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Our Fellow Savages of the Sandwich Islands (version 1)

Mark Twain


  The many versions of the Sandwich Islands lecture evolved from Mark Twain's four months' visit to Hawaii in 1866 and his twenty-five letters from there published in the Sacramento Union. Continually varying his delivery, he used the Islands as a lecture topic more often than any other: almost one hundred times in the United States and England, usually announcing the title as "Our Fellow Savages of the Sandwich Islands."

  Sandwich Islands Lecture

  First Given in San Francisco, October 2, 1866; Intermittently Thereafter

  Until December 8, 1873

  Ladies and gentlemen: The next lecture in this course will be delivered this evening, by Samuel L. Clemens, a gentleman whose high character and unimpeachable integrity are only equalled by his comeliness of person and grace of manner. And I am the man! I was obliged to excuse the chairman from introducing me, because he never compliments anybody and I knew I could do it just as well.

  The Sandwich Islands will be the subject of my lecture--when I get to it--and I shall endeavor to tell the truth as nearly as a newspaper man can. If I embellish it with a little nonsense, that makes no difference; it won't mar the truth; it is only as the barnacle ornaments the oyster by sticking to it. That figure is original with me! I was born back from tidewater and don't know as the barnacle does stick to the oyster.

  Unfortunately, the first object I ever saw in the Sandwich Islands was a repulsive one. It was a case of Oriental leprosy, of so dreadful a nature that I have never been able to get it out of my mind since. I don't intend that it shall give a disagreeable complexion to this lecture at all, but inasmuch as it was the first thing I saw in those islands, it naturally suggested itself when I proposed to talk about the islands. It is a very hard matter to get a disagreeable object out of one's memory. I discovered that a good while ago. When I made that funeral excursion in the Quaker City they showed me some very interesting objects in a cathedral, and I expected to recollect every one of them--but I didn't. I forgot every one of them--except one--and that I remembered because it was unpleasant. It was a curious piece of ancient sculpture. They don't know where they got it nor how long they have had it. It is a stone figure of a man without any skin--a freshly skinned man showing every vein, artery and tissue. It was the heaviest thing, and yet there was something fascinating about it. It looked so natural; it looked as if it was in pain, and you know a freshly skinned man would naturally look that way. He would unless his attention was occupied with some other matter. It was a dreadful object, and I have been sorry many a time since that I ever saw that man. Sometimes I dream of him, sometimes he is standing by my bedpost, sometimes he is stretched between the sheets, touching me--the most uncomfortable bedfellow I ever had.

  I can't get rid of unpleasant recollections. Once when I ran away from school I was afraid to go home at night, so I crawled through a window and laid down on a lounge in my father's office. The moon shed a ghastly light in the room, and presently I descried a long, dark mysterious shape on the floor. I wanted to go and touch it--but I didn't--I restrained myself--I didn't do it. I had a good deal of presence of mind--tried to go to sleep--kept thinking of it. By and by when the moonlight fell upon it, I saw that it was a dead man Iying there with his white face turned up in the moonlight. I never was so sick in all my life. I never wanted to take a walk so bad! I went away from there. I didn't hurry--simply went out of the window--and took the sash along with me. I didn't need the sash, but it was handier to take it than to leave it. I wasn't scared, but I was a good deal agitated. I have never forgotten that man. He had fallen dead in the street and they brought him in there to try him, and they brought him in guilty, too.

  But I am losing time; what I have been saying don't bear strictly on the Sandwich Islands, but one reminiscence leads to another, and I am obliged to bring myself down in this way, on account of that unpleasant thing that I first saw there. It is not safe to come to any important matter in an entirely direct way. When a young gentleman is about to talk to a young lady about matrimony he don't go straight at it. He begins by talking about the weather. I have done that many a time.

  My next remarks will refer to the Sandwich Islands. Now if an impression has gotten abroad in the land that the Sandwich Islands are in South America, that is the error I wish to attack; that is the error I wish to combat. To cut the matter short the Sandwich Isles are 2,000 miles southwest from San Francisco, but why they were put away out there in the middle of the Pacific, so far away from any place and in such an inconvenient locality, is no business of ours--it was the work of providence and is not open to question. The subject is a good deal like many others we should like to inquire into, such as, what mosquitoes were made for, etc., but under the circumstances we naturally feel a delicacy about doing it.

  The islands are a dozen in number and their entire area is not greater I suppose than that of Rhode Island and Connecticut combined. They are of volcanic origin, of volcanic construction I should say. There is not a spoonful of legitimate dirt in the whole group, unless it has been imported. Eight of the islands are inhabited, and four of them are entirely girdled with a belt of mountains comprising the most productive sugar lands in the world. The sugar lands in Louisiana are considered rich, and yield from 500 to 1,700 pounds per acre. A two-hundred-acre crop of wheat in the States is worth twenty or thirty thousand dollars; a two-hundred-acre crop of sugar in these islands is worth two hundred thousand dollars. You could not do that in this country unless you planted it with stamps and reaped it in bonds. I could go on talking about the sugar interest all night--and I have a notion to do it. But I will spare you. It is very interesting to those who are interested in it, but I'll drop it now. You will find it all in the Patent Office reports, and I can recommend them as the most placid literature in the world.

