The Merrie Monarch Festival is one of the most beautiful events in Hawaii. First organized in 1963, it’s a celebration of hula. You know: dance, art, culture, love.
“The annual presentation of the Merrie Monarch Festival has led to a renaissance of the Hawaiian culture that is being passed on from generation to generation,” states the official Merrie Monarch Festival website. “The week-long festival includes art exhibits, craft fairs, demonstrations, performances, a parade that emphasizes the cultures of Hawaii, and a three-day hula competition that has received worldwide recognition for its historic and cultural significance.”
So I was little surprised today to receive a press release from the United States Navy stating that the “U.S. Pacific Fleet Band will march and perform in the 54th annual Merrie Monarch Royal Parade on April 22.” Now I know the Navy’s band has participated in the festival before (the photo above was taken in 2014), but something about the news release just struck me as… off. Then, after reading a few more paragraphs, I realized that the Navy had lost its proverbial mind.
To wit, here’s the really problematic portion of the news release:
The Navy recognizes that the Merrie Monarch Festival honors the legacy left by King David Kalākaua, who inspired the perpetuation of Hawaiian traditions, native language and arts. King Kalākaua negotiated a treaty with the United States that led to the Navy’s presence at Pearl Harbor.
“We appreciate King David Kalākaua’s commitment and legacy,” [Capt. James Jenks, Chief of Staff, Navy Region Hawaii] said. “King Kalākaua supported the Navy and provided the opportunity to establish a coaling station at Pearl Harbor more than a century ago. He was a big supporter of education, which is something we all value today; especially in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.”
Wow. I mean… wow. I’m not sure where even to begin here. No mention of the Reciprocity Treaty, the Bayonet Constitution, the 1887 coup… to say nothing of the Navy’s complicity in the 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom itself. But the notion that Kalākaua “negotiated a treaty” that led to the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor? Madness!
The Navy’s press people are toying with enormously complex events that spring from a very simple concept: imperialism. In the late 19th century, when the Navy really wanted a base at Pearl Harbor, the Hawaiian Kingdom was in very bad shape. With much of the Hawaiian population dead from disease, the government of King Kalākaua lay hobbled by the increasingly powerful American businessmen, sugar planters and missionaries that wanted to rule Hawaii for themselves. It was at this time, 1887 to be specific, that the U.S. government saw fit to ensure access to Pearl Harbor once and for all by rewriting the Reciprocity Treaty, which had for years given Hawaii’s sugar plantations access to lucrative American markets.
Here’s an excerpt from historian Tom Coffman’s exemplary book Nation Within: The history of the American occupation of Hawaii that succinctly explain the core power struggle at work here:
In the negotiations to renew the treaty, while many Americans wondered why they were subsidizing the sugar planters of Hawaii, a coalition of expansionist United States senators took the issue of America’s naval interests into their own hands. In January 1887, before voting to renew the treaty, they inserted a clause giving the United States the exclusive use of Pearl Harbor and the right to build a coaling station and other improvements there. In response, [Lorrin] Thurston and other American-descended politicians of sugar were ready to agree to America’s terms, but Hawaiians generally were not. While Thurston bitterly criticized Kalākaua’s character, it was against the backdrop of chronic anxiety over reciprocity that he successfully staged the coup of 1887. Thurston’s cabinet took over in the summer. By fall, after haggling the meaning of terms, the Thurston-led cabinet approved the new treaty, as amended by the U.S. Senate… If it is debatable whether the Pearl Harbor amendment indirectly brought on the coup of 1887, it is indisputable that American expansionism in general was creating intense pressures on the Kingdom of Hawaii that triggered drastic changes in the status quo.
Yes, King Kalākaua was a big supporter of education. If only the U.S. Navy was, too.
UPDATE, Apr. 22: Last night I was able to get a comment from noted anti-war activist and writer Kyle Kajihiro on the press release. Here’s what he had to say:
Thanks for sharing this. Just wow.This misrepresentation of the history reveals a certain anxiety within the United States military to legitimize its claim to Hawai`i, and in particular, its occupation of Ke Awalau o Pu`uloa (aka Pearl Harbor). Although King Kalākaua was under a lot of pressure from the haole sugar planters to grant the U.S. access to Ke Awalau o Puʻuloa as part of the Treaty of Reciprocity, he resisted. His Hawaiian constituents were vociferous in their opposition to any cession of ʻāina to a foreign country. So the sugar planters staged the first act in a multi-part coup d’etat, forcing the King under threat of violence to ratify what is commonly known as the Bayonet Constitution. Once the balance of power shifted to the haole-controlled cabinet, they approved a treaty that gave the U.S. exclusive use of Ke Awalau o Pu`uloa. At best, this press release can be read as a rather ham-fisted attempt to win cultural sensitivity points and glean legitimacy from one of the most prestigious Hawaiian cultural events. At worst, it is another example of “alternative facts” from the Trump administration.
Anyway, here’s the entire press release:
Photo of U.S. Navy band marching in 2014 Merrie Monarch Festival Parade: Musician 2nd Class Andrea Sematoske/U.S. Navy