Sovereign Deception: The Events Leading to Hawaii’s Unlawful Annexation

Many Americans today simply view Hawaii as just another, albeit heavenly, state. It was roughly 400 A.D. when the first Polynesians from the Marquesas Islands rested their canoes upon Hawaii’s shores. The history books often paint the annexation of Hawaii as a glorious liberation of her people. Their savagery and authoritarian rulers would have ultimately destroyed the kingdom, White historians argue, had the United States not rescued her in time. Prominent Kanaka Maoli scholar and activist, Haunani-Kay Trask, destroys that misconception in her book titled From a Native Daughter: Colonialism and Sovereignty in Hawai’i. Trask’s primary arguments center around the events leading up to the annexation, denouncing most alleged Hawaiian scholars who cannot speak or read the Hawaiian language and refuse to see her people through their documented history. It was a promised land to the first Hawaiians, a virgin land with resources suitable to sustain hundreds of thousands. The Indigenous people of Hawaii, like many native cultures, respected the land and natural resources, believing no one deserved to own it because it was a gift from the Gods. A recent documentary explains that various Chieftains ruled the smaller islands and vicinities, and although there was—as with all nations and peoples throughout history—some tribal warfare, the people flourished and developed unique activities like hula and surfing (Pa’a Ke Aupuni). Hawaii became a recognized sovereign nation with a great quality of life, an authentic government, and (at one time) had one of the highest literacy rates in the world. If it had remained untampered with, Hawaii would undoubtedly be a thriving sovereignty today. When Captain James Cook disrupted the inter-reliant society in 1778, however, he began a ripple effect that would undermine the goals of Hawaiians for years to come.

The first key event unraveling the annexation of Hawaii was the influx of foreign interest. Cook’s entrance marked a new time for Hawaii. While hope and change were evident, the culture clash proved to be too much for both Cook and the Indigenous peoples. The most detrimental effect was the disease that ravaged the Hawaiians, ultimately wiping out ninety percent of their original population. By 1840, less than one hundred thousand Indigenous Hawaiians remained (Trask 4). Since Cook had shared Hawaii with many parts of the world through journals and ambassadors, King Kamehameha I was the first Chieftain to successfully unite the Hawaiian Islands due to fear from other world powers. When Kamehameha I realized how fragile his nation’s way of life was, he began to pour his time into networking with various leaders across the globe. He saw these powerful nations taking advantage of the weaker ones, and he was determined to gain allies by sending ambassadors to sympathize with Hawaiian affairs (Pa’a Ke Aupuni). Kamehameha’s plan was successful at first, and Great Britain agreed to be a part of Hawaii’s first international alliance. White settlers continued to pour into the land, however, bringing with them their ideas of a capitalist and individualist society that clashed with the Hawaiians’ sense of harmony with the Earth. Since the Hawaiians believed the land was to be shared because “people cannot exist without the land, and the land cannot exist without people,” newcomers claimed the land was ripe for the taking and tried to establish ownership on selects parts of the nation (Trask 116). Kamehameha III pleaded to his allies in Europe and won the land back for his people, but he realized that the issue would continue unless something changed. Reluctantly, he established the Mahele in 1848 which allowed for Hawaii’s first-ever ownership of lands, divided into three parts between the King, the Chieftains, and the citizens (Pa’a Ke Aupuni). Few Hawaiians claimed their land, however, and they continued to live off it in harmony. By 1888, “three-quarters of all arable land was controlled by [Whites].” (Trask 5).

The second key event was a boom of the sugar cane industry. It quickly became the key export on all main islands, and it was not long before the demand for labor exceeded the local supply. The sugar industry brought some positive changes such as technological advancement and opening trade with foreign allies. The cons outweighed the pros, however, and the sugar fields began to dominate the land used by Indigenous Hawaiians. People who had lived off the land for hundreds of years were no longer able to sustain themselves due to a lack of natural resource fields (Pa’a Ke Aupuni). This resulted in an increased number of stores and artificial housing to compensate for the natural resource loss. By the mid-1800s, King Kamehameha III struggled to maintain trade due to U.S. sugar tariffs while simultaneously combating increased foreign interest, attempts, and intervention. The U.S. drafted its first annexation treaty during the 1850s, but “the treaty remained unsigned at [Kamehameha III’s] death.” (Trask 5). Kamehameha III’s successor, Liholiho, attempted an alternative treaty in 1854 called the Reciprocity Treaty that would satisfy Hawaii’s independence while still aiding sugar profits. After Liholiho’s sudden death and the end of the U.S. Civil War, U.S. Minister to Hawaii, James McBride, suggested a revision to the proposed Reciprocity Treaty, one that gave the U.S. rights to ports and the ability to station warships (Trask 6). Meanwhile, the White sugar planters on the islands continued to vie for annexation. The Indigenous Hawaiians protested, fearing “virtual enslavement under annexation” due to the racial abuse minorities already faced in the upper forty-eight states (Trask 7). Finally, the invasion of settlers brought upon by the sugar industry significantly changed the dynamic of the population. Whalers and other merchants also increased civil disturbances, and “alcohol and prostitution exuberated the problem.” (Trask 7). This gave the Americans a reason to send in more troops to maintain peace, all in lines with their belief system of Manifest Destiny. A Reciprocity Treaty was finally signed in 1875 under King Kalakaua’s rule. It removed the U.S. tariff on sugar imports and sales thrived (Pa’a Ke Aupuni). This benefit was unbalanced, however, because White settlers owned nearly seventy-five percent of all sugar plantations, and more continued to flock to the islands in hopes of easy profit (Trask 8).