  These islands were discovered some eighty or ninety years ago by Captain Cook, though another man came very near discovering them before, and he was diverted from his course by a manuscript found in a bottle. He wasn't the first man who has been diverted by suggestions got out of a bottle. When these islands were discovered the population was about 400,000, but the white man came and brought various complicated diseases, and education, and civilization, and all sorts of calamities, and consequently the population began to drop off with commendable activity. Forty years ago they were reduced to 200,000, and the educational and civilizing facilities being increased they dwindled down to 55,000, and it is proposed to send a few more missionaries and finish them. It isn't the education or civilization that has settled them; it is the imported diseases, and they have all got the consumption and other reliable distempers, and to speak figuratively, they are retiring from business pretty fast. When they pick up and leave we will take possession as lawful heirs.

  There are about 3,000 white people in the islands; they are mostly Americans. In fact they are the kings of the Sandwich Islands; the monarchy is not much more than a mere name. These people stand as high in the scale of character as any people in the world, and some of them who were born and educated in those islands don't even know what vice is. A Kanaka or a native is nobody unless he has a princely income of $75 annually, or a splendid estate worth $100. The country is full of office-holders and office-seekers; there are plenty of such noble patriots. Of almost any party of three men, two would be office-holders and one an office-seeker. In a little island half the size of one of the wards of St. Louis, there are lots of noblemen, princes and men of high degree, with grand titles, holding big offices, receiving immense salaries--such as ministers of war, secretaries of the navy, secretaries of state and ministers of justice. They make a fine di
splay of uniforms, and are very imposing at a funeral. That's the country for a petty hero to go to, he would soon have the conceit taken out of him. There are so many of them that a nobleman from any other country would be nobody. They only lionize their own people, and therefore they lionize everybody.

  In color, the natives are a rich, dark brown--a sort of black and tan. A very pleasing tint. The tropical sun and the easy-going ways inherited from their ancestors, have made them rather idle, but they are not vicious at all, they are good people. The native women in the rural districts wear a loose, magnificent curtain calico garment, but the men don't. Upon great occasions the men wear an umbrella, or some little fancy article like that--further than this they have no inclination toward gorgeousness of attire.

  In the old times the king was absolute, his person was sacred, and if even the shadow of a common Kanaka fell upon him the Kanaka had to die. There was no help for him. Whatever the king tabooed it was death to touch or speak of. After the king, came the high priests who sacrificed human victims; after them came the great feudal chiefs, and then the common Kanakas, who were the slaves of all, and wretchedly oppressed. Away down at the bottom of this pyramid were the women, the abject slaves of the whole party. They did all the work and were cruelly mistreated. It was death for a woman to sit at table with her husband, or to eat of the choice fruits of the islands at any time. They seemed to have had a sort of dim knowledge of what came of women eating fruit in the Garden of Eden and they didn't feel justified in taking any more chances. And it is wisdom--unquestionably it is wisdom. Adam wasn't strict enough. Eve broke the taboo, and hence comes all this trouble. Can't be too particular about fruit--with women.

  They were a rusty set all round--those Kanakas. By and by the American missionaries came and they struck off the shackles from the whole race, breaking the power of the kings and chiefs. They set the common man free, elevated his wife to a position of equality, and gave a spot of land to each to hold forever. The missionaries taught the whole nation to read and write with facility, in the native tongue. I don't suppose there is today a single uneducated person above eight years of age in the Sandwich Islands. It is the best educated country in the world, I believe, not excepting portions of the United States. That has all been done by the American missionaries. And in a large degree it was paid for by the American Sunday school children with their pennies. We all took part in it. True, the system gave opportunities to bad boys. Many a bad boy acquired the habit of confiscating pennies of the missionary cause. But it is one of the proudest recollections of my life that I never did that--at least not more than once or twice. I know that I contributed. I have had nearly $2 invested there for thirty years. But I don't mind it. I don't care for the money if it has been doing good. I don't say this in order to show off, but just mention it as a gentle, humanizing fact that may possibly have a benevolent and beneficent effect upon some members of this audience.

  These natives are very hospitable people indeed--very hospitable. If you want to stay a few days and nights in a native's cabin you can stay and welcome. They will do everything they possibly can to make you comfortable. They will feed you on baked dog, or poi, or raw fish, or raw salt pork, fricasseed cats--all the luxuries of the season. Everything the human heart can desire, they will set before you. Perhaps now, this isn't a captivating feast at first glance, but it is offered in all sincerity, and with the best motives in the world, and that makes any feast respectable whether it is palatable or not. But if you want to trade, that's quite another matter--that's business! And the Kanucker is ready for you. He is a born trader, and he will swindle you if he can. He will lie straight through, from the first word to the last. Not such lies as you and I tell, but gigantic lies, lies that awe you with their grandeur, lies that stun you with their imperial impossibility. He will sell you a molehill at the market price of a mountain, and will lie it up to an altitude that will make it cheap at the money. If he is caught, he slips out of it with an easy indifference that has an unmistakable charm about it.

