Empire, Race, and Sovereignty in Hawai'i: From Kingdom to Statehood

AHA Session 310
Sunday, January 7, 2018: 11:00 AM-12:30 PM
Maryland Suite C (Marriott Wardman Park, Lobby Level)
Julia Irwin, University of South Florida
Julia Irwin, University of South Florida

Session Abstract

Since initial Western contact with the Hawaiian Islands up until the present day, questions of sovereignty over the archipelago have been inextricably linked to questions of race and empire. Over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Hawai‘i was transformed from an independent kingdom to a U.S. colony to America’s fiftieth state, with each point of transition hinging on historically contingent constructions of racial difference and of U.S. global power. Taking a long view of Hawaiian history, this panel will explore how various actors in Hawai‘i and beyond used changing notions of race and empire to debate, enact, and contest Hawai‘i’s legal status in relation to the United States.

Hiʻilei Hobart’s paper addresses the diplomatic role of modern technologies in Native Hawaiian assertions for political sovereignty in the 1880s during the reign of King David Kalākaua, focusing particularly on the telephone’s potential for connecting Native Hawaiian subjects across the archipelago. Tom Smith’s paper explores how American engagements with Hawaiian history and tradition in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, while purporting to be sympathetic to the indigenous population, served to reinforce the idea that Native Hawaiians were a “dying race”, thus undermining their claims to continued political relevance and to sovereignty. Daniel Immerwahr’s paper will consider the surprisingly tense questions over who was “loyal” and who was an “American” during World War II, a period during which the territory of Hawai‘i was governed by martial law. Sarah Miller-Davenport’s paper will examine the ways in which cold war concerns over U.S. race relations, combined with the global movement for decolonization, led to Hawai‘i statehood in 1959. To policymakers in both Honolulu and Washington, Hawai‘i, with its majority Asian population, demanded self-government without severance.

The transition of the Hawaiian Islands, in under seventy years, from a kingdom governed by indigenous monarchs to an American state, is a unique and understudied episode in U.S. history. A long view of Hawaiian history, and a greater awareness of the multiple perspectives from which this history might be viewed, highlight the fact that there is no straightforward teleology from kingdom to statehood. The story of racial formation in Hawai‘i and associated questions of sovereignty over the islands reveal the contingent and contested nature of American hegemony, demonstrating simultaneously the ability of white Americans to wield power, but also the fragile basis of their claims to dominance. This in turn speaks more broadly to histories of U.S. imperialism, prompting us to consider different forms of American power, and the kaleidoscopic nature of resistance to that power.

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