By Ronald Williams, Jr.
The initial arrests came on the evening of 6 January 1895. A firefight between loyalists of the Hawaiian Kingdom and Republic of Hawai‘i forces had broken out at the Bertlemann home near the foot of Lē‘ahi. Fifteen Kanaka ‘Ōiwi were apprehended. Martial law was declared in the morning and over the following days 143 men—139 of them Kanaka ‘Ōiwi—were captured and taken into custody as “Prisoners of War.” Over the next few weeks, in an attempt to break the will of a population that had sworn undying resistance to the minority government that had seized power, Republic of Hawai‘i police and military arrested over 260 more men and seven women. These newest prisoners were brought to “the Reef”—O‘ahu’s stone prison built in 1857 among the marshlands of what is today Iwilei—and labeled “pio kalai‘āina” (political prisoners). The eldest of the incarcerated was seventy-seven. The youngest was thirteen.
Everything has a mo‘okū‘auhau. Understandings of our present are constructed atop a framework built in the past. Following the overthrow of Native rule in 1893, a purposeful and prolific narrative about Hawai‘i and Kanaka ‘Ōiwi was needed in order to justify minority rule in the Islands. The oligarchic Provisonal Governmnent of Hawai‘i, and later Republic, was asking the United States to incorporate the Hawaiian nation into its territory and many were calling for a general vote in Hawai‘i on the idea. The only play available to the desperate ruling party in the Islands was to try and dismiss Kanaka ‘Ōiwi as unfit for the vote.
The record of the Native-led Hawaiian nation [1843-1893] as one of the most modern and progressive nations in the world was clear. The Kumukānāwai of 1852 had declared universal manhood suffrage in the Kingdom. All races throughout Hawai‘i were allowed to vote, become citizens, and own property or a business. More than a decade later the United States would fight a devastating civil war that would take over 600,000 of its citizens’ lives over whether or not it was legal to own black men, women, and children. A woman, Miriam Auhea Kekāuluohi, held the position of Supreme Court Justice under the nation’s first constitution in 1840. It would be another century and a half, in 1981, before a woman would be appointed to the same position in the United States. An identity for the Kanaka Maoli subjects of this nation spoke of a near-fully literate, outspoken, and informed citizenry. These understandings necessitated the production and proliferation of both a national and an international narrative that would recast Native Hawaiians as a people incapable of self-rule. The 1895 imprisonment of a broad swath of Kanaka ‘Ōiwi leaders was meant to break a nation, and perhaps more critically, recharacterize what it meant to be Kanaka ‘Ōiwi. While the immediate trauma caused by the physical imprisonment of over 300 Kanaka ‘Ōiwi men in 1895 is clear to most, it is likely the legacy of this effort to fracture a lāhui that has turned out to be most potent.
William Henry Daniels was arrested, “without warrant or reason,” in Honolulu on 10 January 1895 while visiting from Maui to take care of legal matters concerning one of the several businesses he owned. Born in Wailuku, Maui, in 1855 to Justice Henry Wilson Daniels [Brother-in-law to Colonel John Dominis Holt] and Nancy Hannah Kamaekalani Copp [first cousin to Lili‘uokalani, daughter of Ha‘ole, a sister of Keohokalole], Daniels became a prominent Kanaka ‘Ōiwi lawyer, coffee planter, and land holder in central Maui. At one time he co-owned the island of Kaho’olawe. In 1887, he was elected to the Hawaiian Kingdom legislature and was later appointed district magistrate for Wailuku. Following the 1893 coup, Judge Daniels refused to take an oath of allegiance to the new government and foreswear the monarchy. His January 1895 arrest and imprisonment threw the life of this accomplished and well-respected Kanaka ‘Ōiwi into disarray. Daniels lost his businesses and his lands, being forced into bankruptcy. A father of ten children, the once-proud man was anguished over being unable to contact them and one newspaper reported that he “was hourly brooding over the fate of his wife and his children.” After being released from custody, Daniels was barred from government employment and black-balled by all the major businesses in town. Unable to find work he moved his family to East Maui where he was employed by the royalist planter Claus Spreckels, supervising work on the Huelo water ditch.
On the morning of Saturday 17 April 1897, William Henry Daniels visited the Spreckelsville Plantation office and collected his men’s monthly wages. Around noon, he was seen riding towards Huelo with his head down, apparently very low spirited. Reaching his destination, he met his crew, disbursed the pay, and headed to Kailua. Arriving home at around 2 pm, Daniels entered his house and preceeded to a back room where he found one of his boys playing. He ushered the youngster out, then returned to the now empty bedroom, closing the door behind him. Moments later, his wife, from the front room, heard the devastating report of a revolver—Judge William Henry Daniels had ended his own life a few weeks short of his forty-second birthday. An obituary from the Hawaiian Star characterized him as one of the most prominent and brightest Hawaiians on Maui and remarked: “He has been a staunch Royalist and in him that party here lose their foremost leader.” Judge Daniels’ is but one story. There are hundreds of others.
A 2016 community presentation in Kona, Moku o Keawe, entitled “‘Onipa‘a Ka ‘Oia‘i‘o: A People Remember,” included a random set of ten original O‘ahu prison booking photographs of the 1895 pio kalai‘āina. The images were used within a broader discussion about historiography in Hawai‘i and the purposeful creation of a dominant narrative about Kanaka ‘Ōiwi that offered an understanding of Hawaiians as incapable, deficient, and inherently prone to incarceration.
As images of the men’s faces, torsos, and names appeared, held a place, and then faded, I noticed a friend and colleague in the audience begin to cry. By the time the presentation finished a few minutes later, both he and his wahine were obviously overcome with emotion.
When I later approached them, she spoke with clarity: “The third photo, that one, that was my great-grandfather. Seeing his face, his ‘eha, and that number on his chest….it hit me that he was the first generation of our ‘ohana in prison. That’s where it started.”