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Reviewed by:
  • Unsustainable Empire: Alternative Histories of Hawai‘i Statehood by Dean Itsuji Saranillio
  • Sarah Miller-Davenport
Unsustainable Empire: Alternative Histories of Hawai‘i Statehood. By Dean Itsuji Saranillio. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018. xxvi + 282 p. Illustrated. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $26.95 paper; $99.95 cloth

Unsustainable Empire works to de-naturalize the popular story of Hawai‘i statehood, in which a long-deserving United States territory overcame racism to become an equal part of the American nation. Instead, Dean Saranillio frames statehood as part of a longer history of U.S. settler colonialism in Hawai‘i, a project that required constant effort to maintain its legitimacy in the face of recurrent opposition. He divides his focus between elites in Hawai‘i who were engaged in “manufacturing consent” for statehood and a group of defiant “unexpected individuals,” among them “historical revision-ists, unruly women, subversives, communists, con men, gays, and criminals” (pp. 6, 8). Significantly, most of these figures were active in the era before the emergence of an organized Hawaiian sovereignty movement.

Saranillio traces the discursive roots of the statehood campaign to the 1890s. After the settlers’ overthrow of Queen Lili‘uokalani in 1893, the haole elite were determined to erase any trace of Hawai‘i’s recent status as an independent nation in order to secure American support for annexation to the U.S. Lorrin Thurston, a third-generation settler, newspaper publisher, and one of the men behind the recent coup, helped lead this public relations campaign at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The Hawai‘i exhibit—the “Cyclorama of Kilauea,” a huge encircling painting of the Big Island volcano with a giant statue of the Hawaiian goddess Pele standing above its entrance—suited the overall tone of the fair, whose displays help chronicle the transition of the U.S. from a continental settler nation to an emerging global empire. Thurston hoped that the cyclorama would bolster the annexationist cause by portraying Hawai‘i as “an exotic island frontier zone, a primitive space to be made anew with the joint help of white settlers in Hawai‘i and a newly industrialized United States” (p. 31). [End Page 193]

Thurston got his wish with annexation in 1898, and for the next decades, the haole ruling class enjoyed Hawai‘i’s territorial status, with whites disproportionately represented in the legislature and Hawai‘i’s majority Asian population barred from naturalization (and thus unable to vote). Meanwhile, the Big Five—the interlocking companies that oversaw Hawai‘i’s sugar industry—essentially controlled Hawai‘i’s economy. White supremacy in Hawai‘i was further supported by the theories of University of Hawai‘i eugenicist Stanley Porteus, who lent academic legitimacy to the subordination of Hawai‘i’s nonwhite communities. Elites in Hawai‘i had to adjust their stance, however, when the Sugar Act of 1935 imposed limits on exports of territorial sugar to the continental U.S. The Big Five and other powerful interests quickly pivoted to statehood, now arguing that Asians in Hawai‘i exemplified successful assimilation.

But, as Saranillio makes clear, not everyone in Hawai‘i acceded to the message statehood advocates wanted to convey. Saranillio thus juxtaposes the efforts of Hawai‘i boosters to sell statehood to Congress with grassroots voices of resistance. Where statehood supporters painted Hawai‘i as an ethnically harmonious society with a well-run economy, a number of Hawaiian and working people of color sought to project a much more troubling picture of Hawai‘i to federal lawmakers. Ironically for statehood advocates, when members of Congress held hearings in Hawai‘i during the first statehood bid in 1937, their presence created “a powerful opportunity” to put forward alternative understandings of “Hawai‘i’s new political possibilities…beyond Big Five hegemony” (p. 89). Flouting the conformist pressures of the statehood movement, the Japanese newspapers Hawaii Hochi and Voice of Labor promoted labor militancy while criticizing statehood advocates for whitewashing class strife and Big Five dominance over the territorial government. This odious portrait of the Big Five—along with anti-Asian racism—was one of the factors the congressional investigative committee cited in its report recommending statehood be delayed.

The successful statehood...


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