Writing Center
Spring 2012 Edition

Hawaii’s Journey to Prison: A Brief History of Paradisaical Sovereignty Ended

Eric M. Liebhardt
Argumentative 2010 1st Place
Professor: Toa Tawa

Hawaii’s Journey to Prison: A Brief History of Paradisaical Sovereignty Ended Today, Hawaii is known as the Aloha State—a name that connotes a feeling of welcome and hospitality. Before Hawaii was known as the Aloha State, it wasn’t even a state at all. It was a territory of the United States of America. As we go back and examine the historical events and facts that predate the annexation of Hawaii to the United States, we find a slew of little-known episodes that are full of intrigue, conspiracy, and injustice. The motives behind these events are primarily commercial in nature, meaning there was revenue to be made and that revenue needed to be protected. In the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean, there were only few arsenals of resources at one’s disposal to proliferate the produced goods and to protect said goods from potentially jeopardous hazards. Ralph Kuykendall points out in his history entitled Hawaiian Kingdom that one of these arsenals was Pearl Harbor located on the island of Oahu (18-19). Named for the replete amount of pearl bearing oysters, Pearl Harbor was a pearl of much worth to the United States capitalists who sought fortune in Hawaii. David Kalakaua, the ruling sovereign of the Hawaiian Kingdom during the late nineteenth century, found himself in a difficult position—should he cede Pearl Harbor to the Americans, or should he remain true to his people and not relinquish the Harbor? Kalakaua recognized the important contributions the Americans made to the economy and to the culture, yet he also had a duty to fulfill to help his own people, who were natives like him, because of his traditional values. Lucrative business deals, unrighteous dominion, and a drive for success are but a few components that led to the annexation of Hawaii to the United States.

To really understand the many layers that constitute the brief period of annexation, one must gain a better understanding of the socioeconomic makeup of the pre-annexed Hawaiian Islands. Using her uniquely witty writing style, Sarah Vowell provides understanding of the Hawaiian people in her book Unfamiliar Fishes. She says Native Hawaiians believe that they are “stewards, keeping watch in a reciprocal family arrangement. The land takes care of them and they take care of the land.” This philosophy makes no one owner of the land; the people are simply stewards who take care of it. Although all are stewards, not all are equal (49). There is definitely a caste system with a hierarchy rooted in thousand-plus year old tradition. Haunani-Kay Trask elaborates on this layer of great importance in her masterpiece From a Native Daughter. Chiefs made sure their constituents had the necessities of life, and because of this concern for their welfare, the common people gave tribute to their chiefs. However, the people were not sworn to stay, but were free to roam about because there was no formal tie to a specific place. They belonged to the land and the land belonged to them (5). The Hawaiian archipelago was united under the bloody conquest of the Great Kamehameha I. Traditions were done away with, kapu were broken, and paramount to the subject of annexation, well-meaning Protestant missionaries arrived to “save” the Hawaiian Natives from an eternity of Hell Fire (Vowell 70).

Arriving in the 1820’s, the Protestant missionaries had a profound impact on the Natives, primarily in their education, both religious and secular. They teamed up with the Natives to form a Roman-based alphabet so that they could read the bible. The missionaries taught reading, writing, and the arts. The high-ranking officials endorsed the teachings and Christianity and literacy rates soared. The benefits of reading and writing affected the system of government when the monarchy began drafting versions of a constitution so that the Kingdom could enjoy being governed by a constitutional monarchy with a legislature and give power to the people. The constitution and new form of government was ratified in 1840 (Vowell 101, 155).

By the early 1860’s, the missions sponsored by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) closed, and the remaining missionaries who chose to stay in Hawaii were encouraged to find employment and subject themselves to the Kingdom. Many of the former missionaries procured land from the Kingdom and got into the business of agriculture, specifically sugar cane (Vowell 169).

As time progressed, many of the beloved taro fields became sugar cane fields. During the US Civil War, the Union States didn’t have access to sugar grown in the South and were very reliant on sugar imports from Hawaii. Ronald Takaki, in his book Pau Hana, shows that it was during this relatively brief period of time that the plantation owners saw the great monetary gain ahead of them if they played their cards right. William Hooper, owner of Hawaii’s first sugar plantation since 1835, saw his production almost doubled during the Civil War years. The Civil War, however, was only one factor that played a role in the vicious cycle of greed and selfish capitalism (18-19).

One very important factor that contributed greatly to the annexation of Hawaii was a treaty of reciprocity which had been in the works for decades. Hawaii wanted to import sugar to the mainland free of tariff or tax. Many plantation owners knew that the reciprocity treaty was vital to their industry, and unless it was signed into action, the booming economy of the Kingdom of Hawaii would be in trouble. The owners knew that the reciprocity treaty would also come at a price for Hawaii, most likely to allow exclusive rights to the use of Pearl Harbor for the use of a shipping and fueling station. However, the Natives knew this too and would not allow a portion of their ancestral land to be ceded to the United States. At the end of 1874, King David Kalakaua traveled to Washington D.C. where he was greeted by President Ulysses S. Grant. In Kristin Zambucka’s book about King Kalakaua entitled Kalakaua, Hawaii’s Last King, we learn the outcome of this visit to Washington D.C.. It only took a few months for congress to ratify the reciprocity treaty and by March of 1875, the reciprocity treaty was voted into action by the senate and no land was ceded to the Union (24).

