Unsustainable Empire: Alternative Histories of Hawai'i Statehood

Unsustainable Empire: Alternative Histories of Hawai'i Statehood

by Dean Itsuji Saranillio

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In Unsustainable Empire Dean Itsuji Saranillio offers a bold challenge to conventional understandings of Hawai‘i’s admission as a U.S. state. Hawai‘i statehood is popularly remembered as a civil rights victory against racist claims that Hawai‘i was undeserving of statehood because it was a largely non-white territory. Yet Native Hawaiian opposition to statehood has been all but forgotten. Saranillio tracks these disparate stories by marshaling a variety of unexpected genres and archives: exhibits at world's fairs, political cartoons, propaganda films, a multimillion-dollar hoax on Hawai‘i’s tourism industry, water struggles, and stories of hauntings, among others. Saranillio shows that statehood was neither the expansion of U.S. democracy nor a strong nation swallowing a weak and feeble island nation, but the result of a U.S. nation whose economy was unsustainable without enacting a more aggressive policy of imperialism. With clarity and persuasive force about historically and ethically complex issues, Unsustainable Empire provides a more complicated understanding of Hawai‘i’s admission as the fiftieth state and why Native Hawaiian place-based alternatives to U.S. empire are urgently needed.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781478002291
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 11/16/2018
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 312
Sales rank: 986,694
File size: 22 MB
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About the Author

Dean Itsuji Saranillio is Assistant Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University.

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Hawai'i at the 1893 Chicago World's Columbian Exposition

Only four months after helping to lead the U.S. military–backed overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom, Lorrin A. Thurston was in Chicago at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition. Thurston, a third-generation settler descended from some of the first American missionaries to Hawai'i, was at the world's fair helping to manage his "Cyclorama of Kilauea" — a five-story-high and four-hundred-foot-wide landscape painting of Kilauea crater designed to encircle the viewer and give the impression of standing in the actual volcano. Using the cyclorama as an "imperial advertisement" for annexation, Thurston placed large American flags at the top of it. Thurston hoped that the cyclorama might help to present another vision of the American frontier, one that would extend the imagined borders of the United States into the Pacific, to Hawai'i. For annexationists, Hawai'i needed to be seen not as the internationally recognized nation that it had been since 1843, with foreign delegates throughout the world, but as an exotic island frontier zone, a primitive space to be made anew with the joint help of white settlers in Hawai'i and a newly industrialized United States.

Lorrin A. Thurston's activities in Chicago were part of a predetermined opinion campaign with two objectives: to shape public perception of the overthrow of Queen Lili'uokalani's constitutional government, and to generate U.S. national and international support for the annexation of Hawai'i to the United States. Described by historians as the "most ardent and proficient propagandist on behalf of the provisional government," Thurston was responsible for forming two groups: the Annexation Club and the Hawaiian Bureau of Information. The Annexation Club, later renamed the Committee of Safety, conspired with the U.S. foreign minister to Hawai'i, John L. Stevens, to secure U.S. military backing and secretly carry out the overthrow. The Hawaiian Bureau of Information acted as a kind of media arm of the campaign, aiming to shape Hawai'i's image through advertising as a means to facilitate both tourism and white settler colonialism. The Hawaiian Bureau of Information advertised for tourist travel specifically to attract a so-called desirable population to settle in Hawai'i and outnumber Kanaka 'Oiwi. They also used the "Cyclorama of Kilauea" to frame the narration of the January 1893 overthrow of Queen Lili'uokalani in racist and misogynistic terms. If hegemony is hard work, as is often said, then Thurston worked tirelessly, traveling across the country feeding such settler propaganda to journalists.

The cultural work required to normalize white settler control of Hawai'i resonated at the Columbian Exposition. The entire exposition was referred to popularly as the "White City." With more than twenty-seven million people attending, it commemorated the four-hundredth anniversary of Christopher Columbus's so-called discovery of America, along with the fulfillment of this "divine" event through the imagined defeat of Native Americans and the successful settlement of their lands. It was here that Frederick Jackson Turner pronounced his "frontier thesis," declaring the frontier settled and, more explicitly, describing a linear transition from Native governance and economies to U.S. settler territories and states. The significance of the settlement of the frontier in 1893 was bolstered by the 1890 Massacre at Wounded Knee, a mass murder of an estimated three hundred Lakota by the U.S. Seventh Cavalry, imagined by most Americans at the time to be the final military defeat of Native American resistance. As Philip J. Deloria argues, these specific events together informed many of the displays at the 1893 Columbian Exposition, wherein U.S. history was narrated "not as a frontiersman's struggle with wild lands, but as one long Indian war, a violent contest in which Americans were shaped by constant struggle with a dangerous and challenging adversary." As such, these supposed democratic virtues normalized and mythologized settler colonialism and genocide. Such culminating achievements were issued as evidence of white American superiority.

