Today, July 7th marks the 119th anniversary of President William McKinley and the U.S. government’s annexation of Hawai’i. When we hear any mention of Hawai’i, we undoubtedly first think of breath-taking beaches, volcanoes and tourism. But what is the class and national realty in Hawai’i that lies beyond Waikiki and the tourists’ paradise?
The modern history of Hawai’i is a history of anti-colonial resistance and class struggle. Understanding how this national struggle unfolded explains what class forces seized the reigns of the Hawai’ian state and whose class interests the state protected. An examination of the profound national oppression that the Hawai’ian people have suffered at the hands of U.S. imperialism lays bare the roots of Hawai’i’s modern social ills and the resistance that has emerged to reclaim Hawai’i.
The theft of a kingdom
Hawai’i consists of eight “main islands” which are, from the northwest to southeast, Ni’ihau, Kaua’i, Oʻahu, Moloka’i, Lāna’i, Kaho’olawe, Maui, and Hawai’i. There is anthropological evidence that the ancestors of the Hawai’ian people first came to inhabit Hawai’i some 4,000 years ago (Sykes). However, for the Hawai’ian people the last 200 years of history has been one long eviction from their island nation by colonial and neocolonial forces.
1778 marked the arrival of British captain James Cook, the first colonizer to try to explore and exploit Hawai’i. The Hawai’ians defended the islands against Cook, ultimately killing him for his aggression against their nation. However, the British invasion set in motion the arrival of an onslaught of missionaries and marauders who began to stake their claim to the Pacific island. Their aim was to uproot the native economic and cultural system and replace it with a different social design based on a foreign religion and the supremacy of private property above all else.
Hundreds of missionaries arrived convinced they had to convert, what they termed, “a licentious, indolent, improvident and ignorant” people to Christianity. But behind the cloak of these so called “humanitarian” motives was an interest in laying claim to Hawai’i’s vast wealth. Many of the chief capitalists who formed the initial colonial ruling class arrived as missionaries or were the sons of missionaries. The church and big companies worked hand in hand and were in essence one in the same. In the words of Desmond Tutu, describing the South African people’s own experience with European conquest: “the colonizer arrived with a gun in one hand and a bible in the other.”
The leading American companies who sank their fangs into Hawai’ian land and squeezed the peasantry to extract profits were referred to as “the Big 5:” Castle and Cooke, Alexander and Baldwin, C. Brewer & Co., American Factors and Theo H. Davies & Co. Holding a monopoly over the land but faced with a labor shortage, the sugar cane and pineapple plantation owners looked to contract laborers from abroad, preying upon the poverty of Japanese and Chinese laborers. The Hawai’ian census of 1890 indicated that there were 40,612 Native Hawai’ians, 27,391 Japanese and Chinese laborers but only 6,220 Europeans and white Americans. The Big 5 was faced with a fundamental contradiction: How could they maintain power over the land when they were such a tiny minority of individuals?
Post-1890, foreign capital recruited labor from the Philippines, Portugal and Puerto Rico. Fleeing the colonial conquest and the savage class inequalities of their own homelands, tens of thousands of Portuguese, Filipino and Puerto Rican peasants came across the seas to Hawai’i. 184,000 immigrant laborers from these countries were officially recorded as having arrived in Hawai’i from 1852-1905.
Because they were so numerically small, the Hawai’ian ruling class looked to the U.S. to provide them with protection. Motivated to expand their profiteering off of the rich Hawai’ian soil, the Big 5 entered into a “reciprocity treaty” with the United States, the latest country seeking to join the club of imperial powers. The colonial agreement was that big sugar cane interests would be allowed access to U.S. markets without tariffs in exchange for allowing the U.S. government to maintain exclusive commercial and military control over Hawai’i. In 1887 Pearl Harbor was handed over to the U.S. on what Queen Lili’uakalani called “a day of infamy for the Hawai’ian people.”
As long as the ruling elite could depend on a compliant monarchy to do their bidding, they could maximize their profits. However with the death of the puppet King, Kalakau, the sugar cane elite ran into a problem. Kalakaua’s sister, Queen Lili’uakalani came to the throne and refused to do the bidding of foreign interests at the expense of her own nation. She immediately moved to pass a constitution that would allow only Hawai’ian citizens to vote. When bribes failed to buy her off, the propertied interests resorted to force.
