While we’re still in the mood from yesterday of celebrating our own freedom and independence, let’s give a thought, maybe, to those whose freedom and independence was taken from them by this good ol’ US of A, and by the capitalistic ideals we hold so dear. In the next in my series of book reviews on Pacific Island history, I look at Michael Dougherty’s To Steal a Kingdom (Island Style Press, 1992). Together with Jon Osorio’s Dismembering Lāhui (Univ of Hawaiʻi Press, 2002), which I will discuss in another soon upcoming post, these two books serve as the chief sources of my personal understanding (thus far) of the historical narrative, and contributing forces & factors, of the decline and downfall of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi. In this post, I focus almost exclusively on Dougherty’s book. I will address comparisons or syntheses of the two books either in my review of Osorio’s, or in an additional separate post.
As you might guess from the publisher (Island Style Press, based in Waimanalo, Oahu), Michael Dougherty is not a professionally-trained historian, and his To Steal a Kingdom is not a formal academic work. Yet, it was by far the most detailed history of the Hawaiian Kingdom I had yet read, and provides not only an informative, detailed account of that history, but also a biting critique of the attitudes and actions of haole missionaries & businessmen as he represents much of the kingdom’s history as a steady march towards greater and greater haole control.
Dougherty’s account is not so much a history of the kingdom, as a history of the white (haole) presence and influence in the kingdom. His treatment is based almost entirely on haole writings (e.g. diaries of businessmen and missionaries, as opposed to Hawaiian government documents, or materials otherwise from the Hawaiian point of view), and is organized into chapters taking prominent haole individuals as points of focus. Dougherty refers to many of the other Polynesian islands only by their English names, with no reference to native placenames (e.g. Easter Island with no mention whatsoever of Rapa Nui), and his treatment is somewhat Orientalist at times, describing the people of Tonga, for example, as utterly peaceful and “well-proportioned,” making no mention at all of the Tonga Empire. His treatment of the character, attitudes, and policies of the Hawaiian monarchs is also described largely based on the writings of haole businessmen and missionaries, and as a result is unsurprisingly often quite negative. He portrays Kamehameha III as a drunkard and as a weak king who was totally controlled by his haole advisors, and Kalakaua as a “sell out” to Washington (at least in some respects), in contrast to the rather positive impression of Kalakaua presented by Stacy Kamehiro. Yet, despite representing quite a few of the Hawaiian monarchs as being weak, misguided, selfish, and/or poor rulers, and despite his rather mainstream/Eurocentric/Orientalistic approach in various respects, Dougherty’s account of Hawaiian history is still one that is deeply sympathetic to the Hawaiian people, and villainizing of the haoles. I came out of this book perhaps angrier than any other history I’ve ever read, at the raw injustice of it. Jon Osorio, a Native Hawaiian scholar and head of the School of Hawaiian Knowledge at the University of Hawaii, whose book I’ll be discussing next, interestingly presents a more nuanced view of haole intentions.
Hotel Street, Honolulu, 1890.
Dougherty organizes the book’s chapters around individual figures, with one chapter for example taking Hiram Bingham as its focus point, and another Charles Reed Bishop.1 His narrative biographical style brings the history alive in a way more academic writing often doesn’t, making for a vivid and engaging read. However, nearly every chapter overlaps chronologically with previous ones, rather than following along chronologically, and the narrative frequently jumps far backwards, such that we are discussing the terms of the Constitution of 1840 on page 93, and the attitudes and decisions of Kamehameha III in 1832 on page 101. We are introduced to Hiram Bingham and the events of the 1820s-1840s in one chapter, and then to Charles Reed Bishop, and the events of the 1840s-1860s in another chapter, with the overlapping period portrayed in such a different manner that one might be led to think we’re talking about multiple different Hawaiis, or multiple different 1840s. In the hands of a more expert historian, such multiple perspectives can bring a fuller, richer, deeper understanding of the topic through the introduction of nuance and complexity; sadly, Dougherty’s narrative only manages to confuse. Though I myself have some considerable experience reading history scholarship, and negotiating complex and nuanced histories in my head, as someone who is learning much of this narrative for the first time – and even in revisiting my notes on this book now, in the course of writing this blog post – I still find it hard to keep it all straight. This is in large part because we have so much history packed into a relatively short period. It does not suffice to attempt to remember that Kamehameha III was the one who did X, because in 1832 he held one set of attitudes, and in 1840 another. Major changes and shifts pile up one after the other across a rather short time period in Hawaii’s 19th century.
Honolulu as seen from Punchbowl, 1890.
