Helena I Londana – Was Hawaiʻi British?

#94 in the Moʻolelo series

On November 1823, Kamehameha II (Liholiho, or Rihoriho as he wrote his own name) departed for Great Britain with a retinue that included his wife Kamāmalu, Boki, Mataio Kekuanaoʻa, John Rives and others. They spent over 5000 pounds on the trip, a considerable sum at the time and were treated hospitably – indeed, lavishly – by their British hosts. But what was the relationship between Hawaiʻi and the United Kingdom? Kamana Beamer writes:

Since the relationship between Britain and the Hawaiian Kingdom, while productive, was sporadic and could be strengthened, Liholiho may have wanted to confirm the alliance by meeting with the king of England face to face.

Beamer, 2014, 89
Liholiho – Kamehameha II

This suggests an ambiguous relationship that needed to be clarified – so much so that Liholiho took what Beamer calls a “somewhat daring” trip around Cape Horn (by some accounts spending far too much carousing in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil) to do this. Keanu Sai, in contrast, contends that the relationship was clear: Hawaiʻi was part of the British empire. While Kings of Hawaiʻi, Liholiho and Kamehameha before him were beneath the Emperor George (the “mad king” George III in Kamehameha’s case and George IV in Liholiho’s):

Kamehameha ceded the island kingdom of Hawaiʻi to Great Britain on February 25, 1794, and recognized King George III as emperor to ensure protection from the leeward kings and foreign nations.

Sai, 2011, 21

Note that this is pre-unification and even before the battle of Nuʻuanu, so the Hawaiian Kingdom Sai is referring to is Hawaiʻi Island only. To Sai, this allegiance carries on through the unification and Hawaiʻi is not actually sovereign until the Anglo-Franco proclamation of 1843. This is not in line with standard histories. According to Sai:

In order to trade kalo on the northwest coast of America, he had to register the ships under British nationality in accordance with admiralty law.

Sai, 2011, 24
Kamehameha I ca. 1815

Willy Kauai wrote a dissertation on Hawaiian nationality that touches on this topic. Kauai claims that Kamehameha asserted a British nationality, calling King George “my lord and liege” (feudal terms of allegiance), even though much evidence exists that suggests Hawaiʻi is independent. On the other hand, the British alliance explains the British Union Jack in the Hawaiian flag. British possessions (former possessions in the British commonwealth today) all carry the union jack in their flags: Australia, New Zealand, Fiji. The flag of the British East India Company (the corporate colonizer of India) is almost identical to the Hawaiian flag, but with only red and white stripes. All this suggests Hawaiʻi was, like those territories, on a level beneath the Emperor George.

Flag of the British East India Company

Evidence also exists to the contrary. To name only one: in George Paulet’s occupation or invasion of Hawaiʻi (why invade a country you already own?) there was a British Consul (one level below ambassador), Charlton, who had been the cause of all the trouble in the first place. Consuls exist in foreign countries – a British possession, New Zealand for example, would have a Governor General representing the British monarch in that possession.

So evidence exists on both sides, and the plot thickens. I will continue to examine this interesting debate going forward. Pīpī holo kaʻao.

Sources: Kamanamaikalani Beamer, No Mākou ka Mana: Liberating the Nation, Honolulu: Kamehameha Publishing, 2014.

David Keanu Sai, Ua Mau ke Ea: Sovereignty Endures, Honolulu: Pūʻā Foundation, 2011.

Leave a comment

Filed under Education

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s