“Hawaiian Border Crossings: Capital, Commodities, and Bodies” at the 2014 OAH

Here is another OAH 2014 report from our correspondent Charles McCrary.  Check out his previous (and very popular) post on secularization here. –JF

On Saturday morning at OAH I saw an excellent panel on Hawaiian history. The collection of three papers, each from a PhD student presenting dissertation research, focused on capitalism, material culture, environmental history, bodies, and the intersections among these. I will provide a brief summary of the session, and, though I won’t be able to do justice to the quality of the papers, I hope to alert readers to some of the exciting new work in the burgeoning field of Pacific history.
Gregory Rosenthal presented a paper, drawn from his SUNY–Stony Brook dissertation, on contestations over Chinese and native Hawaiian workers’ bodies on Hawaiian sugar plantations. Chinese workers started to arrive in Hawai’i in 1852, as native Hawaiian labor was beginning to decline along with the downturn in previously lucrative markets like fur seal hunting, guano mining, and whaling. The islands were turning to sugar plantations. Americans on Hawai‘i, such as the leaders of The Royal Hawaiian Agricultural Society (RHAS), debated the pros and cons of Hawaiian and Chinese bodies’ labor. Hawaiians were, in the RHAS’s view, “amphibious beings,” not well suited for work in the cane fields and harder to coerce than the Chinese. The Chinese, though, were more expensive to feed, since they preferred to eat rice, which was expensive to import. In this environment, where everyone was comparing Chinese and Hawaiian workers—including the workers themselves, who competed and conflicted with each other—bodies were racialized according to their “natural” proclivities as well as hairstyles, clothes, and food preferences.
Furthering the discussion of food and drink consumption, Hi‘ilei Hobart, a PhD student in the food studies program at NYU, used ice as a lens through which to understand colonialism, capitalism, and racialization. Ice, Hobart demonstrated, was a “tool for empire-building.” Prior to the 1860s, though, efforts to import it had been infrequent and mostly unsuccessful. Advertisements, many of which focused on all the wonderful chilled cocktails now available, catered to Anglo-Americans understandings of themselves as refined, racializing non-white bodies, which apparently did not need ice. After all, they hadn’t asked for it. Although, neither had Anglo-Americans until recently. In this way, the “need” for ice in Hawai‘i was created in order to differentiate Anglo-Americans from those they wanted to distance as racially other.
Lawrence Kessler presented research on the sugarcane economy from 1835 to 1875. Like Rosenthal, he discussed the RHAS, though Kessler focused on the changes taking place in Hawaiian missionary culture at the society’s founding in 1851. Traditionally, the missionaries to Hawai‘i, most of them associated with the ABCFM, had discouraged growing sugar, since the primary way to make it a profitable export was to distill it into rum. Engaging in the rum trade would be immoral, and rum consumption on the islands would promote vice. However, over time some softened their anti-sugar stance and started growing it in small quantities for consumption. As Hawaiian exports were drying up with the decline of whaling and other industries, Americans in Hawai‘i started allowing and even promoting sugar planting. What emerged, according to Kessler, was a sort of hybridized plantation system. Missionaries and their families used sugar plantations to instill American Protestant virtues and an agrarian work ethic, but substituted the capitalist system of wage labor for the more traditional understanding of landed agrarianism and commodity-based economies.

As Jennifer Newell indicated in her response to the papers, the panel suggested intriguing new ways forward for discussing the intersections between environmental history and the history of global capitalism. In the second half of the nineteenth century the Hawaiian Islands underwent a transition from an extractive economy to an export economy. This transition had global implications. During the discussion Rosenthal pointed out that a focus on Hawai‘i allows us to see the flows of capital, commodities, and people that “globalized” capitalist economies. The California Gold Rush, coal mining in Pennsylvania, political unrest in the Spanish empire, the sea otter population in the North Pacific—all of these events were global realities, and all factor into Hawaiian history. As more cultural historians pay attention to economic and environmental history, they should look to some of the exciting and generative work being done in Pacific histories as an apt model.