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Kalākaua's Polynesian Confederacy:

Teaching World History in Hawai‘i and Hawai‘i in World History

Kealani Cook


     In June of 1887, The Hawaiian naval training ship Kaimiloa steamed into Apia Harbor in support of a diplomatic mission to create a confederacy between Hawai‘i, Sāmoa, and Tonga. Dwarfed and outgunned by the Adler, the massive German warship sitting in port, the Kaimiloa carried far more weight as a symbol than as a warship. Then as now, however, what the Kaimiloa symbolized differed depending on one's views on Islanders, empires, and the Pacific. For the historical and historiographic supporters of European and American* imperial aggression in the Pacific, the Kaimiloa symbolized the political ineptness of Pacific Island peoples, their inability to understand the world beyond their shores, and their inevitable consumption by more powerful and thus more competent empires.1 For the Hawaiian kingdom and for many of the Samoans who saw the vessel, however, the Kaimiloa was a promise of a future in which Native governments could re-purpose the symbols of foreign empires as symbols of an independent Pacific future. 

     For those of us teaching and studying world history in the Pacific, the Kaimiloa and the Polynesian Confederacy might also symbolize the need to rethink our own understanding of and teaching about Hawai‘i, the Pacific, and the imperial madhouse that was the 19th century. By examining the ideas, rhetorics, and strategies involved in developing it, the Confederacy offers us the opportunity to understand Pacific Islanders beyond the tired "colonial encounter" formula world historians typically fall back on to understand Native peoples in world history. While accessible for non-Native historians, the colonial encounter inevitably defines Natives by their lack of connection to the world beyond that encounter, uninterested and unconcerned with the regional and global networks and trends that are the heart of world history. This allows many world historians a tidy excuse to remain largely unconcerned and uninterested in Natives and their histories.

     The confederacy and similar events, however, show that Native Hawaiians and other Islanders actively engaged and sought to shape regional and global networks by developing and manipulating relationships between different Island groups. The corollary in this case is equally true and important, that they sought to develop and shape their relationships by engaging and manipulating regional and global networks. Such encounters not only create a more complex, less colonially-derived understanding of Native Hawaiians and other islanders, but it also allows us to add another dimension through which we can understand and rethink the field of world history itself.  Ironically this also includes a much better understanding of the historical process of colonization in the Pacific, simply by viewing it from beyond the simplistic Native/Empire axis historians are so dependent on. Finally, for those of us teaching world history in Hawai‘i, the Polynesian confederacy and similar events allow us to create a stronger connection between our students and our courses, something that is often quite difficult from a conventional world history perspective.  

A Brief Historiography of Hawai‘i in World History

     It should come as no surprise that despite its role as a key location for the development of world history as a discipline, Hawai‘i has a particularly minor role in most major works of world history. A major part of the problem is that few if any of the major players in world history have much if any understanding of Pacific History except through the colonial encounter. Philip Curtin, for instance, briefly addresses Hawai‘i as an example of defensive modernization in The World and the West, while Scott Cook goes into greater detail on Hawai‘i's colonization in Colonial Encounters in the Age of High Imperialism. While both make some effort to examine Native reactions to and agency in encounters with empire and colonial actors, in the end they both define Hawaiians entirely through the colonial encounter. Curtin's defensive modernization for instance, assumes a certain degree of Native disinterest with and isolation from the outside world except when forced to modernize by persistent colonial encounters. Scott goes further, essentially dismissing Hawai‘i as an unofficial colony of the United States from the moment American missionaries land in the 1820s.2

     A major part of the problem is the general lack of specialized experience such authors have with Pacific history, let alone with the newly emerging sub-field of Native Pacific History. Typically having a background in other fields, they are over reliant, and arguably overly comfortable, with encounter-oriented Pacific histories that privilege some form of colonial or imperial perspective. Even in cases when the sympathies of the author might push them towards promoting native agency, the secondary sources that inform their work leave few real options. Until the last two decades, this included nearly all academic work of Pacific history, particularly Gavan Daws and Ralph Kuykendall's oft-cited surveys of Hawaiian history. While these two historians had entirely different views of the plantation/mission family oligarchy that launched American rule in the islands, neither saw much need to explore Native Hawaiian interests, logics, plans, or agency. Native Hawaiians in these texts are only there to provide an inept, archaic Native foil for the more historically significant American "revolutionaries."3 A number of monographs and other publications have emerged in the last twenty years that counter and arguably destroy this narrative, but unfortunately for Curtin and Cook, most of these appeared after their own works were published. Neither cite nor seem to have read Lilikala Kame‘eleihiwa's Native Lands, Foreign Desires, the one major Native-centered monograph published before their own work appeared.4  


