Story by Ron Williams, Jr.
New Year’s Day, 1862, downtown Honolulu. In an expansive, crowded print room on a section of Merchant Street nicknamed “Printers’ Row,” Native Hawaiian typesetters, engravers and printers are producing a weekly newspaper. This particular morning, though, there’s an added significance to the work. On the front page, the paper’s editors explain that this issue is being created at extra expense and labor, “e ko makou aloha nui i ko kakou Moi, a me ka Moiwahine, a me ka Haku o Hawaii, ka laua keiki, a me ke Aupuni hoi o kakou” (“because of our great aloha for our King, Queen, their child the Prince Royal, and our Government”). This edition of Ka Nupepa Kuokoa (The Independent Newspaper) is hardly the first Hawaiian-language newspaper—that had rolled off a press in 1834—but these workers are well aware that they’re taking part in a historic first: Centered on the front page is an image of the flag of the Kingdom of Hawai‘i—in red, white and blue.
Photo: Elyse Butler
Color had only recently appeared for the first time in a newspaper anywhere— the Illustrated London News published color illustrations in its Christmas 1855 issue—and it would not appear in US papers until 1891, when the Milwaukee Journal printed red and blue stripes across its front page to celebrate the new Wisconsin governor’s inauguration. But in Honolulu thirty years before, a Hawaiianlanguage newspaper published the first color image of a nation’s flag. In a column below the emblem titled “Ka Hae Hawaii” (“The Hawaiian Flag”), the editors wrote, “He mea hou ke pai ana i ka Hae ma na Nupepa, me ka hoike pu i ka wai hooluu. He mea i hana oleia maanei i ka wa mamua ’ku, a pela no ma kekahi mau aina haole” (“This is a new thing to print a flag in colors in a newspaper. It is something that has never been done here before, or in foreign lands”). Printing that single page with the image of Hawai‘i’s flag involved three separate pressings by hand: first stamping the red block, then the blue and finally the black—a laborious process repeated more than three thousand times that morning.
The editors at Ka Nupepa Kuokoa took the opportunity to draw attention to the skill of its Native Hawaiian pressmen. In the column accompanying the flag, they wrote, “He poe Hawaii nei ka poe nana i hana, he kamaaina o keia Pae Aina, a ua aoia e hana i keia mea ma ko makou Hale Paipalapala. Oia ke akamai o kanaka maoli” (“It is Hawaiians who have done this, natives of this archipelago, who have learned this trade in our printing office. This is the skill of the Native Hawaiians”).
Though obscure and by itself perhaps minor, this achievement is a pixel in the larger picture of a progressive nineteenthcentury Hawaiian Kingdom, a picture that stands in stark contrast to the popular image of a backward island outpost. It is a snapshot of a society adopting a technology in order to record its rich past, document its endangered present and look to its uncertain future.