There are most certainly numerous places throughout the book in which Dougherty lambasts prominent haole figures such as Charles Reed Bishop and the Judd family. Some of the most scathing critiques come towards the very end, where he details the way the Judd family controlled large swaths of primary source documents & archives, and thus the historiography of the kingdom, asserting that this has poisoned, so to speak, most histories of Hawaiʻi written up until recently – something the historiography, he claims, is only just now (as of his writing, in 1992) beginning to recover from. Dougherty’s treatment of Charles Reed Bishop was particularly illuminating for me, as I had been under the impression that Bishop established Bishop Museum, Kamehameha Schools, and all the rest in his role as husband of Princess Bernice Pauahi Paki, i.e. that he did so in the name of the royal family, for the benefit of the Hawaiian people. And as such, it long puzzled me why I had been told that so many Native Hawaiians, and locals otherwise, continue to see Bishop Museum as a colonialist institution. Dougherty relates, however, that Bishop had been willed the estate lands for the term of his life – not for the life of his heirs. So he merely anticipated his death by turning the management of these temporary land holdings over to a board of missionary/businessmen trustees who, even to this day, reap enormous profits from their philanthropic ministrations to a few Hawaiian children (Dougherty 176-177), and further, that “without exception, to this very day these institutions all actively perpetuate the missionary/business version of Hawaiian history” (177, emphasis added).
What becomes abundantly clear throughout Dougherty’s narrative is that, at almost every turn, haole missionaries, and in particular businessmen, manipulated the government for their own personal economic and/or political gain, or for the benefits of the broader haole community. And, dishearteningly, that even those who appeared the most loyal, supportive, and beneficial to the government at times turned against the kingdom and were profoundly selfish, destructive, and injurious at other times, with only a very few exceptions (e.g., seemingly, Walter Murray Gibson). These businessmen-types manipulated the government for their own gain in numerous ways, and very often in the name of doing what was best for the Hawaiian kingdom, and for its economy, often claiming that the native rulers were incompetent, even dangerously so, endangering the well-being of the kingdom, and of the Hawaiian people. To name just one example of this, we see Claus Spreckels buying up tons of land on Maui, which he plans to plant with sugar cane. Through various schemes, he expropriates Crown Lands into becoming his own private property for his sugar plantation corporation – i.e. for his own personal profits. He secures water rights from the king, and puts Hawaiians to work – backbreaking, low-paying, manual labor – harvesting sugar cane. He claims he is doing this for the benefit of the Hawaiian economy; in the terms of 21st century US political discourse, he claims he is “a job creator.” However, it is clear that his real aims are not to selflessly benefit the Hawaiian people or the kingdom, but rather to selfishly line his own pockets. It’s unclear precisely how Spreckels ended up at the end of his life, but Dougherty is sure to point out that Charles Reed Bishop’s wealth, some portion of it from usurious banking practices and a 26-year monopoly on banking in Hawaiʻi (138) at the expense of basically everyone around him, including the kingdom’s own coffers, placed him in similar company with Morgan, Carnegie, and Rockefeller.
However, two things unfortunately remain rather unclear in Dougherty’s account. The first, despite his numerous direct quotes from statements and letters by haole leaders, is just how genuine these haole leaders were in their feelings about their loyalty or allegiance to the kingdom, what they thought the kingdom meant or comprised, and in whether they genuinely felt they were benefiting the Hawaiian people. The haole leaders claim they are acting to benefit the economy, and the kingdom, and they claim that their loyalty and allegiance is to Hawaiʻi alone (and not to the United States or Great Britain). But, how much of this rhetoric is just rhetoric, deployed with consciously selfish and duplicitous intent, and how much of it is reflective of their genuine beliefs? To what extent, or in what ways, did they truly believe that this was for the benefit of the kingdom, and of the Hawaiian people, and to what extent a matter of bold-faced lying, blowing smoke in order to secure more power and wealth for themselves? Did they think of themselves as “Hawaiians,” and when they spoke of benefiting the Hawaiian people, were they talking about themselves? When they spoke of the need for haole advisers (i.e. themselves) to run the government, and convinced king after king that they brought a greater professional expertise and international knowledge that Native Hawaiian advisers would lack, were they being genuine, or were they consciously and intentionally being duplicitous? We get a powerful hint of some people’s true feelings at the very end of the book, in a quote by Reverend Sereno E. Bishop, who writes in 1896,
Is it not an absurdity for the aborigines … who are mentally and physically incapable of supporting, directing or defending a government, nevertheless to claim sovereign rights? It would seem that the forty millions of property interests held by foreigners must be delivered from native misrule (179).
Here we see haole rule justified, and native rule discredited, through a logic of boldfaced racism and the privileging of capitalist interests, which is strongly suggestive of the central logics of Orientalist thought (e.g. the white man’s burden, the civilizing effect of Western culture, the fundamental weakness, incompetence or stupidity of the non-Western races, etc.). However, in countless examples throughout the rest of the book, despite these countless quotes, the true attitudes and intentions of these historical actors remain unclear.