     To understand the Polynesian confederacy and it's implications for world history, we must first attempt to understand how Hawaiians thought of and understood their connections to the rest of the Pacific. Even during its centuries long period of relative isolation from the rest of the Pacific between the end of the voyaging period and the arrival of Cook, Native Hawaiians maintained a strong intellectual, spiritual, and genealogical connection to southern areas of Oceania. In researching pre-19th century Hawai‘i work on such connections relies heavily on examinations of chant, legend, and the grand oral histories/genealogies known as kū‘auhau detailing countless voyages and connections to the south, often under the catch-all name of Kahiki. In addition to gaining an understanding of basic Hawaiian visions of the creation and development of the world, such sources are full of references and accounts of ties to and communications with other lands, primarily other parts of Oceania. Hawai‘i's role in 19th century Pacific shipping and whaling, however, drastically expanded the possibilities for communications and relationship building with other peoples. During this period there are a number of possible historical moments that allow us to examine Hawaiian ties to other Oceanic peoples and how those ties reflect and engage the broader trends and flows of world history. One such moment was King David Kalākaua's attempts to create a pan-polynesian confederacy between Hawai'i, Tonga, and Sāmoa.

The Pacific Confederacy

     After the British took control of Fiji in 1874, only three major island groups remained independent in the Pacific: Tonga, Hawai‘i, and Sāmoa. The Euro/American powers had marked off all three of these groups as falling under their own spheres of interest, however, the Americans taking a specific interest in Hawai‘i, the British in Tonga, and the Germans, British, and Americans all claiming a right to determine the future of Sāmoa. Kalākaua and his advisors understood that inaction would lead to a gradual erosion of Hawaiian independence and quite possibly American annexation. Beginning around 1880 the king began strengthening the kingdom's diplomatic and social ties to Europe in the hopes of offsetting American influence in the islands. Such efforts, however, had a limited effect. The kingdom needed a more proactive position, something to actively remove itself from the threat of imperial aggression. The king developed a plan to strengthen both the independence of the kingdom and its international stature by uniting the remaining independent Polynesian groups in an explicitly anti-colonial confederacy based upon their shared cultural/ethnic heritage.

     The first glimmers of such a plan appear in 1881, when the king made a short visit to Japan during his tour of the world. There, after discussing the shared danger of Euro/American aggression with Emperor Mutsuhito, Kalākaua proposed an East Asian/Pacific confederacy, which the emperor agreed to think over. The king also appeared to have begun putting out feelers about such a plan while visiting the Maharajah of Jahore, as the two spent a considerable amount of time discussing and promoting the cultural and political similarities between their peoples. In early 1882 Kalākaua received word from the Emperor that the Japanese were not yet willing to carry out such a project. He then turned to planning for a much smaller Polynesian confederacy.5

     In 1883 the king began laying some of the groundwork for the confederacy. His minister of foreign affairs, Walter Murray Gibson, wrote a diplomatic protest that the legislature officially approved, condemning the predatory behavior of the Great Powers in the Pacific. The protest evoked the goals of the Confederacy and justified Hawai‘i's right to lodge such a protest based on its dual status as both a Polynesian state and part of the Euro/American community of Nations.6 Of the Great Powers only the United States sent an official reply, which was really nothing more than a politely worded brush off.  In 1885 the administration also sent their senior diplomat, H.A.P. Carter, to Washington, London, and Berlin. There he lobbied for Hawai‘i's right to participate in any major talks regarding the future of the Pacific. Carter made no progress. 7 Were such a conference to occur, the powers intended Pacific Island states and peoples to be on the table, not sitting around it

