Mark Twain's Voyage to the Kingdom of Hawaii

March 17, 2017

His accounts about Hawaii stay surprisingly fresh even 150 years after. Many of the landmarks are still present in the islands and remain as described.

On the Sunday morning of March 18th, 1866, a powerful fast steamer, the Ajax docked into Honolulu Harbor safely after a 10-day sea voyage from San Francisco. Receiving a cheerful welcome of gliding albatross from up above and a crowd of flying-fish in front of their decks, passengers watched the green valleys and swaying palm trees gradually coming into their views. Church bells tolled in the distance.

Amongst the 68 passengers aboard was a 30-year-old Mark Twain, who had recently landed on a reporting assignment for the Sacramento Union newspaper. During his four-month stay in Hawaii (originally it was a one-month assignment), he sent back a total of 25 correspondences to the paper, reporting on the life in the Kingdom of Hawaii, in his own vivid words, full of fresh and funny observations.

As you read each letter, your mind is painted with a lush scenery surrounding the precipitous Pali cliff, ink-blackened lava on the Big Island, bold colors of women’s muumuu dresses and the royal guards’ uniform and a colorful personality of whaler captains, merchants and natives, all in three-dimension.

I cannot help but imagine that the correspondences from these exotic places of the remote islands must’ve been a literal virtual-reality experience for readers back then, as papers didn’t even have any illustrations yet. His letters still work that way today towards modern-day readers.

The rare photo image of the steamer Ajax unloading at Greenwich St. Wharf, San Francisco. Image by The New York Public Library.

On Oahu, he rode horseback at Diamond Head under the silver moon and his party almost lost their way. He wrote ecstatically that he was shaved by the same barber who worked for the King. He also reported on the legislature sessions in his distinct comical tone and noted some funny propositions that were brought up during his visit there. He listened to the extensive account of sailors who survived their grueling 43 days at open sea, with a scarce food reserve after the USS Hornet exploded and sunk in the pacific. And he felt the native peoples’ strong affection and respect for Hawaiian royalty as he followed the funeral procession of the Princess Victoria Kamāmalu on Nuuanu Street and witnessed the-month-long uninterrupted wailing and mourning of natives for their Queen at the Palace.

On Maui, he toured the Lewers sugar plantation and other sugar mills and passionately described their rapidly growing sugar industry in Hawaii along with very extensive stats. After his return from Maui, he ended one of his letters with the following line, “I never spent so pleasant a month before, or bade any place good-bye so regretfully.”

On the Island of Hawaii, he savored fresh coconut milk directly from the hole that was opened up on the nut and praised the Orange produced in Kona, as the finest in the world. Once the chance was presented, he tried to join a group of native young ladies skinny-dipping in the sea and failed miserably. He pictured the image of Kealakekua Bay, the landing place of Captain Cook with his words, and told the mythology of the god Lono who resided there. And not to mention, he depicted the magnificent view, sound and even smell of the crater of Kilauea.

Throughout his correspondences, he marveled at truly unselfish nature and generous hospitality of the natives, many times over. It is obvious that he was smitten by the Hawaiian Islands.

His adventure has never stopped since. Soon after returning to San Francisco, he set out for the first lecture tour on his recent visit to Hawaii. It was a huge success and he travelled across the states and many oceans, giving over 200 lecture performances on various topics throughout his career. Including his trip as a newspaper correspondent, he visited about 35 countries. Despite the rich record of globetrotting, it is said that Hawaii always held a special place in his heart, and I think anyone who visited Hawaii can relate to this recurrent feeling of longing.

On the 150th anniversary of his visit to Hawaii, I’d like to share the following prose he read in his speech in 1889. The sentiment we bring home after visiting Hawaii hasn’t changed over the past 150 years.

“No alien land in all the world has any deep strong charm for me but one,
no other land could so longingly and so beseechingly haunt me,
sleeping and waking, through half a lifetime, as that one has done.
Other things leave me, but it abides; other things change, but it remains the same.
For me its balmy airs are always blowing, its summer seas flashing in the sun;
the pulsing of its surfbeat is in my ear; I can see its garland crags,
its leaping cascades, its plumy palms drowsing by the shore,
its remote summits floating like islands above the cloud wrack;
I can feel the spirit of its woodland solitudes, I can hear the plash of its brooks;
in my nostrils still lives the breath of flowers that perished twenty years ago.”

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