Grabbing A Chunk Of Paradise

The Main gate of the Iolani Palace, Honolulu, Hawaii.

It was on this day in 1898, that President William McKinley signed the Newlands Resolution, formally annexing the Republic of Hawaii to the United States. How on earth, one may ask, did the United States come to subsume an independent republic into its territory? And, if Hawaii really was a republic, why is the place still so plainly attached to its erstwhile monarchy? As with most such situations, the answer is complex, bordering on the Byzantine.

From the unification of the islands into the Kingdom of Hawaii under Kamehameha I, “The Great,” in the late 18th Century until the overthrow of Hawaii’s last monarch, Queen Liliuokalani in 1893, Hawaii was a functioning and recognized, independent Kingdom. Its independence had been compromised in 1843 when Royal Navy Captain George Paulet demanded under threat of force that the Kingdom be ceded to Great Britain. Paulet was evidently not acting under orders. Official protests were lodged against this action by the monarchy, by France, and by The United States. Soon, Whitehall repudiated his action, and Hawaiian sovereignty was restored within six months. (It is also possible that Paulet’s action was simply a “testing of the waters” by The Foreign Office to see if objections would be raised by other Powers.) Though the Kingdom of Hawaii could not hope to stand up to the military might of any Western Power, it was protected by a simple aspect of political reality: as long as none of the Great Powers with interests in the Pacific would permit another one to gain an advantage, Hawaii’s independence was essentially assured.

It is also important to note that for most of the 19th Century, Hawaii was not an especially valuable territory from the perspectives of geopolitical concerns. Hawaii was extremely remote, and was not on the major Pacific trade routes used by sailing vessels (there is a reason it was not “discovered” until the late 18th Century, though the Pacific had been crossed and recrossed by European vessels for generations prior.) Hawaii was indeed a large and fertile land, and the islands did make a good whaling station (humpback whales congregate in the warm waters to breed each Winter) but it had few items of export value other than some native hardwoods. Hawaii was of greater interest to missionaries striving to save souls than to politicians maneuvering to gain global advantage.

The situation changed irevocably on 9 March 1862 with the first military clash of completely steam propelled, iron-clad warships at Hampton Roads, Virginia during the American Civil War. Almost literally “overnight,” wooden navies powered by wind and sail were rendered obsolete. The age of iron, steel, and steam had arrived, and with it the need for coaling stations across the globe. Nineteenth Century steamships burned coal. Lots of coal. And without a readily available coal supply, a navy’s ability to project its power was severely limited. In the last decades of the 19th Century, island after island – no matter how remote or small or barren or otherwise unprofitable – was taken over by one of the Western Powers, mainly to serve as coal and supply depots. Suddenly, remote Hawaii was viewed in an entirely new light.

In the days of sail, Hawaii made a useful watering and supply stop for whalers, but offered no significant strategic appeal; in the days of coal, Hawaii was perfectly located to permit a steam-powered navy to project its power across a vast region of the Pacific. Technological change had rendered Hawaii far too strategically valuable to remain independent for long. The United States, owing to its large resident population of missionaries and their descendents in Hawaii, enjoyed a strong commercial relationship with the Kingdom. Plantation crops had been developed for foreign trade, and by the 1870s, Hawaii supplied a huge volume of sugar to the U.S. at favorable rates. The Kingdom of Hawaii also retained close ties to Great Britain (as reflected in the odd fact that the State of Hawaii’s flag incorporates the “Union Jack” of Great Britain!) Many in Hawaii felt that it was inevitable that it would become a formal protectorate of one or the other of these nations.

By the late 1800s, though, with the rise of a unified Germany, an increasingly powerful Russia, and a rapidly modernizing Japan, there was simply no possibility that Great Britain would be allowed to formally extend its hegemony over so strategic a posession. No European Power wished to see Hawaii added to the British Empire. Similarly, it was unacceptable to established Powers that an “upstart” Japan should be allowed to commence building a Pan-Pacific Empire. It was equally unthinkable Hawaii should remain independent, playing one Power off another.

In 1887, European-American Hawaiian business interests backed by the paramilitary Honolulu Rifles, had forced King David Kalakua to acceed to the “Bayonet Constitution,” which essentially stripped the king of all power and disenfranchised all but the wealthiest land owners. The rolls of eligible voters were reduced to a fraction of what they had been under the 1864 constitution. In 1893, Queen Liliuokalani determined that it was necessary to restore the 1864 constitution, a proposal which was, not surprisingly, met with approval among the majority of Hawaii’s people. It is also not surprising that the proposal was absolutely repugnant to the business interests who had forced the 1887 constitution to be adopted. The coup which imprisoned Queen Liliuokalani was not only not
supported by the population, it was deeply unpopular.

At the time that Sanford B. Dole’s “Committee of Safety” with the aid of United States Marines dispatched by U.S. Consul John L. Stevens, imprisoned Queen Liliuokalani and declared the monarchy abolished in 1893, the majority of Hawaiians had no desire to see the monarchy ended. In fact, majority sentiment favored a re-empowered monarchy, the possibility of which led to Dole’s coup.

Dole and his oligarchy hoped to have the United States annex Hawaii immediately after the overthrow, confident that expansionist president Benjamin Harrison would favor such a step. However, Harrison lost his bid for reelection and president Grover Cleveland would not even consider such an annexation. The U.S. House of Representatives issued a resolution deploring the use of U.S. troops to overthrow a legitimate government, and Congress would not take any steps toward taking control of Hawaii.

The Committee of Safety therefore declared the Republic of Hawaii on 4 July 1894 with Sanford B. Dole as president. (Hawaii is one of only four states to have been an independent republic.) The republic bided its time until the United States elections of 1896 returned the Republican Party to power, and after the inauguration of William McKinley in March 1897, Dole commenced negotiations for annexation. Hawaii was formally annexed in 1898 and became a U.S. territory in 1901. Dole served as the first territorial governor.

There was a good deal of poorly documented, behind-the-scenes political gamesmanship among the Powers before this annexation was declared. Ambassadors from Japan formally objected initially, (though the objections were dropped, possibly in exchange for the promise of a favorable commercial treaty with the U.S.) while both Russia and Germany approved. Great Britain, aware that it would not be permitted such a prize, finally endorsed the United States’ action as being most favorable to the interests of Great Britain. France declined to either object or assent. The de jure government of The Republic of Hawaii was unquestionably in favor of annexation, and had little role in the final process. It seems that at no time were the wishes of the actual people of Hawaii even considered  …

Jamie Rawson

Flower Mound, Texas

Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom.  It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves.

—  William Pitt, 1783

Further Reading:

Expansionists of 1898: The Acquisition of Hawaii and the Spanish Islands, (1936, Fourth printing) Julius Pratt;Quadrangle/The New York Times Book Company; ISBN: 0812962176

Professor Pratt’s highly readable and extensively researched account of the U.S. acquisition of Hawaii is a must for anyone interested in greater depth on the subject.  Pratt, perhaps unexpectedly, asserts that the drive for U.S. expansion was propelled “not by businessmen but by historians and other intellectuals, by journalists and politicians.”  

1 thought on “Grabbing A Chunk Of Paradise

  1. “It seems that at no time were the wishes of the actual people of Hawaii even considered”

    and the more things change…

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