The third and perhaps most crucial event began towards the end of the nineteenth century. The U.S. had removed its sugar tariff with Hawaii, but it had also begun removing them from other countries, creating astounding competition in the sugar marker for the first time (Pa’a Ke Aupuni). The sugar growers in Hawaii, still mostly White settlers, became dissatisfied with the Hawaiian government and strengthened ties with American businessmen. Unbeknownst to the Hawaiian monarchs, they began conniving against the local government and searched for deceitful ways to force the annexation of Hawaii, giving themselves a monopoly on sugar sales.  Meanwhile, the U.S. also pushed for exclusive rights to Pearl Harbor, only to have it refuted repeatedly by the Hawaiian government (Pa’a Ke Aupuni). Things began to take a turn for the worse when the Reciprocity Treaty of 1887—also known as the Bayonet Constitution due to the threats from the sugar cane owners, essentially a gang of White businessmen—because “Pearl River Lagoon was ceded to the United States in exchange for duty-free sugar.” (Trask 9). King Kalakaua continued to face threats and pressure eventually resulting in a legislative takeover by the settlers and sugar cane lords. Queen Lili’uokalani succeeded her brother after his death in 1891 and faced a crumbling sovereignty under settler control. She sought a more democratic constitution, one absolving “the property requirement for voters” and restricting the “franchise subjects of the kingdom.” (Trask 10). Her Ministry, however, was filled with a lust for profit and imposed their imperialistic connections, and began spreading lies about the upheaval in Hawaii due to Lili’uokalani’s proposed constitution. They told the U.S. news that the Hawaiian citizens were sacking stores and threatening the government and each other, and they ultimately devised a Committee of Safety to restore alleged peace to the savage-ridden nation (Pa’a Ke Aupuni).  Lili’uokalani found herself in a position where she had to temporarily cede her authority to the United States to avoid the bloodshed of her people. Minister Stevens moved in swiftly to begin an annexation, but president Grover Cleveland withdrew the pending annexation treaty shortly after his election in 1893 (Trask 11). President Cleveland supported Hawaii’s sovereignty, but he left office without successfully restoring Lili’uokalani’s rule. Since the annexation had merely been stalled, power was handed over to an all-white oligarchy called the Republic of Hawaii which loosely resembled the American form of government (Trask 11). Newly elected President William McKinley pushed for annexation in 1898, filled with imperialist goals, and Lili’uokalani continued to remain peaceful and subdued to best protect the remaining Hawaiians from bloodshed. Although most Hawaiians signed anti-annexation petitions, the settlers in power pursued an alternative approach, albeit an illegitimate one, that made the citizens’ votes irrelevant (Pa’a Ke Aupuni).  As a result, Hawaii was annexed by the United States on July 6, 1898, removing the rights of all Indigenous Hawaiians.

Through deception, America has governed Hawaii for over one hundred years. She is currently overrun by tourism and military bases, her Indigenous people living mainly at poverty level like many American minority groups. Indigenous rights to land have been all but eradicated, and ancient traditions like the hula are no more than a tourist sideshow (Trask 15). Trask argues that resurgence of the Hawaiian culture must first begin with a historical revival: “Our story remains unwritten. It rests within the culture, which is inseparable from the land. To know this is to know our history. To write this is to write of the land and the people who are born from her.” (122). Once the true history of Hawaii is known on a local and Indigenous level, it can then have better odds of spreading throughout America. The path of true justice for Hawaii and her people would consist of restoring their rights as a sovereign nation apart from America. This would be a difficult path and one riddled with legal complexities, but Hawaii has the right to pursue that path if the Indigenous people desire it. If not, at the very least, the U.S. government should seek to amend the damage done by claiming the Hawaiian lands and seek to restore the land ownership rights of the remaining Indigenous peoples. The past cannot be undone, but people can learn from it and strive to make the future a better place. Education is critical to Hawaii’s restoration, and if people remain ignorant, the ancient paradise will forever remain a “whispering spirit” of its former glory (Trask 121).

Works Cited

Pa’a Ke Aupuni. Dir. Cynthia Y.H. Derosier. Pa’a Ke Aupuni. The Office of Hawaiian Affairs, 31

July 2015. Web. 15 Mar. 2017.

Trask, Haunani-Kay. From a Native Daughter: Colonialism and Sovereignty in Hawai’i.

Honolulu: U of Hawai’i Press, 1999. Print.


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