The First Greeks in Hawaii: History is Not Always What it Seems to Be

George Colvocoresses was part of the Wilkes Expedition to Hawaii.


Published in The National Herald, July 25-31, 2015 Issue
Authored by Steve Frangos
TNH Staff Writer


We are excited to announce that The National Herald has given Hellenic Genealogy Geek the right to reprint articles that may be of interest to our group. 


CHICAGO - Who writes history?  Why?  Are certain individuals somehow better qualified to read, understand and then compose history than you or I?  Do you believe that the histories we are presented with are nothing more than the real world events copied down and presented to us just as they took place?

This stenographer point of view is essentially the traditional claim and I would argue the commonly held impression of past events.  From this orientation actual events took place; they are preserved in an unadulterated from in written records (or some other unquestioned format) which is simply drawn upon to form their accounts. Following this traditional point of view, when historians disagree or have alternate views of what occurred in the past it is simply due to the discovery of new documents. In this way the process is not challenged just reinforced in a kind of circular manner by virtue of new evidence. Objectivity is the key concept degenerate or claim at the heart of this view of historical writing.

But who is quoted from the past is as important as which events are said to have occurred. And who does not believe that every writer has their own a point of view about the past. Put in these terms it is easy to see that history is not a science but an agreed upon genre form. This is not a self-corrective discipline but one that follows the ever changing dictates of current political events. Peer review of the history produced by those designated as professionals makes sure the ever changing party line is observed.

These constantly changing versions of the past are especially easy to see when reading Greek and Greek-American history. The modern Greeks, when the power brokers of Western Europe needed an excuse to invade and divide up the Ottoman Empire, were acknowledged far and wide as the descendants of the Byzantines and so the Hellenistic Greeks and as a consequence the living extension of the Classical Age Greeks. Having said that, at this moment in history, we find little or no mention of the Hellenistic Period or Byzantium in terms of the modern Greeks in readily historical surveys in North America. 

When political interests change so does the history used by bureaucrats (whether they are in government, the university or big business) to “explain” current events and their real historical meanings. 

We see this in the history of Hawaii where the prevailing point of view of the American missionaries and their descendants is only now being taken under review. Having said that, the invasion and seizure of the Kingdom of Hawaii by American forces is accepted as a fact of history rather than a criminal act. And the Greeks who found themselves in Hawaii during this criminal invasion are still in many historical accounts revolutionaries doomed to failure. But more is certainly at play in all these published accounts. 

No one knows precisely who or when the first Greek arrived in the Hawaiian Islands. The late Dr. Helen Gerasimos Chapin (1926-2012) postulated that “it is certain that Greeks began to reach Hawai’i with Captain Vancouver’s explorations in the 1790s and on whaling and trading vessels after 1800.” Chapin, who was the child of Greek immigrants and related to many of the individuals we will be considering, reports that the first Greek settler she was able to identify was a person whose name in Hawai’i came to be Nicholas Zabat, a laborer in the Kohala district. In her interviews with Theodore Anastasopulos, Chapin learned of another very early Greek settler Dela Dagramaticas (also known as Tom Carlos) who had met as an old man another younger Greek John Roumanis. Roumanis told Anastasopulos of Dagramaticas and this meeting was recalled for Chaplin. Word of mouth is sometimes all that is recalled. 

Taking a Greek perspective we can identify another early Greek visitor to Hawai’i. Midshipman George Musalas Colvocoresses (October 22, 1816 – June 3, 1872) was part of the United States Exploring Expedition, more commonly known as the Wilkes Expedition, which reached the Hawaiian Islands in 1840. Captain Charles Wilkes was the expedition’s leader. This expedition, was sent out by the American government and was composed of naturalists, botanists, a mineralogist, taxidermists, artists and a philologist, and was carried by the USS Vincennes and USS Peacock, the brig USS Porpoise, the store-ship USS Relief, and two schooners, USS Sea Gull and USS Flying Fish. From 1838 to 1842, the Wilkes expedition sought to explore and survey as much of the Pacific Ocean and surrounding lands as possible. Colvocoresses is an especially notable member of this venture due to the many editions of his written account Four Years in a Government Exploring Expedition (New York, 1852) that saw publication over the years following their return. During this historic voyage three separate geographical features, two on the west coast of the United States and another in Antarctica, were named for Colvocoresses. 

