district, and re-exported, with additions and embellishments, by every inter-island mail. The ingenuity with which nuhou is circulated is worthy of a better cause.

Some disadvantages arise from the presence on the islands of heterogeneous and ill-assorted nationalities. The Americans, of course, predominate, and even those who are Hawaiian born, have, as elsewhere, a strongly national feeling. The far smaller English community hangs together in a somewhat cliquish fashion, and possibly cherishes a latent grudge against the Americans for their paramount influence in island affairs. The German residents, as everywhere, are cliquish too. Then, since the establishment of the Honolulu Mission, church feeling has run rather high, and here, as elsewhere, has a socially divisive tendency. Then there are drink and anti-drink, pro and anti-missionary, and pro and anti-reciprocity-treaty parties, and various other local naggings of no interest to you.

The civilization is exotic, and owing to various circumstances, the government and constitution are too experimental and provisional in their nature, and possess too few elements of permanence to engross the profound interest of the foreign residents, although for reasons of policy they are well inclined to sustain a barbaric throne. In spite of a king and court, and titles and officials without number, and uniforms stiff with gold lace, and Royal dinner parties with menus printed on white silk, Americans, Republicans in feeling, really “run” the government, and in state affairs there is a taint of that combination of obsequious and flippant vulgarity, which none deplore more deeply than the best among the Americans themselves.

It is a decided misfortune to a community to be divided in its national leanings, and to have no great fusing interests within or without itself, such as those which knit vigorous Victoria to the mother country, or distant Oregon to the heart of the Republic at Washington. Except sugar and dollars, one rarely hears any subject spoken about with general interest. The downfall of an administration in England, or any important piece of national legislation, arouses almost no interest in American society here, and the English are ostentatiously apathetic regarding any piece of intelligence specially absorbing to Americans. The papers pick up every piece of gossip which drifts about the islands, and snarl with much wordiness over local matters, but crowd into a small space the movements which affect the masses of mankind, and in the absence of a telegraph one hardly feels the beat of the pulses of the larger world. Those intellectual movements of the West which might provoke discussion and conversation are not cordially entered into, partly owing to the difference in theological beliefs, and partly from an indolence born of the climate, and the lack of mental stimulus.

After all, the gossip and the absence of large interests shared in common, are the only specialities which can be alleged against Hawaii, and I have never seen people among whom I should so well like to live. The ladies are most charming; essentially womanly, and fulfil all domestic and social duties in a way worthy of imitation everywhere. The kindness and hospitality, too, are unbounded, and these cover “a multitude of sins.”

There are very few strangers here now. It is the “dead season.” I have met with none except Mr. Nordhoff, who is writing on the islands for Harper’s Monthly, and his charming wife and children. She is a most expert horsewoman, and has adopted the Mexican saddle even in Honolulu, where few foreign ladies ride “cavalier fashion.”

My friends all urge me to write on Hawaii, on the ground that I have seen the islands and lived the island life so thoroughly; but possibly they expect more indiscriminate praise than I could conscientiously bestow!

Honolulu is in the midst of the epidemic of letter writing which sets in on the arrival of the steamer from “the coast,” and people walk and drive as if they really had business on hand: and the farewell visits to be made and received, the pleasant presence of Mr. Thompson, and Mr. and Mrs. Severance, of Hilo, and the hasty doing of things which have been left to the last, make me a sharer in the spasmodic bustle, which, were it permanent, would metamorphose this dreamy, bowery, tropical capital. The undeserved and unexpected kindness shown me here, as everywhere on these islands, renders my last impressions even more delightful than any first. The people are as genial as their own sunny skies, and in more frigid regions I shall never sigh for the last without longing for the first. . . . .

up to here S.S. COSTA RICA. August 7th.

We sailed for San Francisco early this afternoon. Everything looked the same as when I landed in January, except that many of the then strange faces among the radiant crowd are now the faces of friends, that I know nearly everyone by sight, and that the pathos of farewell blended with every look and word. The air still rang with laughter and alohas, and the rippling music of the Hawaiian tongue; bananas and pineapples were still piled in fragrant heaps; the drifts of surf rolled in, as then, over the barrier reef, canoes with outriggers still poised themselves on the blue water; the coral divers still plied their graceful trade, and the lazy ripples still flashed in light along the palm-fringed shore. The head-ropes were let go, we steamed through the violet channel into the broad Pacific, Lunalilo, who came out so far with Chief Justice Allen, returned to the shore, and when his kindly aloha was spoken, the last link with the islands was severed, and half an hour later Honolulu was out of sight. . . . .

. . . . The breeze is freshening, and the Costa Rica’s head lies nearly due north. The sun is sinking, and on the far horizon the summit peaks of Oahu gleam like amethysts on a golden sea. Farewell for ever, my bright tropic dream! Aloha nui to Hawaii-nei!

I.L.B.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:41