“The Hawaiian flag…is suggestive of the prominent political elements of the Islands. It is part French, part English, part American, and is Hawaiian in general.”
- Mark Twain, Letters from Hawaii
There’s something strange about the sight of the Hawaiian flag, about seeing a banner with the Union Jack so prominent flying over a part of the United States. And yet, the more I travelled in Hawaii, the more appropriate its design seemed to be, the more its presence seemed to sum up the history and character of the islands.
It’s not the only American state flag to incorporate elements of a foreign country’s ensign; Iowa is built around a French tricolour, while Florida and Alabama uses the old Spanish Cross of Burgundy. But Hawaii seems different to them – the Spanish connection in the latter two are too obscure to stand out, while Iowa adds a bald eagle to proudly indicate its American identity. Hawaii, though, the British flag remains recognisably unchanged, and while the stripes feel American, the addition of blue to the familiar red-white pattern gives a sense that this is a culture still not entirely American.
The borrowed crosses of the Union Jack seem quite at home as symbols of Hawaii. They form an eight-pointed star to go with the eight stripes for eight islands. And as the symbol of a foreign nation, they also make it hard to forget that Hawaii was itself a sovereign state, that this is not just the flag of an American state or territory, but of a nation outside the American sphere, whose people did not wish for annexation or absorption, but wished to carve out their own identity, like that of the other empires and kingdoms they'd encountered.
For that matter, the Union Jack in the corner calls to mind less Britain itself, but so many other flags built around that design. It almost seems like a symbol of Pacific identity, a reminder of the ancient connections between Hawaii and its neighbours - Fiji, the Cook Islands, Tuvalu, New Zealand, and the other nations of Polynesia that use such a design.
The more I saw the flag, the more I liked it. Kamehameha I could not have planned it when he designed his new kingdom’s banner, but the symbolism of it still works beautifully.