With your kind permission, we’d like to try something a little different with today’s installment of our occasional First Contact series: an account of a civilization’s initial experience with written language, rather than its introduction to an alien people.
We initially planned on posting something about the development of the Hawaiian alphabet—we’ve long been fascinated by exactly how missionaries of the 1820s arrived at their elegant (and occasionally controversial) twelve-character system. But we got sidetracked upon discovering the following passage from The Voices of Eden, in which missionary and historian Sheldon Dibble recounts the earliest Hawaiian reactions to ink-on-paper:
The people were amazed at the art of expressing thoughts on paper. They started back from it with dread, as though it were a sort of enchantment or sorcery. A certain captain said to Kamehameha, “I can put Kamehameha on a slate,” and proceeded to write the word Kamehameha. The chief scornfully replied, “That is not me—not Kamehameha.” The capitain then said: “By marks on this slate I can tell my mate, who is at a distance, to send me his handkerchief, ” and proceeded to write the order. Kamehameha gave the slate to a servant, who carried it to the mate and brought the handkerchief. He looked at the writing and at the handkerchief—they did not look alike. He felt of the two—they did not feel alike. And what connection there could be between the one and the other he could not imagine. With this ignorance, it is not strange that the people formed very wild conception of the power of letters. They even imagined that letters could speak. Every article of clothing that had a name upon it was for a time was safe; no one would steal it—for there were letters there, and they did not know but they might tell the owner where it was.
Dibble goes on to state that the Hawaiians also briefly assumed that written-down wises would inevitably come true if handed to a foreigner. Which strikes us as disturbingly similar to the theory behind the The Secret‘s vision board.