05 December 2011

Book Review: Colonizing Hawaii

Sally Engle Merry is a professor of Anthropology at New York University. She wrote this book over a decade ago regarding how the cultural power of law transformed native Hawaiian understandings of sexuality and gender.

I can't tell you how many books I've read in my life where there are claims that colonialism remakes gender and sexuality in its image upon the bodies of the natives. Ngugi wo Thiongo's famous quote from Decolonizing the Mind, for example, states: "the night of the sword and the bullet were followed by the morning of the chalk and blackboard."

It's something that is so obvious. Yet, it is an area that is woefully understudied and under analyzed. I have reviewed a few of books that in various ways scratch the surface. Merry, however, goes right to the heart of it. She goes through meticulously how the cultural significance of the law and religion were used, in a series of historical accidents almost, by those in power that created the conditions upon which the law courts of the Hawaiian kingdom became the ultimate site where native Hawaiians would end up if they could not conform to the colonial understandings of sexuality and gender.

When the law courts weren't forcing immigrant laborers back into their slave-like conditions, they were convicting native Hawaiians on adultery prosecutions. Through this process, sexuality and gender were regulated until the new rules of gender and sexuality and privacy and concealment and shame were firmly in place. Then, the adultery prosecutions disappeared. There is also an extended look at how a patriarchal American system of law dealt with spousal violence and the role of women in the ideal colonized family.

One of the benefits of Merry's work is that both the colonizer and the colonized in Hawai'i were adamant and diligent writers documenting anything and everything. In the Philippines, however, we have primarily the Spanish and mestizo elite who wrote and as Neil Garcia and others have noted, the written record is woefully inadequate which would make Merry's method significantly more difficult for sexuality studies in the Philippines. Filomeno Aguilar Hr was able to use scant written record to construct the colonization of Negros in the late 19th and early 20th century -- but the discussion on cockfighting and spirituality can hardly be considered a meaningful inquiry into gender and sexuality.

The version I read was a 364 page paperback published by Princeton University Press (December 21, 1999), ISBN-13: 978-0691009322. It is written in English. The lowest price I found online was used at amazon.com.

No comments:

Post a Comment