In 1893, with the support of the U.S. military who invaded Honolulu and surrounded the Queen’s Iolani palace, the leading imperial business interests waged a coup d’etat. Up against a superior military power, Queen Lili’uakalani was forced to sign over Hawai’i to the foreign sackers who misleadingly called themselves “the Committee of Safety.”
The Queen’s refusal to resign captures the spirit of the Hawai’ian people’s resistance:
“I, Lili’uokalani, by the Grace of God under the Constitution of the Kingdom, Queen, do hereby solemnly protest against any and all acts done against myself and the constitutional government of the Hawaiian kingdom by certain persons claiming to have established a provisional government of and for this kingdom.
That I yield to the superior force of the United States of America, whose minister plenipotentiary, John L. Stevens, has caused the US troops to land at Honolulu and declared that he would support the provisional government.
Now, to avoid any collision of armed forces and perhaps the loss of life, I do under this protest, and impelled by said force, yield my authority until such time as the Government of the U.S. shall, upon the facts being presented to it, undo the action of its representative and reinstate me in the authority which I claim as the constitutional sovereign of the Hawaiian Islands.”
Sanford Dole, an elite judge, whose son would go on to be the future founder of the Dole fruit conglomerate, was placed at the head of the U.S. protectorate to rule on behalf of the foreigners. Officials banned the use of the native language in 1896. Under the presidency of William McKinley expansionists and missionaries annexed Hawai’i in July of 1898, making it an official U.S. protectorate. The seizure of Hawai’i initiated a century of U.S. wars of conquest abroad. Soon followed the U.S.’s conquest of Guam, the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Cuba. In the 20th century the U.S. military would go on to launch hundreds of invasions, reminiscent of their seizure of Hawai’i which proved to be the beginning of the “American Century.”
The many uses of Hawai‘i
Because of its function as a strategic U.S. military outpost during WWII, Hawai’i was made a state in 1959. Located more than 1/3 of the way across the Pacific, the U.S. military continues to maintain a web of bases and over 50,000 troops spread across Hawai’i as a menacing threat to the nations of the Pacific and Asia. The U.S. military occupies 1/4th of all Hawai’ian land, employing 60 million rounds of live ammunition training every year (Al-Jazeera).
The U.S. military’s abuse of Hawai’i is the clearest violation of Hawai’ian sovereignty. In 1976, the military’s bombing runs on the island of Kaho’olawe became a center of protest. Similar to the popular struggle to force the Navy to leave Vieques, Puerto Rico in 2001, Hawai’ians protested the use of their islands for war and destruction. Under mysterious conditions two sovereignty activists, Kimo Mitchell and George Helm, were disappeared. Helm wrote these words about the struggle to defend the land which would become an example for water defenders at Standing Rock and beyond:
“There is man and there is environment. One does not supersede the other. The breath in man is the breath of papa (earth mother). Man is merely the caretaker of the land that maintains his life and nourishes his soul. Therefore, the ʻâina (love of the land) is sacred. The church of life is not in a building, it is the open sky, the surrounding ocean, the beautiful soil.”
After years of protest the U.S. government was finally forced to end live-fire training on the island in 1990.
Like other underdeveloped nations, Hawai’i has become dependent on a militarized economy. One out of 5 families in Hawai’i has a family member in the military. A majority of Hawai’ians and workers in the U.S. can’t afford to leave their island or state. In the cruelest of ironies, for many Hawai’ians the only perceived economic and physical escape from island poverty is to join the U.S. military. The military feeds off of the chronic unemployment that plagues the Hawai’ian nation. Conscripted Hawai’ians are sent off to fight wars of conquest and plunder. When the author interviewed a group of Hawai’ian GI’s and veterans about why they had joined the military, they had an all too familiar response: “I wanted to make something of myself. There were no other opportunities.” They also spoke about the bonds they made in the military with Puerto Ricans, Chican@s and other oppressed nationality soldiers. Thousands of miles away from their island home, stationed in Afghanistan, Iraq or Korea, they were keenly aware of who their true enemies and friends were.
