May is Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month, and in commemoration, we’re sharing an excerpt from the Introduction to The Kingdom and the Republic by Noelani Arista. In the book, Arista uncovers a trove of previously unused Hawaiian language documents to chronicle Hawaiians’ experience of encounter and colonialism in the nineteenth century, reconfiguring familiar histories of trade, proselytization, and negotiations over law and governance in Hawai’i.
This is a study of a world of words, world-making words, and how historians have written—or not—about them. We begin right in the middle of a dramatic expansion of this world. It is December 1827. An ‘aha ‘ōlelo, a Hawaiian chieﬂy council, has met for several days on the matter of an American missionary, Rev. William Richards, accused of libel by a British whaleship captain, William Buckle, and the British consul, Richard Charlton. Rev. William Richards, according to the British men, had libeled Captain Buckle when he wrote back to the home ofﬁce of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) in Boston, Massachusetts, describing the captain’s “purchase” in 1825 of a Hawaiian woman named Leoiki. . . .
On this day in 1827, a group of American Congregationalist missionaries was summoned from their new settlements across the archipelago by the ali‘i (chiefs) to appear before them on O‘ahu. In this ‘aha ‘ōlelo, spoken words carried the force of law. And words were the central issue in this dispute. While the British men chose to focus on the parts of Richards’ letter that told of Leoiki’s sale, for Richards, what was far more important about the letter and other reports like it from the mission were their detailed accounts of the “outrages” or attacks on mission stations by British sailors and whalers over a kapu (chieﬂy legal pronouncement) that prohibited Hawaiian women from traveling to ships. Serving as his own defense, Rev. Richards gave a verbal performance illustrating his already ripe capacity for political expression in the Hawaiian language, though he had lived in the islands a mere four years: “It is for you to deliver us over to such hands as you see proper, for you are our chiefs. We have left our own country and can not now receive the protection of its laws. . . . If I am a bad man or have broken the laws of your country, it is for you to try, and acquit or condemn me—you alone are my judges—it is for you to send me from your shores, or protect me here. With you is my life, and with you is my death. The whole is with you. . . .”
With these words, Richards revealed an aptitude for understanding Hawaiian political discourse that had thus far not been widely evinced among his missionary counterparts. The Hawaiian phrase I ka‘ōlelo nō ke ola, i ka ‘ōlelo nō ka make (In speech there is life, in speech there is death) may appear to indicate Richards’ abject submission to the chiefs. But instead, his repurposing of the phrase and its cadence demonstrated his cultural intelligence, as he played a rhetorical game of power in Hawaiian. The Hawaiian phrase is a precept descriptive of the authority of chieﬂy speech, which could determine the life or death of a person according to the degree to which a kapu had been ﬂouted. By taking this Hawaiian precept and turning it slightly to point toward his own life, Richards attempted a moment of Hawaiian political theater. He chose the perfect moment to invoke the mana (power) inherent in chieﬂy speech. . . .
Richards’ rhetorical and political performance at the ‘aha ‘ōlelo of late 1827 pushes us to rethink many aspects of writing a history of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Hawaiian law and governance. . . . In Richards’ speech, we can also observe how languages and epistemes might engage one another deeply. When systems of meaning-making intersect, we see not a “missionary perspective” or a “native perspective.” Instead, we ﬁnd a coalescence of different worlds of words, expanding their reach and salience.
This book is about Hawaiian governance and law at the moment of this coalescence, about the forces both internal and external that contributed to this coalescence, and about how we correct the imbalance in the historiography of Hawai‘i by revealing what colonial histories of Hawai‘i have left out: a story of continuing and evolving Hawaiian governance and law conducted in the Hawaiian language.