Initial research for this Special Issue was funded by The Nation Institute.
What seems like many years ago, on a family trip to Māui, I suddenly realized that Hawai’i was not what it seemed to be. We were driving through Lāhainā toward a near-in coastal reef when it came to me that what I saw was not fitting together. Makai–as the Hawaiians say, toward the sea–was a crowded tourist town filled with restaurants, trinket shops and alluring kiosks where tour guides offering commercial adventures of every description plied their wares. Mauka–toward the mountains–was a crumbling sugar mill about which the question that sprang to mind was not so much what had happened there in earlier times but how on earth it was standing now. Up the hill, I knew, was the building known as Hale Pa’i, which had housed the first missionary press, and at the very top, Lāhaināluna, the original missionary school from which the first generation of seminary-trained Hawaiians had gone out to spread the language and the Word. On my lap as we drove was a guidebook to Māui I had been reading the night before and was leafing through again that said, in spirit if not in so many words, In 1893, a group of sugar planters and other businessmen, some of whom were descendants of the missionaries, overthrew the Queen and they all lived happily ever after. At which point a voice in my head involuntarily said, “No way!”
At the time this was no more than the passing thought of a leftish tourist who had no wish to subtract yet another beautiful spot from the list of places it was possible to go in the world without discomfort, but the thought stuck. At home, I bought Queen Lili’uokalani’s autobiography, Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen, which–surprise–did not agree with the author of the guidebook, and a few other volumes, but I soon put them aside. I was writing about another subject, and I did not have the time. Over a decade later, when I returned to those books, I found them astonishing, for the history they told of the destruction of the independent Kingdom of Hawai’i largely by American businessmen in Honolulu with the support of American troops, and its annexation five years later not by treaty but by mere Congressional resolution, was a history I had never been taught. Nor had I been taught the history of the years before, when between the coming of Captain Cook in 1778 and the coming of the missionaries in 1820 the native population declined from perhaps 800,000 to about 135,000 from foreign diseases, nor the decline that continued inexorably year after year so that by the time of annexation in 1898 it was under 40,000, with many observers predicting, and indeed treating it as a convenience, that there would soon be none.
Yet what might be the point of this belated historical excursion was an open question. For one thing, it was over. That was then. However things might have been in the days when, as a 1941 picture book put it, “Hawaiians owned and operated Hawaii,” Hawai’i now was a state, officially owned and operated by the USA, in particular by the US military, which controlled 22.4 percent of the island of O’ahu and 5.7 percent of the land of the islands as a whole. About 7 million tourists a year visited the place, the majority Americans, enjoying not just the sun and sea but that ideal ratio of the exotic and the familiar not possible elsewhere around the globe, where America owned only a partial share. As for that bane of American history–race–with its mixture of people in some cases dating back to before the islands were on any map, the Hawai’i fondue was the richest blend in the world. Walking the streets of Honolulu or elsewhere you would need a racial Geiger counter to figure out who was what. The political implications, too, seemed almost stale. With so many more recent examples to choose from, who needs to cluck over nineteenth-century Hawai’i, merely the first of many places beyond our shorelines where an independent people in the way of American imperialism met their fate?