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The Island Murder | Article

Race in Territorial Hawai'i

Hawaiian flag being lowered from staff atop Iolani Palace in Honolulu, and the American flag sent aloft; marking the formal recognition of the Hawaiian Islands as an integral part of the United States, 1898. Library of Congress

A great wail went up in Honolulu on August 12, 1898, as the flag of Hawai'i was replaced with an American flag, flapping crisply in the wind. The wail rose to memorialize a disappearing way of life and to express trepidation for all that was to come.

White Colonization
Though an estimated 300,000 natives lived in Hawai'i when British explorer Captain James Cook landed on the islands in 1778, that population had dwindled to just 30,000 in 1900. By 1896, English had become the official language of the islands, and under the new flag, control of Hawaiian government slipped out of native hands.

Military Influence
The established haole (non-native) elite, primarily descendants of missionaries and plantation owners, enjoyed top political positions, which under territorial law were appointed by the president of the United States. The malihini haole, or newcomers, were the military men, who increased in number as the Pacific Fleet increased in size. As the Fleet's strategic significance grew in the Pacific, its physical presence in Hawai'i likewise increased. Senior military officers felt increasingly entitled to influence territory politics. Thus the newest and least permanent residents of Honolulu became some of the loudest voices in politics, while the longest-term residents were effectively shut out.

A Powerless Majority
If Hawai'i had been a U.S. state at the time, Hawaiians and the many Asians imported to work the sugar plantations could have turned their numbers into considerable voting power to elect officials sympathetic to their needs. But in a territory, the majority meant very little. The island's haoles locked up appointed positions, only parceling out civil service positions to Hawaiians or Asians to appease the electorate.

A New Racism
Just as in political circles, haoles rarely mixed in Hawaiian or Asian social circles. But the missionary families and established haoleswere surprised and offended when the malihini haoles treated Hawaiians and Asians with racial condescension. The quiet racial divide that existed between haoles and non-haoles was magnified when the military newcomers referred to Hawaiians and Asians as "niggers" in the streets of Honolulu. At the same time, Hawaiian youth were for the first time resisting authority in small ways — speaking pidgin English or "cruising" Honolulu's streets.

Filter of Prejudice
In late 1931, the Massie case brought race into the spotlight, and mainland America understood the story through its own filter of racial prejudices — egged on by news stories sympathetic to the white people involved. Time magazine referred to "honor killing" victim Joseph Kahahawai as a "brown-skinned buck," conjuring up images of sex-crazed natives. Publications called Thalia Massie, the young, unstable Navy wife who accused islanders of raping her, "cultured." Thalia's mother and husband, Grace Fortescue and Tommy Massie, were simply defending her honor by killing one of her alleged attackers. The suspects, Ben Ahakuelo, Henry Chang, Horace Ida, David Takai, and Joseph Kahahawai, were Hawaiian, Chinese-Hawaiian, and Japanese "fiends."

Geopolitical Dimensions to Racism
The malihini haolerevealed racial biases as well -- tinged with a political motive. The Navy's top man in Hawai'i, Admiral Yates Strling, Jr., called for vigilante justice against Thalia's alleged assailants. "Seize the brutes and string them up on trees," he demanded. Author David Stannard would characterize Stirling as a "white supremacist." And for the Navy, any threat against white authority in Hawai'i easily translated into an attack on America's strategic interest in the Pacific, where an expansionist Japan was causing concern.

Moderate Voices
Amid the heated rhetoric, some Hawaiians resisted reading racial considerations into the alleged assault and murder. The Honolulu Advertiser, generally sympathetic to the Naval point of view, reprimanded the mainland and the Navy, saying, "the attempt to inject racial prejudice into the picture is deplorable and will lend nothing to the solution of the problem, which is not racial." Hawaiian princess Abigail Kawananakoa asked the community to put its faith in the American system of justice. "Guilt or innocence," she said, "must be determined by due process of law."

All About Race
The efforts of the established haoles, the Hawaiian press, and the princess to put the lid back on the racial pot were perhaps too late. The "melting pot of peril" had boiled over. U.S. congressmen reading headlines such as, "Honolulu Battles Navy For Chance to Hang 4," demanded the institution of martial law to preserve the safety of white women. After Kahahawai's murder, Yates Stirling Jr. mused, "a life has been taken, but was it a life worth saving?"

Grief Stricken
Into 1932, while the white establishment played its race cards, Hawaiians mourned, but did not rise up in anger. Few riots occurred after Horace Ida's beating and fewer still after Joseph Kahahawai's death. Hawaiians reported being too grieved to fight. As writer Haunani Kay-Trask would explain, "people thought that nothing was going to come of the death of Kahahawai. They were not going to be punished, the murderers... We haven't had any justice in over 100 years. And I don't think anybody really thought there would be justice at all."

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