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Mark Twain's Hawaii

"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry,
and narrow-mindedness."

--Mark Twain

A relatively unknown journalist named Samuel Clemens visited Hawai'i in 1866.   He came on an assignment for the Sacramento Union to explore the "Sandwich Islands" and write his impressions for an American audience.   His letters and sketches were the first widely read travelogue of the islands and served to introduce Americans to the land and people, as well as the politics and commerce, of mid 19th century Hawai'i.

To help place Mark Twain's visit on Hawaii's timeline, Kamehameha V, Lot Kapuâiwa, was the ruling monarch, having succeeded Alexander Liholiho in 1863. He was the last of the direct line of Kamehameha and would be succeeded by the Kingdom of Hawaii's first elected king following his death in 1872.   Almost 90 years had passed since Cook's "discovery", the missionaries had been in the islands for almost 50 years, and the local population (about 60,000) was believed one of the most literate in the world.   Whaling had declined as the Kingdom's primary export industry (supplying the ships with food and water) and growing sugar was on the rise, getting a boost during the U.S. Civil War which had ended the year before Mark Twain's visit. The first regular passenger service to the islands had just started earlier in 1866, so he really was one of the first tourists.

Mark Twain's visit was during a transitional time for him, as well. His published letters and the lecture tour that followed his return to California took him from locally known journalist to nationally known author and lecturer. He "scooped" a sensational story during his four month visit, staying up all night to write his account of the Hornet survivors rescued at Laupahoehoe on the Big Island of Hawai`i so that it could be sent on the ship leaving Honolulu for San Francisco the following morning. It was to be his first publication in a major magazine. 

Mark Twain always dreamed of returning to the islands, and did plan a stopover in Honolulu on his trip to Australia in 1895.   A cholera epidemic prevented this and his recollections of the Hawaii he had visited 29 years before are particularly poignant.   (Following the Equator, Chapter 3)   Also of note in this narrative are his descriptions and views on the destruction of the kapu system and the resulting political and religious institutions.

Word Pictures of Honolulu

Mark Twain arrived in Honolulu on March 18 aboard the steamer Ajax which had crossed the 2000 plus miles in eleven days. His first published letter (Climatic, The Sacramento Daily Union, April 16) describes the first few days of the journey, which took three days longer than planned due to very rough weather.

Initially planning to stay one month in the islands, his visit extended to six months. Nearly all of what he is believed to have written is available online. His Letters from Hawaii form the work that he was hired to do for the Sacramento Union. He also wrote personal letters to his family during his visit and he is mentioned several times in the local Hawai`i paper, the Herald. Several years later he compiled his notes and letters and published a more polished chronicle in chapters 62 to 77 (LXII to LXXVII] of Roughing It)

His first description of the islands is one many of us recognize.   It's what we look for out the right side of the plane when we're coming home.

"ON a certain bright morning the Islands hove in sight, lying low on the lonely sea, and everybody climbed to the upper deck to look. After two thousand miles of watery solitude the vision was a welcome one. As we approached, the imposing promontory of Diamond Head rose up out of the ocean its rugged front softened by the hazy distance, and presently the details of the land began to make themselves manifest: first the line of beach; then the plumed coacoanut trees of the tropics; then cabins of the natives; then the white town of Honolulu, ..." (Roughing It Part 63-LXIII)

Well, yes, the coconut trees are fewer, and the cabins of the natives have long been replaced by high rise hotels.   Honolulu still looks white in the bright sunshine, but a very different city than what Mark Twain saw.   Diamond Head remains relatively untouched in it's natural state, perhaps our most famous landmark.

The documentary, Taking Waikiki, describes the transition from the fertile taro fields that existed at the time of Cook's arrival, to the concrete and steel of today.  This transition was already in process in 1866, as described in Coming Home from Prison and The Equestrian Excursion Continued, two of Mark Twain's letters from Hawaii.  

Browsing through the chapters about Hawai`i in Roughing It brings many smiles at the remarkable descriptions of the people and the events of the visit. (Chapters 62-77, written several years later)   Honored as a Curiosity in Honolulu describes the social and professional divisions that Mark Twain found amusing.  He was also quite taken with the ladies' riding skills and costume and describes a very entertaining picture of market day in his  letter of May 21, 1866.


