The History of Settler Colonialism in Hawaiʻi

NOENOE K. SILVA. Aloha Betrayed: Native Hawaiian Resistance to American Colonialism. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004. Pp. x, 260. Paperback. $21.95. ISBN:0-8223-3349-X.

JOHN WHITEHEAD, “Hawai’i: The First and Last Far West?” Western Historical Quarterly 23, 2 (May 1992): 153-177.

RUTH OLDENZIEL, “Islands: The United States as a Networked Empire,” 13-42, in Gabrielle Hecht, ed., Entangled Geographies: Empire and Technopolitics in the Global Cold War. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2003. $32.00. Paperback. ISBN: 9780262515788.

The readings for this week discuss the contested history of American settler colonialism in the Pacific islands of Hawai’i. Historian Ruth Oldenziel, in her chapter contribution to the edited volume Entangled Geographies, sets the stage for this discussion by analyzing the generally overlooked, historical role of overseas island possessions in the formation of American empire. Oldenziel argues that far-flung, peripheral islands like Hawai’i became “nodes in exclusionary, global-spanning technical systems closely connected to the military hardware of a networked empire.” To put it more simply, islands played “a central role” in the history of US imperial expansion. Yet island possessions are unique territories because “they render US power invisible to the world.” Indeed, most Americans are completely unaware of the extent to which the United States controls overseas island possessions. Despite their minuscule size in terms of acreage, these “US [overseas] territories are the largest of the post-colonial era” in terms of population.[1]

In his 1992 article, historian John Whitehead takes the conversation about Hawai’i’s invisibility to a more specific audience. He makes a case for why western historians should stop excluding Hawai’i in their definitions of the American west. First, he acknowledges and refutes some of the more superficial reasons that western historians like Michael Malone and Richard Etulain have used to exclude Hawai’i. These reasons include the false notion that Hawaii lacks aridity, and the fact that it is specially separated from the contiguous US by an ocean. Next, Whitehead addresses what he calls “the real rub:” the damning accusation that Hawai’i lacks a “commonly shared history” with the rest of the American west. To refute this claim, Whitehead draws upon the existing literature on Hawai’i to recapitulate the history of the island chain. Along the way, he emphasizes thematic connections between the history of the American west as a region and the history of Hawaii. This exercise convinces Whitehead that Hawai’i is quintessentially western. In fact, it “may well be considered America’s first and last Far West.”[2]

Whitehead explored many thematic connections between Hawai’i and the American west. Some of these include the principal roles played by immigrant Asian labor, fur trading and whaling companies, missionaries, and agricultural trusts. Whitehead could also have included the contested history over land between native peoples and foreign settlers. Unfortunately, at the time of Whitehead’s writing, “The bulk of…secondary literature” about Hawai’i had “been written by Caucasian Americans,” and native Hawaiian scholars were just starting to write historical studies about the island’s history. Whitehead was aware of this trend in Hawaiian scholarship. He correctly observed that “the theme of this new work is the dispossession of the islands’ natives by foreigners.” Indeed, the native Hawaiian political scientist, Noenoe K. Silva, belongs to this emerging generation. Her revised dissertation, Aloha Betrayed, epitomizes the best of this new work. [3]

Aloha Betrayed is a revisionist history of Hawai’i during Euro-America’s imperial expansion. The narrative goes from Native Hawaiians’ (the Kanaka Maoli) early encounters with Euro-American foreigners (the haole), upon arrival of British Captain James Cook to the island of O’ahu in 1778, to the contested military occupation of the archipelago by the United States in 1898. The work is organized chronologically and thematically. Its five chapters move through the long nineteenth century and culminate in the native, anti-annexation resistance of the 1890s. Along the way, Silva analyzes the manifold ways that Kanaka Maoli resisted the oppressive, racist nature of haole settler colonialism. For methodology, she juxtaposes a close reading of previously ignored Hawaiian language sources—like the resistance newspapers Ka Hoku o ka Pakipika, Ka Leo o Ka Lahui, and Ka Makaainana—with secondary-source material from a long and diverse cast of postcolonial theorists, including Michel Foucault, Gayatri Spivak Chakravorty, Partha Chatterjee, James Baldwin, Lawrence Levine, and Ngugi wa Thiong’o.

