Remembering the Nation of Hawaii

Hawaii's coat of arms outside 'Iolani Palace (Cliff / Flickr) ( )
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

The Obama administration moved forward this week with proposed guidelines for how the U.S. would interact with any future Native Hawaiian government. This is a big deal in Hawaii, where sovereignty is a controversial issue—and one that I often encountered during my time as a reporter covering politics in Honolulu.

Ive always been surprised by how little is taught in American history—in my Pennsylvania high school and Michigan college courses, anyway—about the 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom, and the subsequent U.S. annexation of Hawaii in 1898. This moment in colonial history is revealing in ways that 10 extra textbook chapters about the founding fathers (seriously, enough already) could never be.

The New York Times covered the annexation ceremony in 1898, but I always preferred the account by Mabel Clare Craft Deering in Hawaii Nei, published in 1899.

She writes of the scene outside ʻIolani Palace—where Hawaii’s queen had been imprisoned after the overthrow of her monarchy—as the transfer of sovereignty took place, making Hawaii a territory. (It became a state in 1959.) Deering’s description is agonizing, and underscores the emotional intensity of outliving one’s country:

By this time it lacked but six minutes of noon, and the quavering strains of [Hawaii’s national anthem] “Hawaii Ponoi” were heard, coming up with but half the usual volume... There was a sob and a heartbreak in it, and before the end came an almost complete breakdown. Even the leader's baton was moving through a mist of tears; for he had written the music years before, and the memory of these times when he had played it rushed over him with irresistible force.

Handkerchiefs were out on the platform now, and ministers' wives and cabinet ladies who had been born under this flag, with its eight stripes of red, white, and blue, and the English jack in the corner, were not ashamed to wipe their eyes. The men were frowning fiercely and trying to wink back the tears, but some of them wept audibly and forgot to be ashamed... There were twenty-one guns, the last national salute of the Hawaiian flag...

The bugles rose and fell in the ever-melancholy "taps," and while every one held the breath, the beautiful flag of Hawaii trembled for an instant, then started, and slowly, gracefully sank down the halyards to the ground, where it was caught by loving hands and reverently folded. Just as it started in its descent, the clouds broke away, and a square of the blue Hawaiian sky showed itself as if in farewell and blessing. A great sigh went up from the thousands of upturned faces, and many upon whom the flag had no claim wept for sympathy.

A century after that ceremony, the Hawaiian flag was again raised over ʻIolani Palace. It remains there today, a symbol that is both sacred and painful for those who understand its meaning. And yet sovereignty for the people who trace their roots to the Islands remains a complicated and unresolved question.