- Historic Sites
Mark Twain In Paradise
He Never Got Hawaii out of His System
October/november 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 6
In the rural districts of any of the Islands, the traveler hourly comes upon parties of dusky maidens bathing in the streams or in the sea without any clothing on and exhibiting no very imtemperate zeal in the matter of hiding their nakedness. When the missionaries first took up their residence in Honolulu, the native women would pay their families frequent friendly visits, day by day, not even clothed with a blush. It was found a hard matter to convince them that this was rather indelicate. Finally the missionaries provided them with long, loose calico robes, and that ended the difficulty—for the women would troop through the town, stark naked, with their robes folded under their arms, march to the missionary houses, and then proceed to dress! The natives soon manifested a strong proclivity for clothing, but it was shortly apparent that they only wanted it for grandeur. The missionaries imported a quantity of hats, bonnets, and other male and female wearing apparel, instituted a general distribution, and begged the people not to come to church naked, next Sunday, as usual. And they did not; but the national spirit of unselfishness led them to divide up with neighbors who were not at the distribution, and next Sabbath the poor preachers could hardly keep countenance before their vast congregations. In the midst of the reading of a hymn a brown, stately dame would sweep up the aisle with a world of airs, with nothing in the world on but a stovepipe hat and a pair of cheap gloves; another dame would follow, tricked out in a man’s shirt, and nothing else; another one 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; a stately…Kanaka would stalk in with a woman’s bonnet on, wrong side before—only this, and nothing more; after him would stride his fellow, with the legs of a pair of pantaloons tied around his neck, the rest of his person untrammeled; in his rear would come another gentleman simply gotten up in a fiery necktie and a striped vest. The poor creatures were beaming with complacency and wholly unconscious of any absurdity in their appearance. They gazed at each other with happy admiration, and it was plain to see that the young girls were taking note of what each other had on, as naturally as if they had always lived in a land of Bibles and knew what churches were made for; here was the evidence of a dawning civilization. The spectacle which the congregation presented was so extraordinary and withal so moving that the missionaries found it difficult to keep to the text and go on with the services; and by and by when the simple children of the sun began a general swapping of garments in open meeting and produced some irresistibly grotesque effects in the course of redressing, there was nothing for it but to cut the thing short with the benediction and dismiss the fantastic assemblage. ”
Though Mark Twain never managed to revisit his beloved islands, he came close. He returned to Honolulu Harbor in 1895, but cholera was raging in the city, and none of the passengers aboard his ship was allowed to disembark. “If I might I would go ashore, ” he wrote in his journal, “and never leave.” But he could not arrange it. His “dream of twenty-nine years” was shattered. Nonetheless, he was consulted as a Hawaiian expert for the rest of his life. In 1873, as the United States debated annexation, he wrote:
“We must annex those people. We can afflict them with our wise and beneficent governments. We can introduce the novelty of thieves, all the way up from street-car pickpockets to municipal robbers and Government defaulters, and show them how amusing it is to arrest them and try them and then turn them loose—some for cash and some for ‘political influence.’ We can make them ashamed of their simple and primitive justice.…We can give them juries composed entirely of the most simple and charming leatherheads. We can give them railway corporations who will buy their Legislature like old clothes, and run over their best citizens and complain of the corpses for smearing their unpleasant juices on the track…we can furnish them some Jay Goulds who will do away with their old-time notion that stealing is not respectable.…We can give them lectures! I will go myself.
“We can make that little bunch of sleepy islands the hottest corner on earth, and array it in the moral splendor of our high and holy civilization. Annexation is what the poor islanders need. ‘Shall we to men benighted, the lamp of life deny?’ ”
He expressed his devotion to the islands in a very different way in 1889. At a dinner held in honor of a baseball team about to embark for Hawaii on a world tour, he recalled the place as he’d first seen it.