Revisiting our town’s early years

Honolulu: The First Century, The Story of the Town to 1876
By Gavan Daws
MUTUAL; 451 pages; $18.95

Reviewed by Christine Thomas
Published in the Honolulu Advertiser 11/19/06

Venerated historian Gavan Daws’ first historical tome in seven years (“Bite the Hand,” a play about dolphins, was published in paperback in 2003) actually isn’t new at all. To publish this latest volume centered on Honolulu’s history, Daws dusted off the greying pages of his manually typed 1966 doctoral dissertation in Pacific History at UH Manoa.

After re-reading it and, he says in the author’s note, often questioning its voice, he decided that “it should be published just as it was written then, no rethinking or recasting or spiffing up of phrases, to be read now as what the passage of time has turned it into—a historical document.”

Though Daws may have been unable to recognize himself in portions of his text, what is immediately striking about “Honolulu: The First Century” is Daws’ familiar and accessible tone, his clear and precise writing delivered with the engaging lilt of a storyteller.

Perhaps it is because we are only treated to this voice in his books (he has stringently upheld a “religious vow” never to speak to the press), whether the highly regarded “Shoal of Time,” “Holy Man,” or “Land and Power in Hawaii,” that even an old text is cause to prick one’s ears and attend.

The book covers events affecting the city from 1776 – 1876, so those hoping for a look at modern Honolulu through Daws’ lens will have to keep waiting.

Moreover, portions of the book were lifted for the creation of “Shoal of Time,” so details about missionaries, the sugar economy, life from the reign of Lunalilo forward and more will likely be familiar.

Yet the relatively limited focus on Honolulu is welcome, and allows the city to be viewed afresh for its importance to the building of the Hawaiian Kingdom, and for the transformative power of what was once known as Mamala, now Honolulu Harbor.

Daws argues that the harbor made Honolulu what it is was and is today. “In this singular circumstance,” he writes of the environmental conditions that formed the haven, “the city of Honolulu found the reason for its origin.”

The town had of course been of some, if not great, importance before Captain William Brown first entered the harbor, yet the effect of Daws’ exploration of its evolution into a major port of industry cannot be denied. Honolulu’s further transformation as the base of royalty and capital of the kingdom, its tradition as the center of change, has not been altered to this day.

Arguably what is most interesting about the book is the first chapter, wherein Daws explicates the early years before Kamehameha I consolidated power—the two years of pre-Cook history that are absent from “Shoal of Time.”

And though much of the subsequent information may not be novel, the concentration on activities only as they relate to Honolulu allows a filter through which smaller details can assume more weight, particularly specifics about life in the city, from street plans to water supply, politicking to theater and dancing.

For a thriving twenty-first century Honolulu, revisiting the roots of existence can only aid in taking stock of the twentieth century and in capitalizing on the future being created by changes of today.