Could the Hawaiian monarchy have survived?

Cartoon of Lili'uokalani with the usual racial imagery. Contrast with the photograph at bottom of this post.

Cartoon of Lili’uokalani with the usual racial imagery. Contrast it with the photograph at bottom of this post.

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.

Cartoon of King Kalakaua and Queen Kapiolani.

Cartoon of King Kalakaua and Queen Kapiolani.

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.

"Canoes at Diamond Head." Painting by Edward Bailey, 1890,

“Canoes at Diamond Head.” Painting by Edward Bailey, 1890,

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.

Lili'uokalani, the last monarch of Hawaii.

Lili’uokalani, the last monarch of Hawaii.

* 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.

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About Jenny

I am an off-trail hiker, a student of history, and author of "Transvaal Citizen," "Murder at the Jumpoff," and "The Twelve Streams of LeConte."
This entry was posted in Hawaiian History, History and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Could the Hawaiian monarchy have survived?

  1. gary howell says:

    Cuba, Puerto Rico, Haiti, and the Central American countries would be other countries within the
    U.S. orbit around 1900. I guess “banana republic” is most likely to refer to Honduras — did Hawaii tend to be best for the natives ? There was a math grad student at Florida Tech who would talk about her marriage to a native Hawaiian — the least affluent ethnic group there from what she said (her husband worked in the underground economy, she worked for the DA’s office, some tension).

    • patholscher says:

      Not that I feel I have license to suggest an upcoming topic here, but Cuba would make for an interesting one in the 1870 to 1918 time frame, as the Cuban revolution, the Spanish American War (our entry into which featured an express prohibition on annexing Cuba, and for which Puerto Rico is a subtopic) and the U.S. presence in the Philippines as a result of the Spanish American War and during the following Philippine Insurrection would all make for really interesting topics.

      The Banana Republic topic also would, but that really takes us into the 1920s and 1930s.

      • Jenny says:

        I agree that Cuba would make a great subject, and it has a special topical value now with the opening of US-Cuban relations. I would like to do that, but not in the immediate future. I want to keep the subject matter of this blog quite diverse, and I will move to a (largely) European topic next—I will post an introduction very soon. I realize that for many of my readers, Hawaii seemed a specialist topic and therefore not so interesting. I can tell by my blog stats on visitors to different topics. Cuba raises enough of the same issues as Hawaii that I will leave it for some time next year.

      • patholscher says:

        I thought the Hawaiian topic interesting. I just didn’t comment much, as I don’t know enough about the topic to do so.

  2. Kent Hackendy says:

    You said:

    “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.”

    You hit the nail on the head with that statement. If you can demonize a people – lower them to sub-human position – I makes easier to rationalize atrocities. When I think about the idealism contained in our constitution, it makes me quite ashamed at the way we’ve conducted ourselves. Still, “land grabs” and that sense of superiority. I think it’s inevitable that “national pride” develops into fierce nationalism that leads to a sense of arrogance and entitlement – and it’s true of all races and peoples. This is why I no longer see and value in patriotism, nor do I draw any line between it and nationalism. It all leads to the same unfortunate supremacism that results in conflict, violence, and death. I know, that’s not a perspective that very many will agree with, but there you go.

    • Jenny says:

      Thanks for your comment, Kent. I think we’re on the same page regarding the many ways that groups attempt to diminish their foes or opponents, but your references to “subhuman” and “atrocities” don’t quite fit the Hawaiian situation. It was more like they wanted to treat the natives as children who needed to be guided by wiser souls. The whites there didn’t want to exterminate the natives (as they tried with the Indians), they wanted to treat them as inferiors and replace the native system of governance with U.S. governance. (The kingdom’s government was sort of a hybrid with western style government but still preserved the special status of the monarch.) Don’t get me wrong, I definitely think this was morally inexcusable, but it wasn’t as though they went in and tried to wipe out the Hawaiians. Regarding patriotism, we’ve disagreed on the subject before and we’ll have to agree to continue that disagreement. I don’t think that patriotism in the sense of love of country is equivalent to a desire to subjugate other nations.