This initial reciprocity treaty was the foot in the door that annexationists needed. Joseph Nawahi, a member of the Hawaiian Kingdom’s legislature since 1872, had long opposed the very thought of a reciprocity treaty. He said that the reciprocity treaty would be a “nation-snatching treaty,” meaning that it would allow the United States to eventually annex Hawaii (Vowell 205).

Queen Lili’uokalani, sister to King Kalakaua, said the following in her personal memoir Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen about why her brother pursued the reciprocity treaty even though some of his subjects were against it. She said, “He freely gave his personal efforts to the securing of a reciprocity treaty with the United States, and sought the co-operation of that great and powerful nation, because he was persuaded it would enrich, or benefit, not one class, but, in a greater or less degree, all his subjects.” This perfect situation was not to last. By 1887, the treaty had need to be renewed, and renewed it was. However, this time the rights to Pearl Harbor were given to the Union (179).

Why would a Native king, a monarch who is indebted to his people, sign such an agreement? He definitely didn’t wake up one morning and say, “I think I’m going to let the Yankees have Pearl Harbor. My people will love me for that!” Oh no. This was an act of rebellion against the crown. On 6 July 1887 Kalakaua was forced to sign what has been nicknamed the Bayonet Constitution. Kalakaua was threatened by the Hawaiian League to sign it or be at risk for violent overthrow and death to him (Vowell 202). This constitution was framed primarily by Lorrin A. Thurston who was a descendant of missionaries and a prominent man in both the political and business spheres, which were essentially one sphere in this case. The Bayonet Constitution limited the power of the monarch and gave more power to the legislature. The men in the legislature were no longer appointed by the king and candidates, for the legislature had to meet land ownership and income qualifications in order to qualify. These restrictions made approximately two-thirds of the Native Hawaiian population ineligible to participate in the legislature. Not only did eligibility standard to run for position of a legislator become high and unattainable for many, but the standard to simply vote. Some of these men who forced the Bayonet Constitution on Kalakaua were close friends of him (Lili’uokalani 181).

It was Thurston and his newly appointed cabinet who were the ones to renew the reciprocity treaty plus the cessation of Pearl Harbor (Vowell 203). Some reasons why this band of rebels against the Kingdom, also known as the Hawaiian League, did this were to better protect their financial investments, to limit the frivolous spending of the “Merrie Monarch,” and to make a viable climate for which annexation could become possible (Trask 11).

Following the death of King David Kalakaua in 1891, his sister Lili’uokalani inherited the throne of the Hawaiian Kingdom. In the documentary Act of War: The Overthrow of the Hawaiian Nation, we learn of Queen Lili’uokalani’s attempts to restore political power to her Native people and to the monarchy. Unfortunately, she was halted by those in the Hawaiian League. She was imprisoned in her own home—the ‘Iolani Palace. She did not allow her people to fight physically because of the fear of injury or death to her people (Lili’uokalani 276). The sovereignty for which she stood for was stamped out by the descendants of the missionaries who loved and helped her people just decades before. Lili’uokalani, or her people, did not wish to be controlled by an alien government. Thurston and his gang established the ironically named Republic of Hawaii to be independent and not risk any more meddling from the President Grover Cleveland administration which ruled the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom was illegal and violated treaties and agreements (Vowell 212).

After President Cleveland’s time in office ended and President William McKinley was elected, the oligarchical government of the Republic submitted a Treaty of Annexation to the United States Congress which was rejected due to the twenty-thousand plus signatures Queen Lili’uokalani delivered to the Senate. The pro-annexationists had a way to get around the shot down treaty: a house joint resolution. In 1898, the resolution was passed with great support in the House of Representatives and Hawaii was annexed to the United States (Lili’uokalani 324).

Two factors that motivated congress to pass the resolution were the Spanish-American War and Pearl Harbor. Pearl Harbor proved too tantalizing for congress and their desire for expansionist America to rule the seas and become a superpower and to protect their financial investments. They did not care how they got the beautiful chain of islands; legality or honesty were not something they were entirely concerned with. Despite the good intentions King David Kalakaua had to secure the fiscal future of his people, the initial signing of the reciprocity was what ultimately made annexation more than just a mere dream; the signing made annexation a real possibility. On 7 July 1898, Hawaii let out her last gasp of breath as she submitted to the conquestual desires of the world-wide imperialistic superpower of the United States of America. Hope to be a sovereign nation again drifted off in the vast Pacific (Lili’uokalani 282).

Works Cited
Act of War: The Overthrow of the Hawaiian Nation. Dir. Na Maka O Ka ‘Aina. The Center for Hawaiian Studies, University of Hawai’i-Manoa, 1993. DVD.
Kuykendall, Ralph S. The Hawaiian Kingdom 1874-1893, Foundation and Transformation. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawai’i Press, 1965.
Lili’uokalani. Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen. Boston: Lothrop, Lee & Sheperd Co, 1898. eBook.
Takaki, Ronald. Pau Hana: Plantation Life and Labor in Hawai’i, 1835 - 1920. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawai’i Press, 1983. eBook.
"The Hawaiian Story." Congressional Digest 26.11 (1947): 269-275. Academic Search Premier. Web. 24 Jan. 2012.
The Hawaiian Kingdom. Political History. THK, 2011. Web. 24 Jan. 2012.
Trask, Haunani-Kay. From a Native Daughter. USA: University of Hawai’i Press. 1999.
Vowell, Sarah. Unfamiliar Fishes. New York: Riverhead Books, 2011.
Zambucka, Kristin. Kalakaua: Hawaii’s Last King. Honolulu, HI: Mana Publishing Co, 2002.