Isaak Iselin in Hawaiʻi, 1807

Isaak Iselin draws a rather positive picture of the people of Hawaiʻi as ingenious and interesting, although superstitious and immoral. This fits the then–common trope of the «noble savage». Iselin does not go further into detail, delegating this to the authority of «Cook, Vancouver and others». Iselin sees their writings as representing the authoritative «truth», and thus refers (and defers) to their observations in place of his own. In this spirit, he has to point out that he does not think Hawaiians are «cannibals». This denial of cannibalism reveals the extent to which Iselin had in mind previous accounts of the Hawaiians (or of the «savage» more generally) as he composed his account.

The comparison between European and Hawaiian morality is especially significant, as Iselin draws on an Enlightenment trope of relative civilizational progress. This comparison between Hawaiian sexual morals and European moral behaviour is interesting, because it goes beyond simplistic hierarchies that some contemporaries drew between Hawaiian and European «manners» (by which they meant something akin to what the Basel scholar Jakob Burckhardt would later call «culture»). As a future research topic, it would be interesting to consider the role, if any, that Iselin's Basel Protestantism played in his understanding of Hawaiian morality (see also Intertextuality I).

Through Hawaiian Eyes I – Comment

Transcript
«(...), we were once more left to ourselves after having been for two months, which we spent amongst those Islands almost incessantly surrounded and crowded by the natives. On taking my leave of them and of the Sandwich Islands, I will not enlarge on their manners and customs, which are so faithfully recorded by Cook, Vancouver and others. Since then these Island have been much frequented, chiefly by Americans engaged in the N[orth].W[est]. trade, so that the knowledge of these Islanders has now become quite familiar. They are certainly an interesting and very ingenious people, full of superstition, void of the notions we have of morality, but perhaps, in their way, no worse than Europeans, who in many respects, have injured rather than improved their manners. Human sacrifices are said to be still performed, but they are not charged with cannibalism. I have frequently visited, and alone, distant parts of the several Islands we frequented, without the least sense of fear and know of no instance where offense was given by any of the natives.»