INTERVIEW: David Stannard


Scholarly books seldom get much public notice. But last April when UH's Social Science Research Institute published "Before the Horror: The Population of Hawaii on the Eve of Westem Contact" the book rapidly sold out its initial printing of more than 1, 000 copies. It generated newspaper reviews and angry letters to the editor, stirring up a controversy that's still simmering in Hawaiian historical circles.

A highly technical demographic study would hardly seem incendiary enough to ignite public controversy. But its author, UH American Studies professor David Stannard, makes some startling claims that, if true, will force us to revise our cozy and perhaps sentimental views of the Hawai'i that existed before Captain Cook happened upon the Islands in 1778 -- and also to come to grips with the destruction visited upon native Hawaiians by Western contact.

For more than a century, the population of Hawaii when Cook arrived was presumed to be 100,000 to 300,000 people. The first published estimate was made by one of Cook's lieutenants, James King, who set the population of Hawai'i at 400,000. Most scholars felt King's estimate was too high.

Not so, argues Stannard, King's 400,000 estimate was too low by half. King, a careful observer, explained the assumptions on which his estimate was based. In the most powerful part of his book, Stannard simply demolishes those assumptions, point by point.

Stannard's critique of earlier estimates seems to have convinced the scholars. Says University of California anthropology professor Patrick Kirch, author of a number of works on ancient Hawaii, "I was prepared not to like the book, but I found myself agreeing with a whole lot of it. Stannard's done his homework." Adds professor Ann Ramenofsky of LSU: "Stannard's analysis of King's estimate is simply elegant." UH anthropologist Terry Hunt insists, "The book has made a valuable contribution -- unquestionably."

Once he destroys the low estimates, Stannard constructs his own. Hawaii -- he says -- had 800,000 to 1 million native Hawaiians in 1778, half of whom were dead 25 years later from the syphilis, tuberculosis and other diseases they caught from Cook's crewmembers. A century (and numerous epidemics) later, less than 50,00O Hawaiians remained. That "great dying" is the horror to which Stannard refers in his title.

According to Dr. Francis Black, professor of epidemiology at Yale's School of Medicine, Stannard's view of the horror of Western diseases is entirely reasonable. One reason we tend to underestimate the indigenous populations all over the world is our reluctance to believe what seems unbelievable. It's hard to imagine that much loss."

Stannard did not convince everyone, of course. State statistician Bob Schmitt insists that given the absence of data, "No one knows or will ever know the population of pre-contact Hawai'i." Others would like more archaeological evidence before confirming Stannard's claim that there were 800,000 Hawaiians.

LSU's Ramenofsky is not surprised by the furor Stannard's book has generated: "His tone is aggressive. And paleodemography is a difficult field. More scholarly blood has dripped on this topic than any other.

Stannard is unrepentant for his book or the aggressive way he takes on his critics. To him, "Before the Horror" is only a minor, technical part of a larger work he's writing for Oxford University Press. For the first time, he claims, that work will give an accurate and unflinching look at what happened to Hawaiians after Western contact. When that work finally appears, it will no doubt plunge Stannard once again into controversy.

Stannard, 48, grew up in New Jersey and did his undergraduate work at San Francisco State during the height of the anti- war and civil rights movements. He earned two master's degrees and his doctorate at Yale, where he taught for four years. In 1979 he joined the UH faculty. In addition to "Before the Horror," he has written two other books. "The Puritan Way of Death" and "Shrinking History."

Stannard serves as a political commentator for a public access TV show called "First Friday, the Unauthorized News" (Oceanic channel 20). And he was head of the collective bargaining team that recently won the UH facully a 36 percent raise. This interview took place in a seminar room on the UH Manoa campus, where Stannard has won a medal for his distinguished teaching.


HONOLULU: Your book claims that in 1778, when Captain Cook came to Hawaii, the population of the Islands was nearly as large as it is today. That seems incredible.

STANNARD: Seen superficially, yes, it does. People react: Look how crowded 0'ahu is now. Its density is greater than metropolitan Detroit's. We have high-rises, all these traffic jams. It couldn't have possibly been like this in pre-1778 days.

And, of course, it wasn't. The population was distributed differently. Eighty percent of the population now lives on 0'ahu, mostly in Honolulu. But if you take the northern half of 0'ahu-where there are essentially no towns other than Hale'iwa, and a vast inland area that's virtually unpopulated-if you take the population density there and spread it out evenly among all the islands, it would total over 800,000. So an 800,000 population is not necessarily crowded, if you intelligently distribute it instead of jamming it all into one place.

