OPINION: Our Pearl Harbor Moment???

by Stephen Sumida

So — the COVID-19 pandemic is “the Pearl Harbor moment” of our generations today?  Remember Pearl Harbor? Really?

Push the Pearl Harbor reference and its underlying logic, and we come to the observation that by taking Pearl Harbor and Hawai‘i from Hawaiians, Americans were responsible for making Pearl Harbor a target of the Japanese attack on America in 1941 in the first place. So, Americans are responsible for enabling the attack by the new coronavirus pandemic. Say what?

I have a family relationship to Pearl Harbor, for real. I feel I have both an advantage and an obligation to know about Pearl Harbor from having grown up on its shores, in a place called, in Hawaiian, Kalauao, meaning “abundant clouds.”  Atop the mountains there, the clouds billow high and wet. Rainbows appear on most days, the sun shining through the rain, the inner radiance shining through the tears.

In 1928 my family, beginning with my grandparents, began growing watercress on eleven acres of land leased from the huge estate of Kamehameha Schools, bequeathed by Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop. Our leasehold land is blessed with the largest flow of spring water on the island of O’ahu. This water and this site enabled my family to grow and sell watercress, one of the very few fresh green vegetables in a land that had been taken over by sugar cane and pineapple. Watercress is grown in pure spring water, ka wai puna o Kalauao, that laws in Hawai‘i since the early 20thcentury require for the commercial cultivation of this crop, because surface water – streams fed by runoff up in the mountains rather than by springs at the shoreline – could be contaminated by liver fluke transmitted through feces of animals such as cattle and pigs.

On December 7, 1941, the Sumida family farm was directly under the flight path of Japanese warplanes. Zooming low overhead, the planes began firing guns and cannons while the pilots were arming their bomb racks. The Sumida family piled into the farm truck, grandpa, workers, dogs, and all. Driving furiously, Obaachan (grandma), careened along the burning harbor, across Honolulu, past Waikiki, to Kapahulu at the western foot of Diamond Head. The family took refuge in an evacuation center they had already been assigned, and they had rehearsed for Japan’s surprise attack on them.

An aunt told me this story. I wasn’t born until after the war. When asked long afterward to write and speak about “the sense of place” in Hawai‘i, however, I impulsively researched the history of our place, Kalauao, next to ‘Aiea, O‘ahu. What I researched turned out to be so significant in Hawaiian history, yet so unspeakably erased by a colonial American history that an event that took place on what is now Sumida Farm rarely gets a mention.

It was a war that took place there in November-December 1794, that was a prelude to King Kamehameha’s invasion and victory over O’ahu in the spring of 1795. The war or battle, called Kuki‘iahu, took place at “Pearl Harbor.” It’s eclipsed by colonial history, which considers the Japanese attack in 1941 to be the only battle of Pearl Harbor in history.

Return to the Pearl Harbor allusion of today.  Suppose we shift perspectives, assume a different point of view, and say, “Remember 1492”? when sicknesses began on continents now called the Americas, diseases for which the native people had no prior immunity?  Or, “Remember 1778,” when Captain James Cook and his two British ships first arrived in Hawai’I, at Kaua‘i, and novel diseases began in the islands, soon decimating the native population.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that the federal Administration, media, and many in American society are alluding to, occurred on one day – no, one morning – in history. The current pandemic is ongoing, and who would dictate publicly how long it will last?  The historical changes the coronavirus, COVID-19 – not made by a human agent, not by hostile nations – is comparable to Pearl Harbor, all right, but maybe not in the way that today’s nationalistic, implicitly race-based allusion connotes.

Data are not clear on how much of the Hawaiian population perished following the arrivals of Cook, George Vancouver, and many other foreigners from many other places outside Hawai‘i by the early 1800s.  Studies of the numbers of deaths by novel diseases and of survivors among native Hawaiians have contradicted one another, depending on the “political” leanings of their authors. The newly introduced diseases included measles and, by mid-century, leprosy, called by some the “Chinese disease,” racially tagged, even though the disease was obviously from biblical times and earlier in antiquity. Native Hawaiians suffered not only the deaths of a large percentage of the population but also a reputation for being a racially weak and inferior people, victims unable to resist diseases that the rest of the world had seemed to have already gotten over long ago.

