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Mark Twain In Paradise

July 2024
11min read

He Never Got Hawaii out of His System

On Sunday morning, March 18, 1866, the steamer A jay. sailed into Honolulu Harbor while the bells of six different mission churches called the freshly converted faithful to worship. Among the passengers most eager to go ashore was a thirty-one-year-old knockabout journalist named Samuel Clemens, on assignment for the Sacramento Union . Mark Twain would later make the Mississippi immortal, but first Hawaii would make him famous. He spent four months and a day exploring the islands and sent back twenty-five dispatches (at twenty dollars each), recounting all that he had seen and heard. Fresh from the grime and clamor of the California mining camps, he was enraptured by the lush, silent Hawaiian landscape and was alternately amused and fascinated by the ^l native Hawaiians and the missionaries, planters, whalers, and hangers-on already seeking to displace them. Compared with his later works, the letters from the Sandwich Islands are crude, repetitive, and overwritten, but they are also filled with his inexhaustible love of the absurd and his sharp eye for detail, and—polished up and tightly edited—they form a major part of his first book, Roughing It , published six years after his return to the mainland. By that time he had delivered a humorous lecture on Hawaii—sometimes billed as “Our Fellow Savages of the Sandwich Islands”—before packed houses from San Francisco to Keokuk to Manhattan. Most of the selections on the following pages are from Roughing It . The pictures that accompany them were made by two of the first cameramen to photograph the islands. Both, like Clemens, had done their first important work in California. Hugo Stangenwald came to Hawaii in 1853 and became the island’s most prestigious daguerreotypist: he was the first to learn precisely how to cope with the startling clarity of Hawaiian light, and he roamed the islands making portraits and landscapes, eventually winning the eager patronage of th royal family. In 1858, at the height of his popularity, Stangenwald abandoned the camera to study medicine. Charles Leander Weed arrived with his brother James in 1865: six years earlier he had become the first man to photograph the wonders of the Yosemite Valley. His large, crisp Hawaiian views were an instant success, and when the Weed brothers moved on to set up a Hong Kong gallery a few months later, a local newspaper hailed them as “the most worthy and skillful artists in the Pacific, if not the world.” Together, Mark Twain’s prose and the pictures of Stangenwald and Weed offer a portrait in miniature of our fiftieth state when it was still an exotic kingdom and, as Twain wrote, “paradise for an indolent man.”


The chief pride of Maui is her dead volcano of Haleakala—which means, translated, “The House of the Sun.” We climbed a thousand feet up the side of this isolated colossus one afternoon; then camped, and next day climbed the remaining nine thousand feet, and anchored on the summit, where we built a fire and froze and roasted by turns all night. With the first pallor of dawn we got up and saw things that were new to us. Mounted on a commanding pinnacle, we watched Nature work her silent wonders. The sea was spread abroad on every hand, its tumbled surface seeming only wrinkled and dimpled in the distance. A broad valley below appeared like an ample checkerboard, its velvety-green sugar plantations alternating with dun squares of barrenness and groves of trees diminished to mossy tufts. Beyond the valley were mountains picturesquely grouped together; but bear in mind, we fancied that we were looking up at these things—not down. We seemed to sit in the bottom of a symmetrical bowl ten thousand feet deep, with the valley and the skirting sea lifted away into the sky above us! It was curious; and not only curious, but aggravating; for it was having our trouble all for nothing, to climb ten thousand feet toward heaven and then have to look up at our scenery. However, we had to be content with it and make the best of it; for all we could do we could not coax our landscape down out of the clouds.…

“I have spoken of the outside view—but we had an inside one, too. That was the yawning dead crater, into which we now and then tumbled rocks, half as large as a barrel, from our perch, and saw them go careering down the almost perpendicular sides, bounding three hundred feet at a jump; kicking up dust clouds wherever they struck; diminishing to our view as they sped farther into distance; growing invisible, finally, and only betraying their course by faint little puffs of dust; and coming to a halt at least in the bottom of the abyss, two thousand five hundred feet down from where they started! It was magnificent sport. We wore ourselves out at it.…Presently vagrant white clouds came drifting along, high over the sea and the valley; then they came in couples and groups, then in imposing squadrons; gradually joining their forces, they banked themselves solidly together, a thousand feet under us, and totally shut out land and ocean —not a vestige of anything was left in view but just a little of the rim of the crater, circling away from the pinnacle whereon we sat (for a ghostly procession of wanderers from the filmy hosts without had drifted through a chasm in the crater wall and filed round and round, and gathered and sunk and blended together till the abyss was stored to the brim with a fleecy fog). Thus banked, motion ceased, and silence reigned. Clear to the horizon, league on league, the snowy floor stretched without a break—not level, but in rounded folds, with shallow creases between, and with here and there stately piles of vapory architecture lifting themselves aloft out of the common plain—some near at hand, some in the middle distances, and others relieving the monotony of the remote solitudes.…I felt like the Last Man, neglected of the judgment, and left pinnacled in mid-heaven, a forgotten relic of a vanished world.…”


While I was in Honolulu I witnessed the ceremonious funeral of the king’s sister, Her Royal Highness the Princess Victoria. According to the royal custom, the remains had lain in state at the palace thirty days , watched day and night by a guard of honor. And during all that time a great multitude of natives from the several islands had kept the palace grounds well crowded and had made the place a pandemonium every night with their howlings and wailings, beating of tom-toms, and dancing of the (at other times) forbidden hula-hula by half-clad maidens to the music of songs of questionable decency chanted in honor of the deceased.…

