Alcoholism and itʻs Devastation on Native Hawaiians

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Alcoholism was one of the most destructive forces among Hawaiians including the ali’i. Western alcohol was particularly destructive because Polynesians (as well as most Pacific Islander and Native American peoples) did not have the certain genetic variations which produce the alcohol dehydrogenase enzymes that breaks down alcohol. In other words, Hawaiians had no tolerance for alcohol which made it that much more destructive and that much more addicting. 

Hawaiian rulers as early as Kamehameha I tried a variety of measures to curb alcohol but were mainly unsuccessful. Some of the monarchs–three in particular–themselves were known to be alcoholics and at times that affected their decision making. A lot of non-Hawaiians knew this because of their experience with Native Americans. During the time of Kamehameha I, chiefs were sometimes paid by merchants in gin and wine for food, supplies and women despite the fact that Kamehameha I made it illegal at some point for a chief to accept alcohol as a form of payment. Kamehameha I actually ended up giving up on making alcohol illegal and focused on means to controlling it’s flow. That was how bad the problem was even during those times. (The attached painting with the chief holding wine is from the time of Kamehameha I)

Now in comes the missionaries and the sweeping reforms of Kamehameha III. The missionaries discouraged alcohol because it was a waste of time and money. But many of the missionaries taught Hawaiians that Hawaiian culture was “uncivilized”. Hawaiian Christian converts, including Queen Ka’ahumanu, picked up and preached against hula, lua, etc. Hawaiians were told to relate to the Bible and to be time conscious. They were fined for not attending church. If you wanted a higher education, you needed to attend a Christian college or seminary. The ways of the past needed to be discredited and abandoned. 

When Kamehameha III came of age, not only was the culture dramatically changed but the entire political system. So in a span of 40 years, you went from traditional Hawaiian chiefdoms with chiefs wear feather regalia into a fully functioning Western-style democracy under a constitutional monarchy complete with politicians in top hats and suits. Within that same span, you also went from communal land ownership to private property rights and from an entirely Hawaiian political body into a multiracial polity. In many ways, Kamehameha III had no choice because of the way Western countries had been eating up Pacific countries. By self-Westernization, Hawaiians in power probably thought that was the only way to avoid full colonialism like what was going on in Tahiti and Aotearoa.

With the changes in government, also came the formalization of Hawai’i as a capitalist nation. Hawaiians needed to work, to trade and to build up capital. Chiefs felt the need to keep up with the Joneses so to speak. Hawaiians were told to wear dresses and wear Western attire. Nearly every important Christian mission had mission stores were Hawaiians could buy Bibles, clothes and household goods that “civilized” people should have. So right away you can see the relationship and profitability between Westernization and Christianization. As a reminder, this was the 19th century where there was no welfare or social security. In the UK during the same time period of Kamehameha III, 1 million Irish died in 5 years during the Irish Potato famine because the thinking was that poverty was a person’s own fault and was the natural order of balancing out things. So Kamehameha III’s new Western advisers and new Western trained Hawaiian Christian advisers had some of similar notions when it came to poverty and even treating diseases. These notions also filtered into the Chief’s Children School, where many of the noble children studied. 

On top of all of this, you had death. Massive death. Conservative numbers say that the Hawaiian population in 1778 was over 200,000. By 1887, 45,000 was left. King Kamehameha V and King Kalakaua used to get daily updates on diseases and death counts from the Board of Health telling them how many Hawaiians were dying. For King Kalakaua, there was a general and real fear of that the Hawaiian population would become extinct within a hundred years. Every Hawaiian in the 19th century lost family members to smallpox, measles Hansen’s disease and other epidemics. King Kalakaua himself lost two siblings to introduced diseases. 

So you had death stalking the Hawaiian nation and at the same time you had the cultural bomb represented by missionaries and capitalism, there would people who had no bond with the Hawaiian culture. There were would be people who suddenly became economically marginalized in the new order. There was of course resistance to all of these changes ranging from petitions to cult groups. But for the average Kanaka Maoli, the pressures to deal with all of these rapid changes must have been soul breaking. Alcohol became an addictive escape from the pain, sorrow, cultural confusion, and poverty for many Hawaiians. As mentioned previously, Hawaiians also had no genetic tolerance for alcohol and there were even sayings that by non-Hawaiians that the easiest way to swindle land from a native was to get him drunk. That’s actually how many Hawaiian families lost some of their lands. People who do not have a clear understanding of the 19th century and of how addiction works may not understand any of this If you are addicted to something, you’re going to do what it takes to get your fix. In the 19th century, there also was no support groups and no Alcoholics Anonymous–you went to jail or went to church and prayed a lot to recover. So stealing artifacts or selling family ancestral to get money to buy more drinks shouldn’t be surprising. It should be a learning lesson on the tragedy that still affects our Hawaiian community today in one way or another.

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