Star-Bulletin Features

Monday, August 3, 1998

State Archives
Hui Aloha Aina was a protest organization
formed to resist annexation.

100 years

'Nation Within' examines
the motives for annexation

By Burl Burlingame


Astronomers peer into the daunting depths of space, attempting to find black holes, those conjunctions of light and heat and matter that collapse in on themselves, letting nothing out. Historians like Tom Coffman are looking backward, only a century, and see a black hole blanking out the events of 1898.

Art For some reason, the Spanish-American War, the moment the United States bellied up to the bar of nations and demanded to be taken seriously, the event that created the American century, has been roundly ignored in it's centennial year.

Part of the fallout from the conflict, however, has dramatic resonance for Hawaii citizens: As the United States plunged headlong into becoming an empire, snatching up overseas possessions, the Republic of Hawaii's pro-American contingent succeeded in handing over its five-year-old nation to Congress, who gladly annexed the territory.

Coffman's efforts to examine the events of 1898 have resulted in a book and a film (the latter co-produced with KHET) both called "Nation Within." A review in Friday's Star-Bulletin said "Coffman has gracefully produced a new vision of Hawaiian history, broader perhaps than any produced in the last 100 years."

"Books have a different sort of impact, more enduring, and film reaches more and has more of an immediate impact," said Coffman in his Kaneohe office, which overlooks a postcard view of the bay.

Coffman is tall and weedy -- an absent-minded professor comes to mind -- which effectively disguises a crackerjack mind. A former political reporter for the Star-Bulletin, Coffman has written some of the seminal books about modern Hawaii, including "Catch a Wave" and "Ganbare." He quit reporting to make a living creating corporate slide-tape presentations -- "I love the immediacy and brilliant color of slide shows" -- and graduated to making documentary films.

The "Nation Within" project has occupied Coffman for the past two years. "I even had in mind a motion picture -- my dramatic film period -- but that would either never have been made or would have dragged on endlessly. I wanted urgently to share this material in 1998, so we can reflect, revisit, relearn the events of a century ago."

By Ken Ige, Star-Bulletin
Tom Coffman, author and filmmaker,
at his home in Kaneohe.

The book is long on facts and short on conclusions.

"I also don't want to get into the vicious circle of rhetoric. That doesn't solve anything. I just want to make a contribution to the learning process."

Coffman was excited about "the process of discovery," the unpredictable unknown, as he delved into piles of government documents "that have only been looked at a couple of times in the last century. It was like a huge tunnel of new things. I turned up a lot of new stuff, not reinterpreting the same old stuff."

The title refers to Hawaii itself, "the only genuine independent nation subsumed by America. I wanted to approach this from a geopolitical perspective, not the usual parochial, small-town perspective we generally fall back on in Hawaii. We're generally obsessed about the few days of the overthrow, we have a whole litany of knowledge on that specific event, but the obscure five years following the overthrow aren't clear at all."

Was annexation to the United States in the cards from the get-go?

"That's the ultimate in speculation, isn't it?" mused Coffman. "I don't think it was inevitable, despite the common feeling we get from local history. I don't believe Hawaii would have been consumed by another country, not easily. Britain, for example, could have taken over Hawaii easily at any time during the 1800s, and chose not to -- one of Lorrin Thurston's rationales for U.S. annexation was fear of British takeover."

One surprise for Coffman was an apparent worldwide ignorance among historians about how Hawaii fell into America's orbit. "No one, and I mean no one, among major-league historians, seemed to know that the Spanish-American War clinched Hawaii's destiny," said Coffman. "They seem to feel it 'just happened.' Well, nothing in history 'just happens.' Hawaii became part of the United States through the determined efforts of a small group of Americans in the islands -- less than 2 percent -- and a group of powerful men in Washington who thought it was a good idea."

These men who believed in America's "manifest destiny" included Henry Cabot Lodge, "Teddy" Roosevelt and Alfred Thayer Mahan, whose visionary grasp of naval geopolitics demanded a world-roving U.S. Navy. Hawaii figured in this grand scheme, Coffman said.

State Archives
Sanford P. Dole was sworn into office during
annexation ceremonies on August 12, 1898.

The lack of interest in the Spanish-American War isn't recent. "There is a whole literature of denial that began immediately. No one wants to touch the Spanish-American War," said Coffman. "It's a collective unconscious of ignorance and denial. So we're starting from scratch in terms of awareness.

"The reason, I think, is that the war was the exact moment America lapsed into imperialism, and no American likes to think of themselves as part of an empire.

"It laid the groundwork for world-changing projects like the Panama Canal. Remember, Kipling's lines about 'East is East and West is West' and 'the white man's burden' were written during this period to help urge the United States into the Philippines."

Annexation didn't just "happen," it was finessed, and to think otherwise is "malarkey," said Coffman. "To say that Hawaii went happily into the American fold is one of the great manipulations of history. A serious number of Americans were opposed, but it had already occurred before most were aware of it."

For example, South Dakota Sen. Richard Pettigrew made his own fact-finding visit to Hawaii during the annexation process, holding several meetings with Hawaiians. Told before he came that most Hawaiians favored annexation, he reported later, "I have failed to find a Native Hawaiian who was not opposed to annexation."

Pettigrew, however, was a Democrat, and annexation was spearheaded by Republicans. In other words, politics as usual, and things weren't all that different a century ago.


An observance of the July 7, 1898 annexation of Hawaii will take place Aug. 11 and 12 at the Iolani Palace and at Mauna'ala, the Royal Mausoleum in Nuuanu.

The observance will begin with a vigil of kupuna at noon Aug. 11 until 6 a.m. Aug. 12 at the palace grounds. A ceremony will take place at 6 a.m. Aug. 12 at Mauna'ala. At 7 a.m., a procession will leave Mauna'ala, go down Nuuanu Avenue to Beretania, stopping at 8 a.m. at Washington Place where another ceremony will take place. The procession will then continue to the Kamehameha statue and to the palace.

Information: Melvin Kalahiki, 235-2727; Lynette Cruz, 738-0084

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