     In December of 1886, Kalākaua appointed Native politician John E. Bush, former Minister of Foreign Affairs, as an Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to the peoples and chiefs of the Pacific. Under their orders Bush and his party would travel to Sāmoa, Tonga, and elsewhere in the Pacific, examining the situation on the ground, offering the leaders of those lands the goodwill and friendship of the Hawaiian Kingdom, and if the opportunity arose, inquire into their feelings regarding a confederation with Hawai‘i. In Sāmoa Bush found Sāmoa's nominal king, Malietoa Laupepa, more than willing to sign a treaty of confederacy. To the surprise of many within the Kalākaua administration, including Gibson, a signed treaty arrived in Honolulu in February. While waiting for Hawai‘i's diplomatic core to untangle the legal obligations and entanglements that Sāmoa's previous treaties presented, Bush spent the next few months drumming up support for the confederacy among the Samoan people. In June of 1887, however, a faction of the European and American community in Honolulu forced Kalākaua, through threat of armed revolt, to sign the infamous Bayonet Constitution and effectively hand over control of the government to white settlers. Once in power, the coup leaders recalled the embassy and killed all plans for the confederacy. Like their ideological brethren in Berlin, London, and Washington, they saw little benefit in allowing Pacific Islanders a say in the future of the Pacific.8   

     In the standard world history survey, such an event would receive little or no attention.  Overshadowed by more momentous events of the Kalākaua dynasty, such as the Bayonet Constitution or the revival of hula and other cultural traditions, the Polynesian Confederacy receives little or no attention within Hawaiian history courses either. Yet coverage of the attempted confederacy or similar events can prove particularly helpful to our students by illustrating how Native Hawaiians understood and developed their intellectual, cultural, and political relationships outside of the kingdom. In the case of the Confederacy, the remaining records allow the historian to uncover multiple axes of identity around which the Kalākaua and his representatives understood Hawai‘i's relationships with the rest of the world. The following three sections each analyze a separate way of understanding Hawai‘i's place on the international stage and how the Confederacy reflected such thinking. The final section examines how these ideas and axes can be used to better understand Hawai‘i's place in world history as well as the complexities of world history in general.

He Lāhui Na‘auao: Hawai‘i as Part of the Community of Nation-States

     Though the confederacy failed, it can still tell us much about the variety of ways that Native Hawaiians, specifically the king and his representatives, articulated the lāhui's relationships with other nations and peoples across the globe. Like many of the king's other policies, the Polynesian Confederacy envisioned the lāhui partly through the logics of a Euro-American-style nation state. By the late nineteenth century Native Hawaiians had incorporated many elements of the modern nation state into both their government and collective identity, including a constitutional monarchy, a bicameral legislature, a highly literate electorate, an Euro-American-style legal system, and a set of equal treaties with the Great Powers reaching back into the 1840s. Such treaties, which were quite unusual for a small Native state such as Hawai‘i, recognized the kingdom's sovereignty and technical equality in the realm of international diplomacy. This conformance to the political standards of the nation-state also formed the foundation for a widespread Hawaiian nationalist belief in the lāhui's na‘auao, its "enlightenment," and thus its sense of belonging to a broader community of "enlightened" nations.9

     The king took full advantage of these networks during his 1881 world tour, an event that greatly enhanced the kingdom's profile abroad while reinforcing the king's understanding of the diplomatic significance of being an internationally recognized state. Not surprisingly, when he began developing the Confederacy soon after, he heavily depended on the channels and forms of Euro/American diplomacy. Indeed, lacking any real military or economic power, the kingdom relied entirely on their diplomatic connections and recognition as the basis for the 1883 Protest, the Carter mission of 1885, and sending an "Envoy Extraordinaire and Minister Plenipotentiary" to Sāmoa.10 Furthermore, the basic premise of the Confederacy assumed that Hawai‘i could shield other Polynesian peoples based largely on their own diplomatic recognition, as they had no other leverage on the Great Powers interested in divvying up the Pacific.11

     But the Kalākaua administration's embrace of Euro-American political culture and structures went beyond simply recognizing, and perhaps being overly reliant on, the diplomatic resources available to them. Indeed, the actions and language of the king's representatives in Sāmoa, hapa-Hawaiians John E. Bush and Henry Poor, display a clear tendency to use the political structures and material culture of Europe and America as the standards by which the capability for self-governance was judged. Not only did they feel that Hawai‘i had already sufficiently incorporated enough of such structures and culture to prove their own na‘auao, they often expressed this alignment with Euro-American standards by commenting pointedly on the Samoans' perceived na‘aupō, or ignorance. As Bush put it to Kalākaua, "very few live with na‘auao like ours. To me their mode of living is like ours when there was no kapu, and are somewhat wild, and their minds are not like that of the Hawaiian nation…I can truthfully say: 'Hawaii no ka oi.'"12

