African and African-Americans in the Hawaiian Kingdom

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Between 1800 to 1850, more than a quarter of sailors in Hawai’i was in fact Black–mainly from the US, Mexico, Haiti, Santo Domingo and Brazil. Another one quarter was from Asia (including Japan, China, the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), and the Spanish Orient (now the Philippines, Guam and Micronesia). By 1833, an African Relief Society was organized in Honolulu to aide Black seamen, transplants and missionaries.

Slavery in Hawai’i was abolished early on. Kamehameha I had African-Americans at his court who were slaves that escaped. One of the most famous was a man named Keaka-‘ele’ele (Black Jack) who helped to build brick buildings for Ka’ahumanu and Kamehameha. Again, due to the Eurocentric way Hawaiian history has been presented in the schools and elsewhere, we always acknowledge people like John Young but forget that Kamehameha had other foreigners at his court including African-Americans, Japanese and Chinese who have been written out. Their contributions have yet to be fully documented and acknowledged.

Kamehameha I recognized the new republics in South America and Hawai Street in Buenas Aires is named for Hawai’i being the first nation to recognize Argentina. When the Haitian Revolution broke out, Kamehameha I gave thought to send some of his arms to the slaves but was talked out of it due to the distance and the arms might be needed to conquer Kaua’i. Kamehameha I also through the cunning use of diplomacy, military arms and trade was able to ensure that Hawaiians were not blackbirded (a form of slavery) unlike sadly many of our Polynesian neighbors. That alone is one the chief reasons that unification was good for Hawaiians–a unified central government kept Europeans and Americans from enslaving Hawaiian populations unlike what the British, French, and Chileans did in Rapa Nui, Samoa, and Kiribati where entire villages were kidnapped and forced to work on plantations, mines and ranches.

Kamehameha III formally abolished slavery in all forms and declared that any slave that arrived upon Hawaiian soil was no longer a slave. It was deemed so important that it became Article 12 of the 1852 Hawaiian Constitution. Slavery was thus abolished a decade before the United States and the Hawaiian constitution guaranteed all slaves and former slaves their freedom and rights as equals.

One of the touching reminders of this period is the attached image. It is a naturalization certificate of an African-American. Moses Allen was born into slavery. His parents were slaves. He had come to Hawai’i prior to the US Civil War and some of his family also were able to escape slavery and come to far away Hawai’i. Despite the end of the US Civil War, Moses Allen decided to become a Hawaiian subject, a Hawaiian national. He lists himself not as a native or citizen of the United States but of Africa. Africa. When one thinks about it, why would he not? What type of country enslaves a population for generations and then expects them to be proud to be citizens? One of the great legacies left to us by the Hawaiian Kingdom is that belief that all peoples are equal and that slavery and colonialism were completely and utterly wrong. Moses Allen of Africa choose to became a Hawaiian citizen and that alone speaks volumes about Hawaiʻi and Hawaiians stood for.

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