Rewriting History

Credit: Wikimedia Commons, James J. Williams

Credit: James J. Williams

“History is written by the victors.” – Winston Churchill

The history that we are taught in school is a very narrow one. It is framed in victories, accomplishments, and the Western world’s ideologies. Very little is said about those who’ve suffered from these accomplishments, and over time, we’ve accepted that to mean this: their stories don’t matter. However, this teaching is wrong– and they do.

In the fourteenth issue of Silk Road Review, a themed issue titled Voices on Asia, I was struck by a piece on the overthrow of the Hawaiian Monarchy and the destruction of the Hawaiian Nation and its people. Elinor Langer contributed “Bayonet,” the first chapter of her novel, “The Trials of Lili-uokalani,” which detailed the political takeover which occurred in 1887. This eye-opening counter story to the dominant narrative is all at once saddening, horrifying, and inspiring as the Hawaiian Nation’s trials and tribulations were glossed over as simply the annexation of Hawaii, America’s 50th state.

One segment from the text particularly haunted me as I read about the decline in the native Hawaiian population.  “A report dated June 30, 1887…puts the native Hawaiian population at 44,232, a decrease of 41 percent…[since] the year of the King’s birth. The losses were at once personal and universal. Whole families and villages simply disappeared.” The loss of 41 percent of anything is staggering, but 41 percent of a human population is…beyond comprehension and expression. I cannot help but think back to the genocide of the America’s indigenous peoples by colonists, explorers, and business men trying to expand their property and profits at the expense of human life. It is a pattern that should not be so easily left out of history and forgotten. It should not be admissible by omission as responsibility cannot so easily be sloughed off.

The actions of the Honolulu Rifles, the Caucasian militia group that backed the bureaucratic coup, personally disgust me with their pride and lust for conflict. Records from their meetings before and after confronting King Kalakaua show that they vehemently supported a violent coup if the King were to resist and “waited as long as we could stand it, and when our Anglo-Saxon blood could endure it no longer we screwed our courage to the sticking point and went in for revolution.” It’s hard to comprehend why they believed that their, to use their term, “revolution”, was for a righteous cause. Led by business men with personal interests in the reallocation of political power, it was an aggressive business plan at its most basic level. These men hid behind their hoity-toity colonial mindsets to justify the destruction of an entire nation and its culture. The fact that they got away with it directly correlates with the history it subsequently aligns with.

Langer recounts the difficult choice that King Kalakaua had to make in 1887 to do what he thought best for his people. While it put the first nail in the coffin for his sister’s subsequent usurpation from power, he did so to try and protect his subjects from violence. The complexity of these actions is difficult to capture in a way that grants them the dignity they are deserving of. Being forced to give up their lands and culture, as well as many lives, has shaped the Hawaiian Nation in a way that will continue to resonate for generations to come. And in order to give them the justice they deserve, we must hear their stories. That is why this piece moved me so. I was glad they were finally given a voice, and hope to hear it in their own words soon.

It seems wrong to label this as a counter story to history, as it is in fact a historical account. However, it is a counter story to colonial European and American history which has flourished as Truth. By presenting the events of the Bayonet Constitution and the conflicting interests of the people involved, a more rounded account of the event starts to form. No longer is history just a unilateral narrative when counter stories emerge to give voice to those who “lost.”

“The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it.” – Oscar Wilde

By: Sophia Backus