This is an opinion piece I wrote as a postscript to my series about King David Kalakaua of Hawaii.
I described in my piece about Kalakaua’s trip around the world how his traveling companion William N. Armstrong milked events of the trip for satirical effect. Armstrong’s book, Around the World With a King, depicted Kalakaua as a colorful character, childlike in his enthusiasm and optimism, full of naive Polynesian superstitions. The book’s style of humor grew out of the incongruities between the Polynesian culture (as Armstrong saw it) and the other worlds they encountered as they circled the globe.
Armstrong’s satire was milder, but no different in essence, than the mean-spirited ridicule that appeared in the later years of Kalakaua’s reign and in the years when his sister Lili’uokalani was on the throne. The jokes, the pamphlets spoofing the monarch, the political cartoons with hateful racial imagery, all grew more vituperative as the years went by and leading white citizens closed in on their goal of annexation with the U.S. By placing Hawaii under the U.S. flag, the territory would be forced to adopt the multitude of Anglo-American institutions that would (so it was claimed) maintain order, impose Christian morality, and rescue Hawaii from corrupt and incompetent monarchical rule.
It strikes me that satire and ridicule are the most powerful weapons to negate the value and the history of an alien culture. Even if it starts with gentle humor, it grows to nasty scorn, and somewhere along the way, the last hint of real laughter disappears and the attacks become destructive in the literal sense of destroying the spirit of the opponent.
As I studied the last days of the Hawaiian monarchy, I wondered about the humor of the native Hawaiians of that time and the channels in which it might have been expressed. Surely the humor worked in both directions—they must have found their antagonists just as silly as those antagonists found them. As far as printed material went, there was a whole string of Hawaiian-language newspapers, but in the years of the kingdom most were sponsored by white people for the dominant culture’s purposes. The rebellious Hawaiian-language paper Ka Hoku o Ka Pakipika (edited by Kalakaua for a time) had an independent spirit but focused on cultural heritage. I haven’t managed to find information about any satire or cartoons that might have appeared. But at any rate I can only suppose there must have been plenty of laughter about the leading white citizens between Hawaiian friends in informal settings.
In historical accounts, the most familiar narratives are told not only by the victors but by the ones who have the greatest number of words in print. For instance, I think of the Boer War fought 1899-1902 in South Africa. The English left countless memoirs and histories, the Boers very few, as many were uneducated farmers who read only the family Bible. And so their side of the story tends to disappear.
In a similar way, for many years the Hawaiian side of the story stayed nearly invisible. That has changed with new scholarship and access to Hawaiian-language materials. Yet there will always be an imbalance. The details of Hawaiian culture and cosmology, arts and sports, the interesting mountaintop-to-sea land use patterns, and the skills of navigation, will never be as well known as the familiar facts of our dominant Anglo-American culture. There is too much disparity between the power of those worlds.
In my view, that’s what the story of the Hawaiian kingdom comes down to: a gross inequity of power. The little cluster of islands mid-North Pacific offered too much that was tempting for the world’s major nations. In a way it’s surprising Hawaii wasn’t colonized in the first half of the nineteenth century. It offered a strategic point for refueling and resupply on trans-Pacific voyages, and its climate ensured ideal growing conditions for crops like sugar cane that would become so important.
Britain and France did make incursions, with the Paulet Affair in 1843 (a rogue British captain who tried to take over the islands) and the brief French takeover of Honolulu Fort in 1849 (they claimed it was in the name of religious freedom). But the Anglo-Franco Proclamation recognized Hawaii as an independent state “with a government capable of providing for the regularity of its relations with foreign nations”—namely, the government of Kamehameha III, the longest-ruling king.
The U.S. was founded as an independent nation supposed to embrace new ideals of equality, different from the old European nations with their centuries of bloody warfare and oppressive monarchies. But national pride easily develops into imperialism, and by 1848 Americans were already fighting the Mexican war and winning huge chunks of new territory. Some Americans were embarrassed by that conflict. Ulysses S. Grant, for instance, wrote in his memoirs, “Generally, the officers of the army were indifferent whether the annexation was consummated or not; but not so all of them. For myself, I was bitterly opposed to the measure, and to this day regard the war, which resulted, as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation. It was an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory.”*
As late as the 1890s some Americans still felt that grabs for territory were unseemly. President Grover Cleveland was one of those, and he opposed the annexation of Hawaii on moral grounds. But with the start of the Spanish-American War in Cuba and the Philippines, the tide turned in favor of U.S. expansionism, and Hawaii was annexed when William McKinley took office.
The American takeover didn’t happen overnight. First the missionary descendants had to justify themselves on the basis that they stood on high moral ground, forced to take charge, they said, because the Hawaiian monarchy was corrupt and incompetent—and ridiculous. It took some years over the course of the reigns of Kalakaua and Lili’uokalani to fully establish these assertions by the use of satire earlier described. And when native rule was fully delegitimized, William Armstrong could write with pride of the missionary descendants, “When annexation… took place in 1898, the American flag did not rise over a community of aliens, but over one of original Anglo-Saxon force, born under the Southern Cross, which had alone for half a century held itself intact against alien influences. At the tap of the Federal drum it wheeled into line and took up its march to the music of the Union without an awkward step, and is now the advanced picket line of American civilization in the Pacific.”**
The Hawaiian kingdom never had a chance.
* Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs and Collected Letters. New York: The Library of America, 1990, p. 41.
** William N. Armstrong, Around the World with a King. Cambridge, MA: The University Press, 1904, p. 290.