(EMPIRE and OCEANIA to 1900 – continued)

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The US Overseas

US Interests in Oceania, to 1875 | Hawaii Loses its Independence | Cuba and the Spanish-American War

US Interests in Oceania

In the 1830's, King Kamehameha III of the Hawaiian Islands was interested in trade with the Americans, and Americans were interested in Kamehameha maintaining the kind of stable government that was conducive to commerce. Kamehameha responded with a Bill of Rights in 1839. In 1840 a constitution was created that provided for the king to share power with a legislature. And on December 19, 1842, the United States recognized the sovereignty of the Kingdom of Hawaii.

In 1848 Hawaiians were allowed to own land. It was called the "Great Mahele" (land division). The old feudal relationship of land possession from the king to his subordinate chiefs to commoner had ended. Traditional communal rights to land were abolished. Now the common Hawaiian might claim ownership of a piece of land and sell it if he wished. Foreigners were also able to buy land. note78

Plantations were still few and small, but they were developing. Some Hawaiian men were eagerly going to sea as sailors – viewed as good sailors by ship commanders – but Hawaiians were not willing to labor on plantations. In 1850 Hawaii's legislature approved the recruitment of foreigners, which opened the door for plantations to be worked by Asian migrants.


The Hawaiians had declined from about 142,000 in 1823 and 100,000 in 1839 to about 84,000 in 1850. An epidemic in 1848, said to be of flu, measles and whooping cough, took the lives of around 10,000. With a fear of death among the Hawaiians there was concern among the missionaries that Hawaiians were "backsliding" from Christianity. A medical missionary, James William Smith, complained of "Balls and dinner parties, wine drinking and card playing [being] tolerated in what is called the fashionable circle."

In February 1853, smallpox appeared in Honolulu, believed to have arrived from the US Pacific Coast. Ships were quarantined. Vaccination and food centers were established by Protestant ministers, and many people clamored for vaccination. June 15, 1853, was declared a day of humiliation, fasting and prayer. Catholic priests tended to the dying, and Mormon elders tried expelling the disease by the laying on of hands and anointment. For some of the Hawaiians the vaccinations did not take. Many others refused modern medicine and went instead to a traditional (kahuna) doctor. A total of 6,405 cases were reported and 2,485 deaths. The man in charge of the census, Richard Armstrong, believed that many cases had gone unreported and that the figures should have been two or three times that amount.

In December, 1854, King Kamehameha III died – at the age of 41. Alexander Liholiho, the grandson of Kamehameha I, became Kamehameha IV. He bitterly opposed any talk of United States annexing the islands. He and his brother Lot had had unpleasant experiences in the United States, and Britain had impressed them more than the United States by its having outlawed slavery. Kamehameha IV supported the established religion of Great Britain, the Episcopal Church, and he had little time for Americans. He subscribed to the London Times, read other journals from Britain and avoided U.S. journals.

Kamehameha IV established a hospital in Honolulu for sick and destitute Hawaiians. Depressed by the death of his own son at the age of four, he drank more, ate less and suffered increasingly from asthma until he could hardly breathe. He died in 1863 at the age of 29, and his brother Lot became Kamehameha V.

Kamehameha V defeated a proposal to repeal the law against selling strong liquor to Hawaiians, saying: "I will never sign the death warrant of my people." He was offended by islanders congregating during the day around hula dancers, and to prevent idleness he restricted hula dancing. He urged the replacement of the Constitution of 1852, rewrote the constitution, signed it into law in 1864 and took an oath to maintain it. The new constitution strengthened the king's powers and limited the right to cast votes in the elections of legislators. Those who could vote had to be male. If born since 1840 they had to be able to read and write, and they had to own real estate worth at least $150 or have an annual income of at least $70.

Meanwhile the US had concerns in the Pacific beyond the Hawaiian Islands. In 1853, in the interest of trade, President Fillmore sent Commodore Matthew Perry to Japan, and some supporters of the mission wanted to see an extension of US naval power in the Pacific. Perry was interested in coaling stations and the island of Okinawa and Chichi Jima in the Bonin Islands. The Department of Navy and Congress opposed such "imperialist" acquisitions, and Okinawa and the Bonin Islands fell to the Japanese in the 1860s.

The US Navy wanted the job of protecting US citizens and trade, and in 1858 it went to the Fiji Islands in response to the murder there of two American citizens. In 1859 a US naval force landed in Shanghai, and in 1866 US forces responded to an assault on the American consul at Newchwang (today Yinkou) on the Yellow Sea in Southern Manchuria. In 1867 a naval force landed in Taiwan in response to the murder of the crew of a wrecked American vessel. And, in 1868, US forces landed in Japan during a civil war there, to protect American interests.

In the mid-1860s, the first plantation workers arrived from abroad. Eighty-five percent of them were from China – 470 males and 52 females. In 1866, 148 Japanese laborers arrived. Two thousand, men, women and children were to arrive by 1872. The disease of leprosy provided a new scare in the islands – a disease that was said to have arrived from China. In the islands it was called the Chinese disease. Moves were made, supported by Kamehameha V, to isolate the afflicted, and there was resistance.

Population figures for Hawaiians were continuing to decline. The total population for 1853 was 73,137 and for 1872 down to 56,897, and for native Hawaiians these figures were 71,019 and 51,531. By 1900 the general population would be at 154,001 and the native Hawaiians at 39,656. note79

Trade was increasing with a decline in transport costs and rising standards of living, and by the 1870s Hawaii's sugar exports were more than thirteen times what they had been in 1860, with steamships providing faster transport between Honolulu and San Francisco.

Using steam powered ships inspired the Navy Department's interest in a coaling station in the Pacific. It believed Pago Pago (pronounced pango pango) on the island of Tutuila in the Samoan Islands was available. A German company based in the Samoan Islands, at Apia, was displeased, and so too were some New Zealanders, but they were unable to get their governments to make the Samoan islands a protectorate. The United States won the friendship of the Samoan chieftain in the Pago Pago area, and in 1878 a treaty was signed. Pago Pago became a station for the US Navy – the beginning of what would become American Samoa.


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