Confronting Indigenous Marginalization in Hawaiian Colonial Science

It had been a day of irregular weather with “frequent heavy showers” when HMS Sulphur, a British naval vessel under the command of captain Edward Belcher, anchored in Honolulu harbor on 8 July 1837. At this point, as the ship’s surgeon Richard Brinsley Hinds (1811-1846) noted in his journal, an outrigger canoe pulled alongside to supply famished crewmembers with milk and butter.[1] Thus began a nineteen-day sojourn in Hawai’i, interspersed with surveying duties in the Pacific and along the west coast of the Americas.[2] Hinds’ activities throughout the expedition ranged far beyond medicine. He also took advantage of the Sulphur‘s prolonged itinerary to make extensive natural history collections, findings later published in the form of three edited volumes describing his botanical and zoological findings.[3] His journal manuscript, a copy of which resides in the Hawai’i State Archives, provides a very different kind of record of these experiences. Hinds’ mandate as observer and collector was far from innocuous, however. On the contrary, I’d argue that these recollections illustrate deeply rooted prejudices that continue to inform many colonial Hawaiian scientific pursuits.

The Sulphur‘s layover coincided with a watershed period of transition. James Cook’s visitations in the 1780s had destabilized the Hawaiian archipelago by introducing a congeries of lethal infections diseases – including measles, chicken pox, tuberculosis and venereal disorders – before Kamehameha I succeeded in unifying the islands under his rule in 1795. The first delegation of American missionaries arrived in 1820 and, three years later, won their first convert: Keōpūlani, the highest-ranking wife of Kamehameha I. Many Kānaka Maoli (Hawaiian peoples) followed suit. Scarcely more than a year after the Sulphur withdrew homeward, in fact, Kamehameha III would ratify the adoption of Christian values in the Kingdom of Hawai’i’s first constitution, thereby initiating a contentious process of embracing the rudiments of European-style statehood (including an international network of consular offices) as a means of protecting against French and British colonialist aspirations.[4] The extensive breakers that sheltered HMS Sulphur from the ocean swell betokened far-reaching transformations already underway, as did the bustle of commercial activity surrounding the port. After making land, Hinds “spent the afternoon in walking about the town and in shopping,” prompting reflection on the “change wrought by civilization” since Cook’s arrival several decades earlier. “Every step along their tortuous streets showed signs of civilization going hand in hand with barbarism,” he thought.[5]

view of honolulu (1)
“View of Honolulu, Oahu, Sandwich Islands,” in Edward Belcher, Narrative of a Voyage Round the World, performed in Her Majesty’s Ship Sulphur, during the years 1836-1842 [. . .], 2 vols. (London: Henry Colburn, 1843), vol. 1, opp. p. 60.

This ethnocentric, evaluative mindset carried through into the field. Four days after making land, Hinds embarked on his first natural history excursion, accompanied by a botanist and fellow crewmember named George Barclay, who collected seeds and specimens for Kew Gardens in London, and two indigenous “guides or paper carriers.” On passing through a native cultivation, Hinds marvelled at the sight of the sweet potato [‘uala or Ipomoea batatas] and the English potato growing side by side.” He was particularly impressed by the kalo (Colocasia esculenta) plantations, whose carefully engineered channels (lo’i) diverted hillside streams to fertilized and reinforced ponds in which the plants grew – a system that, in Hinds’ estimation, “required some ingenuity.”

Poi. Photographed by Arnold Gatialo. Source: Wikipedia.

This inventive method of propagation was for good reason: kalo is an incredibly useful species with multiple applications. Most importantly, it is the chief ingredient in poi, a Hawaiian culinary staple made by mashing the plant’s cooked tubers into a paste, fermenting it and adding water to achieve the desired consistency. Hinds doesn’t appear to have sampled any himself. He did, however, ask one of his guides “how he liked several things, and when I came to poe [poi] his eyes sparkled at the retrospect of the many good feeds it afforded him, whilst he pronounced it ‘very good.'”[6] What Hinds didn’t know, and perhaps couldn’t have known, was that Kānaka Maoli regard kalo as an ancestral sibling – the first plant having arisen from soil fertilized by the stillborn child of Wākea, the sky father, and his daughter Ho’ohōkūkalani, who later gave birth to Hāloa, the first human.[7] This connection, which parallels human-plant relationships in many other indigenous societies, is emblematic of what the Rarámuri scholar Enrique Salmón calls “kinship ecology.”[8] According to archaeological estimates, by the time of Hinds’ arrival Hawaiian kalo agriculture was already hundreds of years in the making.[9]

Overlooking the terraces at Limahuli Garden and Preserve. Photographed by Kicka Witte, Hawai’i Magazine.

