I’ll be the first to admit it – when the rest of the country is practicing the ancient Chinese art of pyrotechnics to celebrate our independence from a country that later went on to produce a disproportionate number of record-topping rock and roll bands, I have a tendency to wax post colonial. Although Independence Day is celebrated with as much fervor as it is in the Historic East as it is in the Manifested Destinations of the West, I always find it ironic when I see it celebrated in Hawai’i – as it were, a sovereign kingdom once independent but essentially stolen for over a century.
I’m not suggesting that independence is a possibility for Hawai’i – the monarchy cannot be made legit again (and regardless of the legalities of annexation, the legalities of admittance to the union are pretty airtight – we all know what happened to the South the last time they brought up that question), but every once in a while I wonder what modern Hawai’i might look like if for some reason the American annexation had never taken place.
Although Hawai’i arguably one of the most unique places on Earth, there is at least some merit in examining the other nations of the South Pacific, most notably Tonga, where residents will proudly point out that their small island country is the only one in the Pacific that never ceded sovereignty to a Western superpower. The outlook isn’t great – although Tonga is a monarchy much like Hawai’i was prior to annexation (Tonga is ironically a autochthonous member of the Commonwealth of Nations, while the Kingdom of Hawai’i once considered itself a protectorate of Britain, although it was never acknowledged) the Hawaiian economy was already more robust in the 19th Century than Tonga’s is today. What little the economy does produce is mostly shared between the monarchy and the nobility, who live in luxurious, modern conditions while the rest of the country live an agrarian subsistence lifestyle punctuated by backdrop of puritanical Christian moral authority (Reverence for the Sabbath is codified in Tonga’s Constitution.) Although much of the economic growth in Hawai’i can be linked to the size of the islands, the fertility of the soil, and the archipelago’s relatively convenient location in the North Central Pacific convenient to both North America and Asia, one wonders how much of that economic growth is related to American influence, and whether it would have happened had Hawaiian sovereignty survived Queen Lili’uokalani’s overthrow attempt. So Tonga’s one example of what Hawai’i might have been like absent American imperialism.
Another example to look to might be New Zealand. Unlike Tonga, New Zealand is a constitutional monarchy which recognizes Queen Elizabeth II as it’s sovereign. Modern New Zealand’s population is roughly four times the size of Hawai’i, which is itself nearly ten times the size of Tonga. Modern New Zealand is one of the most progressive countries in the world, with a developed economy, although like Hawai’i, the indigenous Maori make up a sliver of the population (a testament to the linguistic and cultural ties between the two Polynesian island groups, Hawaiians traditionally referred to themselves as kanaka maoli, or the Maoli People – “r” and “l” are interchangable between the Tahitive languages of the Central and South Pacific) and like it or not, non-natives would make up the racial majority of Hawai’i in any scenario.
Although the idea of an English speaking, monarchical Hawai’i that is a member of the British Commonwealth might seem strange, it’s not far gone from how the early Kamehameha’s viewed the trajectory of the island’s governance – as Sarah Vowell explains in Unfamiliar Fishes, American missionaries waited months for warrants to land and build churches because the ali’i (chiefs) considered themselves protectorates of the British Crown, and didn’t want to risk upsetting their perceived benefactors.The ali’i were actually remarkably adept at administering government – no small task considering the Hawaiian language pre-Western contact was entirely oral – no written language existed. With the parade of Europeans that paraded through the islands in the decades immediately following Captain Cook’s initial contact in 1778, that the Kamehamehas recognized that the key to survival by the 1820s was to seek a European ally shows remarkable understanding of Industrial Age realpolitik; it doesn’t take much to understand the concern of a monarch to seek support from another monarchy, rather than forming an alliance with a nascent democracy where the stirrings of anti-monarchy were less than a generation distant.
Indeed, despite massive population decline and American meddling, Hawai’i by the end of the 1800s was remarkably advanced – when the common western moniker “heathen savage” was leveled at her people, Lili’uokalani shrewdly pointed out that the population of her country was overwhelmingly Christian (and thus neither heathen nor savage, by the literal definition), and enjoyed a literacy rate approaching 75% of adults at a time when only 40% of Americans could read and write. Unfortunately the monarchy itself was advanced to the point where it was blindly following the example of the pampered, politically detached monarch of the Victorian mold – relegating itself to figurehead status without a solid, stable parliamentary government to administer domestic and foreign policy.
Like it or not, Hawai’i is part of the United States. Although I may perhaps always cringe on Independence Day when I think of the parts of our country that celebrate the independence of a nation that later compromised the independence of their own sovereign states, the insurmountable obstacle to viewing history from a “What if?” perspective is that the theories it can never be actualized.
I mua e na poki’i a inu i ka wai ‘awa’awa, ‘a’ohe hope e ho’i mai ai (Move forward brothers and drink of the bitter water, there is no return). – Hawaiian Proverb