By Healani Sonoda-Pale
A disagreement has been brewing for three years between the Hawaiʻi State Archives and the Hawaiian Mission Houses (HMH) regarding priceless historical documents pertaining to the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom.
In March 2016, the documents were donated to HMH by the descendants of William O. Smith – a member of the so-called “Committee of Safety” that was responsible for plotting and orchestrating the overthrow.
This collection of papers includes original handwritten letters, notes, notices and, most importantly, the original letter of protest from Queen Liliʻuokalani addressed to the Provisional Government. This letter of protest, which appears to be written in the Queen’s own hand and dated Jan. 17, 1893, is the crown jewel of the collection.
Without prior notice, in 2017 the Office of the State Attorney General formally sent notice to HMH demanding that they surrender these historical documents to the care of the Hawaiʻi State Archives, asserting that all such documents were the property of the State of Hawaiʻi.
At the heart of the issue is whose kuleana is it to take care of these papers? And how do we discern the intentions of the state versus those of the Mission Houses?
It all started in late January 1893, when a collection of approximately 40 important papers relating to the overthrow were compiled by the members of the Committee of Safety.
The Committee of Safety was a group of 13 white men, many of whom were Protestant missionary descendants, who successfully schemed (with the support of the U.S. military) to steal the peaceful Hawaiian nation and set up a Provisional Government.
Following the overthrow of the sovereign Hawaiian Kingdom, this collection of papers was handed over to Smith who later stored the documents at Bishop Trust. The documents remained locked away for 45 years until Bishop Trust gave the documents to one of Smith’s daughters in 1938. The Smith family held on to the documents for another 78 years until March 2016 when they were donated to the HMH. After being hidden away for 123 years, these historical documents had finally resurfaced.
Within six months of receiving the documents, HMH digitized every page and made them accessible to the public online via their digital library collection (see link below). Now anyone with internet access, or those who choose to visit the HMH reading room in person, can read the Queen’s own words in her own hand:
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.
The collection also includes an apparently hastily scribbled note from the U.S. Minister, John L. Stevens, to Committee of Safety member Sanford B. Dole, dated on that infamous day in 1893. Stevens’ note to Dole includes the following instructions: “I would advise not to make known of my recognition of the defacto Provisional Government until said government is in possession of the Police Station.”
This scathing primary source shows the depth and length of the U.S. Minister’s complicity in the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom and provides evidence of collusion between the Committee of Safety and the United States government.
These documents, now known together as the “W.O. Smith Papers” seem to transport the reader into the room where the key perpetrators of the crime committed against the Hawaiian nation and people conspired.
These papers are important to understanding the past so that we, as a lāhui, can better navigate the future. The question of who has kuleana and who would be a better caretaker of these documents may end up in court, but as Hawaiians we should also be weighing in on this issue.
The W.O. Smith Papers Papers can be accessed online at hmha.missionhouses.org/collections/show/7
Healani Sonoda-Pale is a Kanaka Maoli educator, community activist and citizen of Ka Lāhui Hawai‘i. She resides in Kuli‘ou‘ou on the island of O‘ahu.