Historical Narratives, the “Dying Race,” and US Colonialism in Hawai'i, 1880–1920

Sunday, January 7, 2018: 11:20 AM
Maryland Suite C (Marriott Wardman Park)
Tom Smith, University of Cambridge
The erosion of the sovereignty of the Hawaiian monarchy, culminating in the annexation of the islands by the United States in 1898, was accompanied by claims from Americans in the archipelago that Native Hawaiians were a race destined for extinction. On the one hand, the severe depopulation of the islands’ indigenous people, after sustained contact with Europeans had begun in the late-eighteenth century, was a tragic fact. On the other hand, discussions of Hawaiians as a dying race, while purporting to seek an antidote, rhetorically paved the way for a future in which Native Hawaiians would inevitably disappear, leaving the islands to white American rule supported by a multiethnic labour force. While the idea that the rhetorical production of ‘vanishing races’ might serve such a purpose is not new, I argue that more pernicious ways of normalizing a vision of the future without Native Hawaiians can be found in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, perhaps somewhat paradoxically in Americans’ engagements with the indigenous past. In particular, some children and grandchildren of American Protestant missionaries, born and brought up in Hawai‘i, claimed a unique sympathy with the native population and published work which supposedly preserved fragments of history and tradition as told by Hawaiians before they disappeared altogether. However, we might consider such work against the backdrop of the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893 and the islands’ annexation in 1898, both of which were strongly advocated by these same figures. In this context, the dismissal of Hawaiian accounts as artefacts of a culture that was passing away undermined the monarchy’s employment of such narratives when making claims to sovereignty. This elision gives us insight into the cultural foundations upon which U.S. empire in the islands rested, and the contingencies and contestations obscured by ‘dying race’ rhetoric.