The Annexation of Hawaiʻi

Photo by William DeWitt Alexander (1896) | Appears in History of later years of the Hawaiian Monarchy and the revolution of 1893 | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Photo by William DeWitt Alexander (1896) | Appears in History of later years of the Hawaiian Monarchy and the revolution of 1893 | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In 1887, wealthy descendants of American missionaries forced the King of the Hawaiian Monarchy, King Kalakaua, to sign a constitution that would disenfranchise many native Hawaiian people, as well as place property qualifications on voters. At the time, those descendants dominated the sugar industry in Hawaiʻi. The constitution would also put an end to the “free and favored entry” promotion of sugar, which appropriated a large tax on sugar exports.1 Native Hawaiians came to refer to this doctrine as the “Bayonet Constitution,” because it was said that armed military forces had threatened the king with guns when he was coerced into signing it. At that point, United States military forces took over troops belonging to the monarchy. Without his troops’ assistance, it became apparent what King Kalakaua’s fate would have been had he not agreed to sign the constitution. In protest to the constitution, native Hawaiian political organizations were established. These groups collectively drafted a constitution that would reverse the disenfranchisement of their people. Although several attempts were made to restore the power once afforded the monarchy through several protests and rebellions, the United States troops continued to prove their dominance. Each attempt to take back power had failed.2

Portrait of King David Kalakaua | Courtesy of Hawai’i State Archives

When King Kalakaua died in 1891, his power was relinquished to his sister, Queen Liliʻuokalani. She immediately began working to restore power to the monarchy. After speaking with her constituents, her duty was made clear. Many had prompted her to form and push forward a new constitution. “Two thirds of the registered voters of the islands” had signed petitions demanding her to do so.3 Out of love for her people and for her country she pursued this effort; however, she was soon disrupted. More descendants of missionaries, along with troops from the U.S.S. Boston, who were deployed by Albert Willis, the acting United States Minister, came to overthrow the operations of the Hawaiian Kingdom. They planted themselves into a government building and deemed themselves the acting Provisional Government of Hawaiʻi.

During his presidency, President Grover Cleveland had refused proposals to annex Hawaiʻi. He was skeptical of how the provisional government established its power. Instead, he informally sent Commissioner James Blount to conduct an investigation of the matter. In order for this investigation to begin, the Queen had to sign a document that yielded her executive power to President Cleveland. She voiced her faith that the United States would act in accordance with the law, and agreed to sign. In Blount’s report back to the president, it became apparent that those who composed the provisional government had acted illegally.4

Cleveland was fully aware that under the laws of the Hawaiian Kingdom, the leaders behind the movement to overthrow the monarchy had committed treason when they initially forced the Bayonet Constitution on King Kalakaua. Under the Hawaiian Constitution, it was stated that in order for a constitution to take effect it must first be presented to and accepted by a Legislative Assembly.5 Since this was not done, the Queen was under no technical obligation to recognize the constitution that the missionaries had forced upon her and her people. On October 18, 1893, President Cleveland obligated the United States Minister to begin making settlement deals regarding the restoration of the monarchy. The terms President Cleveland initially listed in return for the full restoration of power included amnesty for the Americans involved in the overthrow.

Cleveland made an attempt to assist their situation by prompting the Queen to grant full amnesty to those that formed the movement against her throne. Granting amnesty to these individuals would mean allowing those that plotted against her to walk free, while also being able to keep the property they acquired on the islands. When asked to do so, the Queen replied “[these] people were the cause of the revolution and the constitution of 1887. There will never be any peace while they are here. They must be sent out of the country, or punished, and their property confiscated.”6 On December 18, 1893, Cleveland announced his thoughts on the Blount Report to Congress. He demonstrated the illegality of the provisional government’s actions and supported the motion to have the Queen’s power reinstated to Congress.7

Portrait of Queen Liliʻuokalani by James J. Williams |Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Queen Liliʻuokalani worked out agreements regarding the whole ordeal with President Cleveland himself. She later came to terms that she would be willing to spare the lives of the Republic leaders, but that their property would be reclaimed by the Hawaiian Kingdom. Their terms were made clear through the Restoration Agreement. However, Cleveland approved the documented agreements without the consent of the Senate, which was later deemed to be beyond his scope of power. Members of Congress quickly accused him of violating the Separation of Powers doctrine and the terms reached between him and the Queen were deemed invalid. In addition, an overwhelming number in Congress believed that the only way for Hawaiʻi’s economy to be successful was if they prompted “continuous expansion of their country.”8 These thoughts appropriated the motion to declare the provisional government’s transition to establish a more permanent institution. They established themselves to be the new Republic of Hawaiʻi on July 4, 1894. That the United States now formally recognized the Republic meant that they could lay claim on all of the crowned lands that had once belonged to the Kingdom, along with the natural resources made available throughout the Hawaiian Islands.