HONOLULU: The only estimte that we have that's based on first-hand knowledge was from James King, who sailed with Cook and who estimated the population at about 400,000. Why, 200 years later, are you second guessing someone who was actually here in 1778?

STANNARD: King didn't take a census. He simply extrapolated an estimate from his own limited knowledge. The population of Hawaii at that time was concentrated on the windward coasts of the islands. Which makes perfectly good sense because that's where the fresh water is. King, along with Cook and all the other people who sailed in those two ships, could not approach the windward coasts of any of the islands, because of the winds and the currents. At every one of their stops, they stopped at a dry leeward area, where the population may have been relatively large compared to inland areas, but was nothing like it would have been on the windward coasts of the islands. We have to make some adjustments for that

King also assumed one-quarter of all the coastline in the Islands was uninhabited. And he thought that no one lived inland. Wrong on both counts.

HONOLULU: You think King's estimate was too low. Most scholars believe King exaggerated. that the real population was as little as 250,000 or even 100,000. Why are your figures so much higher?

STANNARD: Most scholars used to believe that the population was lower. But the evidence of the reviews-not the journalistic reviews, but the scholarly ones-is that Before the Horror has essentially changed that perspective. I don't think anybody accepts the low estimates any longer.

The question now is: How high are the numbers? Not everyone accepts my 800,000 figure, but there's no doubt the number is way over 400,000. The question now is how much over 400,000? Henry Dobyns at the Newberry Library's American Indian center, who's the single most important scholar in the history of native American population, has written to me to say he thinks my estimate is too low. Alfred Crosby at the University of Texas, who has written a very important book called Ecological Imperiaism about just these sorts of topics, has written to me saying, "The only problem I can find with your book was, why wasn't the population larger than you estimate?" He thinks I'm too conservative.

You cannot expect that there will be immediate capitulation to an argument as laden with cultural and political controversy as this is. After all, the debate on the size of the American Indian populations has been going on for more than 30 years. However, over time the terms of the debate have changed dramatically. Thirty years ago, it was felt that the native population of North and South America was no more than 8 million to 10 million. Then Dobyns demonstrated that it was 100 million to 110 million. There's still debate, but now the low end of the debate is around 70 million. I think that's what will happen with my work. There will continue to be quibbling, but it will be about whether the population was 700,000 or 900,000 or 1 million. The lower numbers are going to be left in the wake.

HONOLULU: Why then did everyone accept the lower numbers for nearly 200 years?

STANNARD: Scholars, like anybody else, get in a rut. No one has really ever taken a serious look at this stuff. They've simply been repeating what everybody else said. We needed to bring the past 20 or 30 years of progress in demographic history to bear on Hawaii. The new methodologies are being applied now in Australia. but other parts of the Pacific remain the way Hawaii has been--in a sort of slumber for the past century and a half.

HONOLULU: We know there were less than 50,000 Hawaiians a century after Cook arrived. If there were 860,000 Hawaiians to start with, what happened to all of them?

STANNARD: A holocaust occurred. For 2,000 years Hawaiians lived apart from the rest of the world. Like the American Indians and like other Pacific islanders, they lived in isolation from Europe and Asia, the great continents in which disease festered and people developed immunities to them. The Hawaiians had no immunities to these diseases.

They were like that boy in the bubble of a few years ago, who had to be kept in a plastic bubble because contact with the outside world would have been devastating to him. Hawaiians were an extraordinarily strong and healthy people who lived in a bubble, a kind of bubble that was a paradise in many respects. Obviously, they were human beings: There was greed, there was anger, there was hate, there was fighting. But given the range of worlds that human beings can live in, it was as close to a paradise as I think we are likely to get.

But when that bubble was penetrated by ships laden with people who carried an armada of diseases-diseases that they themselves could live with-it destroyed the Hawaiians who simply had no defenses to diseases like syphilis and tuberculosis, not to mention diseases like mumps and measles that we shrug off as childhood illnesses.

HONOLULU: Such a massive die-off must have ripped the society apart.

STANNARD: Of course. It's not just the great dying, it's the effect that the dying has on everything else. The Black Death in Europe has never ceased to fascinate historians, not so much because of the great numbers that died, but because of the social, religious and cultural effects. All hell broke loose in Europe in response to the Black Death.

HONOLULU: What attracted you to such a grim topic?