"Then to bed and become a promenade for a centipede with forty-two legs on a side and every foot hot enough to burn a hole through a raw-hide."  It was most amusing to find that we share a loathing for the crawly critters and they do indeed look this big! 

He poked fun at the government in several of his pieces, proclaiming it to be much too large and unwieldy for a population of under 60,000, with two out of three people office holders and the third an office seeker.  He should see us today, eh?

The missionaries were not spared either.  Yet, in his satire he was quite impressed with the literacy of the islands, believed to be the highest in the world at the time, and he largely credited this accomplishment to the missionaries.

*Mark Twain & The Island of Hawaii

by Bob Olson

Mark Twain sailed to the Big Isle of Hawaii on the schooner Boomerang skippered by Captain Kangaroo, "she was so small that when I stood on her deck I felt but little smaller than the Colossus of Rhodes must have felt when he had a man-of-war under him."

As for the size of his accommodation, "One might swing a cat in it, perhaps, but then it would be fatal to the cat to do it."

Travel at this time was anything but restful as Mr. Twain tells us. "The first night, as I lay in my coffin, idly watching the dim lamp swinging to the rolling of the ship, and snuffing the nauseous odor of bilge water, I felt something gallop over me. I turned out promptly. However, I turned in again when I found it was only a rat. Presently something galloped over me once more. I knew it was not a rat this time, and I thought it might be a centipede, because the Captain had killed one one deck in the afternoon. I turned out. The first glance at the pillow showed me a repulsive sentinel perched upon each end of it-cockroaches as large as peach leaves-fellows with long quivering antennae and fiery, malignant eyes. They were grating their teeth like tobacco worms, and appeared to be dissatisfied about something. I had often heard that these reptiles were in the habit of eating off sleeping sailors toe nails to the quick, and I would not get in the bunk anymore. I lay down on floor. But a rat came and bothered me, and shortly afterward a procession of cockroaches arrived and camped in my hair. In a few moments the rooster was crowing with uncommon spirit and a party of fleas were throwing double somersaults about my person in the wildest disorder, and taking a bite every time they struck. I was beginning to feel really annoyed. I got up and put my clothes on and went on deck."

The above is not overdrawn; it is a truthful sketch of inter-island schooner life. There is no such thing as keeping a vessel in elegant condition, "when she carries molasses and kanakas."

*Mark Twain on the Island of Hawai`i - Part 2

by Bob Olson

If you have ever been to Hawaii you know about our rainbows, if not then let me explain rainbows are everywhere. You see them in the sky, in your backyard, from waterfalls, and when I first flew into Hilo there was one at the end of the runway.

When Mark Twain visited Kealakekua Bay, the spot where Captain Cook "discovered" Hawaii this is what he saw. "The setting sun was flaming upon it, a summer show was falling, and it was spanned by two magnificent rainbows. Two men who were in advance of us rode through one of these and for a moment their garments shone with a more than regal splendor. Why did not Captain Cook have taste enough to call his great discovery the Rainbow Islands?"

History has recorded the death of Captain Cook in different ways, depending on which book you read, but Mr. Twain seems to sum it up. "Plain unvarnished history takes the romance out of Captain Cook’s assassination, and renders a deliberate verdict of justifiable homicide. Wherever he went among the islands, he was cordially received and welcomed by the inhabitants, and his ships lavishly supplied with all manner of food. He returned the kindness with insult and ill-treatment. Perceiving that the people took him for the long vanished and lamented god Lono, he encouraged them in the delusion for the sake of the limitless power it gave him; but during the famous disturbance at this spot, and while he and his comrades were surrounded by fifteen thousand maddened savages, he received a hurt and betrayed his earthy origin with a groan. It was his death-warrant. Instantly a shout went up: 'He groans! - he is not god!' So they closed upon him and dispatched him."

In the same location there is a Heiau or temple, here Twain displays some of his famous wit. "There is a temple devoted to prayers for rain-and with fine sagacity it was placed at a point so well up on the mountain side that if you prayed there twenty-four times a day for rain you would be likely to get it every time. You would seldom get to your Amen before you would have to hoist your umbrella."