The second aspect left disappointingly unclear is the attitudes and actions of the monarchs, especially Kalākaua and Liliʻuokalani. In The Arts of Kingship, Stacy Kamehiro provides a wonderfully vivid description of the ways in which Kalākaua (and his chief adviser, Gibson) aimed to revive Hawaiian culture, traditions and customs, and modes of knowledge, and to establish the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi as a respected, sovereign member of the international community of nations. In Dougherty’s book, however, we see the monarchs’ policies chiefly through quotes from haole leaders criticizing them. When these haole leaders accuse Kalākaua or Liliʻuokalani of being incompetent, of endangering the economy, of threatening the rights & freedoms of the haole community, or of pursuing policies which are, essentially, racist, which policies exactly are they referring to? And to what ends were those policies aimed, for what reasons?
Still, To Steal a Kingdom remains a densely informative, and indeed refreshing, look at Hawaiian history. That he starts with Polynesian voyaging, and touches upon the cultures and histories of a number of other island groups rather than beginning with Captain Cook, or with the reign of Kalākaua, is refreshing, situating the history as a decidedly Hawaiian one (even if the vast majority of the rest of the book focuses upon haole actors and draws chiefly upon quotes from haole sources). And Dougherty’s account is certainly not a hagiography of the Hawaiian monarchs. While Dougherty’s narrative is, overall, one deeply sympathetic to the Hawaiian cause, and powerfully critical of whites’ capitalist attitudes & actions – and, indeed, by the end of the book I was reeling with anger that this could have happened, and that this is so widely unknown – Dougherty does not always represent the monarchs in the most positive light. I have no doubt that many histories represent Kalākaua, and Liliʻuokalani in particular, in overwhelmingly positive ways, as fierce, determined, politically savvy, and wise leaders, as truly tragic heroes, tragic victims of the acts of a villainous haole community. In my limited time in Hawaiʻi, I certainly got the impression that there was a powerful sense of celebrating these figures, mythologizing them really, in a manner not entirely dissimilar with how mainstream mainland US K-12 education teaches us to regard the Founding Fathers of the United States: as larger than life supermen, some of the wisest, greatest leaders who ever walked the earth. Dougherty’s account, while disappointingly sparse on the details of the monarchs’ personalities, intentions, methods, and policies, nevertheless opens up the possibility that Kalākaua and Liliʻuokalani were not supermen, but were, perhaps, leaders of more average ability, and perhaps even seriously flawed in terms of their vices, or otherwise. Kamehameha III, in fact, is represented as profoundly weak, as a “Little King” “more often drunk than sober” (96) who was more or less completely complacent to the whims of his haole advisers.
Dougherty’s treatment of Kalākaua’s efforts to secure a pan-Pacific alliance or confederation as a ward against Western encroachments is also thought-provokingly unexpected. Where other accounts present this effort in a strongly positive way, as a consensual agreement between non-Western states, working together to help one another defend against the evils of imperialist conquest and colonialist exploitation, Dougherty represents Kalākaua as pursuing imperialistic aims himself, writing that Kalākaua, “not content to merely rule over the Kingdom of Hawaii, decided to expand his territory and become the sovereign ruler of the entire Pacific” (156). On this particular point, I am a little too attached to the more positive view. But, again, it does help us peel the wool from our eyes, helping us question our positions and interpretations, and to not blindly leap to defend, or extol, all Native Hawaiian leaders, decisions, actions, or practices. While most certainly wronged in one of the greatest injustices in American history, and while their haole advisors do seem to have been, almost to a man, utter scumbags of a most horrible sort, perhaps the kings and queens of Hawaiʻi were not the great, wise, upstanding leaders we might otherwise allow ourselves to believe they were.
All images except book cover & Liliʻuokalani statue are public domain images, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
(1) It’s kind of amazing how when you Google “Charles Reed Bishop,” someone who played a rather prominent role in the erosion of Hawaiian freedom, sovereignty, and well-being, while making for himself a personal fortune, you find tons of webpages celebrating him – mostly pages belonging to the institutions he founded – and then, when you finally find one that calls him “a criminal deviant, a PIRATE OF THE PACIFIC, pillager, parasite,” and you’re about to link to it, you find that page goes way overboard, calling him a “faggot,” and talking about New World Order conspiracies.
There’s certainly something to be said for the way wealthy and powerful institutions dominate the narrative through their prominence and their more authoritative-looking, more professional websites, and that just because a website is poorly designed, even poorly worded, the 2015 equivalent of a Geocities page, doesn’t mean this isn’t the voice of the people, the counter-narrative against those dominant narratives – in a sense, the corporate control of our society is a conspiracy, a thorough-going one so deeply embedded that we learn not to recognize it, or to question it. But, even so, the dichotomy is startling. Where are the more official pages, from the university, PBS, Hawaii Independent, or someone, telling the less hagiographic version of Bishop’s story? Perhaps I shall have to take the time at some point to write such biographies myself…