STANNARD: I was inspired by my politics, by a particular event that occurred, to write a book about the cultural, social and political consequences of the great dying in Hawai'i. Before the Horror was an unintentional spin-off. Before I discussed those consequences, I needed to find out just how bad the dying was. I thought it would take maybe three pages. Then it became an article, the article grew into a monograph and so forth, because I was stunned at the inadequacy of the previous estimates. Now I'm back to writing the larger book.

HONOLULU: Your work was inspired by a particular event?

STANNARD: Some years ago I watched the police evict the remaining Hansen's Disease patients from Hale Mohalu. I was there with a lot of other people simply as a witness. I stood there on that hillside at 5 a.m., looking down at these men being dragged through the mud and left lying in the dirt for the paddy wagon to take them away, these people who had no fingers, who were horribly scarred and deformed by this disease that had been brought more than 100 years earlier by migrants from another part of the world. They were being thrown out of the house they had been given to live in to make way for whatever [former] Governor Ariyoshi was planning for that area.

I remember thinking, somebody has to write about this. Not just about this particular event, but this event as a microcosm of what happened to the Hawaiian people--first, imported diseases, then eviction from the land they had lived on for so long.

HONOLULU: I called a few professors at Mainland universities who'd reviewed your book. They-said basically the same thing: The most solid part of your work comes when you demolish the traditional wisdom on this subject But even though everyone agrees with your questions, not everyone agrees with your answers. It's possible there were as many as 1 million pre-contact Hawaiians but that part of your work is largely speculation--playing with numbers, as one archaeologist put it.

STANNARD: It's always easier to knock something down than it is to build something up. The old estimate is now dead and buried. However, we have to have an estimate. Scholars have to have some sense of what happened, how many people lived in Hawaii before 1778, because it's crucial to our understanding of Hawaiian society at that time. So my book is the first of those new estimates.

HONOLULU: The only way you couid really be absolutely certain what the population of Hawaii was in 1778 would be to get into a time machine, go back and count.

STANNARD: That's right.

HONOLULU: But since you can't do that. isn't this whole controversy composed entirely of empty academic theorizing like the medieval arguments about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

STANNARD I have a problem with the phrase empty academic theorizing. As if somehow theory is just something you make up. That's the way many laymen view scholarly work. The theory of evolution? Well, that's just Darwin's idea. Or the theory of relativity-that's just Einstein's idea. Theory is a fusion of an enormous body of facts and the most rigorous logical perspectve you can bring to those facts. Theory is really the glue that holds knowledge together.

HONOLULU: Yes, but what difference does it make now how many people were in Hawaii 200 years ago?

STANNARD: It matters first of all to the affected people themselves. It matters to Jews whether 1 million or 6 million people died in the Holocaust. How many people died in Nagasaki and Hiroshima matters to the Japanese. How many American men died in Vietnam matters to Americans. How many people lived in Hawaii in 1778 and died as a result of the subsequent bacteriological invasion matters to Hawaiians.

But it matters to scholars as well. Because how many people inhabited an area tells you something about the entire social system of that area. The Hawaiians had to have had a sophisticated system of social organization and resource distribution to have taken care of that many people.

Ultimately, that's why its important to all of us today--especially to Hawaiians. For the most part, the writing of Hawaiian history has been in the hands of the haoles who have systematically degraded the Hawaiian past and elevated the haole past. And that created a sense of inferiority among Hawaiians and of smug superiority among haoles--neither of which was justified.

HONOLULU: In your book, you quote Captain Cook's surgeon, William Anderson, about the introduction of syphilis to Tonga: The injury these people receiv'd from us by communicating this certain destroyer of mankind is not to be repaird by any method whatever... The man who has rob'd, murder'd and been guilty of all the Catalogue of human crimes is innocent when compar'd to the one who did such a thing knowingly.

Are you implying that European explorers deliberately introduced diseases to these isolated Pacific communities?

STANNARD: I would not contend that they introduced diseases in the same way that smallpox-infected blankets may have been given to some American Indians. They did not come intending to destroy the people. However, they came with an extraordinarily irresponsible willingness to let tens of thousands of people die from contact with them--because they knew that was going to happen. That's the point: Anderson knew what was happening, he was a surgeon, he was very close to Cook. so Cook knew what was happening. And remember: Anderson wrote those words 18 months before Cook's men came ashore in Hawai'i.

HONOLULU: But you're not contending it was deliberate genocide?

STANNARD: Genocide occurred, that is, the mass killing of an ethnically identifiable people. Whether it was murder or whether it was manslaughter might be worth arguing about.

HONOLULU: Couldn't it have been an inevitable microbiological tragedy?