These claims, however, were made during a time when its economic dominance appeared most threatened. By 1893, the United States was in a major economic depression, with five hundred banks closed and fifteen thousand companies out of business. By the middle of 1894 unemployment had reached a record four million. During this time, greedy management practices coupled with poor economic and work conditions produced class conflicts such as the 1887 Haymarket Riot and the 1893 Pullman Strikes in Chicago, as well as some thirty lesser-known strikes that occurred throughout the country at the time of the Columbian Exposition. U.S. foreign policy thus sought larger foreign markets in which to sell a surplus of products created through rapid industrialization. Many white working-class Americans began to link industrial maturity with degenerating labor conditions and began to call for revolution. In 1894, Secretary of State Walter Gresham wrote: "I am not a pessimist, but I think I see danger in existing conditions in this country. What is transpiring in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and in regions west of there, may fairly be viewed as symptoms of revolution."

U.S. business and government leaders believed that foreign markets, gained through aggressive imperialist policies, were necessary to guard against both populist revolt and economic depression. Historian Walter LaFeber explains that the Harrison administration's support of Lorrin A. Thurston and others plotting the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom was a product of what he calls "depression diplomacy" — where U.S. leaders deemed the securing of overseas markets a necessity in alleviating a glut of industrial goods. Hawai'i's strategic location in the Pacific Ocean benefited the United States militarily, providing economic access to markets in Asia by protecting and enabling trade routes. This economic depression, coupled with a highly organized and politically effective Kanaka 'Oiwi movement against white settler hegemony in Hawai'i, consequently animated white settlers in Hawai'i to desperately plot and carry out the 1893 overthrow.

The U.S. occupation of Native American and Kanaka 'Oiwi lands necessitated opinion campaigns to both legitimize and facilitate such settler violence. In the last decade of the nineteenth century, the presumed final pacification of Native Americans — with stakes in the crafting of American ideas of white manhood and civilization — was imagined to signal America's readiness to transition from a continental power to a hemispheric imperial power. Future President Theodore Roosevelt, a political ally and friend of Hawai'i propagandist Lorrin A. Thurston, declared in various volumes of The Winning of the West that the closing of the continental frontier only meant the opening of a new frontier overseas.

While the narration of the Columbian Exposition centered white American civilization through the settlement of the frontier, the "Cyclorama of Kilauea" portrayed Hawaiian women, specifically through the figure of Pele — described as the "Goddess of Fire" — as dangerous female threats to the presumed natural development of white heteropatriarchal control over Hawai'i. Indeed, the planners of the Columbian Exposition found synergy between the story expressed at their fair and the events taking place in Hawai'i. In preparation for the opening day of the exposition, the Chicago Tribune suggested hoisting the same American flag above the exposition's "Grand Entrance" that had been flown over the Hawaiian Government Building during the overthrow, opining that such a gesture would "advertise the cause of annexation and once more bring it home to the minds and hearts of all Americans." Such settler theatrics were deployed to spread information while also emotionally recruiting others in the service of settler colonialism.

The ubiquitous visual evidence of white supremacy at the White City betrays another story or logic that demonstrates a fail-forward pattern of settler colonialism. The economic crisis of the 1890s is critical to understanding both the Columbian Exposition and the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom. This crisis set in motion a body of racial knowledge that animated mutually constitutive discursive formations — primitivism and Orientalism — with distinct geopolitical implications that articulated U.S. formations of settler colonialism with U.S. imperialism. Spectators of the Columbian Exposition were encouraged to view the nonwhite world as an obstruction to white civilizational progress, and thus a potential threat to their well-being, in ways that scientifically and morally rationalized imperial theft and violence. At the same time, however, specific formations of Orientalism allowed for Japan to be seen as a government that could facilitate modernity by opening Asia to capitalism and get the United States out of its economic depression.