The Water War in Maui
Foreign capital, mainly from the U.S. and Japan, controls the lion’s share of the land, property and means of production. Alexander and Baldwin [A&B] is one of these corporations. A&B made its initial massive profits from the surplus value extracted from super-exploited sugarcane laborers. Today A&B continues to dominate the sugar, shipping and most importantly the water supply on the island of Maui.
Maui is an island internationally renowned for its natural beauty and the diversity of its climate. An island that can be circled in a mere six hours, Maui is the home of deserts, rain forests, jungles, volcanoes, freezing cold mountain peaks, water falls and some of the most awe-inspiring waves in the world.
What was once a serene natural landscape, has been converted into a top tourist destination. For the Hawai’ian people who make their living on the island, the tourist reality is omnipresent. “It is like we live in a park.” This is how one Maui native describes living in his ancestral land. Surrounded on all sides by invasive tourists and resorts, what has been left for the Hawai’ian people?
Brain drain is one cruel result. Refusing to serve foreigners for a living, many of Hawai’i’s top intellects have left for the colonial mainland in pursuit of more rewarding careers.
In pre-colonial times, the Hawai’ian community ensured that the natural streams flowed continuously for everyone. Each family carved out their ditch to catch the amount of water they needed and let the water flow on to the next community. A concept such as privatizing water was beyond comprehension. This was introduced with the advent of European settler rule.
Today the water no longer flows. In order to provide sufficient water resources to the sugar cane fields, A&B built dams and ditches to monopolize the water and cut off farmers’ access. They continue to feed their sugar cane and siphon off the precious water to make desert areas green resorts for tourists, with artificial water-falls, plants, grass and golf-courses. The entire ecosystem of Maui has been altered for the benefit of some and to the detriment of others. The eviction from the land proletarianizes more and more Hawai’ians, forced to make ends meet as servants in the tourist industry. A majority of farmers now have to buy water from Alexander & Baldwin.
On the island of Maui alone 60 billion gallons of water are diverted from natural watersheds to supply real estate interests (Al-Jazeera). The water war in Maui is symbolic of the overall struggle of Hawai’ians to regain control over their land and lives. One leader of a farmers’ collective posed the struggle for sovereignty in the following terms:
“The theft of our water is the theft of our natural existence. As indigenous people we know how to coexist with the planet. Water and land was healing. Today when we see our people destroyed by drugs and depression, we bring them back to the land and to the water so they can rediscover their spirituality. Their culture was stolen from them. We need to bring it back.”
Tourism: An economy of servants and the served
7,000,000 tourists per year visit Hawaii (Al-Jazeera).
In popular, tourist culture Oahu is referred to as the “gathering place.” But the gathering of who? On the north side of Oahu is Turtle Bay. Italian, American, Japanese and other wealthy tourists pay an average of $350 dollars a night to stay at a massive, glamorous hotel complex that sits in plain view of the world’s most coveted surfing waves. Replete with jacuzzis, saunas, & back-rubs, the massive Turtle Bay complex is set back behind walls of security.
Before this reality of haves and have-nots, one is left to ask the question: how much has the economic system changed since the days of servants and slaves, masters and overseers? Racism, paternalism and inequality still govern human relations in the Pacific.
Oahu’s work force does the cooking, driving, and waiting that keeps the tourist industry running. Waikiki, one of the US’s largest tourist destinations generating $6.8 billion in revenue per year, is an obnoxious and painful reality. The local mixed Asian & Pacific population dresses up in Aloha shirts and feigned smiles to serve the privileged.
Oahu functions as a sort of Mecca of Pacific Island and Asian cultures. The supremacy of U.S. capital in the region has created a concentration and mix of Filipinos, Fijians, Samoans, Chuuqueese Islanders, Vietnamese, Koreans, Tongans, etc. across Hawai’i. Honoululu is the New York City of the Pacific & one of the most diverse places in the world, uniting toiling people from the entire Pacific and Asia in a small geographic area.
The locals talk about taking back this “Aloha culture” which has been kidnapped by interests alien to those of the Hawaiian people. Hawaiian reggae artist Mana Kaleilani Caceres’ lyrics expose the history of Hawaii that is absent from the tourist brochures.
