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State Archives secures 1893 overthrow artifacts previously hidden in private collection

President Sanford B. Dole and his military aides at ʻIolani Palace in 1894. Left to right: John Harris Soper, Sanford B. Dole, James William Pratt, and Curtis P. Iaukea.
Hawaiʻi State Archives
President Sanford B. Dole and his military aides at ʻIolani Palace in 1894. Left to right: John Harris Soper, Sanford B. Dole, James William Pratt, and Curtis P. Iaukea.

Hawaiʻi Public Radio broke a story last year about the state's intent to block the sale of Queen Liliʻuokalani's personal flag, also known as the Queen's Standard, as well as historic records listed by an auction house in New York. Now, those items are in the hands of the Hawaiʻi State Archives.

The state Department of the Attorney General put the London-based Bonhams on notice in October 2022 after the flag was advertised as part of the collection of Col. John Soper. He was part of the provisional government that overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy.

The state avoided filing a lawsuit to acquire the items due to a $60,000 donation from the Abigail Kawānanakoa Trust and resident Brenda Ethington. State Archivist Adam Jansen and a deputy attorney general flew to New York two weeks ago to pay for and collect the items.

"We didn't want to trust the Queen's Standard to USPS or some mail carrier and who knows if it's gonna get wet, get drop kicked, or get lost in the mail? It was that important to bring these objects home that we personally couriered them," Jansen said.

"The knowledge contained in these records is really important to help fill in some of the gaps of what happened during the 1893 to 1895 time period. If we did not capture these things now, they could have gone into private hands and we never would have been able to see them again," he told The Conversation.

Included in the documents are Soper's personal reports as the commander-in-chief of the armed forces that overthrew the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1893. Jansen said there are also about a dozen photographs, an interview of the person believed to have stolen jewels from King Kalākaua's crown, letters about the queen's flag, and more.

"On the 20th of January 1893, the queen was flying the standard in front of Washington Place. He dispatched his troops to go tell her to not do that. Two days later, it was back up again," Jansen said. "He dispatched an officer to go seize the flag and keep it and that is something that stayed in the Soper family."

Turns out that some of Soper's items were in state hands back in the 1920s when the public archives operated a bit like a lending library for personal manuscript collections, he said.

Wikipedia Commons
Wikipedia Commons

"After the passing of Soper, his son had actually asked for some of the materials back, and he was given them back, and then about 1925, we lost all track of them because they belong to the family. And my understanding is about two years ago, the family sold all of these objects, the letters and the Queen's Standard to a local collector," he said.

"To allay any fears, the policy now is once things come in, nothing ever leaves. And this is, I think, a prime example of why that policy is in place."

The public will soon be able to go online and read Soper's documents, but Jansen said they are still looking for a venue to put Queen Liliʻuokalani's flag on display for viewing.

"What I'm hoping also is this helps spur the community to be on the lookout, to be aware that if ever they come across these things, these records or artifacts that were part of the government — be that the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi, the provisional, the republic, the territory — that are not in government custody, we need to bring those things back because those things belong to the people," he added.

This interview aired on The Conversation on April 21, 2023. The Conversation airs weekdays at 11 a.m. on HPR-1.

Catherine Cruz is the host of The Conversation. Originally from Guam, she spent more than 30 years at KITV, covering beats from government to education. Contact her at ccruz@hawaiipublicradio.org.
Sophia McCullough is a digital news producer. Contact her at news@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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