From Kealakekua, Mark Twain journeyed to the Volcano and his impressions are incredible. But along the way, they say he planted a tree, so the next stop is Mark Twain Square in the lovely community of Waiohinu.

Mark Twain's Monkeypod

After an arduous inter-island journey from Honolulu to Kailua on the Big Island of Hawai`i, Mark Twain visited Kealekua Bay, the site of Captain Cook's death and Pu`uhonua O Honaunau, the place of refuge. From here he traveled along the southern coast of Hawaii to reach Volcano. Along the way, they say he planted a tree, though there is no mention in his writings of doing so. Whether local legend or true, the community of Wai`ôhinu in the Ka`u District of the Big Island is home to the monkeypod bearing his name. This isn't the actual tree, which was blown down in a storm in 1957, but it is the tree that has grown from one of the shoots of the original tree.  The tree is part of a property called Mark Twain Square, adjacent to a macadamia nut orchard and also a great stop for lunch and locally made arts and crafts.

*Mark Twain and the Volcano

by Bob Olson

On June 3, 1866 Mark Twain and his fictitious traveling companion, Mr. Brown arrived at "The Great Volcano of Kilauea". They surveyed the area, and Twain wrote, "There had been terrible commotion here once, when these dead waves were seething fire; but now all was motionless and silent-it was a petrified sea."

I have visited Kilauea several times, the area that Mark Twain describes as active I have only seen it dormant. To see it through his eyes, brings it alive once more. As the two approached the crater, Twain mused about the size, " I suppose that any one of nature’s most celebrated wonders will always look rather insignificant to a visitor at first, but on better acquaintance will swell and stretch out and spread abroad, until it finally grows clear beyond his grasp-becomes too stupendous for his comprehension."

Brown and Twain settled in to Volcano House and after a hearty supper they waited for dark to make their way to the edge of the caldera. They observed an incredible sight. "There was a heavy fog over the crater and it was splendidly illuminated by the glare from the fires below. The illumination was two miles wide and a mile high, perhaps; and if you ever, on a dark night and at a distance, beheld the light from thirty or forty blocks of distant buildings all on fire at once, reflected strongly against overhanging clouds, you can form a fair idea of what this looked like."

Advancing carefully, they came to a small lookout house on the side of the crater. "In the strong light every countenance glowed like red-hot iron, every shoulder was suffused with crimson and shaded rearward into dingy, shapeless obscurity! The place below looked like the infernal regions and these men like half-cooled devils just come up on a furlough."

Mark Twain and Mr. Brown remained, wrapped in blankets for warmth recording their experience. "Jets of lava sprung hundreds of feet into the air and burst into rocket-sprays that returned to the earth in a crimson rain: and all the while the laboring mountain shook with Nature’s great palsy, and voiced its distress in moaning and the muffled booming of subterranean thunders."

Almost as an after thought Mark Twain remarks about the sound, "I forgot to say that the noise made by the bubbling lava is not great, heard as we heard it from our lofty perch. It makes three distinct sounds-a rushing, a hissing, and a coughing or puffing sound; and if you stand on the brink and close your eyes it is no trick at all to imagine that you are sweeping down a river on a large low-pressure steamer, and that you hear the hissing of the steam about her boilers, the puffing from her escape pipes, and the churning rush of water abaft her wheels. The smell of sulphur is strong, but not unpleasant to a sinner."

Since then Madame Pele the Fire Goddess has moved her eruption to the Pu’u O’o vent where it can be seen today.

More About Mark Twain

Hawaii - In the Words of Mark Twain
A collection of quotations from Mark Twain.

A Notable Discovery
Join Mark Twain as he travels to Kilauea Volcano.

Roughing It
Mark Twain in the West and Hawaii, 1861-1866.

A Strange Dream
Written by Mark Twain, and based on a dream he experienced while staying at Volcano House. This site, hosted by Jim Zwick is a great jump off point for more on Mark Twain, in Hawaii and elsewhere.