Cook and his crew sailed from Kaua‘i in January 1778, to the Pacific Northwest and Puget Sound. They searched to the north but couldn’t find the Northwest Passage. As winter approached, Cook decided to return to where there would be no winter, Hawai’i.  When his ships got there that November and looked for safe harbor, they found that the Maui natives were eager to trade with them—pigs, fruits, and water for iron and other metals although they were not happy about the foreigners’ return. By then word and disease had spread of Cook’s sailors’ syphilis that already had traveled from Ni‘ihau in the west to Maui in the east of the archipelago.  As elsewhere in the world in the Age of Exploration, the threat of biological genocide by disease had begun in the Hawaiian Islands.

By mid-19th century, Queen Lili‘uokalani states in her Hawaii’s Story, a certain Dr. John McGrew, an American, was proposing a scheme for the United States to annex Pearl Harbor to establish a US military and commercial base in the middle of the Pacific. Soon afterward, the sugar planters in Hawai‘i, many of them Americans, got a tax break from the tariff on foreign sugar levied on Hawaiian sugar.  The waiver of the foreign sugar tariff came in a Reciprocity Treaty between the Kingdom of Hawai‘i and the United States of America. The sugar planters got their tax break. Sound familiar? Reciprocally, the US got control of Pearl Harbor.

When the Reciprocity Treaty expired in 1889, the sugar planters and their political party ramped up their opposition to the Monarchy. They feared that King David Kalakaua would not renew the Treaty. When he died in 1891, his sister Queen Lili‘uokalani took the reign and proceeded to work on writing a new constitution to restore powers to the sovereign Hawaiian Monarch that the sugar planters with their allies the descendants of American missionaries had forced Kalakaua to give up. The political parties of the sugar planters openly rebelled. In January 1893, with the help of armed US Marines in port and unauthorized to get involved, they overthrew the Queen and proclaimed themselves Revolutionaries against the tyranny of a monarchy.  The rebels immediately offered Hawai‘i to the United States. America under President Grover Cleveland refused the gift, on the grounds that the US Marines had enacted an illegal act of war by participating unauthorized in the overthrow of the Queen. Their gift of Hawai‘i refused, the sugar planters claimed the Hawaiian nation for themselves and called it the Republic of Hawai‘i. They installed the pineapple magnate Stanford Dole as its president. The aim of the Republic was to get it annexed as a Territory of the United States.

By writing her Hawaii’s Story in 1898 Lili‘uokalani aimed to persuade Americans not to annex Hawai‘i. The Queen’s appeal failed. In that year the United States under President William McKinley also took the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico. Hawaii’s sugar was now domestic American, no longer subject to the tariff on foreign sugar.  Likewise, these new possessions became American military outposts for the empire, no matter that the US posed as a benevolent nation in contrast to exploitative European empires. Chief among these overseas American military bases was Pearl Harbor.

If it were not for this history of takeover, would history have gone on to where the Japanese would attack the US naval stronghold in the Pacific, and at Manila as well, on December 7, 1941?

“Pearl Harbor.”  Remember Pearl Harbor.  But how, when imperial, colonial history overrides and grows ignorant of Pu’uloa and how it became the American Pearl Harbor, and when the current allusions to Pearl Harbor in connection with the COVID-19 pandemic assume something nationalistic and strike Japanese Americans and many Asian and Pacific Islander Americans with undertones of racial discrimination?  How can we “remember” what we’re ignorant of a fuller, deeper Pearl Harbor story? As happened in the Americas and the Pacific Islands, new diseases don’t respect national or racial considerations that uttering the name “Pearl Harbor” evokes today. Look. We’re all in this together, right? Right?

Stephen Sumida is UW professor emeritus of American Ethnic Studies. He received his PhD in the UW English Department and has also taught at the University of Hawai’i, Washington State University, and the University of Michigan. He’s also been an actor in theaters in Ann Arbor, Michigan and Seattle.

Featured image courtesy of WhiteHouse.gov