     The Hawaiians did not relegate their explicit promotion of their superior na‘auao to their internal writings, however, indeed such claims were central to their appeals to Malietoa and his government. Bush's speeches, given to a Samoan audience, frequently stated that he, and by proxy Kalākaua, saw the Samoans as undeveloped versions of themselves. In his speech on the 15th, Bush recalled telling his audience that:

     Their condition today was very much like ours, in many respects, some thirty or forty years ago, and that with forty years the start of them in Christianity and civilization, they could well look to us for friendly advice and advanced ideas in the construction and formation of a stable and liberal government.13

     He later expressed similar ideas to the Taimua and Faipule, telling them:

We have been more fortunate than you in our progress in [illegible.] civilization and taking an advanced stand among the civilized nations of the world, and now come to you to extend a helping hand if you desire it…My advice to you is to remain firm and strong and seek to have your country governed by the advanced principles of Modern Civilization and truth and justice will prevail in your favor…My country has fortunately been the exception [among Polynesian countries] and is established and recognized and has become wealthy and prosperous.14

     Furthermore, the Hawaiians also expressed a clear desire to reshape Sāmoa into a nation state based on their own Westernized political mold. They spent a great deal of effort researching Malietoa Laupepa's claims to outright kingship. They presented their findings in a way that turned Laupepa's possession of the Malietoa title, one of four Tamaaiga titles, into a genealogical claim for the right of absolute rule. This followed late-nineteenth Hawaiian understandings of their own monarchy, but it had little basis in Faa Sāmoa, the cultural and political traditions and ideals that defined and continue to define Samoan society and culture. Furthermore, they proposed a set of sweeping changes to Samoan politics that would create a centralized national government reflecting shared Euro/American and Hawaiian imaginations of a proper, civilized nation state.15

     The legation's plan called for a relatively limited central government, with Bush arguing that the Samoans could not be forced into adapting a more complicated and centralized government without widespread dissent and confusion. The major changes came in plans to develop the infrastructure needed to make such a government effective, specifically the creation of a new national law code, a Supreme Court, and a system of nationally appointed magistrates, tax collectors, and police who would fall under the immediate command of the district governors. The scheme also included a land commission to look into the problem of land sales of the past two decades. The postal system, then a private venture, would be nationalized with the postmaster falling under the direction of the Honolulu postmaster. The plan also called for a collector general of customs, a registrar of conveyances, a notary, and a harbormaster to facilitate imports, exports, and businesses as well as to collect revenue. Finally it called for a number of civil structures to be built, including: a palace for the head of state, a Government House, a jail, and regional government buildings in each district. It also called for the development of a public educational system along the lines of the Hawaiian system, removing control of education from the London Missionary Society. 16

     All of these changes were aimed at not developing a central government that played important and visible roles in Samoans' day-to-day lives. As things stood, and following Faa Sāmoa, Samoans placed great value in the political and administrative independence of families, villages, and districts. Centralized governments of the type proposed by the Hawaiians would create constant interactions between Samoans and a central government. Such centralization was the cornerstone of the nation state and thus of the political na‘auao late-19th century Hawaiians understood as necessary for self-governance. 

     In their promotion of Euro-American and Hawaiian-style centralized governments and governing structures, as well as their promotion of their own material culture and na‘auao as superior to that of the Samoans, Kalākaua and his supporters displayed a an understanding of the lāhui as intrinsically connected to and allied with those of Europe and America in terms of political culture. They believed and sought to reinforce the idea that Hawai‘i and the Euro-American powers were united by a shared respect for the power of the nation state, the rule of law, the protocols of diplomacy, and respect for the independence of other recognized members of the international community. Yet as we shall see, this was hardly the same as a belief that Hawai‘i and the Euro/American powers were united in their vision of the future of the Pacific.