“They Took the Land
They Took Aloha
Overthrew the Queen
Even though They Didn’t Know Her
Suppressed Ikaika (strength) and the Kupuna (ancestors)
Broke the Ohanan (family)
But They Couldn’t Take the Mana (spirit)”
Multinational unity: same struggle, same enemy
A young woman in Waiʻanae donned a t-shirt that read “I’m Chiwai‘ianfilarican and what?” Her Chinese, Hawai’ian, Filipino and Puerto Rican ancestry represented the historical roots and journey of Hawai’ians today. Another young mother explained her bloodline: “Well on my mom’s side, we are Vietnamese, Native Hawaiian, Haole (white), Puerto Rican and then my dad is half Samoan and mixed Tongan, Filipino and Portuguese.”
The Hawai’ian working class is comprised of the descendents of the late 19th century plantation workers and a host of other Asian and Pacific nationalities dislocated from their homelands and pulled to Hawai’i by U.S. capital. The multinational Hawai’ian working class works shoulder to shoulder today in providing the services that make tourism and production run in Hawaii.
Through a wide array of laws and segregation the ruling class tried to drive wedges between the different nationalities. For example, Hawaiians are today considered U.S. citizens and are entitled to certain “benefits” such as food stamps, public housing and welfare. However, immigrants from Samoa, the Philippines and other neighboring countries in Micronesia, Melanesia, Polynesia and Asia who come to Hawai’i in search of work are defined as undocumented and are forced to take the lowest paying jobs and live in inferior housing. Having fled the conquest of their own island nations, they are then scapegoated for the unemployment and poverty that exists in Hawaii. These are the same divide and conquer tactics that Bigot-in-Chief Donald Trump and other demagogues use today across the U.S.
The successive waves of migration from oppressed nations to oppressor nations have not been voluntary. Colonial profiteering disoriented entire national economic infrastructures in the Pacific and Asia in order to meet their own economic imperatives. Stripped of a chance as economic stability in their home countries, hundreds of thousands of families have involuntarily migrated in search of work in the Hawaiian tourist industry.
A microcosm of the entire U.S., Oahu is called a melting pot. But who gets burned at the bottom of the pot? Who rests at the top on a float to savor, relish and delight in the finished product of the social labor? How was the American dream built up on the back of so many millions of other dreams?
The Polynesian Cultural Center exposed
The Polynesian Cultural Center [PCC] is among the most vivid examples of the racist, ultra-exploitive brand of tourism. The PCC is a theme park on the Northeast Coast of Oahu owned and run by the Mormon Church. Claiming to be dedicated to the promotion of Polynesian cultures, the Mormon Church charges up to $285 for the super-ambassador passes “to experience authentic villages from Samoa, Tahiti, New Zealand, Hawaii and Fiji.” A whole range of exploited Pacific Island nationalities are converted into stereotyped mascots who sing, dance and smile on the command of the PCC supervisors.
The Mormons portrayal of the happy “native” is reminiscent of the Black-face, minstrel shows used by white supremacy to shape the general (mis)perception of African American identity. Every thing in the PCC is staged — the clothing, the monologues and the villages. There is no deeper investigation of the rich histories of resistance and courage that formed these nations. Hundreds of Polynesian youth dance, sing, serve and entertain hundreds of thousands of tourists each year. 90% of the PCC work force is not paid a salary for their labor which generates hundreds of millions of dollars in profits for the Mormon Church. Instead, for working five days a week, the church “grants” them discounts off of their tuition at Brigham Young University. For this, they are told to be thankful.
One mormon recruiter explained:
“Without our help, these poor people would be stuck back in their countries.’
Cultural exchange can be a beautiful thing but not on these terms. All of the artificial smiles dupe the gullible tourist into believing that everything is happy and jolly across the Pacific. Hawai’i is by no means alone in playing this role. From Rio de Janeiro to Bangkok to Santo Domingo, corporations monopolize the most precious beaches and natural beauty and preserve it for the exclusive benefit of the wealthy. This brand of tourism continues to be a scar across Hawai’i’s heart.
The inequality of nations
The main feature in the epoch of imperialism is the inequality of nations. The oppressor nations exercise economic, military, political and cultural domination over the oppressed nations. In the “rich” nations, such as the U.S., Britain, and Japan, the ruling class and the ‘better off’ sectors of the working class can afford to take vacations abroad. They make enough money and they do not need a visa or any other paperwork that would prevent them from traveling. Yet when members of oppressed nations, with the exception of a tiny, ruling elite, desire to visit the exploiter nations there are all types of obstacles in effect to limit their ability to travel. Even within the most “advanced” nation, the United States, most families cannot afford to leave their block or community because they are too busy surviving. The dream of leaving the Bronx, Oakland or Kansas City to explore the Pacific Islands or Southern Africa is a pipe dream for most workers.