STANNARD: Thats what culpable people say about blame that is placed at their doorstep: I couldn't do anything about it. That's what happened in Germany, right? I didn't know what was going on, I just lived down the street from Auschwitz.

People need to be held responsible for their moral decisions. I'm a lot less interested in whether or not Captain Cook is culpable--Captain Cook is long dead. I'm more interested in how what happened is understood by people today--because the history of Hawaii is an example of a colonial society that rewrites the history of the indigenous people. It exculpates responsibility for the first white people who got here. You won't find an article or a book by the best scholars that mentions Cook and the introduction of syphilis that doesn't say, "Cook tried very hard, however, to keep his men from going ashore." They have to put that in there, they have to get him off the hook somehow, because there is a desire on the part of the colonizing people to evade responsibility for what happened.

HONOLULU: Could that be the motivation for underestimating the population at the time of contact?

STANNARD: Yes. There's a pattem that exists in colonizers' history of colonized people, whether it's American Indians or South African Blacks. These histories always start by saying there were very few people there before the coming of the whites. It's a way of evading responsibility for what happened to those people--there weren't many to begin with. The second thing is--the few people who were there were savages who benefited from our coming. We civilized them. You'll hear that over and over again. That attitude is at work in the low population estimates in Hawaii--not necessarilv consciously, but it's part of a culture that degrades the Hawaiian past routinelv.

HONOLULU: So you're saying all the histories written about Hawaii are wrong?

STANNARD: The first histories were written by missionaries. And the missionaries simply lied. They made things up. Since their work was supposed to be converting savages, they needed to find in Hawaii savage people to convert. If you can write to your headquarters in Boston or London and say you have located horribly savage people and then within a few years they are all rallying round the cross, the success of your mission is unquestionable.

That accounts for some of the more outlandish notions about Hawaiian society that continue to resonate not only in works of the popular imagination, but works of scholarship. Such as the notion that prior to the coming of the West, infanticide was epidemic in Hawai'i--people routinely killed their babies. There is not one single shred of evidence for that, and there is copious evidence to contradict it. But it made its way into the missionary works and has never gotten out of even the most serious scholarship.

I'd like to use an image here-it's pretty rough, but I think it tells the tale. The horror of Westem contact was not just the great dying, but what happened afterward. It's as if a beautiful young virgin was raped by a syphilitic old lecher who isn't content to destroy her, but afterward begins to make up stories suggesting that she asked for it, that she wasn't a virgin at all, she was a whore. That's the history that was written on top of the horrible bacteriological assault that took place. The injury was the bacteriological attack, but the insult is the history that's been written afterward that trivialized the Hawaiian past and invented a savagery for them that did not exist.

HONOLULU: You say at the conclusion of Before the Horror that this subject has powerful social and political ramifications. Like what?

STANNARD: History can have an insidious effect on people. If a people don't have access or education or training to pursue their history themselves--if they believe, because after all, all the experts tell them this, that their ancestors were baby killers, delighted in human sacrifice, were poor, filthy, and malnourished, then they are going to feel ashamed of their past. Hawaiian history is a classic example of that.

It's time to take a fresh look, not just at the population figures but also at the entire historical picture. That will have consequences not just for Hawaiians, but for those people who continue today to think that the best thing that ever happencd to Hawaiians was the coming of white people. That it's unfortunate if 95 percent of the population died, but after all, in the long run it was better for those who survived. That's outrageously bad and racist history which needs to be challenged and has not yet been challenged effectively.

HONOLULU: In your book you use the term pre-haole to refer to Hawaii before Cook arrived rather than the more usual pre-contact. Some readers have seen that as a kind of racist subtext.

STANNARD: Built into the phrase precontact is an implicit assumption that all of the history of people of color is divided into two periods-before and after the coming of white people. The period before the coming of white people is usually shriveled down to a paragraph or two. The 35,000 years of American Indian history might make the preface of a book on American history. All the rest is an inflated picture of the subsequent 200 years. The same thing has happened in Hawaii. The "great divide" is the coming of the white people. That elevates white society and white culture to a position that it does not necessarily deserve.

This sensitivity to the word haole is of very recent vintage-it's a response to Hawaiian cultural assertiveness. Wbat's going on is classic: white people are happy to define others, but outraged at having other people define them.

HONOLULU: There's a contentious element in your work-not only in Before the Horror, but also your previous book, Shrinking History. Are you at your best when you're bashing an opponent?

STANNARD: No. I believe that scholarship should not be mushy. Some of the scholars I admire most are British philosophers. If you've ever read a British journal of philosophy, they have at each other with great vigor. I believe that scholarship, historical scholarship in particular, advances best when the swords are well sharpened.

