We recently celebrated the discovery of the Hawaiian Islands, January 18, 1778 by Captain James Cook. Surprisingly, there were no tiki bars when he landed, no grass skirts on the women, and no pineapples growing there.
And I’m pretty sure neither Cook nor his men got leied by the natives, though they were surprised to see the visitors appear on the horizon at the culmination of a sacred festival. The natives took their appearance as a sign that they were gods. I don’t think Cook and his men did much to discourage that idea.
Cook named his discovery the Sandwich Islands after John Montague, Earl of Sandwich, a generous benefactor who helped make Cook’s voyages possible. I don’t think I would have called it that especially in front of a crew of hungry sailors.
One of the best books ever written about the islands was penned by James Michener, who once served in the Navy there. He went to great extremes to research his topic so that he got it right. Of all things, he called his book Hawaii. Imagine that. What’s more, the book was translated into 32 languages. I’d be happy if my book was translated into one language.
Though it’s a fictionalized account of the islands, Hawaii is so true to its history that it could be a documentary. One of the things you might be surprised to learn about Hawaii is that among the first settlers were Polynesians from the Marquesas Islands and natives from Bora Bora in the South Pacific. I’m glad they didn’t name their new home Hawaii Hawaii.
Everyone has heard of Maui but not many are familiar with Molokai, Hawaii’s fifth largest island. Its dark secret may be the reason. Unimmune islanders contracted diseases from visiting sailors and foreigners seeking their fortune. A small section of the island was set aside as a leprosy colony in 1866 and operated for over a hundred years. People exiled here were declared legally dead. That’s sad.
I’ve never been to the islands, but my daughter and son-in-law honeymooned in Maui. I wasn’t invited. As you can guess, the islands are breathtaking and all have their own, unique microclimate, so much so that you can indulge in sandy beaches, towering mountains, tropical rain forests, or volcanoes that still grumble.
In case you haven’t heard, the Hawaiian Islands are 2,500 miles from the mainland of the United States. Natives there don’t really use the phrase “mainland of the United States.” They just call it the mainland, and because it is so far away, everything must be imported. Cars, toothbrushes, hamburgers, and Hawaiian shirts. That makes living there quite expensive. You probably know Hawaii was made the 50th state in 1959, but what you may not know is the average home is around $270,000 while the average home on the mainland is closer to $119,000.
Despite the inconvenience and expense of having everything imported, the United States government is not about to close any of its bases. Hawaii is the key to protecting the mainland as well as keeping an eye on things in that corner of the world.
Unless you spend your life in the fantasy world of Facebook, you no doubt have heard about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. On a quiet Sunday morning on Dec. 07, 1941, Japanese Kamikaze bombers came roaring out of the western Pacific and bombed the hell out of the American fleet and the Navy personnel there. Over 2,200 Americans died that day with another 1,200 wounded. The surprise attack destroyed battleships, cruisers, destroyers, and over 188 planes. The only reason our three great aircraft carriers weren’t destroyed was because they weren’t in port that day. Talk about luck.
Franklin D. Roosevelt called it a, “Day which will live in infamy.” He was right. And it’s why we should always be extremely cagey when dealing with the bastard in North Korea, nuts enough to think he can get away with something similar. When unstable leaders like Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump play chicken with each other, the whole world better sit up and pay attention.
As beautiful and breathtaking as the images of Hawaii are, America’s early involvement in the islands have their root in a dark and checkered past. The United States helped overthrow the legitimate ruler, Queen Lili’uokalani in 1893 after years of wrangling and manipulation, and it wasn’t because the U.S. had a yearning for Hawaiian guitars, grass skirts, or luaus either. The culprits behind the overthrow of the queen were white businessmen headed by Sanford Dole, eager to expand their pineapple plantations at the islanders’ expense.
But non-Americans shouldn’t get too sanctimonious. The Spanish brutalized the natives of South America for gold and silver. European countries like England, France, Portugal, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands all had a hand in carving up the Dark Continent and wreaking untold misery on its native cultures.
Mark Twain once said, “There isn’t a foot of land in the world that doesn’t represent the ousting and re-ousting of a long line of successful “owners” who each in turn… defended it against the next gang of robbers who came to steal it…” I bet Queen Lili’uokalani would agree with Twain’s assessment.
