World History Connected Home    
Home List journal issues Table of contents
Printer-friendly format        

Book Review


Kealani Cook, Return to Kahiki: Native Hawaiians in Oceania. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018. Pp. xii + 255. Glossary, Bibliography, and Index. $49.99 (cloth).


     In the nineteenth century, Western empires colonized most of the sovereign nations of Oceania, including the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi. In a remarkable new book by Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) historian Kealani Cook, this oft-told story of nineteenth-century transoceanic and global interconnections is seen through a new lens: the relationship of Native Hawaiians to other colonized Pacific peoples. The author argues, convincingly, that such trans-Oceanic relationships were key to nineteenth- and early twentieth-century anticolonial struggles in the Pacific. Cook shows how nineteenth-century Hawaiians thought of other Pacific peoples as a link to their own past, Ka Wā ʻŌiwi Wale (the time before European contact), a past that provided Hawaiʻi's indigenous leaders with the tools they needed for cultural and political survival in the face of empire. Yet nineteenth-century Hawaiians also problematically deployed the twin concepts of naʻauao (enlightenment) and naʻaupō (ignorance), part of a hybradized Hawaiian/Western discourse, to distinguish themselves from other Islanders. Hawaiians were enlightened, they believed, due to their early and enthusiastic embrace of Christianity, literacy, and Western goods and political practices, whereas the other Islanders were naʻaupō. In other words, nineteenth-century Hawaiians saw themselves as part of a larger Oceanian lāhui (nation, people) yet also believed in a Hawaiian exceptionalism that placed themselves on top of an Oceanian hierarchy.

     Return to Kahiki: Native Hawaiians in Oceania centers upon three stories: the experiences of Native Hawaiian Christian missionaries in Oceania in the second half of the century; the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi's diplomatic mission to Sāmoa in 1887; and the travels of Native Hawaiian statesman John T. Baker in the South Pacific in 1907. The first two chapters concern the Christian mission. According to Cook, between 1853 and 1908 hundreds of indigenous missionaries left Hawai ʻi to spread their faith to the naʻaupō peoples of the Pacific. Rather than solely doing the work of Western empire, Cook argues that these missionaries preached and practiced a "Native-ized" Christianity, a hybrid of Native Hawaiian and Western Christian values. Their work was conducted within a racial hierarchy that placed the Kanaka missionaries underneath white mission leaders while also upholding the Hawaiians' conviction that they were more civilized than those to whom they preached. Cook analyzes the missionaries' own, awkward self-analysis and disciplining of their hewa (sins); the author uses the minutes from mission tribunals to show how Hawaiian missionaries struggled to balance their Hawaiian-ness, and thus their relationality to other Islanders, with their Christian-ness, and thus their relation to the Western world. The meeting minutes detail fears over supposed witchcraft and madness, as well as consternation over the mission wives' sexual dalliances with other Islanders.

     The middle two chapters focus on the Hawaiian Kingdom's delegation to Sāmoa in 1887 and negotiations over a proposed Polynesian confederacy that never came to be. By the 1880s, haole (foreign) mission scions and sugar capitalists in Hawai ʻi were tightening their grip on political power, while in Sāmoa, German and American interests supported rival factions vying for political control. In this imperial context, Hawaiʻi's mōʻī (king), David Kalākaua, focused domestically on reviving practices associated with Ka Wā ʻŌiwi Wale while internationally projecting Western modes of political power. Kalākaua was the first sovereign to circumnavigate the world and sought alliances with other non-colonized Pacific peoples, especially the Japanese. While the Kalākaua period has received ample scholarly attention, Cook yet focuses on an understudied node of Hawaiʻi's widening world: relations with Sāmoa. The author demonstrates that Kalākaua's delegation to Sāmoa employed both Native and Western values to appeal to their audience. Cook does a deep dive into the writings of the delegation's two lead negotiators, both hapa haole men (of mixed Hawaiian/European ancestry) who deployed their racial and gender identities in order to impress upon the Sāmoans a vision of a confederacy built on both Western and indigenous values while also maintaining rigid class and gender hierarchies. Cook's nuanced discussion of race, and the "blood" ties among Pacific peoples, is important as Kalākaua and his fellow Hawaiians frequently deployed a racial logic that saw other Pacific peoples as "cognate" or "kindred" races to the Kānaka. Moreover, Cook contends with the irony that the Hawaiians, in seeing themselves as "naʻauao," not only sought to counter empire in Sāmoa, but perhaps also to create an empire of their own. The delegation sought to impose a Hawaiian political model upon Sāmoa, and they intensely debated how much Sāmoa needed to be "Hawaiianized."

     Return to Kahiki concludes with an analysis of the South Pacific voyages of Native statesman and capitalist farmer John T. Baker, who in 1907 visited Tahiti, Tonga, Aotearoa (New Zealand), and other Islands. He wrote about his experiences in a series of letters published in the Hawaiian-language press. Cook starts with an examination of Baker's visit to Tahiti, Baker's grandfather's ancestral home. Having never seen Tahiti, Baker is immediately welcomed "home" by the Maohi (the indigenous people). Baker recounts how he sang and danced for the Maohi, who then shared their own cultural practices with him. He also met with expatriate Native Hawaiians. Baker spoke of how the Hawaiian and Tahitian languages were so similar, and Cook explores the significance of this insight in light of the U.S. government's ban on the Hawaiian language at that time. In Aotearoa, where connections with Hawaiʻi were limited in the nineteenth century, the local Māori people similarly welcomed Baker; some saw him as a living connection to Hawaiki, their ancestral homeland. After a mutual sharing of haka and hula, Baker muses on the relationality of Oceanian peoples even as most of these peoples were now colonial subjects of disparate foreign empires. Cook completes his examination of Baker with a meditation on capitalism. The author argues that while Baker considered capitalism as "na'auao," he also appreciated the anti-capitalist practices and imaginaries of other colonized peoples in the Pacific. Baker advocated small-scale yeoman farming and commodity production under indigenous control, yet an encounter with a Maohi leader in Tahiti makes him rethink his faith in capitalist salvation.

     Return to Kahiki makes a lasting contribution to the scholarship of Native Pacific cultural studies and the history of Hawaiʻi and the Pacific World broadly. Cook's analysis of elite indigenous Hawaiian engagements with other Pacific peoples helps expand our knowledge of how indigenous peoples engaged with, and without, foreign empires. At one point in the book, Cook argues that Kalākaua's proposed confederacy represented something of a proto-imagining of the Third World: of non-aligned nations working in cooperation against empire. While Native Hawaiians and other Pacific peoples continue to struggle against colonialism and military occupation today, Return to Kahiki offers a useful primer for thinking through twenty-first-century anti-colonial strategy. In this book, Cook narrates a powerful history of Oceanian peoples seeing themselves as related to one another. While Hawaiians understood these transoceanic relationships somewhat problematically, this narrative yet points a path forward for a continued strategy of anti-imperial cooperation in the Pacific. This book will make a useful addition to world history courses, particularly those with focuses on indigenous studies, transoceanic histories, and studies of the Global South.

Gregory Samantha Rosenthal is Assistant Professor of History at Roanoke College and author of Beyond Hawaiʻi: Native Labor in the Pacific World (2018). They can be reached at


Home | List Journal Issues | Table of Contents
© 2019 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
Content in World History Connected is intended for personal, noncommercial use only. You may not reproduce, publish, distribute, transmit, participate in the transfer or sale of, modify, create derivative works from, display, or in any way exploit the World History Connected database in whole or in part without the written permission of the copyright holder.

Terms and Conditions of Use