Oldenziel and Whitehead argued that Hawai’i has become invisible to everyday Americans and scholars of western history, despite its historical importance. Likewise, Silva argues that the history of Hawaiian resistance had also become invisible to those same people. Accordingly, Aloha Betrayed is a double-edged critique of colonialist historiography. Silva critiques the modern scholarly and popular histories of Hawai’i for blatantly ignoring Hawaiian language sources and, thus, the voices of native resistance. But she also critiques the nineteenth-century colonialist historiographers. These critiques cover both formal chroniclers of Hawaiian history, like Ralph Kuykendall and Thomas Thrum, as well as informal authors, like the editors of establishment newspapers like the Pacific Commercial Advertiser. These people belonged to a racist, colonial oligarchy that was composed of capitalist plantation foremen, puritanical Calvinist missionaries, pro-annexation government officials, and all of their haole descendants.

In Aloha Betrayed, Silva makes direct connections between the racist discourse of Hawaii’s colonizers and the land grabs of their settler colonialism. Throughout the nineteenth-century, haole foreigners used epidemics, military force, unfair treaties, and print outlets to cast the Kanaka Maoli and their culture as savage, lazy, obscene, ignorant, and sinful. Haole outlawed traditional performances like the hula and banned Hawaiian education in schools; they purchased the allegiance of some ali’i (nobles); and, with their support, financed English and Hawaiian language newspapers that advocated a subservient idea of native assimilation—casting men as working-class labor and women as silenced domestics. Furthermore, the haole replaced systems of open land tenure with private property in a moment called the māhele; they eroded native sovereignty with unfair diplomatic deals like the reciprocity treaty and the Bayonet Constitution; and, when natives fought back, they staged a coup and arrested Queen Liliʻuokalani. These are just a few of the ways haole colonizers erased native culture while seizing control of native land.

But the sovereign nation of Hawai’i does not become an overseas territory in Ruth Oldenziel’s “globally networked empire” without significant and sustained resistance. This resistance is the subject of Silva’s book. She shows how Kanaka Maoli resisted the racist actions and discourse of Euro-American settler colonialism through varied tactics of cultural revival, community organization, political protest, public performance, and print media. Methods of resistance were formal and informal. Natives created organizations called hui that fought against annexation; they asserted their cultural worldview with feasts called lū‘aus, ceremonies called poni mo’i, dances called hula, and the publication and recitation of pule (prayers), mele and oli (songs, poems, chants), mo`olelo (legends and histories), and mo’oku’auhau (genealogies). They wrote cosmologies like the Kumulipo and alternative histories like Ke Kumu Aupuni; they embedded hidden meanings called kaona in their work; and they constructed extensive appeals against US annexation like the Kū’ē Petitions.

In his article, John Whitehead lamented that western historians were still fascinated with a “‘classic’ Old West” of “Indian wars.” Yet, in Aloha Betrayed, Silva demonstrates that Hawaiian history is, despite what previous scholars have written, a classic tale of native resistance that would rival any Indian war of the American west. From mo’i  leaders like Queen Lili’uokalani negotiating with the United States government in Washington, to ali‘i editors like Joseph Nāwahī and his wife Emma ʻAima Aiʻi publishing resistance tracts, to maka’ainana laborers signing the petitions, Hawaiian history has all the makings of an exciting story about a contested, imperial landscape. Hopefully, that story will no longer remain invisible.[4]

[1] Ruth Oldenziel, “Islands: The United States as a Networked Empire,” 13-42, in Gabrielle Hecht, ed., Entangled Geographies: Empire and Technopolitics in the Global Cold War (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2003), 14, 36.

[2] John Whitehead, “Hawai’i: The First and Last Far West?” Western Historical Quarterly 23, 2 (May 1992): 154, 156, 158.

[3] Ibid. 157, 158, 160, 161, 171,

[4] Ibid. 175.