View Point

Friday, July 31, 1998

New book acknowledges
theft of Hawaiian nation

Many people, both here and in
Washington, D.C., used 'extra-legal'
methods to ensure annexation

By Kehaulani Lum


IF Thurston Twigg-Smith's slant on the annexation of Hawaii has not yet exhausted its 15 minutes of fame, Tom Coffman's remarkable new release, "Nation Within: The Story of America's Annexation of the Nation of Hawaii," will likely catapult it into oblivion.

An award-winning media producer and author of the widely read political study, "Catch a Wave," Coffman has gracefully constructed a new vision of Hawaiian history, broader perhaps than any produced in the last 100 years.

It is certain to raise the ire of Twigg-Smith and his followers -- not simply because the work defines with great clarity what native scholars and writers have argued for decades about racial injustice and violations of international law, but because it throws open the shades on America's, and the small white oligarchy's nasty little secret of the conspiracy leading up to Hawaii's annexation.

"Where the American definition of Hawaii is of a pleasant and quaint place," Coffman writes in his introduction, "an exploration of Hawaii as a suppressed nation is disturbing but epic. Where people in the twentieth century persistently have written little tales of the Islands, the story of Hawaii as a nation is a turbulent mo‘olelo (tale)."

It is within this framework that "Nation Within" offers a serious re-examination of America's history of global imperialism and the story of a once free and honored people nearly obliterated in the annals of Western expansionism.

For those of us raised on Western-generated accounts of our history (that would be the majority of islanders) and struggling to make sense of the confusion surrounding the movement for Hawaiian sovereignty, Coffman's work enlightens.

With a reporter's sense of good journalism, he summons an appreciation for "the development of chronologics and... cultural context," to answer the essential question of what really happened to the Hawaiian people.

The book unveils a complex yet facile web, rich with irony, duplicity, ruthlessness, pain and, finally, hope. It has all the trappings of the raciest fiction, except that it is a real life story -- a fast-paced saga far removed from the sterile, whitewashed history lessons to which most of us have been exposed.

Rummaging through an enormous variety of sources, Coffman seamlessly pieces together a tale of a highly inventive people struggling slowly, yet relatively successfully, over a century to adapt to changes imposed by the outside world.

We learn how treaties between the Hawaiian monarchy and foreign governments -- Britain, France and, later, America and Japan -- were intended to foster friendly alliances in anticipation of strengthening Hawaii independence. (Ironically, according to Coffman, in 1849 a treaty with America promised "perpetual peace and friendship between the two countries.")

Disturbingly contrary to common constructions of insular tensions, Coffman observes that, all along, America was nursing the idea of Hawaii becoming a captive client state. He tells us that there had been a long-standing movement in Honolulu to bind Hawaii and America, and a just as long-standing movement in Washington with a comparable goal.

Much of the book resonates with details of the parallel evolutions of American expansionism and changes in Hawaiian domestic structure precipitating annexation. We learn a great deal about both, including the hypocrisy of the highly militarized, elite white contingent, who with years of American guidance behind them, would eventually comprise the provisional government.

With the ease of a master weaver, Coffman plaits a stunning, trans-oceanic story linking like-minded individuals from the Hawaiian oligarchy to the highest levels of the U.S. government, leading us directly into the Oval Office of three presidents.

He dispels the American notion that Liliuokalani brought the overthrow on herself, and asks the all-important question, "How did a particular circle of people within the 2 percent American colony come to dominate the situation?" The answer, he says, was the American government's relentless pursuit of control.

With behind-the-scenes insight, Coffman reveals a broad pattern of manipulation and "willingness to engage in 'extra-legal methods' to achieve the annexation of Hawaii." These were not the singular acts of an overzealous minister, as we have often been led to believe, but the insidious culmination of efforts of people with names both famous and unknown: Cleveland, Harrison, McKinley, Roosevelt, Stevens, Blaine, Morgan, Match. "America," he insists, "overthrew Hawaii's government."

The painstaking details of American expansionism, discrimination, phony conjuring of foreign menaces and, finally, consumption are penetrating and morally critical.

For me, a child of post-statehood Hawaii, the real gems are embedded in the unheard stories of native revolt. At a time when Queen Liliuokalani would write, "We are without arms. And, they are armed to the teeth," Coffman describes how the Hawaiian resistance was quick to form -- first by diplomacy, second by armed force and third by a coordinated process of protest which drew hundreds into the streets, and formed the basis for a representative delegation to Washington.

"Nation Within" is a marvelously chronicled, important contribution to understanding Hawaii's story and the relations of Hawaii and America. It is a vital step in a process which will change people's understanding of the Hawaiian response, past and present, to westernization.

Kehaulani Lum lives in Aiea. She was previously an aide in the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, is a former research development officer for Alu Like and has produced television documentaries on Hawaiian issues.

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