He Lāhui Maoli: Hawai‘i as Part of the Community of Non-Western Peoples

     While the Confederacy aligned Hawai‘i with the Euro/American nations in proclaiming centralized, constitutional, bureaucratic states as the form of government most compatible with continued self-governance, it also challenged the increasingly explicit Euro/American contention that non-whites were incapable of mastering such a government. During his world tour in 1881, Kalākaua witnessed the expansion of Euro/American empires across the world, leading to increased expressions of sympathy toward and unity with other non-European peoples targeted by or under the rule of Euro/American empires. In conversations with Asian rulers and elites in particular, the King framed the Euro/American empires as a shared threat and promoted the importance of creating anti-imperial alliances in order for non-Euro/American peoples to protect their independence.17 He also looked to Hindu and Buddhist practices as validation of non-Christian religious traditions, a way of blunting European and American attacks on Hawaiian polytheism as inherently oppositional to civilized peoples.18 

     The king's voyage also allowed him many opportunities to witness and comment upon the various colonial regimes he witnessed during his tour. Though something of an avowed anglophile, the king had little love for British imperial rule. William Armstrong, the king's traveling companion and an avidly pro-imperial son of American missionaries, frequently praised the greatness of the British Empire. Though he admitted that the British had mercilessly bombarded cities and massacred men, women and children, Armstrong listed the many "good" deeds of the empire. They had established "law and order," across a quarter of the globe and guaranteed safe trade throughout their territory, not just for themselves but for "the Frenchman, the German, the Russian, and the American on the same footing as the Briton." The king, taking his morning tea in an elegant London Hotel, asked of Armstrong, "What is there in all of this for me?" Despite his infatuation with the British Empire, Armstrong had to admit the king's point, for those at risk of falling prey to empire its supposed benefits to other Euro/Americans were beyond meaningless, they were an insult.19

     Combining his distrust of European and American colonization as well as his growing sense of camaraderie with other peoples targeted for colonization, the king and his advisors explicitly proposed the Confederacy as a challenge to further imperial aggression in the Pacific and elsewhere. As mentioned earlier, the idea for the confederacy arose when the Japanese demurred on taking action on a broader Asian-Pacific anti-colonial confederacy. The king realized that Hawai‘i's international recognition would only hold off the imperial tide for so long and worried about the future of small, independent, non-Western states in a world of increasing Euro/American imperial expansion. The 1883 protest states this fear quite explicitly, arguing that the Hawaiian people, "cannot be silent about or indifferent to acts of intervention in contiguous and kindred groups which menace their own situation." The king believed that the simplest way for small independent states to ease the threats from Euro/American empires was through unity: a collection of such states would be more diplomatically and economically difficult to annex than a series of them would be.20

He Lāhui Polenekia: Hawai‘i as Part of the Family of Polynesian Peoples

     As seen in the protest's mention of "kindred groups," the king's vision went beyond a generic unity with other non-Euro/American peoples against the shared threat of empire, instead promoting a specific vision of Hawai‘i as part of a culturally and genealogically united Polynesia. Indeed, he argued that the pono, the properness, of his proposed confederacy came from their shared identity as Polynesians. During his world tour he expressed the belief that the British had deserved to have "their fingers burned" in India for having "meddled in other people's affairs." 21 Many in Europe and America would later portray Hawai‘i's plans for a confederacy in the Pacific as interference with the affairs of others, specifically themselves. Kalākaua, however, saw the confederacy not as a matter of meddling in the affairs of others but rather as developing stronger bonds with his fellow Polynesians.

     Most Polynesian cultures emphasize genealogy as the fundamental form of knowledge and knowledge production. In Hawai‘i, for instance, epic genealogies like the Kumulipo provide a means of understanding and communicating the history, the ethos, and the mythos of not just the chiefs who can trace their bloodline through such works, but of the lāhui as a whole. The Kumulipo, for instance, includes the Hawaiian creation myth, the story of Hawaiian migrations from the south, and the basic metaphors that informed Hawaiian conceptions of the temporal and spiritual worlds. The importance placed on genealogy is a common feature of Polynesian cultures and the king believed the genealogical ties between Hawaiians and other islanders, as traced through the genealogies, could create an opening for discussions about political alliance. 22

     Understanding the Pan-Polynesian embrace of genealogy, the Hawaiians made explicit genealogical and kinship claims in their outreach to Sāmoa and Tonga. Copies of Kalākaua's letter to Malietoa, which played a prominent role in the period before the signing of the treaty, have vanished from the various archives in Hawai‘i. A transcript of Kalākaua's letter to King George Tupou of Tonga, however, signed and dated on December 23rd and sent with the legation, remains in the Hawai‘i State Archive. In that letter Kalākaua emphasizes the kinship between Hawai‘i and Tonga, highlighting "the friendship we have always entertained towards your majesty and the Tongan people, a race so closely allied by blood to the Hawaiians." While Euro/American racial discourses influenced the king's language, the appeal was still one of kinship, a powerful appeal within Polynesian cultures. In Sāmoa Malietoa and Bush also made frequently anchored their discussions on the genealogical relationship between the Hawaiians and Samoans throughout the legation's stay. Despite Hawai‘i and Sāmoa having relatively little contact for decades and lacking any communication for centuries before that, the Hawaiians and the Samoans both understood the symbolic contact represented by genealogy as a means to frame their new relationship.23

