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  • An Animate Archive:New Voices Join the Chorus
  • Ronald C. Williams Jr. (bio)

A common characterization of physical archives imagines dark, silent vaults filled with ancient manuscripts and lifeless ephemera. My experience, both in Hawai'i and abroad, has universally been the inverse. Archives are places filled to the rafters with vibrant and intent voices. Within historical repositories, I've heard the progressive voices of the Kānaka 'Ōiwi (Native Hawaiians) of Hui Kālai'āina: a national political association that in 1890 drafted the document, now held by the Hawaiian Historical Society, that proposed a constitutional amendment introducing women's suffrage to the Hawaiian Kingdom.1 I've heard the sorrow-filled voices of Kauikeaouli (Kamehameha III), Ka'ahumanu, and Kālaimoku relaying the tragic news of the death of Liholiho (Kamehameha II) to his sister Nāhiena'ena in an 1825 letter held by the Hawaiian Mission Children's Society Library (HMCS).2 And I've listened to the voice of an anxious Kanaka 'Ōiwi sailor, held in San Francisco prison in 1863—charged with two murders that he did not commit—that emanates from Circuit Court records within the US National Archives at San Francisco.3 Archives are indeed alive with vivid narrators from the [End Page 175] past. A recent gift to one of Hawai'i's most significant caretakers of historical voice reaffirms the fact with a poignant vitality.

Protecting and Platforming Hawai'i's Past

"The preservers of history are as heroic as its makers."

–Pat Neff

In March of 2016, an exceedingly significant collection of historical documents held by a private family since 1938—initially on Maui and subsequently on O'ahu—was gifted to HMCS.4 The assemblage of personal manuscripts, government papers, and diplomatic correspondence was originally amassed by William Owen Smith (1848–1929), Attorney General for the Provisional Government, Republic, and Territory of Hawai'i (1893–1899).5 After accessioning the collection, Executive Director Thomas Woods, understanding its significance, made the decision, with board approval, to begin digitization of the documents in order to offer broad, online access. For the first time in over a century—prior to 1938 the materials were held by the Bishop Trust—these documents would be available to the public.6 Curator of Archives/Librarian John Barker began the digitization process, and soon a portion of the most historically significant papers within the collection, and arguably in nineteenth-century Hawaiian history, became accessible around the world. Among the extraordinary documents now available is a collection of original diplomatic correspondence and legal papers produced during the January 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian Monarchy. One particular piece, unseen by the general public since its use in the events it describes, holds value far beyond the purely historical.

The Voice of a Nation

The history of the Hawaiian Islands includes an extraordinary record of political transformation from absolute monarchical rule to constitutional monarchy beginning in the 1830s.7 The resultant internationally-recognized government was brought to an end by coup de main in 1893, replaced by a minority oligarchy.8 On 17 January 1893, political opponents of Queen Lili'uokalani, who were seeking the [End Page 176] annexation of the Islands to the United States, proclaimed an abrogation of the monarchy and the establishment of a provisional government. At 6 pm that evening, the last reigning monarch of Hawai'i put pen to paper and authored a formal diplomatic protest that resonates for many today as an inspiring example of resistance to injustice.

The 17 January 1893 letter of Her Hawaiian Majesty Queen Lili'uokalani reads:

I, Liliuokalani, by the Grace of God and under the constitution of the Hawaiian Kingdom Queen, do hereby solemnly protest against any and all acts done against myself and the constitutional government of the Hawaiian Kingdom by certain persons claiming to have established a provisional government of and for this Kingdom. That I yield to the superior force of the United States of America whose Minister Plenipotentiary His Excellency John L. Stevens has caused United States troops to be landed at Honolulu and declared that he would support the said provisional government. Now to avoid...


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