The naturalists were joined, from time to time, by onlookers who bore with with the party until “they got tired of our pursuits of grass gathering or as the natives term us, chuki chuki wow wow [probably hukihuki weuweu].” Members of this entourage often did more than observe, however. They also played an active role in collecting. “[S]even boys stuck to us during the day,” Hinds noted,

and were exceedingly alert in searching for shells. To them I owe nearly the whole I have. They showed a good deal of intelligence in gathering plants for us, soon saw how much we wanted, and what kind of specimens; [would] run away to a distance for anything they thought [would] not be seen in our path.

Hinds was similarly intrigued by Kānaka Maoli knowledge of plants, knowledge that had evolved to accommodate the shifting ecological conditions wrought by colonialism.

There would seem to be plants here which are undoubtedly imported from other countries; and I cited Tribulus cistoides as an instance, it being such a weed in the streets of Honolulu, and in the neighborhood of the town. I was answered that it had a native name [nohu] and native uses. . . .I soon found that Poinciana pulcherrima, the introduction of which as an ornamental plant is recent and well known, had also a native name [‘ohai ali’i]. There were other plants equally introduced, and which have native names.

Hinds registered this enthusiasm for indigenous botanical nomenclature by including a catalogue of some 34 native plant names indexed to their Latin synonyms, as well as pronunciation and usage information. Although neither Hinds nor Barclay possessed any expertise in ‘Olelo Hawai’i (the Hawaiian language), and did not remain long enough to glean anything like a thorough acquaintance with indigenous Hawaiian culture, these field interactions left a positive impression. “Everything I see and hear about the people makes me think well of them,” Hinds observed, “There appears to be no guile or mischief about them, are exceedingly civil & obliging whenever they have an opportunity.”[10]

Richard Brinsley Hinds, “List of Native Names,” in “Journal of Robert Brinsley Hinds, Assistant Surgeon, while at Hawaiian Islands with H.M.S. ‘Sulphur’, Second visit, May 30 to June 16, 1839, pp. 128-34” (Honolulu: Hawai’i State Archives, M-287), on p. 132.

Such a record of praise for indigenous field assistance is noteworthy by nineteenth-century standards, although by no means unheard of, given European collectors’ widespread dependence on indigenous material and intellectual labors.[11] Yet Hinds also refracted these experiences through what he’d heard and read about native peoples from European commentators. Indigenous Hawaiians, he wrote, “are very easily led astray, where the greatest noise is, there they are sure to go, is said of them [my emphasis], and having a great respect for their chiefs are easily led into mischief.” With this childlike imagery, Hinds was giving voice to a dehumanizing position frequently used to justify the subjugation or erasure of colonized peoples.[12] He left little doubt as to where he stood on this question. “It is not unlikely,” he mused, “that the time is not far distant when [foreigners] may be the sole occupants, for the missionaries are computing that scarcely half a century will pass away before the natives are swept from their own soil.” Following this, the islands would pass into English hands, Hinds thought.[13]

This expectation may have informed Hinds’ exclusion of any mention of Kānaka Maoli assistance from his published accounts. In Hinds’ defence, he was primarily an editor, not author, for botanical and zoological descriptions written by others. Additionally, his edited volumes bypassed Hawaiian botany entirely, owing to the fact that what few plants he’d managed to obtain had already been recounted elsewhere.[14] He did, however, describe the conchological acquisitions himself. Regarding his method of collecting shells, he mentioned only the “constant use of the dredge and trawl,” as well as the “very careful search which was unceasingly made on all the shores visited throughout the voyage.”[15] Numerous studies demonstrate the extent to which colonial scientists frequently relied upon indigenous knowledge and guidance, only to downplay this reliance in their published work.[16] In all likelihood, Hinds’ carefully worded passive syntax was similarly informed by more than stylistic considerations.