     During the various meetings that took place between the Hawaiian legation and Malietoa's government before the signing of the treaty, the issue of a common origin remained on everyone's tongues. After the first informal meeting with Malietoa's cabinet at the legation's quarters, Bush wrote "they appear perfectly satisfied that Hawaiians and Samoans are relatives, and that a closer alliance than is accorded to other nations would be proper. This feeling permeates all, the Chiefs and the people." Bush made a speech at a massive feast the legation hosted on January 15th, during which he, "dwelt forcibly on the strong resemblance of the two races, and from the similarity of the names of the chiefs [in the genealogies], of their relationship." The feast, which the legation planned as a Hawaiian-style event, was itself an expression of kinship with the Samoans, highlighting shared Polynesian feasting traditions as "refined" by the Kalākaua court.24

     Later, at a meeting with the Taimua and Faipule, Bush prefaced his remarks by alluding to their Polynesian connections, stating:

I come among you not exactly as a stranger but representing a King and a people closely allied to you by blood, by language, and by similar traditions. Many generations ago the chiefs and people of Hawai‘i and Samoa visited each other in their great canoes. Some of your chiefs became Kings in Hawai‘i and our traditions say that our chiefs even were received in Samoa, where a number of them went to seek brides of suitable rank. For many years we have had no communication with you and now we come to renew old friendships and seek new ties among a kindred people.25

Teaching the Confederacy

     Many of us teaching world history in Hawai‘i seek to incorporate Hawai‘i into our lessons, allowing us not only to engage the students by connecting them to the content, but also to help them better understand how Hawai‘i has been affected by and affected global and regional networks and histories. This is particularly important due to the numerous educational, political, and cultural tensions between a century of efforts to naturalize and excuse the American occupation of Hawai‘i and an increasingly outspoken Native Hawaiian community and their supporters questioning the legality and nature of that occupation.  For both sides the ownership and telling of history is a prominent battle ground, one we as teaching historians are involved in whether we wish to acknowledge it or not.

     In the eyes of many of us, the intentional or unintentional omission of Hawai‘i in our classes serves to reinforce a colonial perspective of natives as unimportant, unconcerned with the "outside world," and unable to comprehend and interact with that world without colonial guidance. But for many instructors, who themselves might have little background in Hawaiian or Pacific history, the act of incorporating Hawai‘i into their lessons often falls flat, often leading towards inclusion for the sake of inclusion rather than inclusion in a way that benefits the students understanding of world history.

     Part of the problem is that many of rely on textbooks to provide structure for the students. In some texts Hawaii receives passing coverage, as one of the terminal points of Austronesian migration or as one of many imperial targets in the 19th century.26 In other world history texts cases Hawai‘i has received relatively significant coverage, such as Bentley's and Ziegler's recent edition of Traditions and Encounters.27 Even in that case, however, with two of its three authors having lived and worked in Hawai‘i for decades, the amount of space Hawai‘i can possibly warrant in the text does not come close to the attention it deserves in a classroom within Hawai‘i itself. Because of the realities of the textbook industry, it is unreasonable to expect a textbook marketed for a national or international market to provide the level of examination that courses taught in Hawai‘i should be expected to maintain. The same would go for other local, tribal, and regional histories that are within the target geographical range of the text but compose a tiny fraction of the actual market.

     The confederacy and other similar moments of Islander-to-Islander communications, or ties between Islanders and other peoples outside of the traditional Empire-to-Native focus provide small, manageable, micro-historical packets that can be imported into our lesson plans. They offer our students the opportunity to gain a more nuanced understanding of how local and world histories connect, but also how Native peoples understood and navigated their place within the global networks that are the basis of so much of our work. Native Hawaiians and other Native peoples belong in our world history courses not just for the sake of 1990's multicultural inclusion, but because they explicitly incorporated their connections to the global flows of history into their identity and their political projects.

