Featured photo — “a city through a jungle” — from author Katie Simpson.
Each night my dad made the same toast: “to another day in paradise.” Our glasses clinked as we sat down to another meal in Maui, full of fish and wine. I always raised my glass, but said nothing. There’s something about that word – paradise – that made me squirm. Without words, I sat there, wondering if I was ungrateful.
Looking back, would I have said anything if I’d had the words? My family and friends weren’t ignorant about Hawaii, a place where people have struggles like anywhere else. They were grateful to be there. Besides, why fight? We were on vacation after all.
At first, I thought it was just the underlying implications of using paradise. For years, I’ve loved the history of this word. It comes from Avestan, a language from Eastern Iran, pairidaeza, meaning “an enclosed garden.” It entered Greek as paradeisos, referring to the Garden of Eden. The word then traveled with Christianity, finding its way into English.
In its history, “paradise” carries the story of Adam and Eve. It starts in mythological perfection and ends with the beginning of nostalgia. Eden was a place without struggle, worry, lack, or self-awareness. Adam and Eve’s transgression is revealed because they recognized and covered their own nakedness. Eden is the story of the first mythic loss: Once it was ours, but we lost it with one wrong decision.
That mythic loss had real world consequences. Christian Europe and North America continued to search for another garden. That longing was put onto Hawaii and other Polynesian islands, including Tahiti and Guam. Initial reports from explorers described these islands as idyllic places, where locals could live lives solely focused on pleasure. Ideas like Rousseau’s, of the noble savage, made it easy to believe that indigenous people were like Adam and Eve: purer humans but with less knowledge or reason than Europeans.
A key part of this idea lay in the warm welcome Captain Cook and his crew reported as the first European visitors to the island. Unknowingly, Cook’s ship played into Hawaiian mythology: The God Lono was to one day return to Hawaii on a magnificent ship. Cook’s second trip was during the festival for Lono, and he was treated like a God.
Cook’s stories had a tremendous impact on Europe. After Cook published his controversial journals, letters appeared almost daily in the London papers to discuss them. While Cook’s was the first, the reports following conjured similar views of an idyllic island paradise, with little work and lots of pleasure.
It would be decades before Westerners learned Polynesians’ creation stories. On Hawaii, they told the story of the first man created with his wife to be chiefs over the Earth. When they broke sacred law, the great seabird took them out of their garden home to the jungle. The gods punished them with mortality and their home became the “Hidden land of Kane,” according to Martha Beckwith, an American folklorist and ethnographer, who extensively studied Hawaiian mythology. Even the Polynesians, on these remote islands, believed paradise was hidden beyond their grasp.
The Garden of Eden’s idyllic nature has an unchanging quality. The biblical story is one of order and calm. It was such a safe place that there was no struggle. Its creation was stable and easy, calmly following the word of God. Post expulsion, it remains unchanged, perfect, yet out of reach.
The origin of the Hawaiian Islands, however, wasn’t so peaceful. While I understood that Hawaiian Islands were formed by volcanic activity, I had no concept of their size until I visited Haleakala crater on Maui. The oxidized iron dusts the crater, giving it a rough Martian feeling. Inactive for hundreds of years, the crater now stretches 2.1 x 7.5 miles because of erosion.
The volcano makes up the larger portion of Maui, soaring up to 12,000 feet above the ground. The bulk of the volcano lies under water, stretching down another 30,000 feet to the ocean floor. 90% of the volcano’s volume isn’t visible to the naked eye. Under daily rainbows and a warm sun, it’s easy to forget that this island was formed from violent eruptions.
Like the islands’ geological beginnings, their relationship to America wasn’t so easy. Cook’s men traded iron nails for sex with women, introducing STIs and the spread of diseases such as measles and small pox. In the 1820’s, Missionaries began to go to the islands. Even paradise, it seemed, needing saving.
With a warm climate and fertile land, some saw an opportunity to turn paradise into profit. William Hooper from Boston, began the first permanent sugar plantation in 1835. As the laws began to allow private property, missionaries and their families began buying huge tracts of land. By 1890, Hawaii’s economy was heavily reliant on sugar and the five families who dominated it: Castle & Cooke, Alexander & Baldwin, C. Brewer & Co., American Factors, and Theo H. Davies & Co.
This order was challenged by a new Queen, Liliuokalani. She tried to restore Native Hawaiian royalty’s power, making white business owners nervous. A group of plantation owners and business men overthrew her in 1893 and set up a republic. Five years later, President McKinley annexed it as a non-voting US territory.
Queen Liliuokalani was never expelled from her homeland. She would die in Honolulu.
While over a hundred years have passed since Queen Liliuokalani’s forced abdication, the ramifications of colonialism are still felt today: It’s taken two centuries for the indigenous Hawaiian population to approach pre-contact levels. The combined impact of measles and chicken pox killed thousands of Hawaiians who’d had no previous contact with or immunity to these diseases.
Bringing people to work the plantations also changed the islands’ demographics. Today, they are dominated by immigration. 26% of residents are Caucasian while another 37% are Asian. Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, on the other hand, barely make up 10%.
Despite these changes, this history isn’t walled off from tourists. Just minutes from many of the resorts in western Maui is Lahaina. This town was a seat of royal power during the 19th century. The banyan tree covering most of the square was planted to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first missionaries. It fills the square, so dense it blocks out the sky. It’s an appropriate symbol: 63% of adults in Hawaii identify as Christian.
Yet, tourists fill the art galleries and restaurants, walking past the banyan tree and the small plaques marking the island’s history. They seemed blissfully unaware of the conflicts that occurred under their feet. Perhaps people come here to relax and are tired of the constant barrage of the information age. Yet, it is a privilege to choose to ignore a difficult history. It’s easier to see the beauty of a place that only exists in the now.
After all, can paradise have a history?
Despite the truth at our fingertips, this idea of Hawaii as paradise lingers. Ads from the 1950’s and 1960’s often highlighted young and beautiful native Hawaiian women wearing some aspect of traditional dress—a grass skirt, a lei, or a flower in their hair.
This idea continues even today. One recent ad shows two Caucasian-looking women visiting Hawaii. It begins with their cellphone battery dying as they try to take a selfie. Once they get off technology, they begin the real adventure. A Hawaiian man, in an older truck and casual shorts, shows them where to go on a map. They then meet a group of fit young men who take them ocean canoeing. Paradise, it implies, can be found in a simpler, more natural world.
While the idea of paradise dramatically changed the island, it also now keeps the island afloat economically. “Tourism is huge for the economy,” a friend raised in Hawaii pointed out, “but it has a cost.” The industry employs thousands of people: Someone ensures safety at the gun ranges. Someone teaches tourists how to surf on the large waves. Millions of people come every year, and they demand services. With an average spend of $193 per day, tourists leave billions of dollars on the island.
Their presence and economic power also change the islands: the international marketplace in Waikiki, once a barrage of sellers, was cleaned out to make way for a Saks 5th Avenue and other high-end shops. More than money, they also impact the environment. While walking the steep climb of Diamond head, I saw multiple tourists jumping over barriers to get the best shot, despite warnings of danger and potential erosion.
That’s the strange irony of paradise. We think we’re getting closer to something more natural, more real. But our very presence changes that place.
Katie Simpson is a writer and photographer in San Francisco. Her work has been featured in Brooklyn Magazine, Femsplain, Obvi We’re the Ladies, among others. She enjoys live music but always needs earplugs. You can find her online at https://twitter.com/honest_creative.