How America Stole Hawaii

There are few historical events that are lodged in the collective American psyche quite the way Pearl Harbor is. Franklin D Roosevelt famously stated that it was a ‘date which will live in infamy’, and he was right.

Contrary to popular memory, Pearl Harbor was not the only place attacked by the Japanese on December 7th 1941. US territories were attacked throughout the Pacific, including Guam, Midway Island, and Wake Island.

Roosevelt capitalised on the attack to drum up American support for entering the War, and focused on Hawaii within his rhetoric. After all it was closer to the US mainland, whiter, and more “American”. The scenes coming out of Pearl Harbor convinced a previously tentative American population to support war in defence of ‘their’ territory.

Hawaii has, however, not always been American. There are many today who would argue that it still isn’t. Much like in 1941, in 1893 Hawaii was attacked by a foreign power, albeit one with allegiances to Washington rather than Tokyo.

Captain James Cook was the first western explorer to visit the Hawaiian islands in 1778. The following year, in an attempt to assert dominance over the islanders, Cook and his men tried to kidnap Hawaii’s King Kalaniʻōpuʻu. Instead of being intimidated, a fight ensued. Cook was beaten to death and, as the myth goes, cannibalised. Although the Hawaiians were able to drive off Cook’s men, it would not be the last attempt to colonise the islands.

In the early 18th Century the first American traders began to visit the islands, and a sugar industry was established. Missionaries followed, and together with the plantation owners the white settlers started bringing about political, cultural, religious and economic change to the island. Most important was the creation of a constitutional monarchy in 1840, which stripped away much of the authority of the existing Hawaiian monarchy. The monarchy was further reduced in 1887, initiating a transfer of power to American, European and native Hawaiian elites.

Over the next few decades, the US strengthened its hold on the islands through various exploitative treaties. A US naval base was established in 1899. Plantation owners continued to expand their hold over the island, and sugar exports boomed.

This all changed win 1891 when Liliuokalani ascended to the throne and refused to recognise the constitution of 1887, increasing her own personal authority.

Queen Liliuokalani

The aggrieved sugar plantation owners set up a retaliatory Committee of Safety. The committee was led by Sanford B. Dole, an Honolulu-born American born on Honolulu. Dole would lead a successful coup against Queen Liliuokalani.

Minister John Stevens recognised Dole’s new government and proclaimed Hawaii as a US protectorate. Dole then proceeded to submit a treaty of annexation to the US senate. However, this was rejected by the Democrats when it was revealed that most native Hawaiians were opposed to the treaty.

Washington did not approve of the coup, and President Grover Cleveland sent a new minister to Hawaii to restore the overthrown Queen Liliuokalani under the original 1887 constitution. However, Dole refused to step aside and eventually declared Hawaii an independent republic.

Cleveland’s successor, President William Mckinkley, managed to negotiate a treaty with Dole’s republic in 1897. The following year, the Spanish-American War broke out, and the US began to recognise the strategic importance of it’s Hawaiian naval base. Congress approved annexation two years’ later.

Nowadays, the native population represents less than 20% of the current population in Hawaii. Similar to other western colonies, the historical local population declined sharply as a result of disease and dispossession, and traditional customs were eroded through religious and educational practices.

A state agency, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA), was created in 1978. In its early history, the Office worked on reparations from the American government for the overthrow in 1893. However, the OHA has been surpassed by grassroots movements.

In 1998, thousands of Native Hawaiians and non-Hawaiian supporters gathered to mark the 100th anniversary of the annexation of Hawaii by the US. The rally was held over a five-day period in which the overthrowing of Queen Liliuokalani was reenacted.

The anniversary was a rallying point for those who feel their community and culture has been suppressed since the arrival of Captain Cook. While there are those who desire complete sovereignty of the islands, the majority favour sovereignty in the form granted to indigenous communities on the US Mainland.

The inverted Hawaiian Flag represents the Hawaiian Kingdom in distress and is the main symbol of the Hawaiian sovereignty movement

Federal recognition of the indigenous Hawaiian community has been high on the agenda in local elections for years. Barack Obama, who was born in Hawaii, expressed his support for recognition, but his organisation failed to act on it.

With the Democrats back in White House, those in favour Hawaiian sovereign entity within the US borders may have some reason for hope. The final push has to come from Hawaiians, however. During the Obama years members of the indigenous community drafted a constitution, and planned to submit it to the Interior Department. Due to disagreements, it was never voted on.

The ramifications of the initial coup still run deep in Hawaiian culture, and, more than a century later, Hawaiians are still trying to find their way forward.

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