History is complicated. Let's teach the complexity
It is to my shame that it took me until my fourth trip to Hawaii to develop a curiosity about its history. During that visit, I had overheard a few polite but critical references to the U.S.’ annexation of Hawaii in 1898, and I found myself wanting to learn more. It turns out that not many books have been written about it, but I was fortunate to find one: Captive Paradise, by James Haley, which provides a well-balanced look from first contact with the West in the late 1700s through the annexation.
As I read, I noticed something that set Captive Paradise apart from other history books I was used to. In it, Haley is mindful to note the difficulty of telling Hawaiian history, and indeed all history, both accurately and fairly. For example, he notes that when Europeans arrived on the islands, Hawaii’s first king, Kamehameha I, was in the midst of a brutal (one might say colonial) war against neighboring islands that would eventually result in the unification of what we now know of as Hawaii. Haley also mentions that human sacrifice and infanticide were practiced, and explains how the exploitation of commoners by elites was baked into the kapu caste social system, as was the subservience of women. These details are not meant to absolve the Europeans or the Americans, but to honestly engage with the complexity of history as it truly is.
Jingoism and racism has pervaded historical accounts of everything from native tribes, international relations and conflicts, and of course American chattel slavery. In the mid 20th century, however, narratives suddenly shifted overwhelmingly to the other extreme—treating nonwhite groups as innocent and egalitarian, and the U.S. (and the West more broadly) as evil. History has too often been stuck in the overly-simplistic mode of identifying “good guys” and “bad guys.” In a sense, this is understandable, but this framing ignores the inherent nuance of most of human history, and how it is often not a story of good guys and bad guys so much as one of those who emerged as dominant versus those who did not. The losers in most conflicts were not obviously morally superior to the winners, but due to our reflexive “good versus evil” framing, we increasingly appear to assign moral virtue to oppression.
Haley’s refusal to misleadingly portray pre-contact Hawaii as an egalitarian utopia is what made Captive Paradise so illuminating to me. The annexation of Hawaii was a long and convoluted process, and we need not gloss over the ignominy in recognizing its complexity. As is often the case, money played a significant role, and white business interests sought and briefly succeeded in creating an oligarchy focused on enriching itself while disenfranchising the natives. By then, Hawaiians were increasingly being subsumed under mainland Americans, as well as Chinese and Japanese immigrants who predominantly worked as physical laborers.
Annexation also wasn’t a certainty. U.S. President Grover Cleveland opposed annexation on moral grounds, but his successor, William McKinley, supported it. The U.S. Navy’s need for a Pacific base was made clear by the Spanish-American War in 1898, and with the burgeoning Japanese Empire being viewed as a threat to American interests in the Pacific, Hawaii was formally annexed that year. It was largely bloodless, but was nonetheless executed without anyone asking the native Hawaiians what they wanted.
This invites the counterfactual history of what might have happened to Hawaii had Cleveland’s wish to see the monarchy restored come to fruition. One can never be sure, of course, but a likely outcome is that Hawaii would have been occupied by Japan instead. The large population of ethnic Japanese on the islands, paired with the Japanese Empire’s broader imperialistic ambitions (which ultimately led to its attack on Pearl Harbor decades later), suggests that Japan had a strong interest in taking the islands for itself. Furthermore, given the Japanese Empire’s treatment of indigenous minorities in the territories that it did conquer, it’s not unreasonable to conclude that a historical path with Hawaii under Japanese occupation may have been far worse.
It’s a simple fact that Hawaii was neither an egalitarian paradise before the West arrived, nor a land of savage people who benefitted fully from annexation. Like all human beings throughout the world and throughout history, Hawaiians had the capacity to treat others violently and with cruelty, but also with compassion and kindness. They were also bullied and exploited by the West, including the U.S. The West’s objectives in Hawaii were always complicated, not universally evil. American annexation deprived native Hawaiians of their autonomy, and yet it still might have been the best possible outcome compared to the likely alternatives.
When we teach history to our kids, it’s okay for them to understand all of this. Too often, history is used not to teach us more about our past, but as a bludgeon in the moral battles of the present. The most recent of these is over the influence of “Critical Race Theory” (CRT) on K-12 pedagogy. Many progressives contradictorily claim either that it isn’t being taught at all, or that it is “just teaching history.” By contrast, those opposed to CRT often respond with book bannings of questionable constitutionality that, even if intended to address real problems, run the risk of chilling accurate history along with it.
The jingoistic history of the past is unrealistic and often racist, but a nihilistic revisionist history that is increasingly being thrust into K-12 education is equally bad. Both deprive students of the ability to fully understand the complexities of our human story.
We can do much better.
Most of humanity’s greatest sins—slavery, genocide, wars of conquest, misogyny, racism, homophobia, and others—have never been unique to one culture or one group of people. By understanding that any culture is capable of both good and evil, by removing the simplistic “good guys versus bad guys” framework from most of history, we can understand our failings as failings common to our species. By acknowledging that we’re all human, with all of the strengths and weaknesses that entails, even the darker parts of our history can be a force for unity and healing, and can help us to ensure that we move forward into a better, common culture, together.
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