Life does not have to be this way. Under socialism there would be equality of all nations. Every human being, in addition to enjoying free access to housing, healthcare and education would benefit from the right to travel and explore other national cultures. Travel and international exploration would cease to be the exclusive privilege of the few.
While the surplus value created by worker’s sacrifice today makes billionaires out of the owners of our labor, in a socialist world society’s surplus would guarantee that there was enough money to pay for these rights for all workers. How outdated is this racist epoch when travel is the exclusive right of mostly privileged white tourists! Airline companies should work for the benefit of all and not to profit off of those who can afford the privilege to travel. Instead of first class and coach tickets there would be free trips as part of educational and community activities for youth, students and workers. Nations would relate to one another on an equal basis with mutually beneficial trade agreements like those that today exist between Cuba, Venezuela and the rest of the ALBA bloc (Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas).
The other Hawai‘i: the forgotten coast
The tourist economy means skyrocketing real estate prices and a major housing crisis for working class Hawai’ian families. Three years ago, governor David Ige declared a state of emergency before the housing crisis. Hawai’i has the highest rate of homelessness of the 50 states. With land gobbled up by the tourist industry, Hawai’ians are left to scramble to find affordable housing.
The Great Mahele or the Great Dispossession of 1848 passed under pressure of missionaries and foreign business concerns signified a counterrevolution in property relations. Special interests parcelled up the land, breaking the traditional communal trusteeship over the land and collectivized cultivation.
Prior to colonization, the Hawaiian social system consisted of a monarchy with a ruling class and commoners. While there were battles for political control between different warring chiefs and large tracts of land were redistributed when power changed hands, there was no class stratification to the extent that would be introduced. This legacy of private property is the material basis for understanding the deep class stratification that persists today.
Outside of Honolulu, on the West side of Oahu, there are no tourists. This is not the Hawai’i of the tourist brochures. Only 30 miles from some of the most expensive and popular tourist resorts in the United States but here there is a different reality. For this reason, the West Coast is called the “forgotten coast.” Here there are communities ravaged by homelessness, drug addiction, alcoholism, senseless violence, gang violence, domestic abuse against women and children, teen pregnancy, school drop outs and soaring prison rates.
Many families gravitate between shelters and overcrowded Section 8 housing. There are currently 6,100 federal and State public housing units in Hawaii and a waiting list of over 10,000 with the Public Housing Authority. Of the 5,800 homeless people counted in the most recent survey on Oahu, 3,500 people are in shelters and 2,200 are unsheltered (Hussey 1). Authorities constantly target makeshift homeless communities for destruction.
Camp 125 is a make-shift squatter’s camp in Waianae. Hundreds of families constructed their living quarters with tents on the beach shore. If Camp 125 were pushed any way further from Waikiki, it would fall into the ocean. Families tie up long blue and black plastic sheets to trees and hoist them up as the roofs for their homes. They break crates or wooden boards for the floor. The police continually harass the community and threaten to push them out of existence. In the summer of 2010, two beach residents, among them a U.S. military veteran, tired of being pushed down and arrested by the police, hung themselves to protest the destruction of their camp.
In camp 125, the Hawai’ian Creole or Pidgin flowed naturally, unintelligible to outsiders. Pidgin according to local knowledge was the Cantonese word or pronunciation for business when the Hawai’ian Islands functioned as a trading and meeting point for international commerce. Hawai’ian Creole grew out of the 200 year Hawaiian class struggle. The Pidgin becomes a reflection of assimilation or cultural resistance. The deeper one penetrates into the harvest, the land, the country, the more alive the native Hawai’ian language and pidgin becomes. There were also white Hawai’ians who are born and raised working the land at peace with the native communities. They too spoke pidgin, showing that both class and race were determinants of social position.
Hundreds of families survive at the end of Oahu where the mountains meet the sea in Macaha. The resistors do not know when they will be expelled permanently. Their experience with eviction is a microcosm of the past 200 years of Hawaiian history.