      • Kent Hackendy says:

        You’re right, Jenny, my comments about the extermination of indigenous peoples weren’t really relevant to the Hawaiian situation. My apologies.

        While I agree with you on one hand that patriotism isn’t “equivalent to a desire to subjugate other nations,” I diverge from your perspective because I no longer believe that is possible to have one without the other. As long as we identify ourselves as part of one group or another, it will inevitably lead to to the type of carnage we see wholesale on a regular basis. I still patriotism as just another institution that was designed specifically to keep the masses in line.

        Thanks for your response!

  3. patholscher says:

    I was in Maui lasts year and was surprised by the extent to which Hawaiian independence retains support on the more remote portions of the island. Around Baldwin Beach and on parts of the Hana Highway it was quite noticeable in some places. I saw at least one bumper sticker proclaiming support for a Kingdom of Hawaii. I recalled that in reading your entry here as, even though I don’t think that an independent Hawaii could have survived in the colonial atmosphere of the times (and that it is amazing that it survived as long as it did), some residual adherence still exists amongst a few today.

    • Jenny says:

      All of the former imperial colonies are independent now, with the exception of a few remote territories or protectorates. Hawaii is a unique situation. It was an independent monarchy until the 1890s under an arrangement of governing in a cooperative system with the resident white community. Then the members of that community betrayed them by annexing the kingdom and making it a U.S. territory, then a U.S. state. It almost seems as though Hawaii would have been better off as a colony that eventually achieved independence. But the strategic importance of Pearl Harbor is the biggest reason why the U.S. grabbed it up and will never let go.

      • patholscher says:

        I think the situation regarding Hawaii is actually more complicated than that. True, Pearl Harbor was a major strategic asset, and still is (although not nearly to the extent that it once was) but simply acquiring port rights would have been a viable option, if considered at all, but for the economic interests of American immigrants to Hawaii. After all, we acquired port rights in the Philippines that we maintained for a long time, without acquiring them permanently, and we did the same in Cuba. And we’ve never permanently fixed our relations ship with Puerto Rico.

        With Hawaii, the situation was different in that even as an independent country it was experiencing significant immigration, and not just from the United States. That inevitably meant that some country, with the U.S., U.K., and Russia being the prime contenders, was going to feel compelled to annex it if simply to keep out the others. And the moment the area had come to have a significant American minority population, annexation truly became unavoidable. Texas, which of course had also been an independent nation, and California which had been one briefly, were prior examples.

        Today Hawaiians are a minority in their own state, which brings up other topics people do not like to really look at. Does the nationality, so to speak, of an area belong to those who settled it first, or to those who live there now? I myself have relatives who live in Hawaii whose ancestors came as commercial sailors in the 19th Century. They’re native born, so to speak, but not “native” in terms of nationality. Most Hawaiians today have a much shorter history on the island, in terms of ancestry, but they still have one. Some Japanese American families have histories that stretch back a century. My point being, is that today the state wouldn’t and couldn’t revert to independence, as for good or ill, it isn’t what it was in terms of nationhood compared to the period you’ve examined here.

  4. Jenny says:

    Thanks for these thoughts. I wasn’t actually trying to argue either for or against independence for Hawaii in the present day. You said you were surprised on your visit to Maui to see that such sentiment still exists in some areas. I was trying to explain why the circumstances still seem such a peculiarly vexing, anger-inducing issue to the native Hawaiian minority. You make some good points. After I posted my remark about Pearl Harbor, I thought, “It probably isn’t as important today with current military technology,” so I agree with what you said about that. I know that the islands are virtually unrecognizable compared with how they were in the 19th century, due to tourism and other economic and demographic changes. So, yes, there can be no return to the past.

    • patholscher says:

      Oh, I didn’t take your reply to mean you were arguing for or against, I was just expanding on my thoughts.

