Sun Yatsen and the Atkinsons – new connections

Last April I published an article by Marianne Simpson about the US author James Michener’s 1959 novel Hawaii. One character in the novel, Uliassutai Karakorum Blake, is clearly based on Alatau Tamchiboulac Atkinson, the son of Thomas and Lucy, who in 1869 emigrated to Hawaii. Michener wrote that Blake was the only character in the 900-page novel who was based on a real person.

In the novel Michener suggests that when he was headmaster at Iolani School in Oahu, Alatau taught the great Chinese revolutionary, Sun Yatsen. Sun attended the school between 1879 and 1882, during his formative years and it is not unreasonable to suggest that his principled radicalism was the result of Alatau’s teachings.

Sun Yatsen

Now scholar Patrick Anderson has published a fascinating article in the Hawaiian Journal of History that highlights much more extensive contacts between Sun Yatsen and the Atkinson family. His article, ‘A Re-investigation of the Mystery of Sun Yatsen’s Hawaiian Birth Certificate’, looks into why, in March 1904, ALC ‘Jack’ Atkinson, Alatau’s eldest son, issued such a document. Mr Anderson points out that Sun was not born in Hawaii and that the date given on the certificate for the birth is wrong by four years. At the time Jack Atkinson was Secretary of the Territory of Hawaii.

Alatau Leonard Charles Atkinson
Jack Atkinson, Secretary of the Territory of Hawaii

Was it a fraud or were there other reasons that the certificate was issued? Mr Anderson provides a remarkable answer to this question, hinted at in his introduction, where he states: “…I believe the Secretary was not misled by any false evidence submitted by the relevant witnesses, or even by Sun himself. Moreover, I believe that Sun Yatsen’s Hawai‘i birth certificate, and the Hawai‘i/USA territorial passport that went with it, are documents whose origins have hitherto been widely misunderstood and misinterpreted. I will try to show here that understood correctly they were not frauds committed by Sun Yatsen against Hawai‘i. Rather, they constitute Hawai‘i’s bounty, bestowed willingly upon Sun Yatsen. Indeed, I believe they were bureaucratic gifts granted freely and knowingly to Sun in gratitude by a tight circle of born-and-bred Honolulu men who worked right at the top of Hawai‘i’s government and political establishment.”

The granting of these important documents – don’t forget that Sun was being hunted across the world by the imperial Chinese – was, in effect, in recognition of the important political work that Sun was doing and which was highly regarded by those men of Hawaii who had themselves stood up for democracy and a constitution and fought against the corrupt Hawaiian monarchy.

Mr Anderson confines himself in this paper to uncovering the specific reasons for the granting of Sun’s identity documents. He does not seek to examine the overall relationship between Sun and the Atkinson family. Hopefully, his forthcoming book, Dynamite on the Tropic of Cancer: Sun Yatsen and a case study in revolutionary failure: Honolulu and Guangzhou 1895, will add further information to this fascinating subject.

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