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Reading and Teaching the Forum on Hawai‘i in World History

Christine Skwiot


     Nineteenth-century maps proclaiming Hawai‘i the "Crossroads of the Pacific" make clear that it was a crossroads of the Atlantic as well. From the late eighteenth century, first as a center of trade and labor recruitment for fur traders, then as a supplier of sandalwood, and then as the winter port of the bulk of the world's whaling fleet, Hawai‘i became a key node in the global capitalist economy, connecting the Americas, Asia, and Europe. While some observers noted and still remark that Hawai‘i is more distant from another body of land than any other place on earth, thus asserting the isolation of Hawai‘i and Hawaiians from the world, most indigenous and foreign peoples understood that the location of Hawai‘i made it a key pivot-point upon which a growing volume of global trade in ideas, institutions, and goods and of overseas migration could and soon did turn. Hawaiians from all levels of society, as well as foreigners, actively and often eagerly participated in the incorporation of Hawai‘i into global networks of trade and migration and promoted the consolidation Hawai‘i into a centralized monarchy and sovereign state recognized as a member of the emergent world family of nations.

     The cosmopolitanism, global engagements, and mobility of Hawaiians had historic roots in the exploration, colonization, and settlement of the ocean that covers one-third of the earth's surface. Approximately 4,000 ago, migrants from New Guinea who had settled in the Bismarck Islands met a new group of intruders with original roots in Formosa. By around 1350 B.C. they became the Lapita people and soon embarked on the then most extensive and rapid migration and settlement process in world history. They reached the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, and New Caledonia in a few hundred years, and then Fiji, Samoa, and Tonga not long after 1000 B.C., where they began to become Polynesians. For nearly a thousand years, expansion stopped. Then, improvements in canoe and sailing technologies enabled the people some scholars call proto-Polynesians to migrate to the Marquesas about 100 B.C; from the Marquesas, they colonized Hawai‘i and Rapa Nui (Easter Island) between 300 and 700 A.D., and New Zealand by around 1200 A.D. Subsequently, explorers from Society Islands moved to and around Hawai‘i and other Polynesian points for more than century before and a century after 1000 A.D. These two waves of often two-way exploration, migration, and settlement each lasted about two-hundred years.1

     After reaching what he called the Sandwich Islands in 1778, Captain James Cook proclaimed the Hawaiian archipelago the northern edge of a vast nation. It stretched "from New Zealand to the south, as far as the Sandwich Islands to the north, and in another direction from Easter Island to the Hebrides: that is, over an extent of sixty degrees of latitude, or twelve hundred leagues north and south, and eighty-three degrees longitude, or sixteen hundred and sixty leagues east and west!" Cook was awestruck: "How much farther in either direction its colonies reach is not known; but what we know already...warrants our pronouncing it to be...certainly by far the most extensive nation on earth."2 Cook discerned the outlines of a history later generations of Euro-American imperialists and imperial historians denied and labored to erase: Polynesians were related to, and for much of their history, in sustained contact with one another. The exploration and settlement of the Pacific Islands was the deliberate undertaking of skilled nautical peoples who built and maintained networks of trade, kinship, and marriage and of cultural, political, and religious exchange.

     While many islanders became isolated from one another before Westerners arrived in the Pacific, their memories of themselves as a mobile and cosmopolitan oceanic peoples endured. In his contribution to this forum, Kealani Cook stresses that from the end of the voyaging period in Hawai‘i through the arrival of Captain James Cook in 1778, Native Hawaiians sustained intellectual, spiritual, and genealogical ties with the islands and islanders of southern Oceania and understandings of themselves as sea-faring peoples through chant, legend, and grand oral genealogical histories known as kū‘auhau.

     The best world history textbooks and monographs draw upon Hawaiian and Pacific scholarship to interpret a long history of cross-cultural encounters and engagements between Hawaiian and other Pacific Islanders and Outlanders from both sides of the beach, and at their finest, of reciprocal interactions and mutual transformations. However, Pacific Islanders still more often appear rooted rather than mobile, more historical actors than agents of historic change. As Nicholas Thomas observes, "the 'both sides talk' [approach] tends to preserve the idea that on one of these 'sides' we find indigenous communities, communities that are bounded, firmly situated in place, and culturally coherent" and are "recipients of 'global' forces, meanings, and commodities, emanating largely from the West."3

     The four essays in this forum on Hawai‘i in world history focus on some key yet very different ways the indigenous people of and later migrants, settlers, and refugees in Hawai‘i harnessed global ideas, institutions, and networks to pursue particular rights, ranging from the right of the Kingdom of Hawai‘i to sovereign nation-statehood and membership in the world of nations in the nineteenth century to civil, legal, and human rights under imperial and martial law in the twentieth century. In the first two essays, Stacy Kamehiro and Kealani Cook join Thomas in attending to the mobility of indigenous communities. They analyze the ways Hawaiians harnessed Western nation-state ideas and practices to indigenous nation-building projects and to trans-national and trans-regional cultural and political engagements aimed at securing internal and international respect for the sovereign statehood of the Kingdom. The second two essays, by Charles Romney and Alan Rosenfeld, analyze the pursuit of legal rights in Hawai‘i, respectively, by Asian migrant-settlers under U.S. territorial law at the turn-of-the-twentieth century and by U.S. civilian internees under martial law during World War II. Both authors situate Hawai‘i in comparative and world historical frameworks, again respectively and particularly, the history of imperial legal regimes and colonial intimacies, and the history of legal rights and national and global security.

