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Rosalea Barker: Hawai’i


by Rosalea Barker

“If anyone wants to know what it is to be in hell without waiting for eternity, let him be in a divided Cabinet, knowing that every word and act is being reported and misconstrued by a traitor—with the knowledge that a man is among you who you cannot trust, and the possibility of another 30th of July hanging over your head.”

Thus spake Lorrin Thurston, Hawai’i’s Minister of the Interior in early 1890. The date he referenced was the one on which, the previous year, a Hawai’ian-born but Italian-educated surveyor, Robert Wilcox, marched with a rag-tag army to King Kalakaua’s palace and politely waited until the king might return from the queen’s private residence to sign the new constitution Wilcox had written up. The palace guard sent them packing, the king moved on to his boathouse, the volunteer militia was called out and borrowed 10,000 rounds of ammunition from the USS Adams, and the little revolution led by the man who fancied himself as another Garibaldi was quickly put down.

You’d think that that would be the end of Wilcox, but the fact that he was still getting in Thurston’s hair in 1890 is testament to the comic opera that is Hawai’ian politics in the years between the “Bayonet Constititution” of 1887, and the islands’ annexation as a territory of the United States in July, 1898. By 1901, Wilcox was a territorial delegate to the US House of Representatives, but his outspokenness about the “Dole Oligarchy” that had tried him for treason, and his pleas for consideration of native Hawai’ian rights fell on deaf ears in a nation that required him to use the “colored” facilities. (His mother was of royal Hawai’ian lineage; his father an American sailor.)

Gavan Daws’ history of the Hawaiian islands, Shoal of Time, is the source of the quote that begins this piece, and it is also what led me to using “comic opera” as a descriptor of the times he is writing about. The scary thing is that Daws relies entirely on primary sources, not Gilbert and Sullivan librettos. G&S, on the other hand, were not unaware of the goings-on in Hawai’i. Utopia, Limited was first staged in 1893, the same year that the Hawai’ian princess Ka’iulani was sent to school in England. The plot revolves around the fictional South Pacific island of Utopia, whose monarch, King Paramount, has sent his eldest daughter, Princess Zara, to Girton College in England.

“Utopia LLC” would be a fair description of what the sugar plantation owners in Hawai’i had always wanted, and strived to get repeatedly by monopolizing ownership of land and of every step of the production and distribution process. Not to mention the legislative process as well, especially after they overthrew the monarchy in 1893, and established a Republic the following year with Sanford Dole as President.

They engineered special treaties with the US in order for their product to be tariff free, and resisted suggestions that Hawai’i should become a state because they would have lost that special treatment. When the US removed the tariff from every other nation and territory exporting sugar to the US in favor of a bounty paid to US producers, the oligarchy suddenly saw the advantages statehood would bring. Even if coming under the US Constitution meant landowners losing their grip on who could and couldn’t vote in elections.

For its part, the United States Congress saw little advantage in adding Hawai’i to its territorial possessions until after the outbreak of the Spanish War in 1898, when the US invasion of the Philippines brought the Pacific and Asia into sharp focus. The Speaker of the House of Representatives at the time was Thomas Brackett Reed, who “had opposed the war, the annexation of Hawai’i and what he regarded as American tyranny over the Philippine people,” according to Robert V. Remini in his history of The House. “The best government of which a people is capable is a government which they establish for themselves,” Reed said. “With all its imperfections, with all its shortcomings, it is always better adapted to them than any other government, even though invented by wiser men.”

Hawai’i remained a territory for 60 years, not being granted statehood until August 21, 1959. Stephen Kinzer, in his book Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq, opines that “The revolution of 1893 and the annexation that followed undermined a culture and ended the life of a nation. Compared to what such operations have brought to other countries, though, this one ended well.”

In 1993, the US Congress passed a resolution declaring that it “apologizes to Native Hawaiians on behalf of the people of the United States for the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom on January 17 1893,” and for subsequent “deprivation of the rights of Native Hawaiians to self-determination.” The resolution was signed by President Bill Clinton on November 22, 1993. Given that that date was also the 30th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, I doubt that the signing of the resolution even made the news.

One of the most striking things about the history of the annexation of Hawai’i is the role played by the US Navy, which was always ready to side with the business interests on the islands by supplying them with ammunition, manpower, and firepower. I have to wonder what Speaker Reed would say today if he could see the Navy’s current recruiting ad on TV: “Five oceans. Seven continents. Whatever it takes. Wherever it takes us. America’s Navy. A global force for good.”

(Shouldn’t that last word rhyme with “Reed”?)



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