E Wehe Ae: Telephone Technology in Kalākaua’s Hawai'i

Sunday, January 7, 2018: 11:00 AM
Maryland Suite C (Marriott Wardman Park)
Hi'ilei Julia Hobart, Northwestern University
On October 10, 1883, a jaunty little mele (song) about telephones appeared in the Hawai‘i Island-based newspaper Ke Ko‘o O Hawai‘i entitled “Ka Uwea Kelepona,” or, “The Telephone Wire.” The technology had recently arrived in the Islands and its praises were being sung to Ke Koʻo’s curious readership, many of whom did not yet own or use telephones themselves. The song’s lyrics encouraged Hawaiians to pick up the receiver and call away to the central telephone exchange and “E wehe ae!” – to connect to their lāhui (people) across all the big cities and small hamlets of the archipelago nation. This mele is one of the few known discussions of early telephone technology in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi (Hawaiian language). As a standalone artifact, “Ka Uwea Kelepona” offers rich and multilayered documentation of Native engagement with modern telecommunication. However, the byline of the mele indicates that the telephone’s importance extended far beyond technological novelty. The song, signed ‘T. Affy,’ reveals its author to likely be King David Kalākaua, whose efforts to modernize Hawaiʻi took on political import for maintaining the Kingdom’s sovereignty in the face of US colonial pressure in the late-nineteenth century. This paper analyzes the context and content of “Ka Uwea Kelepona” by considering linguistic syntax, print history, Native Hawaiian cultures of communication, and the identity of the mele’s author. Read as a message from the monarch to his Native subjects, the song reveals how technology networks offered both powerful and empowering potentialities for the Hawaiian Kingdom in a time of political uncertainty.
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