Story by Ron Williams Jr.
Photo courtesy Hawai‘i State Archives
A hush fell in Ali‘iolani Hale as the delegate from Puna approached the podium. His speeches were legendary, and all were eager to hear what he had to say. The legislature had gathered to settle a bitter and divisive debate; its outcome would have enduring implications for a nation that in 1878 faced an uncertain future. This speaker, however, commanded respect from both ally and adversary alike.
The Kingdom of Hawai‘i legislature was debating an economic stimulus that included incurring a million dollars in foreign debt. Joseph Nawahi, a patriot who fought the rising tide of foreign influence, was suspicious of outside “assistance.” He eloquently regaled his audience with an ancient example of trickery and deceit: the story of the Trojan horse. Virgil’s poem, Nawahi warned, was a cautionary tale: the “gift” of foreign aid would only undermine the sovereignty of the kingdom. In his fiery and memorable speech that day, Nawahi said, “E kiola loa aku kakou i keia lio i loko o ke kai, a i ‘ole ia, i loko o ka lua pele o Kilauea” (“Let us toss this horse into the sea or into the caldera of Kilauea”).
It would not be the first time his sage advice would be ignored, to the detriment of the kingdom.
A hero in his time yet mostly unknown outside of academic circles today, Nawahi’s story is now re-emerging. Ongoing research efforts using historical Hawaiian-language materials, including the massive archive of nineteenth-century Hawaiian-language newspapers, have recalled inspiring figures like Nawahi from the shadows of history.
Certain names become emblematic of the struggle for liberty: Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela. Courage in the face of turbulent times shaped such figures into national leaders. Nineteenth-century Hawai‘i had its share of turbulence: economic upheaval, a coup d’état, an imprisoned queen. It also had Joseph Nawahi.