Category Archives: Digital Hawaii

Scalar and Hawaiian History

As I mentioned in my inaugural blog post, I have been experimenting with two different digital history projects. The first, a pedagogical exercise in how I might offer an introductory digital history class that foregrounds foundational historical thinking skills instead of a more focused, “disruptive” approach that highlights digital history as an alternative to “traditional” historical goals, I will return to soon. However, here I want to offer some basic reflections on how Scalar could be the tool I need.

The project I have been imagining is, at its core, very messy. Like earlier, I am not going to attempt to summarize the history of Hawaiian annexation (or colonization) here, for two reasons. First, it is far too complicated for a blog post, and second, there is some exceptionally good scholarship that focuses on various aspects of this history that is worth reading. The crux of the annexation is both and legal and a cultural question – specifically in the way that the constitutional history of the Hawaiian islands did or did not give the monarchy the right to alter the constitution, how the manipulation of a constitution (often at the barrel of a gun) could be used to cement or challenge economic power, and whether the “support” that supposedly existed among the complex ethnic make-up of the islands (which included native Hawaiians, descendents of American immigrants, recent American arrivals, Portuguese, Chinese, and Japanese workers, as well as a smattering of a few other nationalities) meant anything at all. Such concerns were not lost on American politicians in 1892, when the American-descendent led coup ousted Queen Liliuokalani and applied to the United States to be annexed. Yet, that application was denied, upon the advice of Commissioner James Blount, sent to the islands to investigate the problematic overthrow. Blount concluded:

The undoubted sentiment of the people is for the Queen, against the Provisional Government and against annexation. A majority of the whites, especially Americans, are for annexation. (Report of U.S. Special Commissioner James H. Blount to U.S. Secretary of State Walter Q. Gresham) (pdf)

Blount’s report led President Cleveland to work against annexation, and it was not until a significant change in the U.S. political leadership, as well as an altered foreign affairs context, that the U.S. agreed to the annexation request of the Republic of Hawaii in 1898.

So, messy, right? In thinking through how to tell this story using digital tools, I am faced with some key problems. The first is a strong desire to preserve and amplify the many competing voices and positions that took part in this debate. Official documentation, local petitions, propagandistic narratives, and speeches delivered before governmental and non-governmental bodies all showcase the heavily contested nature of this annexation. Doing justice to both sides of this debate demands building a site that pays equal and careful attention to contrasting narratives, evidence, and understandings of their own historical past. Narratives would need to lead to evidence, and that evidence would need to lead readers to different interpretations of it.

The second problem I faced, though, is the daunting challenge of making this narrative make sense. While one could argue that a curated exhibit of primary documents related to the 1898 annexation would and could be helpful for readers to explore Hawai’i’s contested colonial past, I worry that this story is so complex and multivalent if it lacked any direction, it would be pointless. One possibility would certainly to be to build an exhibit through Omeka (or multiple exhibits to capture the contrast), but the project, in the end, seems to rest more on historical story than on preserving the archive. Hence – Scalar?

The next step, though, seems to be to start doodling – figuring out where moments intersect, converge, and diverge. Suggestions and pointers on how to do something like this without leading myself so far down the rabbit hole that, in the end, I decide a better use of my time would be to hang out with the Caterpillar are always appreciated.