Jennifer Thigpen. Island Queens and Mission Wives: How Gender and Empire Remade Hawai'i's Pacific World. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014. xii + 165 pp. $37.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4696-1429-8.
Reviewed by Charles McCrary (FSU)
Published on H-AmRel (March, 2016)
Commissioned by Bobby L. Smiley
Historians of American religion have paid little attention to the Pacific Ocean, its islands, and its people. This appears, perhaps, finally, to be changing. Jennifer Thigpen’s Island Queens and Mission Wives is one of a few recent and forthcoming books on the Pacific, written from the perspective of a historian of American religion and/or the United States. Hawai‘i, given the role of American missionaries there, is a fruitful site for expanding the scope of American religious history while still relating to existing historiography and focusing on actors who are clearly both religious and American. Scholars of American religion should find Thigpen’s work a useful and informative introduction to the exchanges among nineteenth-century American missionaries and Hawaiian leaders. Pacific history specialists should see Thigpen’s emphasis on gender and women as a welcome corrective to the present historiography.
Island Queens and Mission Wives focuses, as the title suggests, primarily on two groups. Following the lead of postcolonialist scholars and Pacific anthropologists such as Nicholas Thomas and Greg Dening, Thigpen emphasizes exchange. She means this in a literal sense, where the exchange of physical gifts was a central component of Polynesian social relations, but also in a figurative sense as well. Americans and Hawaiians interactions were two-way exchanges, with each side having different sorts of power at different times. The argument, Thigpen writes, “rests in part on the premise that Hawaiians were neither ‘passive’ nor ‘helpless’ victims of Western colonialism” (p. 3). She sets out to tell a story neither primarily about American history nor Hawaiian history, but about both sides, their interactions, and the way they shaped each other. The first chapter describes the political situation on the Islands before American contact, which underscores the fact that American missionaries did not arrive to a place without structure or contact with the rest of the world. In fact, despite their own imaginaries about the progress of history, the missionaries were latecomers to a decentered and ongoing history well underway. The second chapter briefly describes the missionaries’ own backgrounds, situated in New England’s Second Great Awakening, and the history and culture of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM), the group that sent them to Hawai‘i in 1819. Thigpen is mostly successful in this balancing act between American and Hawaiian history, though the primary audience seems to be American historians rather than Hawaiian historians—and, indeed, the former group is likely to learn more from the book. Thigpen’s use of only missionary documents and not Hawaiian-language sources could skew the narrative, but she reads these sources critically, locating Hawaiian voices and not simply representing the missionaries’ perspective.
Thigpen’s point is not just to emphasize exchange but, more specifically, the role that gender played in those exchanges, especially in the first generation of Hawaiian-missionary contact. She argues that “women’s relationships, organized around the exchange of gift items, became critical sites for the building and maintenance of important diplomatic and political alliances” (p, 2). Women such as Ka‘ahumanu and Keōpūolani held significant power in Hawaiian society, especially during the tumultuous period following the death of Kamehameha and the reign of Liholiho (Kamehameha II), and these gender dynamics were confusing to the missionaries, and they interpreted them as a sign of backwardness. The ABCFM missionaries offered “a particular brand of salvation—having as much to do with dispensing ‘civilization’ to the remotest parts of the world as with spreading the gospel. The two, in fact, were inextricably bound up together” (p. 36). Thus, the mission became largely about amending Hawaiian social structure. To this end, mission wives took on an unexpectedly central role. Since Hawaiians were generally uninterested in “religious conversion,” “the missionaries could at least work to solve the more visible problem before them by providing gifts of clothing in the way of bonnets, dresses, shirts, and suits” (pp. 78–79). Powerful women in particular liked the Western hats and garments, although they “seemed to appreciate them as novel and exotic garments rather than as symbols of civility and Christianity” (p. 79). Nevertheless, an “in” was an “in,” and missionaries tried to leverage their material exchanges into more total forms of conversion. Eventually, though, some Hawaiian queens did convert in a more holistic sense. Thigpen does not spend much time discussing the motivations or ramifications of this transition, but she does note the possibility that Hawaiians started to work more closely with missionaries because “they were growing aware of Hawai‘i’s increasingly precarious political position within the nineteenth-century Pacific world” (p. 99).
The first thing readers will notice when picking up the book its thinness. I suspect that “slim” will be a word popping up in many reviews. It is worth noting; the book is much shorter than an average academic monograph, with only 108 pages of text. This is not necessarily a bad thing—the last few years have seen a trend toward shorter books in general—but in this case, “thin” could apply to more than just the book’s material dimensions. The biggest problem with Island Queens and Mission Wives is not that it is short, but that it does not justify its own brevity. The subtitle, “How Gender and Empire Remade Hawai‘i’s Pacific World,” promises quite a lot that the book does not deliver. Perhaps we should not fault Thigpen; titles are designed to sell books, and it might not even have been her title. But the book contains very little explicit description of empire or capitalism or why Americans might be interested in Hawai‘i or how they were competing with other imperialist nations to secure capital in the Pacific. Save for a few sections, including a bit about Kamehameha’s interactions with George Vancouver, non-American actors make few appearances, and the broader context of the “Pacific World” receives scant treatment. Those limitations could be legitimated by a focus instead on “thick description,” a rich and detailed account of the individuals and relationships that remade this larger world. Indeed, the book is at its best when describing the specific materials exchanged, the way the queens used the garments, the ways mission wives understood these exchanges and modified their understanding. (Many of these anecdotes can be found already in Thigpen’s 2010 Pacific Historical Review article.) But the descriptions are never very thick, and Thigpen often stops and changes topics or ends the chapter just as the narrative gathers force. Likewise, the limited scope might work well with a detailed theoretical analysis, but Thigpen does not engage postcolonial or critical theorists, though her data affords multiple opportunities to do so. Overall, it is as if the book cannot decide whether to be deep or broad, and it ends up too short to be either. Despite its shortcomings, Island Queens and Mission Wives is one of very few works to bridge American religious history and Hawaiian history, and it does so effectively. It should be read widely, especially by American historians, and should inspire future study.
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Charles McCrary. Review of Thigpen, Jennifer, Island Queens and Mission Wives: How Gender and Empire Remade Hawai'i's Pacific World.
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