Distraught with the news and compelled to take action against this newly formed institution, a coalition of native Hawaiians began to devise a plan to take back their power through an armed attack. The individuals involved were able to have guns delivered to the island from San Francisco; however, forces behind the Republic caught wind of their actions rapidly. The weapons were seized and all those affiliated with the rebellion were arrested. The Republic later reported that they found guns buried beneath Queen Liliʻuokalani’s garden at her home, known as Washington Place. They arrested her and convicted her of “misprision treason.”9 This act entailed that she knew of the treasonous efforts aimed towards the newly recognized Republic of Hawaiʻi, but deliberately did not report her knowledge of these actions to the government. She would eventually serve a sentence of a combined two years for her alleged crime. But before the trial had taken place the Queen was made to sign a document that would abdicate her of her thrown. Essentially, she would be relinquishing any power she had left. Republic officials made a threat to the Queen that the rebels that had been arrested would be sent to their deaths if she had not signed. In her account of the matter she writes,

For myself, I would have chosen death rather than to have signed it; but it was represented to me that by my signing this paper all the persons who had been arrested, all my people now in trouble by reason of their love and loyalty towards me, would be immediately released. Think of my position, – sick, a lone woman in prison, scarcely knowing who was my friend, or who listened to my words only to betray me, without legal advice or friendly counsel, and the stream of blood ready to flow unless it was stayed by my pen.10

By 1897, William McKinley had become president, and he was quickly swayed by several annexationists and expansionists. He signed a treaty of annexation and submitted it to the Senate for approval. After serving her sentence, Queen Liliʻuokalani appeared in Washington the day the Senate opened with other delegates from Hawaiʻi to provide testimony and the signatures of native Hawaiians who opposed the movement for annexation. When the delegates left Washington in February, they were successful in having persuaded enough senators to vote against the treaty so that it would not pass.11 Although this was an incredible victory, there were more unfortunate events to come that would detract from the progress they made that year.

In 1898, the United States declared war against Spain. In an effort to gain a strategic position that would gain them the upper hand in the war, they insisted that they needed to use Hawaiʻi as a coaling station for the ships they would deploy in the Philippines. On July 6, Congress passed a joint resolution titled the Newlands Resolution that ultimately claimed Hawaii as a United States territory. Even today, tensions still persist among native Hawaiians who feel strong opposition for Hawaiʻi’s having been annexed. As a way to acknowledge these events and offer an apology, the United States Congress, in 1993, on the “100th anniversary of the illegal overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii,” passed Public Law 103-150. One measure reads,

The Congress … expresses its commitment to acknowledge the ramifications of the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii, in order to provide a proper foundation for reconciliation between the United States and the Native Hawaiian people.12

The movement to retain Hawaiʻi was initially pursued as a means of dominating the sugar market and to gain private property. As time evolved, a sense of nationalism dawned over the movement in the midst of the Spanish-American War. It is this sense of protecting American interests that, in part, appropriated the movement. The militarization of the Hawaiian Islands is what eventually enabled the United States to establish themselves as a prominent Pacific power. Congress has acknowledge the actions that led to the annexation and has issued a form of apology in regards to the tension that still persists. They have made it a point to offer their sympathetic words through a Public Law as a way to salvage a relationship between the United States and native Hawaiians. The importance of this relationship lies in the vital role that Hawaiʻi continues to play in the United State’s position in the Pacific.

  1. Keira Stevenson, Queen Liliuokalani (Massachusetts: Ipswich, 2005), 1.
  2. Noenoe K. Silva, “Kanaka Maoli Resistance to Annexation,” ‘Ōiwi: A Native Hawaiian Journal 1 (December 1998): 44.
  3. Noenoe K. Silva, “Kanaka Maoli Resistance to Annexation,” ‘Ōiwi: A Native Hawaiian Journal 1 (December 1998): 46.
  4. James Blount, “Report of the Commissioner to the Hawaiian Islands,” In 53rd Congress, 2d Sess. Washington DC: Government Printing Office. 1893.
  5. David Keanu Sai, “1893 Cleveland-Liliuokalani Executive Agreements,” (November 2009): 8. Author David Keanu Sai is a professor of Political Science at the University of Hawaii, and this work of his is from a self-published article, not from a professional peer-reviewed journal.
  6. David Keanu Sai, Ph.D., “1893 Cleveland-Liliuokalani Executive Agreements,” (November 2009): 5. Author David Keanu Sai is a professor of Political Science at the University of Hawaii, and this work of his is from a self-published article, not from a professional peer-reviewed journal.
  7. Hawaiian Islands. Report of the Committee on foreign relations, United States Senate, with accompanying testimony and executive documents transmitted to Congress from January 1, 1893,
    United States Congress, Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1894.
  8. Noenoe K. Silva, “Kanaka Maoli Resistance to Annexation,” ‘Ōiwi: A Native Hawaiian Journal 1 (December 1998): 51.
  9. Noenoe K. Silva, “Kanaka Maoli Resistance to Annexation,” ‘Ōiwi: A Native Hawaiian Journal 1 (December 1998): 56.
  10. Liliʻuokalani, Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen (Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1898), 273.
  11. Noenoe K. Silva, “Kanaka Maoli Resistance to Annexation,” ‘Ōiwi: A Native Hawaiian Journal 1 (December 1998): 65.
  12. To Acknowledge the 100th Anniversary of the January 17, 1893 Overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii, and to Offer an Apology to Native Hawaiians on Behalf of the United States for the Overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii, Public Law 103-150, U.S. Statutes at Large 107 (1993): 1513.

