Posts Tagged ‘American imperialism’

Jonathan Kay Kamakawiwoʻole Osorio, Dismembering Lāhui, University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2002.

Osorio’s account of the history of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi, focusing particularly on the evolution of the constitutions and legal structures of the island, raises a number of rather thought-provoking issues. Essentially, he suggests that the key issue relevant to the history of the kingdom, or the lens through which we should understand that history, is one of gradual separation, or “dismemberment,” of the Hawaiian people from the traditional relationships of reciprocity they enjoyed with their leaders, through the gradual insertion of haole modes of running a government, or a state.

Whereas certain versions of the narrative of the fall of the kingdom, including that given in To Steal a Kingdom, present the Hawaiians as utterly powerless, and the haoles as single-mindedly, deviously, and selfishly engineering the kingdom’s downfall from the very beginning, Osorio presents a somewhat more nuanced view, looking at why the haoles did what they did, and why the Hawaiians went along with it. Osorio’s account also differs widely from Dougherty’s in that Osorio pays considerable attention to the Native Hawaiian perspective, informing the reader of Hawaiian attitudes, perceptions, intentions, and desires, while Dougherty’s account relates Hawaiʻi’s history exclusively through the lens of the haole perspective. In the 1820s to 1840s, we see the example of Christianity, which – among other reasons for its acceptance by the Hawaiians – seemed to provide a new set of prohibitions to replace the kapu (traditional systems of taboos) which had been abolished, and to thus, perhaps, provide a way to set right, or to make pono, the spiritual balance; many at that time are said to have seen the abolition of the kapu and of the traditional heiau rituals as having toppled the spiritual balance, thus leading to the smallpox epidemics and other difficulties faced by the people at the time. We also see the Hawaiian people, especially at that time but in later decades too, genuinely believing that some haoles were “good” haole, and that these people were genuinely bringing benefit to the kingdom through education, and through advising the chiefs as to constitutional government and capitalist economy (26).

The Nuʻuanu Valley, as seen from the Pali Lookout. Photo my own.

Osorio also explains how traditional understandings of the functioning of governance, and of the relationship between makaʻāinana (commoners), aliʻi (nobles), and mōʻī (monarch), informed Natives’ understandings and behavior in the new Western-style government of the 1840s.1 Osorio suggests that haoles, in becoming the chief royal advisor came to be seen as an equivalent to the kālaimoku, whose advice, given in secret directly to the king, traditionally superseded all other advice. Whether this was intentional, or whether the haoles even recognized or understood the association, is unclear. The aliʻi could present their suggestions, but if told this contradicted the advice of the kālaimoku, the aliʻi would then defer, without questions or challenges, as was traditional. Similarly, makaʻāinana petitions to the aliʻi were traditionally mere descriptions of conditions and expressions of desires, often in the form of requests for personal redress.

Makaʻāinana petitions to the legislature reveal considerable awareness and intelligence on the part of the common people as to what was going on in the government, how it affected them, and what policies they believed should be implemented. Once the petitions were submitted to the aliʻi for consideration, the job of the makaʻāinana representative was done; it was not his place, according to the traditional political thinking, to question or challenge the decision of the aliʻi, nor to argue for a side, nor to make a decision, but simply to present the petition and leave the decision up to the aliʻi; it was unthinkable, initially at least, for commoners to presume to go any further, to make decisions themselves, to challenge or oppose the decisions of the aliʻi. And, once these fundamental beliefs or conceptions underlying the traditional political structure of the relationship between the segments of society began to break down, and commoners were able to challenge and oppose the aliʻi, we are led to understand, the kingdom itself, as anything resembling its former political culture was essentially doomed.

Osorio’s narrative, and argument, rests largely on this notion of the gradual breakdown of the traditional political system, and of the traditional system of relationships and mutual responsibility, which left Hawaiians unable to rely upon their own nobles and kings for help, and left them at the mercy of haole desires and ways of governance. Step by step, they were alienated from understanding how their own government ran, and how they were expected to operate, or behave, as “citizens.” To many of the haole advisors, they may very well have believed they were bringing the Hawaiian people a better, more modern form of government, and indeed a freer and more democratic one. That the Hawaiian people proved unable to instantly, overnight, appreciate how to behave within this new system, was taken by many of the haoles as an indication that the Hawaiians were inherently, biologically, racially, less intelligent, or at the very least, simply not yet ready for self-rule. Seeing it spelled out here in the Hawaiian case, it becomes clear that this must have been quite similar to what happened throughout the world, giving birth to notions of the “white man’s burden,” and of the idea of colonialism as a civilizing mission – that imperial powers were there to rule the “natives” until they were ready to rule themselves – a time that never seemed to come. But, as Osorio’s account so brilliantly makes clear, it’s not that the Hawaiians were inherently less intelligent (of course), or that their minds were somehow shackled by feudal upbringings preventing them from shaking themselves free and realizing and embracing democracy. Rather, it is simply the fact – to which the haoles at that time were oblivious – that the Anglo-American system of government is a culturally particular system, that it requires thinking about things in a particular way, and articulating things in a particular way in order to engage in legal arguments. It was, simply, a different set of cultural understandings and practices, as foreign for the Hawaiians as the Hawaiian system was for the haoles. Aliʻi who were used to presenting their thoughts to the mō’ī and then leaving it to him to make his decision were not used to the idea of debates, back and forth, within a legislature, the idea of continuing to argue your position against a political opponent. And they were also not used to the concepts of “rights,” “property,” “citizenship,” and so forth which were now enshrined within their own Constitution. So they were at a serious disadvantage within their own government, a government now run based on haole ideas and ways of doing things.