HONOLULU: You can be abrasive. The Advertiser's Bob Krauss wrote a largely favorable review of Before the Horror, but you and your publisher and one of your sources all wrote letters denouncing him bitterly.

STANNARD: Bob Krauss reviewing this book was like Erma Bombeck reviewing a book on brain surgery. Erma Bombeck is fine at what she does. Bob Krauss is fine at what he does. But a book like this deserves to be evaluated ultimately by people who are qualified to evaluate it.

Now, that may sound--

HONOLULU: Arrogant?

STANNARD: Let me put it this way. You can't write an argumentative work without expecting some very critical reviews. The question is whether or not the review is competent, sticks to the facts or attempts to score points by being insulting. Talk about abrasive, Krauss compared me to Frank Fasi.

HONOLULU: He called you "the Frank Fasi of American Studies." But you got in a few shots yourself. You said Krauss was either "willfully dishonest" or "had waded in beyond his intellectual depth."

STANNARD: Something has to be said, I think, sharply, when Krauss pulls the kind of stunt he did. He called an archaeologist, Tom Dye of Hawaii Loa College, on the phone, and asked him to comment on something I did not say. Then he reports in an article that reaches a couple of hundred thousand people--

HONOLULU: About 100,000.

STANNARD: Whatever. Krauss then reports that Dye disagrees with what the book says. But Dye didn't disagree with the book--he hadn't read it yet. He disagreed only with Krauss's garbled account of what the book said. But Krauss felt free to use that bit of disinformation to damage the reputation of the writer of the book under review.

My point was simply, maybe--maybe--Krauss didn't understand what the book said. So it's a question of whether he intentionally twisted what it said or whether he didn't understand it. And if he didn't understand, that means he was out of his depth. So I meant what I said in a descriptive, not a provocative, way.

HONOLULU: What did you do about the Maui News review that called vour book "a nasty piece of work"?

STANNARD: I have received over the years more than 100 reviews of my books. Some have been favorable, some have made me angry. But that one was the single most ignorant. irresponsible, dishonest review that I have ever received of anything that I've ever written. Whv bother to reply?

HONOLULU: Your book has some harsh words for state statistician Bob Schmitt whose work is generally respected.

STANNARD: Schmitt and I clearly disagree on our population estimates. although I have hope that he's moving in my direction on this issue. Otherwise, I have admiration for his work. Whenever I've called him, he's been quite generous with his time. I know he's recommended that people read the book--which he doesn't agree with--because it has something new to say. I have everv reason to consider him a generous and honest and honorable person.

HONOLULU: It's fairly common knowledge that you and [noted Hawaiian activist and professor] Haunani-Kay Trask are living together. How has she influenced your view of Hawaiian history?

STANNARD: We've been together for about nine years. Of course, she's had an influence on me, the same way that I have had an influence on her. Two people who are close for that period of time and both of whom live in the world of ideas are going to influence one another. However, one of the things that attracted us to each other was the similarity of our ideas. I have always, since the time I was a teenager, been involved in various political activities--civil rights demonstrations, anti-war demonstrations, and so on. My politics have always been frankly left.

HONOLULU: So you're committed to the cause of Hawaiian nationalism.

STANNARD: Yes--as an outsider. Oppressed people need first of all to run their own show. It's their struggle. I am available for whatever help or expertise I can offer. But after I'm finished, I'm going home and wait for them to call again. I am supportive of Hawaiian nationalism. But implicit in that phrase is Hawaiians making the decisions and not some haole who has some experience in the civil rights movement.

HONOLULU: Isn't it difficult for a scholar to be politically committed and still be objective enough to write good history?

STANNARD: No. In fact, I think it's the opposite. All of the great historical scholars that I can think of who have written about controversial subjects were themselves committed to one side of that struggle. Slavery is probably the greatest stain on the American historical experience. The best historians of slavery, and I mean the best not from my political perspective but from the quality of their work--David Brion Davis, Herbert Gutman, Eugene Genovese, Orlando Patterson--they're all people who are (or were) committed to the black struggle for justice and equality.

Anybody who writes history out of idle curiosity is going to write lousy history. On the other hand, anybody who allows political passion to overwhelm his commitment to seeking truth as best he can find it, is going to be writing dishonest history. So I would say that political commitment is essential to moving a writer through the subject. But it must always be tempered with a commitment to tell the truth.

copyright 1989 John Heckathorn / Honolulu Magazine
used with permission