There’s a beautiful passage in the newspaper Ka Nonanona in 1843, in which the author describes the feast at a grand luau a few weeks after La Ho‘iho‘i Ea. Mahuka, a konohiki, contributed 2 pigs, 3 chickens, and 53 coconuts; Maalaiki, just 1 chicken. Kaaua contributed a lot: 2 pigs, 1 chicken, 1 turkey, 2 ducks, and 120 fish.
Those ancestors were celebrating the unexpected return of sovereignty after the British captain George Paulet seized control of Hawaii in a fit of hubris and arrogance. Five months later, a higher-ranking official in the British navy, Admiral Thomas, came to the rescue, and restored Kaleiopapa Kamehameha III to the throne.
The Friend, a newspaper which was not so to the monarchy, reported, “All genuine lovers of the Sandwich Islands Government, here and throughout the world, will cherish in grateful recollection the memory of Rear Admiral Thomas’ timely interference and noble deeds in behalf of a feeble, but well disposed people, who are struggling amid many hindrances to preserve their national independence.”
In response to Thomas’ intervention 170 years ago, Kamehameha III proclaimed that “the sovereignty of the land will be preserved through righteousness.” That phrase has been enshrined in the history of this place, and its key idea – that good, pono behavior will result in just outcomes – has become deeply embedded in the ideals of the modern sovereignty movement.
But perhaps we’ve taken away the wrong lesson from La Ho‘iho‘i Ea. The intervention by Admiral Thomas was the result of an internal debate within the British Empire, and was not guaranteed by the righteousness of the Hawaiian cause. The proof of this point, or rather the proof of the fallacy of righteousness is that 50 years after La Ho‘iho‘i Ea, American troops performed the same routine as the British, but in that iteration there was no Admiral Thomas, due in large part to internal American politics.
It’s not righteousness that results in political gains. It’s hard work – organizing, activism, and struggle.
It’s a testament to the last 50 years of organizing, activism, and struggle that it now makes political sense for a Honolulu mayor to mount a commemoration of La Ho‘iho‘i Ea, while simultaneously harrassing the houseless and the poor, as part of a campaign to gentrify Thomas Square. Hawaiians won the major question of the last century, which is whether there is a moral claim to sovereignty. (For the same reason, the 50th anniversary of statehood, was – amazingly – celebrated with a conference, not a parade.)
But looking at Thomas Square today, it’s clear even on this cloudy day that the moral consensus isn’t enough. It’s too easily coopted, enrolled, and commemorated into meaninglessness. The moral position should not be a resting place, but should rather be the starting point for organizing, activism, and struggle that leads to tangible political gains.