What happened to the Hawaiians

We are drowning in a sea of foreigners.

Once There Was Fire, A Novel of Old Hawaii, copyright, 2016, Stephen Shender

Readers who have commented on my historical novel about old Hawaii—either in reviews or in response to promotional posts about the book on Facebook—have drawn parallels between the fates of Native Americans and indigenous Hawaiians at the hands of expansionist white Americans. Without question, the ultimate fates of both groups were nearly identical. By the end of the 19th century, the numbers of both had been drastically reduced, both groups had lost their lands, and the cultures of both had been suppressed. But while the consequences of Native Americans’ and native Hawaiians’ respective collisions with encroaching white Anglo Saxon civilization were the same, the tragic routes that delivered each group to the same ends were not. Briefly, 19th century Native Americans most often resisted white encroachment; 19th century Hawaiians tried to adapt to it.

Native Americans’ fate has been popularized in books like Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, about the Plains Indians, and in films about the relocation of the Cherokees from the Antebellum South to the western territories on the “Trail of Tears.” Over several hundred years, whites resorted to  various means to dispossess Native Americans of their lands, such as coerced treaties that whites later abrogated and acts of Congress—most notably, the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Early European colonists and later, American soldiers, conducted military campaigns against Native Americans—who, not surprisingly, either retaliated after the fact, or turned to peremptory strikes to resist advancing white settlement. British soldiers waged germ warfare on Native Americans in the 17th century, distributing smallpox-contaminated blankets to Eastern Seaboard tribes. Gen. George Armstrong Custer was bent on exterminating Native Americans when he led his men into an ambush on the Little Bighorn in 1876. Three centuries of armed, white suppression of Native Americans culminated in the 1890 massacre of more than 300 Lakota Sioux—men, women and children—at Wounded Knee. Much of this history is familiar to Americans today.

What befell 19th century Hawaiians is not nearly as well known, and especially not to American “mainlanders.” Unlike Native Americans, the Hawaiians did not resist haole (white) culture and civilization; they eagerly embraced it. Hawaiians had abandoned their own religious traditions and laws (kapu) months before the First Company of Congregationalist missionaries from Boston reached the islands in the spring of 1820. The ali‘i—the Hawaiian nobility—welcomed the missionaries, gave them land for their settlements and churches, and abetted their proselytizing.

Hawaiians had a rich oral tradition, but no written language when American missionaries arrived in 1820. The missionaries sought to spread the Word by teaching Hawaiians to read it—in Hawaiian. They devised a phonetic alphabet, produced religious tracts in the Hawaiian language and established Hawaiian-language schools throughout the Islands. Within a generation, the Hawaiian people had achieved the world’s highest literacy rate, and parents were demanding that their children learn to read and write English as well as Hawaiian. (This, at a time when Native American children enrolled in U.S. government-run schools were taught in English and forbidden to speak their own languages.)

Kauikeaouli, who succeeded to the throne as Kamehameha III at age 11 in 1825 after his older brother, Liholiho—Kamehameha II—died of measles on a visit to London, led a political acculturation to the West. He turned to haole advisers—initially, former missionaries who joined his government—for help in transforming the feudal kingdom of his father, Kamehameha I, into a constitutional monarchy. By the time of his death in 1854, the Hawaiian Kingdom boasted all the features of a modern, 19th century nation-state, including a legislature, a legal code, courts, and by 1848, “fee-simple” (titled) land ownership. Executive authority continued to reside with the king, but Kamehameha III appointed foreigners, many of them Americans, to ministerial posts and consulted with these haole in running his government. This practice continued under his successors.

The picture of Hawaii in the 19th century is one of a people rapidly accommodating themselves to the outside world, led by a hereditary ruling class—the ali‘i—intent on conforming their political institutions to Western expectations. In this, Kamehameha III and his successors were motivated throughout by their desire to protect their small, weak nation against encroachment by foreign powers—principally, the United States.

So, what happened? In a word, disease. Kamehameha I’s death from measles in London was prophetic. The isolated Hawaiians had no immunities against Western diseases, and by the mid-19th century, tens of thousands had been carried off by measles, mumps, smallpox, and the like. The Hawaiians numbered at least 400,000 people when Capt. James Cook “discovered” the “Sandwich Islands” in 1778-79. By the time a cabal of American sugar growers and businessmen—citizens of the kingdom, all—overthrew the monarchy in 1893, disease had reduced the aboriginal native population to 40,000, according to the kingdom’s last census in 1890. The decline of the native population had already spurred the recruitment of Chinese, and later, Japanese laborers to work in the haole sugar plantations. Kamehameha III’s successors encouraged and supported the haole’s introduction of these foreign workers out of concern for their island kingdom’s economy. By the 1890 census, the kingdom’s native-born foreigners and foreign-national residents numbered more than 49,000. Pure-native Hawaiians had been reduced to a minority in their own land.

Powerful foreign political and economic interests were immediately responsible for the monarchy’s overthrow in 1893 and the subsequent annexation of Hawaii by the United States. But the haole didn’t steal the islands, so much as they acquired them by default of the native population’s natural decline and exhaustion. Accommodation to the West failed the Hawaiians because their numbers were so depleted by haole diseases. Hawaii would likely be a different place today if pure-native Hawaiians had still outnumbered foreigners ten to one in 1893.










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