Crystal Meth, gangs and oppression
It is only within this history of economic and cultural dislocation that one can begin to understand the modern day issues affecting Waianae, Wahiawa, Nanakuli and other working class communities across Oahu and Hawai’i. Ruling class ideology asserts that social problems are the fault of the individual. Liberals hoist up this or that politician or social program as a way of resolving social ills. But these minor concessions do not begin to address the underlying causes of social inequality.
A group of four young single mothers commented on the epidemic: “Well we ain’t got shit else to do on this island. Some beers, getting high, we rolling.” They commented on how the state locked up many young fathers for the typical crimes of poverty; stealing cars, fights and hustling. They explained that any crime that nets more than a year is served in the mainland, thousands of miles away from their family. They referenced the A&E show Dog the Bounty Hunter, explaining how their families were the ones being hunted down for their petty crimes. For the privileged, the plight of the poor makes for great entertainment.
It was common in the working class districts to see posters of women and men scratching deep scars and scabs. The posters were warnings about the effects of Crystal Meth. They were side by side Heineken ads that read “Keep Hawaii green…Buy Heineken.” Across New York City’s poor communities, the Department of Health (DOH) uses similar degrading images for its Hepatitis C “prevention campaign.” These are classic examples of neoliberal public health interventions seen across the USA that blame the “victim” while failing to address the root cause of the illnesses eg. housing, working, generational trauma, post-colonialism.
Many studies show drug abuse is as common if not higher in wealthy communities yet there were DOH posters in those neighborhoods? The billboards, tv programs, radio ads and songs that bombard the children have damaging effect on their self-esteem.
Only a few miles west of Waikiki are the largest housing projects in the Pacific. When one enters the Kuhio Park Terrace (KPT) or Crawford Housing Development it is similar to an urban housing model in any inner-city. There are 350 units in each building with a total of about 3,500 people.
The residents here complained of raw sewage backing up into individual units, lack of hot water, leaking pipes and stairs littered with trash, wet with rain water and reeking of urine. There was only one working elevator is in each building, creating long waits for the 2,000 tenants. Many of the families here are Samoan and KPT is known as the most dangerous housing development in Honolulu. Junior, Donald and Thomas described how KPT projects were in a rivalry against Crawford housing. Groups of youth band together and fight groups from neighboring projects & towns. Overwhelmed by the loss of control over their surroundings, the abused lash out in anger at their own class. Mikey, lamented the loss of several of his friends to this senseless violence among the oppressed. In arguments over girlfriends or alcohol, all too often the beef ended in the death of loved ones.
There is nothing natural or inevitable about this suffering. Hawai’i is the Puerto Rico of the Pacific; the loss of self-determination is the cause and the context of the social ills that befall people.
The equality of nations
There is a strong sovereignty movement fighting for native Hawaiians’ economic, political and cultural rights. On the 100 year anniversary of the overthrow of Queen Lili’uokalani, the Hawai’ian people took to the streets demanding 1.3 million acres in land and reparations from the U.S. government. U.S. presidents have issued official U.S. apologies but nothing more. Like Puerto Rico, Guam and other U.S. territories, Hawai’i is still a colony in every sense of the word.
The greatest support for the Hawai’ian people’s just struggle for self-determination is to fight to seize power for working people across the United States. One of the first decrees of a socialist government in the belly of the beast would be the restoration of reparations and land to their rightful owners so that Hawai’i, Palestine, Puerto Rico and so many other neo-colonies can at least breathe and grow freely.
While the equality of nations may appear to some to be a far flung fantasy, this is what the PSL fights for day in and day out. In the words of Karl Marx, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways—the point however is to change it.”
Long live the Hawai‘ian and all oppressed nations’ right to self-Determination!
Al-Jazeera. Inside the USA: The Other Hawaii. September 26th.
Hussey, Ikaika. “Following Beach Eviction, Waianae Man Commits Suicide.” The Hawaiian Independent. July 19th, 2010.
Kinzer, Stephen. Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq. New York: Times Books. 2006
Silva, Noenoe. Aloha Betrayed: Native Hawaiian Resistance to Colonialism.
Sykes, Brian. The Seven Daughters of Eve. 2001
Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. New York: Harper Collins Publishers. 1980.