Monday, April 20, 2015

Two for One

A Residency of Twenty-One Years in the Sandwich Islands by Hiram Bingham was first published in 1847. The edition in the Library was printed in 1987 by Charles E. Tuttle Company, Inc.

The group of islands known as Hawai'i stretch for 1500 miles in the Pacific Ocean.  A lone archipelago, Hawai'i is situated about 1800 miles west of coastal North America, 2600 miles from Tahiti, and over 4,000 miles from Japan. Until the British explorer James Cook “discovered” Hawai'i in the late 1780s people there lived by traditional customs, beliefs and laws.  But for forty years after Cook, foreigners invaded the islands, changing the culture, and virtually wiping out barbaric customs* to replace them with Western ways. 

The book entitled A Residency of Twenty-One Years in the Sandwich Islands is description of Hawai'i, also known as the Sandwich Islands before it became the 50th state, and covers native Hawai'ian culture of the late 1700- and early 1800s and their history with strangers, especially Westerners. 

Author Bingham, a New World evangelist, was a member of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. This group had an agenda to spread Christian philosophy to “improve the lives” of peoples who did not yet embrace the faith.  Also, they were Protestant and in competition with Catholic missionaries.  Bingham critically opposed Hawaiian lifestyles and habits as pagan; he thought these attributes were an impediment to learning and the acquisition of the Christian faith he sought to promote.

In the book, Bingham's moral view of the world, then shared by many of his readers in America, is superimposed on the inhabitants of the Sandwich Islands. He believed in the Christian ethic, and that disease would be eradicated, and the fortunes of the people would improve if they would adopt the new religion.  In today's world this kind of intervention would be condemned as biotry and meddling. The process of a cultural exchange in which traditional beliefs and behaviors are replaced with Protestant ones is detailed in A Residency of Twenty-One Years... and a reader gets two sides of the story, Bingham’s and the Hawai'ians he encountered, in one volume.

In the 19th century it was discovered by missionaries that local languages were not written down and there were no texts that described the Hawai'ian history, its culture and peoples.  Bingham was convinced that if a connection between language, written history, and religious instruction, the Hawai'ians would succeed in acquiring the new religion.  So he labored to translate the Hawai'ian language and translate English into the local language, thereby contributing to Western knowledge and understanding as well.

The book was a reprint by the publisher, Charles E. Tuttle Company, whose Rutland, Vermont and Tokyo, Japan offices have produced a whole library's worth of books on Pacific Island histories.  The company got its start just after World War II in Tokyo when Charles Tuttle's fledgling publishing concern produced English-language books for occupied Japan.  At the time, translation and the interpretation of language and customs were popular topics for oversees personnel.

The 27 chapters of the book are a description of the evangelist's work and his interaction with the people, from 1820 to 1845.  Six illustrations, engraved from original sketches by Bingham, are included from the original imprint of the book.

*Barbaric customs such as infanticide, bodily mutilation when grieving for lost loved ones, and human sacrifice have been documented as those practiced in Pacific Island cultures prior to the imposition of Western law, religion and customs.