On The 125th Anniversary Of The Overthrow Of The Kingdom of Hawai’i By The United States

Everyone’s talking about Hawai’i this week because, um, some guy selected the wrong option in a drop down menu and activated the state’s early warning system, sending the insane text above to the unwitting populace. Eventually the state government figured out what they’d done and–38 minutes later– remembered to text everyone back that the “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT” text was sent in error. Much lulz ensued. And this got me thinking: is this the most fucked up thing the US government has ever done to the Hawaiian islands? I would argue it is not!

This Wednesday, January 17, 2018, is the 125th anniversary of the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawai’i by the United States of America. So to mark the occasion, here is a quick rundown of the parallel histories of the Kingdom of Hawai’i and the United States, from their foundings in the late 1700s to their decades of prosperous diplomatic coexistence and economic collaboration to the American-supported coup against the Kingdom that deposed the rightful ruler of the islands, Queen Liliʻuokalani. Let’s go!

Europeans encountered Hawai’i and Hawaiians for the first time when British Captain James Cook landed on Kauai in 1778. His first thought was not to talk to the Hawaiians about their country but rather to give the archipelago the absurd European name the “Sandwich Islands” in honor of a stupid British politician of absolutely no consequence to history. (To wit, his Wikipedia reads: Despite the number of important posts that he held during his career, Sandwich’s incompetence and corruption inspired the suggestion that his epitaph should read: “Seldom has any man held so many offices and accomplished so little.”) Back in Hawai’i, Cook traded a little, spread some smallpox and gonorrhea, and then sailed away. But his ship broke down and upon his return to Hawai’i to repair his ship, he got himself killed.

At any rate, with the Sandwi–er– Hawai’i now on Europeans’ maps, it was a fortuitous time for a leader to arise and unite the islands ahead of the coming wave of foreigners that was sure to come. And the Hawaiian people produced just such a person: Kalani Paiʻea Wohi o Kaleikini Kealiʻikui Kamehameha o ʻIolani i Kaiwikapu kauʻi Ka Liholiho Kūnuiākea, or by another name, King Kamehameha the Great. Historians aren’t entirely sure when King Kamehameha was born, though they generally place his birth sometime in the 1730s or 1740s, making him a star-crossed cousin to another generation of nation-founders: the Framers of the United States of America. Also appearing on the world scene in that era were George Washington (1732), John Adams (1735), and Thomas Jefferson (1743). By 1810, Kamehameha would become the first person to unite all the islands of the Hawaiian archipelago– the Big Island, Oahu, Maui, Moloka’i, Lana’i, and Kaua’i– under one ruler as the Kingdom of Hawai’i:

The Kingdom of Hawai’i lived on after Kamehameha’s death in 1819, establishing trade and diplomatic relations with countries all over the world and generally being a full and active member of the world community, meaning that for nearly all of the nineteenth century, Hawai’i was a nation no different than France or Japan or the United States. Sugar, pineapple, and coffee production became important components of the Hawaiian economy and attracted outside investment from a variety of rich white guys who fashioned themselves as sugar barons– put another way, robber barons in board shorts. Unfortunately for the Hawaiians however, those rich white guys were not satisfied with only their wealth and their sugar plantations; they also wanted political power on the islands.

In 1887, a bunch of rich white guys calling themselves the Hawaiian League decided to pick up a bunch of guns, show up at King David Kalākaua’s house, and say, “We are rich but we still want more!” King Kalākaua thought to himself, “Hmm. Let me call some other countries real quick about this coup. They’ll have my back.” He called the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Portugal, and Japan who all said, “That sucks, bro.” Lacking support from other nations and fearing reprisals from the wealthy sugar barons for not complying, King Kalākaua agreed to the rich white guys’ terms which included stripping away much of the King’s power by rewriting the Kingdom’s governing documents. He would only live under this new Bayonet Constitution for a short time before dying in 1891, with the throne passing to his sister, Queen Liliʻuokalani.

Queen Liliʻuokalani, boss.

Still not satisfied, a different group of rich white guys, including Sanford Dole, of the fruit cups you ate in elementary school Doles, decided to form a club. They wanted it to have an ominous and menacing sounding name so they settled on the “Committee of Safety.” These rich white guys and 1,500 of their paramilitary white guy friends, showed up at ‘Iolani Palace on January 17, 1893, to depose Queen Liliʻuokalani. Having already shot and killed a Hawaiian police officer who saw them moving around carts of guns, the Committee of Safety worried that Americans may now be in danger on Hawai’i…because they were in the process of conspiring to commit a coup. Using this logic(?) as pretense, the Committee asked the US Ambassador to the Kingdom of Hawai’i to send in Marines. Their request was granted.

Imprisoned in her palace and under threat from an angry, armed mob of white guys, Queen Liliʻuokalani understood that the addition of the US Marines meant she was not just facing a local insurrection– she was facing the overthrow of her Kingdom by the United States. Knowing this was an unwinnable situation, she acquiesced and abdicated her throne, writing:

I yield to the superior force of the United States of America whose Minister Plenipotentiary, His Excellency John L. Stevens, has caused United States troops to be landed at Honolulu and declared that he would support the Provisional Government. Now to avoid any collision of armed forces, and perhaps the loss of life, I do this under protest and impelled by said force yield my authority until such time as the Government of the United States shall, upon facts being presented to it, undo the action of its representatives and reinstate me in the authority which I claim as the Constitutional Sovereign of the Hawaiian Islands.

Flush with their victory, the white guys quickly got word back to Washington DC that Hawai’i was ready to be annexed into the United States. Upon hearing that his emissaries had taken the “better to ask forgiveness than seek permission” route in orchestrating a coup of a sovereign government, President Grover Cleveland was horrified. He refused to recognize the rich, white guys’ “provisional Hawaiian government” and sent word back to restore Queen Liliʻuokalani to power. Sanford Dole refused and then a bunch of DC bullshit kicked in and Congress muddied the waters (hilariously producing a report finding that the US Ambassador to the Kingdom of Hawai’i and Marines involved in the overthrow…were not involved in the overthrow), causing the status quo to persist without a resolution in sight. Eventually, Cleveland caved and recognized the provisional government and that was that: the end of the Kingdom of Hawai’i.

One hundred years later, in 1993, Congress passed and President Bill Clinton signed a resolution formally admitting to and apologizing for United States’ involvement in the coup.

About the Author: Gus Caravalho is the editor of ALTTAB Radio.
Hit him up at gus@alttabradio.com / @guscaravalho / @alttabradio.

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