I don’t know if it’s the seductive images of Hawaii or the last few songs from Jimmy Buffett Live in Hawaii, but I think I’m getting a little nostalgic for luaus, Hawaiian shirts, and wahines in grass skirts. If my wife walks through the door wearing one, I’m getting my scissors out and do a little trimming. No sense letting grass grow under my feet. Or anywhere else.
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June 25, 1997 began as a normal day in the Caribbean, and the people in the villages on the southern part of Montserrat went about their routine activities, aware of the smoking Soufriere Hills but not overly concerned. It had been smoking and fussing for months and this Wednesday was no exception. Then shortly after noon, the earth that held it back collapsed, and hot lava and gas flowed into the unsuspecting valleys below. Before the ash and lava settled, 19 people lay dead, and ten villages were either obliterated or rendered uninhabitable. Subsequent volcanic activity wiped Montserrat’s capital, Plymouth, off the map.
Three years later, less than 1,200 people remained on the island. Over 7,000 were evacuated, more than half of them fleeing to Britain where they received citizenship in 2002.
More than 20 years later, the southern part of the island lies in an exclusion zone, deemed uninhabitable and severely restricted to both the island’s inhabitants and tourists. The northern half of the island remains postcard perfect. Lush hills and valleys with the blue-green Caribbean as a scenic backdrop continues to be home to natives and expatriates alike.
A lot of Irish are surprised to find that this British-controlled isle, that lies about 300 miles from Puerto Rico, is nicknamed the Emerald Isle of the Caribbean. Settlers arrived there in 1642 from Ireland. Over the years, European nations shuffled it back and forth amongst themselves, but even with a slave rebellion, the settlers of Montserrat adapted. Blacks and whites intermarried, and harmonious relationships punctuated island life, though with an Irish twist. A testament to that is the National Holiday celebrated March 17 commemorating not Saint Patrick’s Day as much as a slave revolt.
Volcanoes aren’t unique to the Caribbean. Hundreds of Islands throughout the world were sired by volcanoes. Hawaii is, perhaps, the most famous. James Michener’s Hawaii provides an absorbing account of the islands. He not only traces the history of its people but the formation of the island itself.
It’s interesting to note that volcanoes are equal opportunity purveyors of death and misery. You can find them in Italy, Iceland, Japan, and the United States. Think Mauna Loa, Hawaii and Mount St. Helens in Washington. Mount Pelee in Martinique, Mexico, and Columbia are also home to the volcano gods as is Indonesia which is blessed with at least three. These volcanoes are worrisome at best and should be feared when they awaken. Most will bring a terrifying and deadly side effect: tsunamis capable of wiping out civilization on hundreds of islands and killing hundreds of thousands of people.
Jimmy Buffett recorded a song called Volcano on an album by the same name in November 1979. It recounts the dangers of living on a Caribbean island where volcanoes, like hurricanes, are nothing to be trifled with. Ironically, he recorded it in a studio on Montserrat which was destroyed by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. Volcano is so popular with his parrothead followers that he wouldn’t dare not play it at a concert. I suspect fans would blow their tops.
The lyrics capture the uncertainty of living on an island with a volcano that is misbehaving. Implied is the overriding question, “When is it going to blow?” And he seeks answers to questions such as where do you go to get away from the damn thing? Though volcanoes are destructive, Buffett captures the resilient spirit of the islanders who eventually must overcome the tragedy and put their lives back together.
I hope the natives caught up in the next volcanic event find a safe place to go, and I hope they are able to rebuild their lives stronger and better than ever. The people of Montserrat are a testimony to the resilience of the human spirit.
Whether you live in the Caribbean or on the far side of the world, tragedy comes to visit us all. It may not take the shape of a volcano, but it can be just as devastating. When the next volcano blows in your life, I pray you find the strength and resources not only to overcome it but, like the phoenix, rise from the ashes stronger than ever.
If you see me out there on the High Seas of Life, don’t forget to wave that pirate sword of yours in my direction and yell, “Aarrrgh!” I’ll be looking for you and those volcanoes.
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