Roughing It | Study Guide

Mark Twain

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Roughing It | Chapters 67–71 | Summary



Chapter 67

Mark Twain tells more of the customs and institutions of Hawaii, beginning with its government. The national legislature is composed mostly of native islanders with a handful of white men, and it has as its president the king's father, His Royal Highness M. Kekuanaoa. This 80-year-old man was a warrior under Kamehameha I before the missionaries arrived, and he followed the old taboos and worshipped the old gods and idols. "And now look at him," Twain marvels," an educated Christian; neatly and handsomely dressed; a high-minded, elegant gentleman; a traveler." Kekuanaoa became royalty through marriage to Kamehameha's daughter.

Though the people have now been "Christianized," many still make offerings to the Great Shark God during difficult times (such as during a volcanic eruption). Many still believe old superstitions, such as the idea that an enemy can "pray you to death," notes Twain. Both men and women used to have multiple spouses (polygamy), a practice that is no longer followed. In the past, women were confined to strict gender roles (do the housework, make the food) and were restricted by taboos from eating with their husbands, consuming certain fruits, and so on. Twain states that the missionaries "liberated woman and made her the equal of man," as well as putting a stop to infanticide when their families had become too large. Islanders today still retain the ability to "lie down and die whenever they want to," asserts Twain. In rural Hawaii, young women often bathe naked in the sea or streams. Nakedness was common before the missionaries, who gave the women robes to wear and "begged the people not to come to church naked." The people started wearing clothes, but incorrectly—a shirt with no pants, a robe slung over the shoulder, a hat and gloves and nothing else. Men would wear ladies' bonnets and women would wear men's shirts, for the articles were all foreign to them.

Twain then names the various people associated with the king, noting that Hawaii plays "empire" like children play house. The king lives in a two-story "palace," and the royal family gets around by horse or on foot, like everyone else. Several royal appointees, such as the royal Chamberlain, the Commander in Chief of the Household Troops, the royal Steward, the Grand Equerry in Waiting, and the First Gentleman of the Bedchamber do very little official work. Other positions with more responsibility are the Prime Minister (a pompous lawyer from New Hampshire), the Imperial Minister of Finance, and the Minister of War. Many other officeholders are named, with brief descriptions of some of their duties. Each such officer has a unique court costume to wear to official functions, which are so loud and colorful Twain says they surpass circus clowns.

Chapter 68

Twain witnesses the funeral of the king's sister, Princess Victoria, a grand affair. A printed program for the procession lists the participants, including several schools, a fire department, royal appointees, military companies, servants, clergy, government officials, and others. The royal family follow the princess's hearse in carriages. When the procession arrives at the royal mausoleum, the crowd wails and honorary rounds of ammunition are fired, and a very few mourners are allowed to enter the mausoleum along with the coffin. The king is the first to come out again, and he is treated with great deference by all.

Twain compares the princess's funeral to that of Kamehameha, who died fifty years prior in 1819 before the arrival of the missionaries. One account tells how three hundred dogs were sacrificed "in lieu of human victims," and how the king's burial site was lost or forgotten in due time. Another account tells of his sickness and death and the customs observed surrounding it. A special house was built for his recovery, but he continued to worsen. The king was encouraged to turn to a certain bird god, Pua, for renewed health, but this too failed. He could no longer eat, and at last his ministers ask for his final advice. He is too weak to speak, but bids them farewell and dies later that day. One of the chiefs proposes that they eat his body, but one of his widows reserves the body for his son, the next king, Liholiho. The body is moved to a special house reserved for such rites, where a sacred feast is offered to the dead king. A priest announces the rules for human sacrifices that may be offered in his honor, which may be up to 40 men. Then, they decide where the new king will take up a new residence, for he cannot stay where the old king died. The people mourn, and Liholiho departs by canoe for his new residence. Twain then explains that after a royal person's death during that era, the people would enjoy several days of lawless saturnalia. Violence and injuries, drunkenness, burning of houses, murders, and sexual indulgence would follow, practices that Twain finds horrifying.

Chapter 69

Twain sails from Honolulu to the Big Island aboard a small schooner. He stays in a tiny, dark cabin that has access to a deck that is reserved for "quality folks." The native islanders cram onto a separate deck, where they lay on the deck amidst their dogs and blankets and fleas and smoke and socialize. A rooster on board crows most of the night and keeps Twain awake, and he finds enormous cockroaches on his pillow. He tries to sleep on the floor, but more cockroaches and a rat pester him, and then he finds there are now fleas, too. He gives up sleep and goes up on deck where he is rewarded by the beautiful sight of the moon glittering on the sea. The wind and the sea foam are exhilarating as the boat cuts through the waves. The boat arrives and Twain catches his first glimpse of the incredibly tall Mauna Loa mountain and its icy summit. He and some companions go ashore at Kailua to make a horseback journey across the island. They will meet the boat again in another location. They ride through a dense, enchanting tropical rainforest and then pass a thousand-tree orange grove, the trees loaded with fruit. Next they pass several sugar plantations, where the land produces around two tons of sugar per acre—far more than plantations in Louisiana and other sugar-growing locales.