Hinds himself would outlast these printed words by only two years. The colonization process to which he contributed, however, would continue to exert a profound toll on Kānaka Maoli society and culture. Shortly after Hinds’ untimely end, in fact, King Kamehameha III inaugurated the Māhele policy of land redistribution. Intended as a means of safeguarding indigenous ‘āina (land) from colonization, the new law proved the first in a series of legislative and political developments that dispossessed Kānaka Maoli by enabling foreign ownership of property – a process which culminated in the United States’ formal annexation of Hawai’i in 1898.[17] In parallel with this government sanctioned impoverishment of Hawai’i’s first peoples, colonization has also resulted in the marginalization of biodiverse indigenous food systems in favor of plantation monoculture, which has meant a thoroughgoing dependence on imports from the continental United States.

Mauna Kea telescope (2)
Artist’s illustration of the Thirty Meter Telescope on the volcano Mauna Kea in Hawaii. Credit: Courtesy TMT International Observatory. Source:

Recent advances in genetic engineering have only intensified these concerns. An uninterrupted growing season and fertile soils have made the islands attractive to companies like Monsanto and Dupont, which spray experimental plantations with pesticides in an effort to develop toxin-resistant crop strains. These activities saturate otherwise prime agricultural soils with poisonous chemicals, and in amounts several times that applied by farms on the U.S. mainland. Area residents have experienced stinging eyes, an uptick in birth defects and cognitive disorders, and even elevated rates of cancer.[18] In 2002, moreover, University of Hawai’i scientists succeeded in developing and patenting three varieties of kalo, with scant regard for the contemporary descendants of Hāloa.[19] And there is of course the ongoing controversy over the University of Hawai’i led attempt to construct a thirty-meter telescope atop Mauna Kea in the face of widespread opposition from native Hawaiians, for whom the mountain is the sacred progeny of Wākea and Papahānaumoku, the Earth Mother. “Native invisibility,” historian Kyle T. Mays argues from a Black/Saginaw Anishinaabe perspective, “is part of the larger process of dispossession.”[20] Hinds, as we’ve seen, aided this process by omitting Kānaka Maoli from his published writings on Hawaiian natural history. For many colonial scientific institutions, such discriminations remain standard operating procedure.

These developments haven’t gone uncontested. Anticolonial resistance swelled with the onset of what is often called the Hawaiian Renaissance of the 1970s, when Kānaka Maoli worked to reclaim native Hawaiian culture from its exploitative tourist industry caricature. Kalo agriculture and poi preparation played a key role in this movement, and persist as highly symbolic political and ecological acts. The patenting controversy, which the Moloka’i activist Walter Ritte has termed a “second Māhele,” inspired a new wave of indigenous opposition. In 2003, the Ka ‘Aha Pono, or Native Hawaiian Intellectual Property Rights Conference, issued a declaration calling for the regulation of uses of indigenous knowledge and resources through consultation with Kānaka Maoli communities and belief systems – a position subsequently adopted by the Hawaiian state legislature.[21] Furthermore, intensive lobbying efforts, in which Kānaka Maoli have played a leading role, succeeded only days ago in winning a ban on the use of one of the most noxious agrochemical agents: chlorpyrifos, a potent neurotoxin manufactured by Dow Chemicals. As for the Mauna Kea telescope, Kānaka Maoli-led opposition achieved a stoppage in construction only last month. These are encouraging, and, what is more, palpably visible, victories in what has been a nearly 200-year struggle against state-sanctioned replacement on the land and marginalization within received histories of colonial science.