     Since the Confederacy plans incorporated several distinct ways of seeing Hawai‘i's relationship with other peoples and communities, it offers us a chance to challenge our students to see beyond events, trends, and the macro-scale analysis of most world history surveys. By focusing instead on how a minor event like the Polynesian Confederacy illuminates Native Hawaiian ties and connections to other peoples, we can push our students for a deeper understanding of how world history was experienced. By first examining each of the three sections above separately our students will be exposed to the multiplicity of ideas and value systems that formed the Hawaiian understanding of their place in the world.

     We can start by letting our students grapple with what 19th century nationalism and European style-political science meant to Native Hawaiians and other Native peoples. For many students, and many historians as well, it is hard to understand such processes beyond simple concepts such as assimilation or perhaps contamination. What Native Hawaiian (and other non-European peoples) saw in nineteenth-century nationalism was not just a way of coordinating their internal politics. For many, the more important aspect of nationalism and political reorganization came from the increased ability to operate on an international level, forcing themselves into a level of international politics that Europe and America typically denied to other peoples. It is no coincidence that the strongest nationalist movements outside of Europe occurred as explicit measures to prevent or repulse European or American imperial aggression. By asking our students how and why Hawaiians identified themselves with the European-led community of nation states we can challenge them to understand some of the complexities of nineteenth-century political thought and its implications for Native peoples.

     At the same time, the king's growing interest in pan-Asian alliances and a distrust of imperial aggression and rhetoric points towards a nascent 19th century understanding of a large scale international anti-imperial movement. In presenting such issues to our students, we can push them to understand colonization and anti-colonial resistance not just in terms of individual acts and events, but as part of global processes recognized by both the great powers and their past and future targets of colonial rule. Furthermore, we can begin looking at how a global perspective allowed both sides to develop rhetorical and practical tools for justifying or attacking the spread of empire, something that is often ignored in examinations of empire limited to specific locations or events.  

     Finally, we can get students to look at what Samoan and Hawaiian appeals to each other on a genealogical basis say about the resiliency of Oceanic values despite an embrace of European and American political science. At the same time, these statements reflect racial ideologies prevalent in European and American imperial projects. By presenting such issues to our students, we can push them to analyze how racial and genealogical arguments are similar, but as importantly to ask them where they might diverge due to their different origins and uses. 

     Once we have asked our students to deal with each of these three concepts individually, we can begin examining what it means that the kingdom embraced all three of them simultaneously. For many students, and many historians, the apparent inconsistency of the Hawaiian plans may give them pause. How, for instance, can they embrace European political science while refuting the imperial agendas such ideas were created to promote? By pushing them to bring all of the ideas developed above into a single conversation, we can challenge them to not just understand how these ideas acted together in the Hawaiian mind, but how national and cultural identities in general are often composed of a variety of diverse and seemingly divergent beliefs and value systems.


     Kalākaua's vision of a Polynesian Confederacy reflected a complex and multi-dimensional understanding of both the identity of the Hawaiian people and how that identity connected and allied them with a broad array of other peoples and states across the globe. It was a project that envisioned Hawai‘i as intimately connected to the Euro/American powers through the bonds of an international community built on the shared ideals of constitutional governments, formal diplomatic recognition, and the rule of law. At the same time it envisioned the lāhui as closely allied with other non-European peoples against the shared threat of the Euro/American empires. More specifically, however, it envisioned Hawai‘i as part of a Polynesian community whose members needed to rely upon one another in order to maintain both their independence and shared identity.

     As scholars interested in world history, analysis of the Confederacy and similar events and projects allows us to move past the shallow and two-dimensional examinations of Native peoples important only as the targets or obstacles of imperial predation. Native Hawaiians and other Native peoples of the nineteenth century and other times interacted with and sought to harness and alter regional and global trends beyond simply reacting to the colonial encounter.  By examining events such as the Polynesian Confederacy, which are affected by yet not contained by the colonial encounter, we can incorporate Natives into world history as agents of their own history and as actors in the history of the world.

Kealani Cook is a recent PhD from the history department of the University of Michigan. He is currently teaching at the University of Hawai‘i Maui College. He can be reached at


* Throughout this article I will use Euro/American to denote Europeans and Americans collectively.  Their shared imperial cultures, ideologies, and interests in the Pacific often make it convenient to refer to them collectively.  This is not to be confused with Euro-Americans, commonly used for American citizens of European descent.

