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Review: "The Hawaiian Archipelago" by Isabella L Bird

The Hawaiian Archipelago is available in both free and illustrated editions in our ebook catalog.

I wish I could transport you here this moment from our sour easterly skies to this endless summer and endless sunshine, and shimmer of a peaceful sea, and an atmosphere whose influences are all cheering.

Have you ever been to Hawaii? Are you planning a trip there? Did you just get back? Do you remember a trip there from long ago? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, then by all means, read Isabella Bird’s fascinating The Hawaiian Archipelago. This narrative is a vivid study in contrasts: long, lazy afternoons in the sun and perfect weather punctuated by harrowing, sweltering horseback rides up the sides of volcanoes, then coming very close to frostbite while sitting nearly atop Mauna Loa, the Earth’s biggest active volcano.

Ms. Bird’s ambition was to visit all the Hawaiian volcanoes, and visit she did, starting with Kilauea and progressing to the great dead volcano, Haleakala and ultimately to Mauna Loa. “It was a strange thing to sleep on a lava-bed at a height of nearly 14,000 feet, far away from the nearest dwelling, 'in a region,' as Mr. Jarves says, 'rarely visited by man,' hearing all the time the roar, clash, and thunder of the mightiest volcano in the world.”

Ms. Bird’s work is significant because of the historical as well as personal perspective she offers. Published in 1875, The Hawaiian Archipelago depicts a far different Hawaii than the one we see in travelogues or the one made famous by Pearl Harbor. During Bird’s time, one primary concern about Hawaii was its dwindling population and abandonment of once-thriving communities. Another concern was the loss of civic leaders as well as children and parents to the leper colony on the island of Molokai. While the residents of Molokai were treated benevolently, all residents understood that it was a one-way trip.

What a strange place Hawaii must have been—a place where children swim to school, and where food is so abundant and the climate is so benevolent that natives have no real need to plan for the future. Bird finds their lackadaisical attitude somewhat frustrating, although one suspects that were she to stay longer she would likely adopt some of the native traits. I am sure that she hopes, however, that she would still refrain from the incessant gossip rampant among both natives and expatriates. But her love for the islands and the personal healing she has experienced, both physically and psychologically, will leave her always in its thrall.

It is best to leave the islands now. I love them better every day, and dreams of Fatherland are growing fainter in this perfumed air and under this glittering sky. A little longer, and I too should say, like all who have made their homes here under the deep banana shade.

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