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In Anahulu, Sahlins argues that the Hawaiian people were not passive victims of their own history but rather the authors and that they played a significant role in the collapse of the ancient system of an all-powerful divine monarchy.

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In Anahulu, Sahlins argues that the Hawaiian people were not passive victims of their own history but rather the authors and that they played a significant role in the collapse of the ancient system of an all-powerful divine monarchy. He emphasises that Hawaii did not simply capitulate and disregard their outlook on the universe when faced with the all-powerful western civilization. Rather Sahlins claims that the islands’ ruling powers accommodated the western forces within their own mythology and where they might have visibly adopted western practices – for example the establishment of Christianity – this was only made possible by assimilating it with their traditional customs. In addition to this, the nature of the indigenous cosmology greatly amplified the effects of capitalism on the islands – an encouraged revelry in overt excess had a detrimental effect on both the inhabitants and the environment of the islands. The old order is constantly present throughout the seismic shifts in Hawaiian life that follow the appearance of the ‘Haole’ - not always explicitly, but as Sahlins states (p35) ‘the O’ahu order was present as a structural condition.

In order to fully comprehend the author’s assertion, it is important to consider his theoretical background and place his work in an intellectual context. Sahlins is considered a neo-structuralist. Structuralism is an intellectual movement that stems most directly from the works of Ferdinand de Saussure and Roman Jakobson which principally argues that units of meaning in language are constituted as a system of differences, each unit therefore not having inherent value but rather achieving value thanks to its distinctiveness from other units of the system.

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The image that the author creates is one of a living structure which is constantly striving to get back to a perfect state in which its components a defined in the relationship and opposition other aspects of the system. The system defines the way in which the Hawaiian people view the world and so when faced with the arrival of Captain Cook they have no other possible way of dealing with him than fitting him within their own system – thus he was the return of Lono who would not leave and therefore has to be killed by Ku to restore harmony.

It is in this same manner, Sahlins argues, that the subsequent dealings with the outside world took place. In a key section (p35) Sahlins argues that the whilst Kamehameha I was still viewed by the people of O’ahu as a foreign Maui usurper for much of the 1790s (before a period of stability and peace effectively Lono-ized him from approx. 1804 onwards (p36)) then the authorities were powerless to halt the advance of the haole. Sahlins continues that this was not due solely to a ‘collective unconscious’ amongst the Hawaiian people but that whilst carrying out poorly rewarded work for the present-day authorities they came into contact with landmarks directly associated with the benevolent indigenous leaders and brought their plight into sharp contrast. This is a clear demonstration of the Oahuan ideological structure informing the actions of the Waialuan people and showing that they at least played a significant role in their own history.  

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What though were the motives of the ali’I? For Boki it was kudos through accumulation of wealth and for Ka’ahumanu although she saw short-term reward in the justification of her power, she surely did not comprehend the missionaries’ full motives – a national religion independent of state rule - and their fickle unity. Along with this we see Liholiho seeking legitimacy in England but only finding death. This comes together to draw a picture of an exploited naïve indigenous power.

So while Sahlins argues convincingly that the Hawaiians played a significant role in their own demise it must be noted that they were blind authors, who had saw no choice but to react to the changes enforced on them in the way they did.  

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