     Starting in the mid-nineteenth century, Western states organized and participated in world's fairs and international expositions to showcase the agricultural, artistic, and industrial progress of their nations and to display the exotic customs, cultures, and peoples of non-white and colonial peoples. These fairs and expositions were pageants of power and prestige, designed to stir the national pride and patriotism of the citizens of Western nations and to celebrate the racial and civilizational superiority of white nationals over non-white colonials. But the history of world's fairs is more complicated and multi-directional, as Stacy Kamehiro shows in her essay on the participation of the Kingdom of Hawai‘i in nineteenth-century world's fairs in Australia, Europe, and the United States. Hawaiian participation in world's fairs, she argues, "provides a rare and remarkable example of Native self-display." In showcasing Hawai‘i as a civilized and modernizing indigenous nation, Hawaiian world's fair exhibits challenged Western constructions of their people and nations as exotic and inferior others incapable of or unfit for self-government. Like those of other nations, the exhibits Hawai‘i sent abroad during the reigns of King Kamehameha V (Lota Kapuāiwa) and King David Kalākaua aimed at instilling national pride and patriotism among the Native, Asian, and Euro-American citizens and settlers of Hawai‘i and promoting a national and international appreciation for Hawaiian agriculture, arts, history, and industry, and global recognition of and respect for the sovereignty of the Kingdom of Hawai‘i.  

     Collaborative endeavors of the Hawaiian, Asian, and Euro-American (haole) citizens and settlers of the Kingdom, world's fairs also became a site of contestation and struggle between the agents and forces of anti-colonial Native nationalism, on the one hand, and haole settlers and U.S. imperialism, on the other hand. After haole stripped King Kalākaua of his power to rule by forcing him to sign the Bayonet Constitution of 1887 and overthrew the sovereign monarch, Queen Lili‘uokalani, and the independent Kingdom of Hawai‘i in 1893, the focus of Hawaiian exhibits at world's fairs shifted from displays of its long and rich history and the indigenous modernization of a sovereign state. Annexationist haole instead represented Hawai‘i and Hawaiians as feminized and racialized inferiors in need of U.S. imperial tutelage and rule.

     Kealani Cook also analyzes the internal and international goals of Native Hawaiian nationalists in his history of King Kalākaua's Polynesian Confederacy. Cook interprets the Polynesian Confederacy as an expression of the nascent nineteenth-century understanding that colonialism was a global process and that anti-colonial movements therefore had to be internationalist as well as nationalist. In 1881, on the first round-the-world tour made by any reigning monarch, Kalākaua made careful study of "self-strengthening" movements in Asia. He unsuccessfully proposed to the Emperor of Japan the organization of a confederacy of Asian and Pacific nations collectively committed to thwarting Western imperial expansion in the region. These endeavors shaped Kalākaua's Polynesian Confederacy, an idea, an organization, and a project with three key goals. First, Hawaiian participation in international politics would increase the global stature and standing of the Kingdom. Second, as an enlightened Western-style nation and member of the international community of states and as the most civilized and developed nation in Polynesia, Hawai‘i and Hawaiians had the duty and the right to uplift Samoans and reshape Sāmoa in the Hawaiian image. Third, the Kingdom of Hawai‘i and its citizens also endeavored to take the lead in building upon the genealogical and cultural ties of Polynesians to promote their collective defense and mutual independence from further Western colonial incursions in Oceania.

     The next two articles focus on situating the history of civil, legal, and human rights in twentieth-century Hawai‘i in comparative and world history. In the third essay, Charles Romney uses the petition for habeas corpus filed by Jung Hung, a Chinese migrant-settler in Hawai‘i, as a lens onto the comparative history of the colonial legal regimes of the United States, Britain, and France. Seeking to marry Lee Chee Hing, the man she loved, Jung Hung sought release from her involuntary service as a prostitute of Jue Grin, who claimed that Jung Hung was not his prostitute but his wife. Romney analyzes the story of Jung Hung, the court translator, and the judge's interpretation of printed legal opinions and compares related petitions regarding domestic living arrangements, domestic abuse, and marriage in colonial Hawai‘i with ostensibly similar cases heard in the Transkei region of British South Africa, French West Africa, the U.S. territory of Alaska, and elsewhere. Romney offers insights into the often similar strategies different colonial peoples developed to gain access to legal rights at the broad turn-of-the-twentieth century. In the cases of marriage, domestic living arrangements, and domestic abuse examined here, colonial peoples drew upon Western ideas about proper and civilized domestic relationships to frame and advance their own legal claims. Court interpreters served to translate across cultural and linguistic divides. In assessing the merits of different cases, judges relied not just on the testimony of individuals and interpreters but on trans-national and trans-imperial legal print culture to make cross-colonial comparisons of the customs, laws, and practices of different peoples and render judgments as to whether they were "civilized" or "uncivilized." Cross-colonial comparisons provided a key underpinning of and lent coherence to a global discourse of Euro-American imperial law.