Community members gathered along Maunaloa Highway in solidarity with the Mauna Kea movement. Source: The Molokai Dispatch


[1]. Richard Brinsley Hinds, “Journal of Robert [sic] Brinsley Hinds, Assistant Surgeon, while at Hawaiian Islands with H.M.S. ‘Sulphur,’ July 8 to July 27, 1837, pp. 204-37 (Honolulu: Hawai’i State Archives, M-287): p. 207. E. Alison Kay transcribed and edited this manuscript as “The Sandwich Islands: From Richard Brinsley Hinds’ Journal of the Voyage of the ‘Sulphur’ (1836-1842),” Hawaiian Journal of History 2 (1968), pp. 102-35. Although I have relied on Kay’s transcription for general guidance, her transcription (in my opinion) differs from the original in several respects, so page number citations are from the archival copy. I am grateful to staff members at the Hawai’i State Archives for their assistance. The complete original manuscript resides at the Library and Archives of the Natural History Museum, London.

[2]. Edward Belcher, Narrative of a Voyage Round the World, performed in Her Majesty’s Ship Sulphur, during the years 1836-1842, 2 vols. (London: Henry Colburn, 1843), pp. v-viii.

[3]. Richard Brinsley Hinds, ed., The Botany of the Voyage of H.M.S. Sulphur [. . .(London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1844); Hinds, ed., The Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Sulphur, 2 vols. (London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1844).

[4]. Noenoe K. Silva, Aloha Betrayed: Native Hawaiian Resistance to American Colonialism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004), pp 32-9.

[5]. Hinds, “Journal,” p. 208.

[6]. Hinds, “Journal,” pp. 212-13.

[7]. Mascha Gugganig, “The Ethics of Patenting and Genetically Engineering the Relative Hāloa,” Ethnos 82:1 (2017), pp. 44-67, on p. 46.

[8]. Enrique Salmón, Eating the Landscape: American Indian Stories of Food, Identity, and Resilience (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2012), p. 21.

[9]. Patrick V. Kirch and Dana Lepofsky, “Polynesian Irrigation: Archaeological and Linguistic Evidence for Origins and Development,” Asian Perspectives 32:2 (1993), pp. 183-204, on pp. 188-9.

[10]. Hinds, “Journal,” pp. 213-14.

[11]. Theresa Kelley, Clandestine Marriage: Botany and Romantic Culture (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012), pp. 164-5.

[12]. Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples (Dunedin: University of Otago Press, 1999), pp. 26, 66; Patrick Brantlinger, Dark Vanishings: Discourse on the Extinction of Primitive Races, 1800-1930 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003), p. 66.

[13]. Hinds, “Journal,” p. 233.

[14]. Hinds, ed., Botany, pp. 178-9.

[15]. Hinds, ed., Zoology, p. 1.

[16]. See, for instance, Lydia Wevers, Country of Writing: Travel Writing in New Zealand, 1809-1900 (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2002), pp. 134-60; Eva Jean Prkachin, “Epistemological Inequality: Aboriginal Labor and Knowledge in the Geological Surveys of George Mercer Dawson, 1874-1901,” MA thesis (University of British Columbia, Vancouver, 2009), pp. 39-40; Jim Endersby, Imperial Nature: Joseph Hooker and the Practices of Victorian Science (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), pp. 106-7.

[17]. J. Kēhaulani Kauanui, Hawaiian Blood: Colonialism and the Politics of Sovereignty and Indigeneity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008), pp. 75-80.

[18]. Le’a Malia Kanehe, “Kū’ē Mana Māhele: The Hawaiian Movement to Resist Biocolonialism,” in A Nation Rising: Hawaiian Movements for Life, Land, and Sovereignty, ed. Noelani Goodyear-Ka’ōpua, Ikaika Hussey, and Erin Kahunawaika’ala Wright (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014), p. 341; R. H. Allen et al., “Breast cancer and pesticides in Hawaii: the need for further study,” Environmental Health Perspectives 105:3 (1997), pp. 679-83.

[19]. Gugganig, “Ethics,” p. 46; Kanehe, p. 336.

[20]. Kyle T. Mays, Hip Hop Beats, Indigenous Rhymes: Modernity and Hip Hop in Indigenous North America (Albany: SUNY Press, 2018), p. 33.

[21]. Gugganic, “Ethics,” pp. 48-9.

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