The seeming closing of the frontier can also be viewed as the enclosure of a plurality of Native American economies that itself was only accomplished through colonial violence and theft. The transitions from Indigenous land-based economies to settler capitalism are often naturalized, yet thinking through the transitions between such modes of life can be informative, though not deterministic, of particular reads of the Columbian Exposition. By examining the theft and genocide inscribed within Edward Said's "future wish" that animated exhibits at the Columbian Exposition, this chapter examines how settler statecraft allowed for a global celebration of white supremacy, even in a moment when the mode of production underpinning its existence — capitalism — was most under threat. Such celebrations in a moment of economic depression were not contradictory, but rather strategic. I aim to show that white settler society — the White City — had to be represented as a "more deserving power" than Native nations and economies for a capitalist system to even survive.


By the end of the nineteenth century, the existence of the entire sugar industry in Hawai'i was dependent on low and lucrative tariffs set through reciprocity treaties between Hawai'i and the United States. As historian Jonathan Kamakawiwo'ole Osorio has argued in Dismembering Lahui: A History of the Hawaiian Nation to 1887, the Reciprocity Treaty between the United States and the Hawaiian Kingdom, initially signed in 1876, gave Hawai'i's sugar industry a two-cent-per-pound bounty and thus a favored position over other foreign sugars that were competing in the U.S. market. In return, the Hawaiian government was forbidden from leasing or disposing "any port, harbor, or other territory" to any other nation. Such a Reciprocity Treaty was initiated by the United States as a result of the post–Civil War depression, what is sometimes referred to as the Long Depression. Joseph Nawahi, an ardent Hawaiian nationalist and representative from Hilo and Puna, strongly voiced the opposition of many Kanaka 'Oiwi to the Reciprocity Treaty, calling it a "nation-snatching treaty" and the "first step of annexation."

Because of the lagging U.S. economy in the 1890s, however, sugar growers in the United States successfully lobbied Congress to pass the 1890 McKinley Tariff. This act would abolish the tariff relations established through the Reciprocity Treaty and diminish Hawai'i's sugar planters' ability to compete in U.S. markets. Hawai'i's sugar planters viewed the Reciprocity Treaty as not only lucrative but largely a necessity for the sugar industry in Hawai'i to remain competitive. Z. S. Spalding, a prominent sugar planter, reminisced, "Before the reciprocity treaty had passed ... I do not think that there was a single plantation that had not gone into bankruptcy." In fact, four years after the Reciprocity Treaty was established, sugar production doubled, and by 1890, plantations produced ten times more sugar than they had in 1876. This dramatic rise in sugar production led to the accumulation of more capital for sugar planters; the establishment of banks; new technologies in irrigation and processing; a demand for more land, resources, and labor; and, especially, political influence.

Having amassed economic power through the Reciprocity Treaty, white settler planters were willing to use whatever force necessary to maintain profitable tariff relations with the United States. When the Reciprocity Treaty was up for renewal in 1885, the United States offered to do so only in exchange for the use of Pu'uloa, Pearl Harbor, as a naval base. When King Kalakaua (1874–91) refused, white settlers organized rifle clubs and forced the "Bayonet Constitution" upon him. Written in 1887 by Lorrin A. Thurston, the aforementioned propagandist of the annexationists, the Bayonet Constitution would dramatically limit the influence of the monarch while disenfranchising a majority of Hawaiians from voting for the House of Nobles through income and property requirements. Literacy requirements were also designated but did not hinder Kanaka from voting. Importantly, the Bayonet Constitution also restricted all Asians in Hawai'i from both naturalization and voting.

Although the 1887 Bayonet Constitution was imagined as giving white settlers electoral advantages, it also sparked a highly organized and effective movement whose target was the political structure established by the Thurston-created faction. In the aftermath of the Bayonet Constitution, Hawaiians began organizing politically, forming the Hui Kalai'aina in 1887 and the Hui Aloha 'Aina in 1893. By 1890, one year after an unsuccessful coup attempt to remove the Bayonet Constitution, Hawaiians, through the Hui Kalaìaina, joined forces with the Mechanics' and Workingmen's Political Protective Union to run candidates who were friendly to both labor and a new constitution. Many wealthy Chinese who were Hawaiian nationals but unable to vote began to employ hundreds of Kanaka 'Oiwi so they could meet the income requirements for voting. This new historical bloc of '?iwi, Chinese, and labor won the 1890 elections by a landslide. Two years later, in an election held in October of 1892, this new political group would also win two vacant seats in the House of Nobles. Indeed, they became effective at politically defeating the plantation elite even when the Bayonet Constitution was designed to marginalize them from political influence.