Members of the extended Colvocoresses family contend that their ancestor also authored the four-volume report for which Wilkes was later to claim as his own, Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition. During the Years 1838, 1839, 1840, 1841, 1842 (Philadelphia, PA: 1849). Without question, Colvocoresses’ collection of artifacts, during this voyage, that literally decades later found their way (via Colvocoresses’ descendants) to the Smithsonian augmented not only their existing holdings but were also used in their exhibition on this expedition.

In Dr. Chapin’s article, “The Queen’s ‘Greek Artillery Fire:’ Greek Royalists in the Hawaiian Revolution and Counterrevolution, we encounter the following, “The first Greek settler arrived in 1878. A few Greeks came in as contract laborers with the Portuguese between 1879 and 1884. Although the Planters’ Labor and Supply Company did not recruit in Greece, several Greek men made their way to Hawai’i circuitously, migrating initially to the Azores and Madeira Islands, then to Hawai’i. They married Portuguese or Hawaiian women and essentially lived plantation lives on rural Maui or O’ahu. They were not connected to the main group which colonized in Honolulu and Hilo from 1884 on, although after the counterrevolution one revealed himself to his countrymen: ‘Me like you, me Greek, not Portuguese.””

The writings of Dr. Chaplin and others have shown that while not large in overall numbers the Greeks were ardent supporters of Queen Lili’uokalani and so hated enemies of the New England Protestant missionary class. In this regard the extended Camarinos family played pivotal role before, during and after the invasion and illegal seizure of the Hawaiian Islands. But might makes right more often than not in “history accounts” certainly more than we are lead to believe in school—and afterwards. In 1893, the Greeks who fought in favor of Hawaiian Independence paid the price. Many Greeks were jailed, fined, exiled and had their businesses and all property taken by the newly established American government.

After 1893, Greeks who had supported the Queen continued to do so to the enduring ire of the Protestant ruling class. Many of these same Greeks, just as before the invasion, became prosperous business leaders and commercial innovators of the first order. Greek businessmen were the first to commission refrigerator compartments faded for America and elsewhere for Hawaiian pineapples and other fruit crops—thus making the islands vastly wealthy. The Volcano House, once a series of resort cabins, and now a part of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the island of Hawaii was once owned and managed by George Lycurgus, known as the Duke of the Greeks. Lycurgus was a steadfast supporter of Queen Lili’uokalani and he not only spent time in jail but everything. Not a man of small parts Lycurgus simply worked his way back to prominence, wealth and a considerable degree of social standing among the local Hawaiians after 1893.

Greeks where ever they may be must be more vocal in terms of how we are presented and/or most often ignored (or disappeared) from the pages of world history. We have to challenge all those who say we are only “imagining” that we are descended from the Ancient Greeks and those who followed. Imagined communities are a concept coined by Benedict Anderson. “An imagined community is different from an actual community because it is not (and, for practical reasons, cannot be) based on everyday faceto-face interaction between its members. For example, Anderson believes that a nation is a socially constructed community, imagined by the people who perceive themselves as part of that group.” Anderson's book, Imagined Communities, in which he explains the concept in depth, was first published in 1983, and reissued with additional chapters in 1991 and a further revised version in 2006. Anderson’s work has been used by any number of scholars now writing about Greeks to explain why we cannot be and never were continued historical or cultural to the past. For these men and women we all just kinda showed up in Greece, the Balkans and the coasts of the Mediterranean

Let’s be plain, the “objectivity” claimed by professional historians is a sham. Deep-seated cultural viewpoints and politics inform far more of our current historical accounts than is now allowed. Think of the Macedonia Question or the claims that Africans out of Egypt established ancient Greek culture. There is more to being Greek in North America than going to church. During World War II and the Invasion of Cyprus in 1974 we let the world know we would not be dictated to by anyone. In terms of how we presented in historical accounts – it is well past that time now.