“As the procession filed through the gate, the military deployed handsomely to the right and left and formed an avenue through which the long column of mourners passed to the tomb. The coffin was borne through the door of the mausoleum, followed by the king and his chiefs, the great officers of the kingdom, foreign consuls, ambassadors, and distinguished guests.…At this point of the proceedings the multitude set up such a heartbroken wailing as I hope never to hear again. The soldiers fired three volleys of musketry—the wailing being previously silenced to permit of the guns being heard. His Highness Prince William, in a showy military uniform (the “true prince,” this—scion of the house overthrown by the present dynasty—he was formerly betrothed to the princess but was not allowed to marry her), stood guard and paced back and forth within the door. The privileged few who followed the coffin into the mausoleum remained some time, but the king soon came out and stood in the door and near one side of it.^ A stranger could have guessed his rank (although he was so simply and unpretentiously dressed) by the profound deference paid him by all persons in his vicinity; by seeing his high officers receive his quiet orders and suggestions with bowed and uncovered heads; and by observing how careful those persons who came out of the mausoleum were to avoid “crowding” him (although there was room enough in the doorway for a wagon to pass, for that matter); how respectfully they edged out sideways, scraping their back against the wall and always presenting a front view of their persons to His Majesty, and never putting their hats on until they were well out of the royal presence.

“He was dressed entirely in black—dress coat and silk hat—and looked rather democratic in the midst of the showy uniforms about him. On his breast he wore a large gold star, which was half hidden by the lapel of his coat. He remained at the door a half hour. Finally he entered his carriage and drove away, and the populace shortly began to drop into his wake. While he was in view there was but one man who attracted more attention than himself, and that was Harris (the Yankee prime minister). This feeble personage had crape enough around his hat to express the grief of an entire nation, and as usual he neglected no opportunity of making himself conspicuous and exciting the admiration of the simple Kanakas. ”


The further I traveled through the town the better I liked it. Every step revealed a new contrast—disclosed something I was unaccustomed to. In place of the grand mud-colored brown fronts of San Francisco, I saw dwellings built of straw, adobes, and cream-colored pebbleand-shell-conglomerated coral, cut into oblong blocks and laid in cement; also a great number of neat white cottages, with green window shutters; in place of front yards like billiard tables with iron fences around them, I saw these homes surrounded by ample yards, thickly clad with green grass, and shaded by tall trees, through whose dense foliage the sun could scarcely penetrate.…

“I looked on a multitude of people, some white, in white coats, vests, pantaloons, even white cloth shoes, made snowy with chalk duly laid on every morning; but the majority of the people were almost as dark as Negroes—women with comely features, fine black eyes, rounded forms, inclining to the voluptuous, clad in a single bright red or white garment that fell free and unconf ined from shoulder to heel, long black hair falling loose, gypsy hats, encircled with wreaths of natural flowers of a brilliant carmine tint; plenty of dark men in various costumes, and some with nothing on but a battered stovepipe hat tilted on the nose, and a very scant breechclout; certain smoke-dried children were clothed in nothing but sunshine—a very neat-fitting and picturesque apparel indeed.…

“The missionaries have Christianized and educated all the natives. They all belong to the church, and there is not one of them, above the age of eight years, but can read and write with facility in the native tongue. It is the most universally educated race of people outside of China. They have any quantity of books, printed in the Kanaka language, and all the natives are fond of reading. They are inveterate churchgoers—nothing can keep them away. All this ameliorating cultivation has at last built up in the native women a profound respect for chastity—in other people. Perhaps that is enough to say on that head. The national sin will die out when the race does, but perhaps not earlier. But doubtless this purifying is not far off, when we reflect that contact with civilization and the whites has reduced the native population from four hundred thousand (Captain Cook’s estimate) to fifty-five thousand in something over eight years!

“Society is a queer medley in this notable missionary, whaling, and governmental center. If you get into conversation with a stranger and experience that natural desire to know what sort of ground you are treading on by finding out what manner of man your stranger is, strike out boldly and address him as “Captain. ” Watch him narrowly and if you see by his countenance that you are on the wrong tack, ask him where he preaches. It is a safe bet that he is either a missionary or captain of a whaler. I am now personally acquainted with seventy-two captains and ninety-six missionaries. The captains and ministers form one-half of the population; the third fourth is composed of common Kanakas and mercantile foreigners and their families, and the final fourth is made up of high officers of the Hawaiian government. And there are just about cats enough for three apiece all around.”


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.

“No alien land in all the world has any deep strong charm for me but that one, no other land could so longingly and so beseechingly haunt me, sleeping and waking, through half a lifetime, as that one has done. Other things leave me, but it abides; other things change, but it remains the same. For me its balmy airs are always blowing, its summer seas flashing in the sun, the pulsing of its surfbeat is in my ear; I can see its garlanded crags, its leaping cascades, its plumy palms drowsing by the shore, its remote summits floating like islands above the cloud rack; I can feel the spirit of its woodland solitudes, I can hear the plash of its brooks, in my nostrils still lives the breath of flowers that perished twenty years ago.”

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