  One peculiarity of these Kanakas is that nearly every one of them has a dozen mothers--not natural ones--I haven't got down yet where I can make such a statement as that--but adopted mothers. They have a custom of calling any woman mother they take a liking to--no matter what her color or politics--and it is possible for one native to have a thousand mothers if his affections are liberal and stretchy, and most of them are. This custom breeds some curious incidents. A California man went down there and opened a sugar plantation. One of his hands came and said he wanted to bury his mother. He gave him permission. Shortly after he came again with the same request. "I thought you buried her last week," said the gentleman. "This is another one," said the native. "AII right," said the gentleman, "go and plant her." Within a month the man wanted to bury some more mothers. "Look here," said the planter, "I don't want to be hard on you in your affliction, but it appears to me that your stock of mothers holds out pretty well. It interferes with business, so clear out, and never come back until you have buried every mother you have in the world."

  They are an odd sort of people, too. They can die whenever they want to. That's a fact. They don't mind dying any more than a jilted Frenchman does. When they take a notion to die they die, and it don't make any difference whether there is anything the matter with them or not, and they can't be persuaded out of it. When one of them makes up his mind to die, he just lays down and is just as certain to die as though he had all the doctors in the world hold of him. A gentleman in Hawaii asked his servant if he wouldn't like to die and have a big funeral. He said yes, and looked happy, and the next morning the overseer came and said, "That boy of yours laid down and died last night and said you were going to give him a fine funeral."

  They are very fond of funerals. Big funerals are their main weakness. Fine grave clothes, fine funeral appointments, and a long procession are things they take a generous delight in. Years ago a Kanaka and his wife were condemned to be hanged for murder. They received the sentence with manifest satisfaction because it gave an opening for a funeral, you know. It makes but little difference to them whose it is; they would as soon attend their own funeral as anybody else's. This couple were of consequence, and had landed estates. They sold every foot of ground they had and laid it out in fine clothes to be hanged in. And the woman appeared on the scaffold in a white satin dress and slippers and feathers of gaudy ribbon, and the man was arrayed in a gorgeous vest, blue clawhammer coat and brass buttons, and white kid gloves. As the noose was adjusted around his neck, he blew his nose with a grand theatrical flourish, so as to show his embroidered white handkerchief. I never, never knew of a couple who enjoyed hanging more than they did.

  They are very fond of dogs, these people--not the great Newfoundland or the stately mastiff, but a species of little mean, contemptible cur that a white man would condemn to death on general principles. There is nothing attractive about these dogs--there is not a handsome feature about them, unless it is their bushy tails. A friend of mine said if he had one of these dogs he would cut off the tail and throw the rest of the dog away. They feed this dog, pet him, take ever so much care of him, and then cook and eat him. I couldn't do that. I would rather go hungry for two days than devour an old personal friend in that way; but many a white citizen of those islands throws aside his prejudices and takes his dinner off one of those puppies--and after all it is only our cherished American sausage with the mystery removed.

  A Kanaka will eat anything he can bite--a live fish, scales and all, which must be rather annoying to the fish, but the Kanaka doesn't mind that. It used to be said that the Kanakas were cannibals, but that was a slander. They didn't eat Captain Cook--or if they did, it was only for fun. There was one instance of cannibalism. A foreigner, from the South Pacific Islands, set up an office and did eat a good many Kanakas. He was a useful citizen, but had strong political prejudices and used to save up a good appetite forjust before election, so that he could thin out the Democratic vote.

bsp; At this point in my lecture, in other cities, I usually illustrate cannibalism, but I am a stranger here and don't feel like taking liberties. Still, if any one in the audience will lend me an infant, I will illustrate the matter. But it is of no consequence--it don't matter. I know children have become scarce and high, owing to the inattention they have received since the women's rights movement began. I will leave out that part of my program, though it is very neat and pleasant. Yet it is not necessary. I am not hungry.

  Well, that foreign cannibal after a while got tired of Kanakas--as most anybody would--and thought he would like to try white man with onions. So he captured and devoured a tough old whaleship captain, but it was the worst thing he ever did. Of course, he could no more digest that old whaler than a keg of nails. There is no telling how much he suffered, with this sin on his conscience and the whaler on his stomach. He lingered for a few days and then died. Now I don't believe this story myself, and have only told it for its moral. You don't appear to see the moral; but I know there is a moral in it, because I have told it thirty or forty times, and never got a moral out of it yet!

  With all these excellent and hospitable ways these Kanakers have some cruel instincts. They will put a live chicken in the fire just to see it hop about. In the olden times they used to be cruel to themselves. They used to tear their hair and burn their flesh, shave their heads, knock out an eye or a couple of front teeth, when a great person or a king died--just to testify to their sorrow, and if their grief was so sore that they couldn't possibly bear it, they would go out and scalp their neighbor, or burn his house down. It was an excellent custom, too, for it gave every one a good opportunity to square up old grudges. Pity we didn't have it here! They would also kill an infant now and then--bury him alive sometimes; but the missionaries have annihilated infanticide--for my part I can't see why.