Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Betrayal of Liliuokalani

Since my youth, the islands of Hawaii have evoked strong images and emotions in me. I travelled there with my family when I was around 12, and for the first time I met an American living a totally different lifestyle. He was a friend of my brothers who had decided he was going to spend his time in the sun and surfing. For a rain-soaked kid from the Pacific Northwest, this seemed like an incredible adventure. So it happened that, when I was 19 years old and had an opportunity to travel, I bought a ticket for Honolulu, where I was to live, work, and surf for the next four months. As it was my first independent experience of traveling, I hold a special place in my memories for this time of my life.

I probably got spoiled. Hawaii is one of the few places I've been where I had the distinct feeling that I was in a special, sacred part of the earth. It is with this personal background that I have begun reading on Hawaiian history. The book I chose to start with is titled "The Betrayal of Liliuokalani" by Helena Allen. "The Betrayal" is not that good, unfortunately. In an attempt to be thorough, the author makes the classic History-class mistake of presenting the past as a collection of dates and names. It took some discipline to get past the first 200 pages.

The incredible story of how the Hawaiian Monarchy was overthrown, however, is too interesting to get diminished through poor writing. Non-native property owners were successful in getting American troops to land on shore to "protect (their) life and property". This was in response to the Queen's attempt to write a new constitution that was more favorable to native Hawaiians. With the implicit backing of the soldiers, a group of 13 non-Hawaiians established a provisional government. The president of the United States at the time, Grover Cleveland, wrote a letter condemning the action and demanding a reversal. Incredibly, this small group of men rejected the command of the President. Their reasoning was an amazing display of how clever legal maneuvering can undermine justice.

The provisional government stated that as they were the de facto government of Hawaii, they were an independent nation not subject to American law. Nevermind that these men were Americans and that their coup was only made possible through the force of the American military. Short of a war that Congress was reluctant to agree to, nothing more could be done. With the beginning of WWI, the strategic importance of these islands was recognized and the move from annexation to statehood was completed.

I hope to read more about Hawaiian history in other books. Somehow the tedious style of this book seemed especially incongruent for a place like Hawaii. I would also critique that the author was too one-sided in her perspective, but I am beginning to understand that the situation really was pretty lopsided. In fact, President Clinton made an official apology to Hawaii for the manner in which it became a state of the union.

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