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The Kingdom of Hawaii loses its Independence

During the US Civil War, sugar exports to California soared, and by 1870 Hawaii's sugar exports were 9,400 short tons, up from 700 short tons in 1860. Steamships provided faster transport and communications between Honolulu and San Francisco. There was a monthly mail service. And steamship service from Australia and New Zealand to San Francisco stopped in Honolulu. A small number of tourists began arriving in the islands. Honolulu had but one hotel, but people stayed with families in the outlying areas and could get around on rough pathways by horseback. Near the town of Hilo on the "Big Island" they could see the world's only surf-boarding.

Relations between the United States and Kamehameha V remained cool but cordial. Fears of US power remained, while Kamehameha grew in weight until he had difficulty moving about or riding a horse. He abandoned physical activity and soon was confined to his bed. He grew steadily weaker and died on December 11, 1872 at the age of 42.

In 1875 the United States signed a "treaty of reciprocity" with the Kingdom of Hawaii – free trade. There were complaints from southern congressmen about injury to the sugar and rice producers in their area, and complaints were made that cheap rice from Asia would enter the United States duty-free by way of the Hawaiian Islands.

American Domination

Claus Spreckles

Claus Spreckels

Lorrin Thurson

Lorrin Thurston

Into the 1880s many Hawaiians were unhappy about the power and influence of members of the missionary families and other foreigners. Native Hawaiians as they were declining in number were becoming increasingly hostile to white business owners, whom they characterized as arrogant and uncharitable opportunists. There were calls for a white-free legislature, and there were complaints that most land was held by foreigners. "Hawaii for Hawaiians" had become a slogan.

A German-born financier from California, Claus Spreckels, dominated the purchase of sugarcane from the growers. He was a poker-playing companion of the king, Kalakaua, and won political favors from the king in return for personal loans. A rumor had spread that he was the power behind the throne. Then, in 1886, he returned to California.

Well-established US citizens in the islands had been there long enough to consider themselves Hawaiian. They believed that they deserved the influence they could exercise, and they were disturbed by what they thought was hostility from non-whites and bad government by King Kalakaua. Common among whites during these times was the belief that non-whites were incapable of good government. Whatever the beliefs of influential whites in Hawaii, among them were at least a few who believed that the king had too much power, ruling as he did through his ministers rather than being the kind of monarch that had less power than the legislature (as in Western Europe). They blamed the king for the government's growing debt and accused him of spending too much money. A few of the more adamant critics of the king formed a secret society called the Hawaiian League. These were businessmen and lawyers, led by Lorrin Thurston, son of a missionary from the United States. He was born in Honolulu and was fluent in Hawaiian. He was a lawyer and publisher of a newspaper, the Honolulu Pacific Commercial Advertiser. "Thurston," writes Wikipedia, "inherited the conservative thinking of the missionaries." His political party called itself the Missionary Party, but in 1887 it changed its name to the Reform Party of the Hawaiian Kingdom, and it grew to include businessmen. Thurston wanted a new constitution that gave more power to the legislature and voting restrictions that protected men like himself from the opinions of hostile non-whites.

Queen Liliuokalani

Queen Liliuokalani. She was exceptionally bright, with a hunger for knowledge since childhood, formally educated, well-traveled, musically gifted, writing music since childhood, a skilled pianist, organist and guitarist, and she was outraged by the arrogance of those US citizens who had acquired power.

Liliuokalani Describes the Coup of 1887

In July 1887, Thurston's group confronted King Kalakaua with weapons, and the king, without an adequate guard or military counter force, responded by signing a constitution that Thurston and his group had devised – to be known as the "Bayonet Constitution." The king, according to his sister Liliuokalani, signed the constitution "under absolute compulsion."

The new constitution gave Europeans and Americans full voting rights without need of Hawaiian citizenship. It restricted voting to those who made at least $600 annually (a substantial sum in the 1880s) or those who owned at least $3,000 worth of property. The new constitution in effect deprived native Hawaiians and immigrant Asians from voting. Only those persons selected by the whites would be able to serve in Hawaii's influential House of Nobles. The new constitution placed executive power in the hands of the king's cabinet, and members of the cabinet could be dismissed only by the legislature. The new constitution was, in short, a takeover by US citizens. 

King Kalakaua died in 1891 of kidney disease, and his sister Liliuokalani took the oath as reigning monarch, including swearing to uphold the new constitution that she despised. With the support of Hawaii's citizens she drafted a constitution to replace the Bayonet Constitution. In January 1893, those in power defended their power by resorting to another coup. Their "Committee of Safety" sent militia that took over government buildings and offices. President Benjamin Harrison's administration had encouraged the move, and he favored annexation. The coup was supported by the commanding officer of the USS Boston, which landed marines and sailors to keep order in Honolulu. The Queen's guards surrendered their arms at the palace barracks. Queen Liliuokalani was retired to her private residence. She wanted no bloodshed and urged people not to riot. In March a new Democratic administration would be coming into power in Washington, the presidency of Grover Cleveland, elected in November. She believed that the decency of the American people would set things aright, and she planned to write an appeal to President Cleveland.

On February 1, the Harrison administration recognized the government of the coup leaders, and Hawaii was proclaimed a US protectorate. A treaty of annexation was sent to the Senate, but after learning that most Hawaiians opposed annexation, Democrats opposed it and the treaty of annexation failed to pass. Grover Cleveland spoke of dishonorable conduct toward Hawaiians, and after his inauguration in March he sent a new US minister to Hawaii to restore Queen Liliuokalani to power. Liliuokalani also had the support of the sugar magnate, Claus Spreckels, but his influence was not crucial. The government of Thurston's party refused to step down, and there was not the will by the new administration, or the US public, to use force against their fellow citizens in Hawaii.

Republicans took back the presidency on March 4, 1897 with the election of William McKinley. In June 1898, during the Spanish American War, annexation of the Hawaiian Islands was debated in Congress, with the claim that "we must have Hawaii to help us get our share of China." In July, President McKinley signed the annexation of the Hawaiian Islands into law. In 1900 the islands were made a territory, with a member of Thurston's group, Sanford B Dole, the territory's first governor.


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