1 I. Twigg, "Hope for the Nation," The Hawaiian Gazette, March 8, 1887, 1.( Available at ).

2 Scott B. Cook, Colonial Encounters in the Age of High Imperialism, (New York: Longman, 1996), 73-102.; Philip Curtin, The World and the West, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 144-148.

3 Ralph Kuykendall, The Hawaiian Kingdom, Volume I, 1778-1854, Foundation and Transformation, (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1968); Ralph Kuykendall, The Hawaiian Kingdom, Volume II, 1854-1874, Twenty Critical Years, (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1966); Ralph Kuykendall. The Hawaiian Kingdom, Volume III, 1874-1893, the Kalakaua Dynasty, (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1967); Gavan Daws, Shoal of Time: A History of the Hawaiian Islands. (Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii, 1968).

4 Lilikala Kame‘eleihiwa, Native Land and Foreign Desires: Pehea Lā E Pono Ai? How Shall We Live in Harmony? (Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press, 1992).

5 William N. Armstrong, Around the World with a King (Rutland, Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1977), 62-3, 146; Kuykendall, The Hawaiian Kingdom, Vol III, 229-231.

6 Walter Murray Gibson, Report of the Minister of Foreign Affairs (Honolulu: 1884), cxl-cxli.

7 Kuykendall, Hawaiian Kingdom, Vol III, 317-325.

8 Kuykendall, The Hawaiian Kingdom, Vol III, 320-339.

9 "Editorial," Ka Hoku o ka Pakipika, November 28 1861; Charles Kalu, "Ka Haiolelo O Hon. Cha. Kalu Imua Ona Kanaka O Molokai Ma Ka La 28 O Novemaba Iho Nei Maloko O Ka Halepule O Kaluaaha. , n.d.," Hawaiian Mission Children's Society, Honolulu, HI.

10 By no coincidence, his title allowed Bush to outrank the consuls of the great powers in Sāmoa and Tonga according to the protocols of Euro/American diplomacy.

11 George Webb, June 21, 1887, Dispatch 5, FO& Ex, Hawaii State Archives, Honolulu, HI.

12 "Hawai‘i no ka oi," a common phrase meaning "Hawai‘i is the highest." John E. Bush, January 3, 1887, Bush to Kalākaua (1), Hawaii State Archive. Honolulu. The originals of this letter are in Hawaiian. A translated version is available in HSA-FO&EX, but the translation presented here is my own, retaining the Hawaiian terms when significant.

13 John E. Bush, January 27, 1887, Bush to Kalākaua (2), FO & EX, Hawaii State Archives, Honolulu.

14 John E. Bush, "Bush to Taimua and Faipule, 1887," FO & EX, Hawaii State Archives, Honolulu, HI.

15 John E. Bush, August 15, 1887, Bush to Kalākaua (4), Hawaii State Archives, Honolulu, HI.; John E. Bush, "Dispatch #19, 1887," FO and EX, Hawaii State Archives, Honolulu, HI.

16 Ibid.

17 Armstrong, Around the World, 62-63, 146.

18 Ibid., 84, 169.

19 Ibid., 219.

20 Gibson, Report of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, cxl-cxli; David Kalākaua, "Transcript Of: Voyage around World, Especially Japan, 1881," 89, Monarchy Collection, Honolulu.

21 Armstrong, Around the World with a King, 170.

22 Kame‘eleihiwa, Native Lands, 19-23; Noenoe K. Silva, Aloha Betrayed: Native Hawaiian Resistance to American Colonialism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004, 26-54.

23 Bush, Bush to Kalākaua (2); David Kalākaua, 1886, Kalākaua to George, King of the Tonga Islands, Exec. Corr., Hawaii State Archives, Honolulu, HI.

24 Bush, Bush to Kalākaua (2), Carter Collection, Hawaii State Archives, Honolulu, HI.

25 Bush, "Bush to Taimua and Faipule," FO & EX, Hawaii State Archives, Honolulu, HI.

26 Robert Strayer, Ways of the World: A Brief Global History, Volume 1: to 1500, (Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2009).

27 Jerry H. Bentley and Herbert F. Ziegler, Traditions & Encounters: A Brief Global History, Volume I: to 1500 (New York: McGraw Hill, 2010), 70, 80, 339; Jerry H. Bentley and Herbert F. Ziegler, Traditions & Encounters: A Brief Global History, Volume II: 1500 to Present (New York: McGraw Hill, 2010), 374, 376, 428, 573.

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