Aliʻiōlani Hale, home to the legislature and other organs of government from 1873 until the overthrow. I realize now I don’t think Osorio ever makes it clear where the government was housed – his history is very much a legal history, not an architectural or urban one.

Osorio’s is a fascinating and compelling argument, and I have no reason to think it mistaken. However, if I were to level one criticism, or concern, one thing I do feel Osorio leaves unclear is how such a complex system of traditional political relationships and governance could have been so well-established, when the kingdom was only unified a few decades before the arrival of the first haoles. Back when the islands were not united, was there a mōʻī, and a kālaimoku, and a council of aliʻi who represented the interests of the konohiki and makaʻāinana of their respective ahupuaʻa in precisely this same way that Osorio is now presenting as the established, age-old, traditional system? Had Kamehameha lived 100 years earlier, I’d feel more comfortable with the assumption; had Osorio even just taken the time to address this concern, to reassure the reader that these systems were well-established, either from older times, or simply very thoroughly impressed into the popular consciousness very quickly, within these first few decades since unification, I think it would have helped. There are a number of books out there that focus more strongly on pre-unification, and unification, and while I do not know for sure what these books might cover, I wonder if they might help clarify this question.

In any case, returning to his argument, as Osorio explains, as the traditional respect for the authority of the aliʻi broke down, so too did the traditional system of reciprocal responsibility, in which aliʻi, konohiki, and makaʻāinana were responsible to one another for the productivity of the land, and responsible for one another’s well-being. In “freeing” the Hawaiians from what the haoles perceived to be “oppressive” “feudal” arrangements by establishing private property, Osorio explains, the haoles actually left the makaʻāinana (now called hoaʻāina under the kuleana system implemented after the Mahele of 1848) abandoned, and on their own, deprived of the systems which had helped ensure their welfare. The assertion by Richard Armstrong that

“If you now continue poor, needy, living in disorder in miserable huts, your lands lying waste … whose fault will it be? Whose but yours?”

rings far too true of Conservative ideologies widely espoused today, asking people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. One can easily imagine Armstrong, or his counterparts today, simply standing and scratching their heads, dumbfounded as to why these people, given “freedom,” and their own land, are not spontaneously and suddenly productive and prosperous, as Locke’s notions of the “state of perfect freedom,” and classical economics notions of incentives say they should be. Possessing a mental block against the idea that people should have support structures, and against the idea that they have been deprived of what they need for success (in the case of the hoaʻāina, being deprived of the irrigation access and rights of fishing & other gathering activities on communal land they once possessed, and given, yes, some land, but not enough land to grow enough taro), and fueled by racist ideologies which sadly persist today, these people could find no explanation for failure but to think the farmers “lazy,” or otherwise racially/bodily/mentally incapable.

What’s frightening and disheartening and disgusting is just how similar – indeed identical – much of these 19th century haole attitudes are to fundamental aspects of our own American discourse today. These same logics continue to underlie our society today, and while I suppose they must have played some role in bringing our country to the greatness it is (or was), I cannot help but see them as terribly dangerous for our future. The history of Hawaiʻi, though quite widely generally seen as peripheral, marginal, in fact bears numerous parallels to developments today, which I think makes this history a powerful warning. (In my own words, but pulled out just for emphasis:)

The people petition the government, and the government, “bought” and in the hands of corporate interests, ignores the voices of the people. The government equates prosperity and success for industry and economics with prosperity and success for “the nation,” putting corporations first, and people second.

Certainly, the situation in the United States is powerfully different from that of Hawaiʻi in important ways – one of the chief ones being the matter of self-rule. Those who espouse these dangerous ideals and threaten our way of life today are not some foreign influence, bringing some foreign way of doing things, as was the case in the Hawaiian Kingdom, but rather they are our fellow Americans, of similar ethnic, religious, and/or cultural backgrounds to many of us, espousing ideals and systems of government that, far from being foreign, are indeed some of the ideals upon which our nation was founded – the very same ideals which were foreign to Hawaiʻi, and which brought its downfall.

