Obenski column: Best to let past lie

In 1893, more or less, Hawaii lost its independence, sort of.

It’s like one day there was this perfect kingdom where everyone was equal, healthy, happy, good-looking, and all the children were above average. Then suddenly, more or less, it became a colony of the American Empire, sort of.


As far as we know, Hawaii, initially tribal, had become a feudal monarchy. Kamehameha the Great conquered all the lesser kings. It was a complex multi-layer culture. There were many levels of mana, spiritual power, among the alii, chiefs. There were classes of kahuna, both priests and experts.

The vast majority of the maoli, people, were the workers, farmers, fishers, hunters etc. They worked hard for the benefit of their chief and to sustain themselves. They had kuleana, rights and responsibilities, they were not bound to one chief like slaves, or bound to one place like serfs. The exact terms were not recorded, there was no writing yet, but, apparently, they pursued their own needs as long as they provided for their chief’s wants. A chief ruled his moku, or ahupuaa, domain, at the pleasure of a higher chief or the king. There was also an underclass called kaua, essentially slaves, untouchables. Menehune fit in somewhere, but there is little agreement on them.

There was a complex system of kapu, but none of this was written down and one may suspect it changed with the whims of the alii or king. There was nothing like a constitution to set boundaries until Kamehameha declared the first fixed law: Mamalahoa, the Law of the Broken Paddle. Travelers had a right to be safe. He also designed a flag that combined British and American details.

The missionaries arrived with their own set of complex laws, written down, sort of, in the Bible, but subject to much interpretation and contradiction. There is a Bible quote to support almost any point of view.

Queen Kaahumanu observed that the English (haoles) violated many kapu with no consequence and in 1819 she convinced her hanai, adopted, son Liholiho, to eat with the women. Nothing happened, at least not right away. The old order was broken.

Seekers of fortune arrived with more sets of customs including commerce and plantations.

The Kamehamehas noticed many apparently desirable aspects of the haole way of doing things and implemented many changes, both social and technical, including astronomy and the concept of land title. A lot more happened in the next eight decades than can be told here. Nothing was constant except change, power struggles, attempted coups, foreign invasions and attempted alliances.

A tribal/feudal society that had seen very little change in centuries was increasingly connected to the helter-skelter industrial revolution. It was as if a European country went from the biblical world of Ecclesiastes “There is nothing new under the sun” to the world of Karl Marx and steam power in one generation.

When Liliuokalani inherited the throne of (astronomer) Kalakaua in 1891 things were not simple. Numerous factions considered themselves entitled to rule. It probably did not help that she tried to overturn the 1887 “Bayonet Constitution” that named her as queen.

She tried to negotiate support from President-elect Grover Cleveland, a Democrat, but in 1894 before he could be inaugurated president, Benjamin Harrison, a Republican, sided with the businessmen and recognized the new Republic of Hawaii.

Things got even more complicated.


Cleveland attempted to undo the revolution but gave up. Was the revolution illegal? Aren’t all revolutions illegal, at least in the eyes of the establishment? England considered America’s founders traitors. However, every country that had an embassy in Hawaii soon recognized the new Republic. The usual consensus as to legitimate government is recognition by many, most, other governments. There was no international law in the 19th century. There really isn’t today, just interlocking, overlapping, contradictory treaties. Hawaii, the Republic, was not annexed to the US until 1898, McKinley, a Republican, was president. History is messy.

Ken Obenski is a forensic engineer now safety and freedom advocate in South Kona. He writes a biweekly column for West Hawaii Today. Send feedback to obenskik@gmail.com