Chapter 70

The riding party stops at a plantation where they encounter a strange, middle-aged preacher named Simon Erickson, whom the locals say is crazy. The deluded man breaks into their conversation to tell an unbelievable story in which Horace Greeley is responsible for starting a war in Italy. The preacher also believes Queen Victoria has corresponded with him regarding the matter. He proceeds to tell how a Mrs. Beazeley had written him a letter regarding her son William, who was obsessed with growing turnips in the form of climbing vines. The boy's health was suffering, and he had become depressed because he had failed to achieve a vine-growing turnip. Mrs. Beazeley asked the preacher to write to Mr. Greeley for advice on how to make the turnip grow in vines, so he did. Greeley wrote back a completely illegible, nonsensical response, which the preacher tries for days to decipher. At last he decides he is offended by the letter and he writes again to Greeley to tell him so. Greeley writes back with a legible copy of the original letter, which does indeed address the original question (the answer: turnips cannot grow on vines). Unfortunately, the boy has died by this time, buried "with a turnip in each hand."

Chapter 71

That afternoon, the riding party crosses an old field of lava which has hardened impressions of coconut trees that fell into the original lava flow and were burned up. They then come to Kealakekua Bay, where the famous Captain Cook was killed by native islanders. They pass beneath a beautiful double rainbow and view a wall of lava more than 1,000 feet high. Some native islanders still believe the god Lono descends this wall to earth at times. As the sun sets, Twain stands near the shore on the stone where Cook was killed, trying to imagine his death at the hands of "fifteen thousand maddened savages." Mark Twain notes that, according to historical records, Cook probably deserved his death, for he took advantage of the natives' kindness and betrayed their trust. Cook encouraged them to think he was their god Lono "for the sake of the limitless power it gave him." He then killed at least three of the people and wounded several others. The natives soon discovered that he was only a mortal man, and they executed him in wrath, stripping and burning his flesh and hanging his heart on display. The stump of a coconut tree is the only monument that commemorates the spot. By midnight, the party's ship has arrived in the bay, and they reboard and fall asleep on deck beneath the moon.


Twain visits Hawaii (the "Sandwich Islands") nearly 100 years before it becomes a state (1959), and it is truly a foreign country to him. His attitude toward the native islanders has a colonial overtone to it that many readers today find distasteful. His regular use of the word "savage" dehumanizes the population and makes them a mere curiosity for tourists to gawk at and judge. It seems that Twain feels superior to the "Kanakas." For example, in Chapter 69, he calls the non-native passengers aboard the schooner "quality folks," as opposed to the regular native island passengers. Twain also thinks Hawaii's modest "empire" is laughable. The army and navy are small, the government budgets and salaries are low, and he finds the number, titles, and comportment of government officials ridiculous (such as their clownish costumes). He disparages the ancient customs of the people, mocks their nakedness and ignorance of clothing, and finds their beliefs and superstitions downright silly (for example, the notion that an enemy can "pray you to death"). Twain's stance on missionaries seems much clearer in these chapters, as he praises them for bringing civilization to the islands. His description of His Royal Highness Kekuanaoa is a good example of this; Twain characterizes him as a once-savage warrior who is now a well-dressed, educated, Christian legislator.

The funerals Twain writes about bring the theme of death to the forefront again. He takes an anthropological interest in Princess Victoria's funeral, describing its various features, attendees, and customs. While the funeral procession certainly has a local flavor to it, it doesn't seem much different from state and royal processions elsewhere in the world. The comparison with Kamehameha's death and funeral allows Twain to relate many former customs that are no longer in practice, such as the sacrifice of human victims. Tabu (taboo) is an important concept in Chapter 68, which Twain defines as "prohibition or sacred." A broader definition is that a taboo is an act that is forbidden, often (but not always) for sacred reasons. There are numerous local taboos that Twain shares from Kamehameha's time, such as the king not being allowed to eat in the room where he sleeps. Twain also mentions taboos women formerly had to follow, such as not eating with their husbands (Chapter 67). Twain then writes about cannibalism and the "saturnalia" periods that once followed a royal death, sensational topics probably meant to titillate the reader.

Chapter 70 offers a bit of humor through the character of Simon Erickson, an odd man with an even more bizarre story. His repeated mistranslations of Greeley's letter are indeed humorous, as is the fact that he takes offense at the letter by his own error—he has hugely misinterpreted the letter's language. This anecdote could serve as commentary on common sense, of which neither William nor his mother seem to have any. But it also shows the danger of being away from home for too long—Twain may be starting to feel the danger himself. This happens again in Chapter 71 with the sensational story of Captain Cook's death at the hands of the native islanders. Twain shows more fair-mindedness toward the natives here than previously. He concludes that Cook got what he deserved for tricking them and impersonating a god, not to mention killing and injuring several of the islanders.

One element of Hawaii that Twain can't fault is its landscape, which he consistently finds beautiful and inspiring. It is easy for the reader to visualize the fragrant, tropical sites he visits thanks to his detailed, sensory descriptions. From abundant orange groves to ruins hiding in thick jungles, Twain takes the reader on an armchair adventure that makes one long to visit the islands for oneself.

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