Sympathetic as I am for the Hawaiian people, and angry as I am, especially after reading To Steal a Kingdom, at the greedy and self-righteous haoles for what they did in Hawaiʻi, Osorio actually presents a more sympathetic picture of the haoles than Dougherty or many others do, in seeking to understand why they did what they did, and why the Hawaiians allowed it to happen as they did. Sympathetic or not, I think that such an approach is crucial towards truly understanding why horrible things happen, and being able to recognize and combat such trends when they re-emerge. If we simply see haoles – and Nazis, and Japanese militarists, and American Confederates – as “evil,” it makes it far too easy to simply relegate them to some distant corner of history, to believe that evil is always easily recognizable, and that the only reason such horrible things happened in the past was because the people of that time were too stupid to recognize it, too weak to fight it, or were simply bad people themselves. We consider ourselves smart, strong, and “good,” and so distance ourselves from, and blind ourselves to, the possibilities that such things could happen again – and the possibilities that our own beliefs and actions might be contributing to such negative trends. By contrast, if we do not simply dismiss these people as “bad people,” and instead engage with attempting to understand why people support the causes and policies that they do, and the appeal and flaws of certain ideologies, we can get a better understanding of how a country falls into the hands of fascist, Communist, militarist, or otherwise destructive forces.

Such an approach raises all kinds of questions as to how we should think about American ideals and discourses, and how we act upon them. In the wake of reading these two books by Osorio and Dougherty, and amidst discussions about Citizens United, among other related subjects, I have less sympathy than I ever had before, to be sure, for corporate interests or pure profit motives. But, if I were living in a foreign country, and most especially if I had sworn an oath of allegiance and been granted citizenship of that country, would I not, too, want to see government address my interests? Would I not, too, at the very least, want to feel that I was safe from the arbitrary will of the leaders of that country? Both on a general logical, practical, and emotional level, and in drawing upon my understanding of the United States’ foundational (Revolutionary) anti-monarchical ideologies, I can understand why an American, or a group of Americans (and Brits and Frenchmen), who grew up with certain notions about equal protection under the law, protection even from the government itself which is also constrained by the law, would fear the arbitrary will of a King and his Nobles, and would want to see a system of law put into place to protect them. Indeed, I have these fears today, in my own life, in my own experiences, in Britain and Japan. If Japanese law enforcement accuse me of something, convict me of something, something I am either innocent of, or something for which the punishment is much harsher in Japan than it would be at home, of course I would wish for extraterritoriality, or want to call my Embassy. And this is precisely what these haoles do, in 19th century Hawaiʻi. Yes, there was also a very significant element of flat-out racism, the Orientalist and “white man’s burden” kind of racism that undergirded imperialism and colonialism throughout the world in that era, and there was in many cases unbridled greed for power and wealth, and I certainly do not mean to condone or excuse those motivations whatsoever. But, I guess in summary, it should serve as an object lesson that our ideals, even those which we think among the best of our ideals, can be extremely problematic and dangerous, and how a people can become constrained, indeed doomed, by their own laws, when law is given priority over justice, or over what is right. (Though, of course, there can be many differing opinions as to what is right on any given point, and it is this which the supremacy of law is meant to protect from. But, hence the dilemma.)

(1) Osorio uses the term “Natives,” and so I do as well, taking after his example. I appreciate the potentially problematic nature of using this term, as it is evocative of old Orientalist tropes of “the natives,” e.g. as in the phrase “the natives are restless.” As Osorio is a Native Hawaiian scholar himself, I feel it safe to follow his lead, to use the terms he uses as appropriate. Further, while it might be more precisely culturally accurate to use a term like kānaka ʻōiwi or kānaka maoli, I feel uncomfortable with the idea of granting myself permission to use those terms. It is, to be sure, something to continue to think about and wrestle with. If any of you readers are Native Hawaiian yourself, please feel free to let me know what you think. Mahalo.


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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).

Right: Charles Reed Bishop, largest bank owner in Hawaii, on par with Morgan, Carnegie, and Rockefeller. Institutions he established continue to dominate Hawaiian society and economy.

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.

Left: Claus Spreckels wearing many leis. Schemed to transform vast swaths of royal lands into his own private sugar plantations. I don’t think there is any mystery as to his motives.

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 funeral of King Kalākaua at ‘Iolani Palace, 1891.

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.

Statue of Queen Liliʻuokalani outside the Hawaii State House, with ʻIolani Palace visible in the background. Photo my own.

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…

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