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BC’s Tales of the Pacific | Twain, Lono and Cook

THIS tale lies at the intersection of three historical giants: the famous American author Mark Twain, the Hawaiian god Lono, and Captain Cook (James, not this one).

In 1866 Mark Twain travelled to Hawaii, at the time a forsaken outpost of the British empire, in order to report about it for West Coast readers. Americans in California, Oregon and Washington grew increasingly interested in all things Pacific in the years following the Civil War and newspaper editors picked up on the trend by feeding the literary hunger.

Twain’s writing has become the subject of its own historical, literary, and anthropological debates, and many books have been written about just what his commentaries represent. To some he was an anti-imperialist. His writing bristles with sarcasm and attacks against British incursion into the Pacific, but not pacific, kingdom. At one point Twain writes, “Plain, unvarnished history takes the romance out of Captain Cook’s assassination.” He goes on to relate how Cook played along with the mistake that he was the god Lono returned from his overseas journeys. When he was unmasked as a fraud the islanders rightfully killed him. Take that, British imperialists! Pose as one of our gods, will you?

Yet in other places Twain urges that the United States should take an active interest in the islands, even displacing the British. So, is it imperialism that repulses Twain, or just the British version of it?

As a humorist, Twain took every opportunity to savage the reputations of everyone in his narrative, from the local god Lono, who he says lost his temper and fled in rage after discovering his wife’s unfaithfulness, to Cook, who he attacks as an opportunist and a showman.

Twain’s feelings about religion are even harder to pin down. In places he says that missionaries are the worst kind of parasites, yet elsewhere he credits them with sweeping away such barbaric island practices as wife strangling and cannibalism. Take the following passage as a sample of Twain’s elusive yet illuminating writing.

“After Cook’s murder, his second in command, on board the ship, opened fire upon the swarms of natives on the beach and one of his cannon balls cut this cocoanut tree short off and left this monumental stump standing. It looked sad and lonely enough out there in the rainy twilight. But there is no other monument to Captain Cook. True, up on the mountainside we had passed by a large enclosure like and ample hog pen, built of lava blocks, which marks the spot where Cook’s flesh was stripped from his bones and burned; but this is not properly a monument, since it was erected by the natives themselves and less to do honor to the circumnavigator than for the sake of convenience in roasting him. A thing like a guideboard was elevated above this pen on a tall pole and formerly there was an inscription upon it describing the memorable occurrence that had there taken place; but the sun and the wind have long ago so defaced it as to render it illegible.”

Beginning the passage with the word “murder” would indicate that he was taking the British side of the matter. He regrets the absence of a proper monument to the explorer but credits the islanders with supplying one of their own. Of course, that monument was simply a roasting pit, hardly worthy of the great man, and actually a disgusting reminder of his grisly death.

Twain was still a relatively young 31 years of age when he visited Hawaii. His thoughts and feelings toward Pacific islanders clarified with age, something we can talk about at another time.

BC Cook, PhD taught history for over 20 years. He lived on Saipan and travels the Pacific but currently lives on the mainland U.S.