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This Post Has 22 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Manuel Aguilera

    In terms of military significance, I never realized that Hawai’i played such a huge role. Also, I was learned that there is a lot of history behind the monarchy. I also find it very honorable that the Queen decided to spare the lives of the same men who came to take away her power and land. I also believe that all she did was for the better of her people, she acted as a leader should and was even willing to die by herself if necessary. I do find it sad that she was forced into signing off that Hawai’i could be taken over.

  2. Avatar
    Marco Picardo

    Great refresher on the annexation of Hawaii. I remember learning about this in AP World in High School. After reading this I’m still frustrated with the fact that the “white man” forced another indigenous people out of their homeland. This is just one of many cases throughout history where something like this happened. This reminds me of the Race for Africa by European nations.

  3. Avatar
    Alexis Soto

    I have never given much thought to the annexation of Hawaii. I never knew there had been a Kingdom that was against annexation. As I read this well-written article I felt saddened but not surprised the United States forcefully took land from it Native occupants. I am glad that Congress recognizes the illegal actions of the ordeal. Still It does not change the fact the native people of Hawaii were mistreated.

  4. Avatar
    Michael Elizondo

    I remember learning about this during middle school in Hawaii and even now all i can say is that its sad how the Americans treated the native Hawaiians. First missionary’s had been there for years slowly taking away the Hawaiian as expressed in the portrait of King David Kalakaua the last king of Hawaii in western style clothes, while the first king was King Kamehameha who was depicted as wearing western style clothes but not as much as the last king was. I am not Hawaiian but i do have to say that with out the Hawaiian islands world war II thought not related to this article would have been severely different. Even in modern day Hawaii many of the people that are considered native Hawaiian still say Americans are the people that ruined their home but who is to say not one would have known the outcome of american not annexing the Hawaiian kingdom.

  5. Avatar
    Mark Martinez

    A well written and amazingly put together. Giving information on how the “Bayonet Constitution” was forced on King Kalakaua was a real hook for the article. By providing more of the back story, you receive more satisfaction when reading how President Grover Cleveland conducted his own investigation on the issue. Even though the first attempt for peace between the New Queen and the President was invalid, it sparked a new flame in the Hawaiian people for justice.

  6. Avatar
    Sam Vandenbrink

    Taking a land and home away from someone who it belonged to before you just sounds wrong to begin with. But thats exactly what is sounds like happened to the Hawaiian people who originated there. Great article very descriptive and stories told within the article were very well described. Native Hawaiians were obviously very distraught, enough so to where they were willing to throw an armed attack on an army much, much larger.

  7. Avatar
    Teresa Valdez

    I like that the story begins right in the middle of the action of the the forced signing of the constitution by the king. It is awful that the US forced oppressive laws into place for their own gain. I admire the efforts of President Cleveland to restore the monarchy and the rights of the Hawaii natives. It proves that even when the world seems greedy and prejudiced, there are people who do good. Queen Lili’uokalani’s efforts to protect her people were valiant. The article portrays both her and her brother as good, brave leaders in a time of great difficulty. Great narrative.

  8. Avatar
    Michael Mandujano

    I was aware that the U.S had overthrown Queen Lili’uokalani of Hawaii. In fact, it is very interesting how this article goes into further depth of the annexation of Hawaii. However, it is quite surprising that President Cleveland was working out “under the table” agreements with Queen Lili’uokalani. This surprised me because as a Leader of the U.S or any country, one should not abuse their power and possibly put their country or nation at risk.

  9. Avatar
    Tara Sellers

    I knew the U.S. over threw Queen Lili ‘uokalani in Hawaii. However, I did not know they forced her brother before her to sign a constitution that affected Native Hawaiians. This tells me the Hawaiian Monarchy was having problems before Queen Lili ‘uokalani took over. In my U.S. history class, they made it seem like the Hawaiian Monarchy just started having problems during queen Lili ‘uokalani’s reign. I’m happy to learn there is more to this story than what I have been told. Not to mention all the actual negotiation that went behind the annexation of Hawaii.

  10. Avatar
    Faisal Alqarni

    Hello Irene, this is a very interesting example of how early imperialism spread around the world. I wonder sometimes how our world would be if we had never discovered each other and we still lived in kingdoms like the Hawaiian Monarchy you mention here. The desire to exploit resources in these old times it really angers me because it led to such disruption and did not have a thought for the welfare f the native of the lands invaded by mostly European descendants like Americans. I do like though that the American president Cleveland sought to right the wrongs of his countrymen by restoring the monarchy as the Hawaiian people desired. However, it is sad that this efforts were defeated later on and to this day Hawaii remains as a strategic territory of the U.S. in the pacific despite the many attempts to appease the natives. Question though do you think America will ever grant Hawaii complete autonomy?

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