      I do agree with you regarding what it must like to be a Hawaiian native. The state is stunningly beautiful and because of its location, it will always have a viable economy. The reminders of what was lost must be constant, and for those on the lower end of the economic scale, it must be very hard to take in some ways. And this must be all the more so because, if Hawaii was an independent nation, as unrealistic as that thought is, there’s no reason to believe that it wouldn’t do well economically.

      And changes of that type, if you live through them, are hard. If you look at the cast of Hawaiian characters who were still active after annexation, some of them were very active indeed in trying to react to, or adjust to, the loss, and some were quite aggressive in trying to basically stake out as much independence as possible.

      In looking at it today, it’s interesting to see how these thoughts are concentrated where we’d sometimes expect them to be, once we know where to look. When I was a boy, and visiting my relatives with my mother, Maui was only accessible from Oahu. Now you can fly there directly, and frankly I fear what that means. Oahu is overbuilt, I hope Maui doesn’t become that, as it still is very Hawaiian today. Part of the island isn’t a big tourist area, and that part draws a local crowd. At that location, you see the support for independence, amongst those most disposed, and you feel a little unwelcome. Perhaps we should feel that way, and frankly we should also recall that an economy only exists to serve people, not the other way around, and the forces of economic development not need be given full license.

      • patholscher says:

        On Pearl Harbor, when navies relied upon boiler driven vessels, it was incredibly vital to the U.S. It would have been vital for the U.K. as well, and its somewhat amazing that they missed the boat there. It also would have been vital for Russia, but Russian colonization was inept, and they started and stopped there. Maui has the remnants of a Russian fort on it today.

        Pearl Harbor remains a significant U.S. Navy base today, and I didn’t mean to suggest otherwise, but with nuclear propulsion, it isn’t as vital as it once was, although its still a big base. Interestingly, it was chosen during the Cold War as the location for a colossal fuel reserve, which was installed underground in secret, and which is probably the largest such reserve of its type in the world. That shows, I guess, how the Navy continues to view the base as a present interest.

        Of a bit of a shock to me, I saw Pearl Harbor again last year after probably a 40 year interval. Its odd for me to even think that I can now personally compare the presence of a place with a gap of time that big. The last time I was there, you couldn’t drive to Ford Island, now you can. Indeed, Ford Island was an active airfield at the time, and you couldn’t even go there.

      • Jenny says:

        Thanks for adding the interesting information about Pearl Harbor.

        I hope to spend time in Hawaii some day. I’ve long wanted to go there to visit hiking destinations. Friends have told me of beautiful and sometimes scary places—knife-edge ridges, interesting vegetation. I have zero interest in the big tourist beaches. I like what you say about the forces of economic development. In the 21st century, we have seen enough of the consequences of untrammeled development that we should try to use a little wisdom about it. I’m sure that for residents and long-time visitors to Hawaii, much of the development must seem very unfortunate.

      • patholscher says:

        I think you’d enjoy hiking on Maui. It’s probably a minor hike, in comparison to what you’ve done, but it’s impressive none the less. I’d like to visit the big island some day, which I never had, and there might be interesting things there as well.

        Honolulu is so heavily overbuilt, I’d skip it. I would have this time, but we wanted to visit Pearl Harbor. Wakaki beach is unique, and it is worth visiting, although I now realize that an odd structure I looked at but didn’t examine up close was a World War One memorial I wish I had photographed. I’m told the other side of the island is less developed, but I’m not sufficiently curious to check it out as I don’t like heavily built up areas.

        My great aunt lived up in the hills overlooking Honolulu. I find that I actively suppressed that thought while there. Honolulu was very built up in the 1970s, and time has made that worse.

  5. patholscher says:

    Also, on viewer interest, I’m always surprised on my own blog by what really interests people, and what does not. Some threads have really taken off that I wouldn’t have thought would. Others that I find really interesting don’t go anywhere. interesting how that works.

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