Resource material taken from:

Day, A. Grove (editor)
Mark Twain's Letters from Hawaii
University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, HI

Twain, Mark
Mark Twain in Hawaii - Roughing It in the Sandwich Islands
Mutual Publishing, Honolulu, HI


Mark Twain and The Hornet Disaster

One finds reference to Mark Twain frequently in Hawai`i, so it wasn't too surprising to find a section of the Pacific Tsunami Museum in historic downtown Hilo devoted to his visit and his coverage of the Hornet Disaster in 1866.   Forty-Three Days in an Open Boat was his first publication in a major Eastern magazine (Harper's Magazine, Dec. 1866).

Mark Twain probably would have visited the town of Laupahoehoe on the Hamakua Coast of the Big Island of Hawaii on his journey around the island, though he doesn't specifically mention it. He was back in Honolulu recuperating from his inter-island adventures when the survivors of the shipwreck arrived, having been rescued near Laupahoehoe. More Web resources:  

My Debut as a Literary Person by Mark Twain
Samuel Clemens was in Honolulu at the time the survivors landed in Hawaii.   This is his account of this scoop that launched his career as well as the published account of the Hornet Disaster.

Short and Singular Rations by Mark Twain
Sketch of the Hornet Disaster describing the rationing that kept the crew alive after the wreck.

Anson Burlingame and the "Hornet" Disaster by Albert Bigelow Paine
Portion of Mark Twain's biography describing the Hornet Disaster.


Impact on the Loveliest Fleet of Islands

The idea for this series of articles originated with Jim Zwick, who manages two excellent Web sites on the author:  About Mark Twain and Mark Twain Resources on the World Wide Web.   His articles on Mark Twain's Hawaii will take you on a literary journey and lead you to many interesting resources, including Mark Twain's Hawaii on the Web.   Mark Twain's visit continues to impact Hawai`i, as I discovered when I researched what one of my favorite childhood authors had to say about the place that is now my home. 

How did Mark Twain's visit affect Hawai`i?   Perhaps the most significant is that his lectures and writings gave most Americans the first realistic view of the islands, so he may have been our first tourist agent.   

His descriptions are widely used, especially the "loveliest fleet of islands" quote.   He's also misquoted or inaccurately attributed quite frequently, as in this description from the Rough Guide - Honolulu:

"Much the most spectacular moment of a tour of Oahu comes as you cross the Koolau Mountains on the Pali Highway (Hwy-61) to see the sheer green cliffs of the windward side of the island, swirling with mists. The highest spot, just four miles out of Honolulu heading northeast, is the Nuuanu Pali Lookout. King Kamehameha finalized his conquest of Oahu here in 1795, forcing hundreds of enemy warriors over the edge of the cliffs; Mark Twain saw the battlefield seventy years later, littered with skulls."

This sounds good, but it's unlikely this is the battlefield that Twain was describing, since he was somewhere near Waikiki, Mo`ili`ili or Kalihi would be my uneducated guess, which is quite a distance from Nu`uanu, and even he dismisses this notion.

"The story [of a great battle] is pretty enough, but Mr. Jarves' excellent history says the Oahuans were entrenched in Nuuanu Valley; that Kamehameha ousted them, routed them, pursued them up the valley and drove them over the precipice. He makes no mention of our bone-yard at all in his book." (Roughing It Part 65)

Mark Twain goes on to speculate that these bones had been unearthed from a shallow burial pit, probably used during the particularly deadly epidemic of 1804. (Note: after "contact" it is estimated that 95% of the native people of the islands perished from exposure to western diseases, for which they had no immunity; measles and venereal disease were the most deadly, but a form of "plague" also is recorded.)

Another impact resulted from his reporting of the tremendous productivity of Hawaiian sugar plantations and recommendations that trade with the United States be protected from European interests in the islands.   He did not seem to favor annexation, but was in favor of the reciprocity treaty and other protective measures. More: Two Views of Hawaiian Annexation from Jim Zwick.

There are many insightful and humorous views of Hawai`i in Mark Twain's writing.  Hope you enjoyed the journey!  


The loveliest fleet of islands that lies anchored in any ocean

 - Mark Twain               

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