Monday, August 3, 2015

Reviving an Old Holiday from the Kingdom

In the no-man’s land between downtown Honolulu and Kakaako is a big, green park. The park, however, holds a unique place in Hawaii history.
It goes back to the 1840s. By then the rest of the world had heard of Hawaii. The kingdom itself was already on to its third ruler: King Kamehameha III. Businesses and diplomats from France, the United States, and England were stationed in Honolulu.
The rights and privileges of foreigners were still in flux. Private property, land ownership, and other western concepts hadn’t really taken root. But that didn’t stop traders, merchants, and companies from doing business in the islands. Courts were set up and the Hawaiian economy was starting to buzz.
But a group of Englishmen were not happy; least of all a diplomat named Richard Charlton. Charlton was notorious for calling foul whenever he didn’t get his way. When he brought a questionable claim of land near Honolulu Harbor, he was taken to court to determine his rights. He lost.
Charlton eventually boarded a ship and met with a few fellow Britons in Mexico. He told them that his countrymen’s interests were in jeopardy in Hawaii and demanded action. Capt. Lord George Paulet responded by sailing to Honolulu to investigate. The king held a cool reception.
English agents and diplomats conspired to take over the islands and made more and more demands on the king. Finally, the English took over. They brought down the Hawaiian Flag, raised the Union Jack, and declared the islands under the jurisdiction and control of Great Britain.
For five months, Hawaii had joined the other colonies of the empire. Charlton made sure that his case was overturned (along with others). Hawaiian flags were destroyed and the law was in flux. Ironically, the economy tanked because it was uncertain what would happen next.
The king was not pleased. He sent a diplomatic mission straight to London. He also ingeniously smuggled an account of the takeover along with Paulet and Charlton’s report to the homeland.
In June 1843, both accounts hit the desk of the Foreign Office in Whitehall. The timing worked well. The king’s mission got there in time and made their case to the crown. They won. The crown agreed that the occupation was unlawful.
In late July, Capt. Richard Thomas arrived into Honolulu and requested an audience with the king. He told him that the occupation was no more. Charlton was dismissed and the Hawaiian kingdom was formally restored on July 31, 1843.
In honor of the good Capt. Thomas, a bit of land was set aside, turned into a park, and named in his honor. That’s the section of Honolulu real estate separating King from Beretania is Thomas Square.
And since the Union Jack came down that day, the Hawaiian Kingdom celebrated with a holiday. In the islands, we used to call the last day of July Restoration Day. But calling it Restoration Day these days is a bit odd. We are living on the other side of the overthrow of the monarchy and on the other side of American-style imperialism. To mark this day as a restoration of Hawaiian sovereignty (only to later lose it again in 1900) is a little weird, right?
That irony has not deterred Native Hawaiians. Last month the County Council on the Big Island considered a bill to recognize Restoration Day. It was primarily an empty gesture since it would take the State Legislature to get in on the act.
But proponents of the special day are not deterred. A big event has been planned in Hilo commemorating the restoration of Hawaiian sovereignty, including hula, food, and music.
There is still a good reason to stop and recognize the significance of what happened at that park so many years ago. The whole affair forced England to give something back to its native inhabitants. One of the mightiest and most aggressive European powers in the nineteenth century formally recognized the sovereignty of the Hawaiian kingdom ruled and populated by nonwhites. It was the first time the rest of the world took notice of that the tiny collection of islands in the middle of the Pacific was in fact a nation.
It also may have been the catalyst for King Kamehameha III. His advisors realized quite quickly that an independent island nation ruled by an aboriginal leader is a rare thing. This was the same time England engaged in the hostile takeover of Hong Kong. In the United States westward expansion and the systematic destruction of Native American tribes was fashionable.

And yet, in this little part of the Pacific, the imperialist power yielded to a small country’s right to simply exist and govern itself. Maybe that’s reason we still need to celebrate Restoration Day.

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