Flagging Down Hawai’i

Hear ye, Yankees! No, not you. I mean you. Today (31 July) is Flag Day!

What was that? You thought Flag Day was back on the 14th? You didn’t know there was such a thing as a Flag Day? Well, I admit, it was easier to feel good about the day when we thought the flag stood for something more than this. And gasoline/petrol is now how much?

Anyway. Flag Day commemorates the adoption of the American national flag by Congress in 1777. Except here in Hawaii. Where Flag Day celebrates the adoption of the Hawaiian State Flag. Which is also the Hawaiian National Flag. Or was. Or wasn’t. Or was it …

I got to thinking about all this when I pulled up behind a van in the drive-thru lane of one of the local health-food (i.e., they don’t serve Spam) restaurants. The backside of this van was festooned with “Keep It Hawaiian” and all sorts of other Hawaiian Nation slogans and emblems. Including the Hawaiian State/National Flag. Which looks like this:

Yes, this is the flag which King Kamehameha I “The Great” commissioned to represent his Kingdom of Hawai‘i, three years before his death, in 1816. It is one of only three American flags that were flags of nations before they were flags of states (the other two are Texas and California), and the only one to represent a nation headed by a monarch.

No, not that monarch. Though you might be forgiven for thinking so. After all, that is Great Britain’s Union Jack in the canton (upper left corner). Kamehameha the Great united the Hawaiian Islands with the help of men and weapons from European nations, particularly Great Britain, and he had British advisors in his court. Payback … Kamehameha, so the story goes, actually once flew the Union Jack itself over his court, to show solidarity with his British allies, only to face an uproar from Americans also represented in the royal entourage. Not wishing to lose out on profitable trade from either nation, His Highness lowered the Jack.

In its place, Kamehameha eventually raised a flag that, with its Union Jack canton and eight (originally nine) stripes, each one representing one of the main Hawaiian Islands, was thought to represent an amalgam of the British and American flags. It’s a nice story, and apparently has fooled, or at least satisfied, generations of Americans. Americans who, perhaps, haven’t happened to look into the complex history of British flags. Including those of the East India Company:

And you thought the Stars and Stripes was so original. No wonder the British tried to annex the Sandwich Islands Hawai‘i in 1843. They thought they had them signed, sealed, and delivered. Until the Americans – yes, them again – threatened war. “Bug out, limeys. Hawai‘i is a sovereign nation. At least, it will be until we’re strong enough to take the place over ourselves.” Maybe Dick Cheney knew more American history than we think.

Seems odd to this Amoeba that Hawaiians should be so fond of a flag that says so much about the European heritage of Hawai‘i, and so little of its Polynesian. There are movements afoot to replace Kamehameha’s homage to colonialism (to be fair, he kept his nation sovereign in the face of that colonialism, in part by denying Europeans the right to own Hawaiian lands – when that law was overturned, so, eventually, was the Kingdom of Hawai‘i) with something a bit more, ah, appropriate. One of those flags is claimed to predate the Kamehameha flag, while the other is ostensibly a modern creation.

It will be interesting to follow which one(s) get flown on Flag Day.

  – O Ceallaigh
Copyright © 2008 Felloffatruck Publications. All wrongs deplored.
All opinions are mine as a private citizen.


  1. Thanks for the history lesson. The irony here is that trade once more is rising to preeminence. Will there be a WalMart or BP flag waving over a country in the future?

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