     The final essay by Alan Rosenfeld examines the U.S. federal government's imposition of martial law on the Territory of Hawai‘i and the internment of over 17,000 foreign prisoners-of-war and U.S. civilians there during World War II. Rosenfeld focuses on the experiences of more than 2,500 civilian internees, mostly Japanese Americans but also German- and Italian-American civilians to situate wartime Hawai‘i in comparative and global contexts. He rejects the idea that wartime Hawai‘i offers "an uplifting counterpoint" to the massive internment of Japanese Americans and other U.S. and foreign nationals on the mainland. In Hawai‘i, the mainland U.S., and elsewhere, state-run camps made religious, racial, and other minorities the targets of incarceration and the denial of legal rights.

     Rosenfeld begins by comparing state-run wartime camps in Hawai‘i to those elsewhere in the Americas and Europe. While he argues that these camps and the "death factories of Eastern Europe" served completely different purposes, Rosenfeld shows that internment camps in Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States nonetheless employed similar methods: the denial of due process, dehumanization, the separation and destruction of families, and widely varying degrees and kinds of abuse, torture, and starvation. He then examines how a cohort of internees challenged the U.S. military control of the judicial system in Hawai‘i in a series of legal cases that eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court. Reaching across time as well as space, Rosenfeld ties his analysis of these to strategies for teaching the ways historic and contemporary actors have grappled with and continue to grapple with the ways nations and citizens and have maintained and denied civil, legal, and human rights during times of war and other security crises. Demands by states and their citizens for safeguarding civil liberties while increasing security during such times was and remains an uneven process that disproportionately targeted and targets immigrants, religious and racial minorities, and others on the margins of society and led and leads to the denial of their civil, legal, and human rights.

     In terms of pedagogy, the articles in this forum offer teachers innovative ideas and strategies for teaching Hawai‘i in world history. It is as fortuitous as it is fortunate that these articles can be taught individually or, because of the common questions addressed by Cook and Kamehiro, on the one hand, and Rosenfeld and Romney, on the other hand, taught in pairs. In different but complementary ways, the essays of Kamehiro and Cook, as Cook explicitly states, will help teachers and students understanding the multiplicity of meanings and practices of nineteenth-century nationalism and nationhood and what these meant to Hawaiians and other Native peoples. Both offer analyses and strategies teacher can use to locate the diplomatic, cultural, genealogical, and political roots of anti-colonial nationalisms in the nineteenth century and in nations that at once opposed Western colonialism and were recognized as allies and members of the world family of nations by that family's most powerful and expansionist members. Broadening not only our temporal but also our spatial scope, Cook and Kamehiro offer teachers provocative examples of the centrality of the peoples and nations of Oceania and the Pacific, not only the "self-strengthening" movements of nations like Hawai‘i, Japan, Siam, and others but of the internationalist roots and agendas of anti-colonial nationalisms and of Native struggles for national sovereignty.

     Romney and Rosenfeld also offer teachers a wealth of analyses and strategies for teaching Hawai‘i in comparative and world history and for exploring the entangled relationships between historic and contemporary beliefs about the rights and responsibilities of national and global citizens and citizenship. While Romney offers teachers tools for comparing U.S. and European imperial legal regimes at the broad turn-of-the-twentieth century and Rosenfeld, for comparing state-run wartime camps and legal challenges to state security and incarceration programs during World War II, both offer compelling examples of how nation- and empire-states employed a politics of difference, here especially of civilizational, racial, and religious difference, as a basis on which to extend and deny legal rights and protections. Both moreover, offer concrete cases and examples teachers can use to highlight the centrality of ordinary and marginalized peoples in Hawai‘i and around the world in the advance and defense of a body of civil, legal, and human rights widely regarded as universal. Thus, all four authors and essays in this forum provide productive and provocative methods and models for teaching Hawai‘i in world history that should inspire teachers and students at all levels of instruction.

Christine Skwiot is an Associate Professor of U.S. transnational and world history at Georgia State University. She is the author of The Purposes of Paradise: U.S. Tourism and Empire in Cuba and Hawai‘i (Philadelphia, 2010). Her email address is  


1 Nicholas Thomas, Islanders: The Pacific in the Age of Empire (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 7-13; Gary Y. Okihiro, Island World: A History of Hawai‘i  and the United States (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 45-48; Geoffrey Irwin, "Voyaging and Settlement," in K.R. Howe, ed., Vaka Moana, Voyages of the Ancestors: The Discovery and Settlement of the Pacific (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2007), 54-99.

2 The Voyages of Captain Cook, vol. 2, 256, cited in Okihiro, Island World, 43.

3 Thomas, Islanders, 3.


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