With white settler economic and political power in decline, the passing of the 1890 McKinley Tariff led sugar planters to consider annexation to the United States as a possible strategy to recapture white settler hegemony. Still, by the early 1890s, some sugar planters needed convincing, as they were concerned that annexation might bring American labor laws that would extinguish the contract system that had made the sugar industry so lucrative. Debates were framed between the benefits of remaining an independent nation and maintaining an exploitable Asian labor force versus reestablishing profitable American trade relations through annexation. Paul Isenberg, a prominent leader of the sugar industry, explained that he was strongly opposed to annexation because he felt having a surplus of exploitable labor led to more stability. Isenberg argued that arranging workers' wages so that the "Chinese and Japanese had to work or be hungry" made them easier to control.

The large number of "Oriental" laborers required by the sugar plantations also led to anxieties about the possibility of an imperialist plot by the Japanese government to take control of the islands. By 1897, there were 25,000 Japanese out of a total population of 109,020 in Hawai'i, so fears that such a large Japanese population could gain control of Hawai'i were not without merit. In Between Two Empires, Eiichiro Azuma asserts that the exodus of laborers from Japan to Hawai'i coincided with a "branch of Japanese imperialist thought" that viewed the Western Hemisphere as Japan's own frontier to be settled. Meiji leaders, he explains, viewed Japanese emigration as part of a Japanese style of manifest destiny, forged out of overseas settlements that were economically and politically tied to Japan. Azuma argues that government leaders assigned "a nationalist meaning to the act of emigration on the premise that the masses shared the same dedication to the state's collective purpose." As such, white sugar planters needed to contend not only with a burgeoning Hawaiian nationalist movement made up of Kanaka 'Oiwi and Chinese to protect their national sovereignty, but also a large Japanese population whose government had an interest in the Hawaiian Islands.


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Table of Contents

Preface. "Statehood Sucks"  ix
Acknowledgments  xxi
Introduction. Colliding Futures of Hawai‘i Statehood  1
1. A Future Wish: Hawai‘i at the 1893 Chicago World's Columbian Exposition  31
2. The Courage to Speak: Disrupting Haole Hegemony at the 1937 Congressional Statehood Hearings  67
3. "Something Indefinable Would Be Lost": The Unruly Kamokila and Go for Broke!  99
4. The Propaganda of Occupation: Statehood and the Cold War  131
5. Alternative Futures beyond the Settler State  171
Conclusion. Scenes of Resurgence: Slow Violence and Slow Resistance  197
Notes  211
Bibliography  245
Index  267

What People are Saying About This

Paradoxes of Hawaiian Sovereignty: Land, Sex, and the Colonial Politics of State Nationalism - J. Kehaulani Kauanui

"Beautifully written and robustly theorized, Unsustainable Empire provides a much-needed intellectual, epistemological, and political intervention in multiple fields as it challenges the segregation of knowledge production in relation to Hawai‘i and the distinctions between indigeneity, race, and ethnicity. One of the book’s best features is its polished and refined way of retelling Hawaii’s history in a way that turns prevailing orthodoxy on its head, offering a sustained interrogation in an accessible and exciting way.”

The Power of the Steel-Tipped Pen: Reconstructing Native Hawaiian Intellectual History - Noenoe K. Silva

“This is an absolutely brilliant book on the little-known or remembered struggle over statehood and the role of white supremacy in Asian settler colonialism and supposed multicultural equality in Hawai‘i. It is timely, necessary, and exceedingly well-argued. Unsustainable Empire reveals how nonhaole settler colonialism in Hawai‘i works, how the myth of multiculturalism in the statehood movement operated, and what the legacy of statehood is today. Importantly, the book introduces us to the Kanaka and non-Kanaka characters who fought against statehood based on ideas of justice for Kanaka.”

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