By Timothy Chilman
The Hawai’ian islands contain some of the most beautiful and resource-rich land to be found in the Pacific. Being enriched by lava, the soil of Hawai’i is very fertile. There are eight main islands and many smaller ones. The larger islands are Hawaii, Maui, Kahoolawe, Lanai, Oahu, Molokai, Kauai, and Niihau. The climate is tropical, and humidity and temperatures are reduced by the eastern trade winds. The average temperature is in the 80s F. Hawai’i was an independent country, right up to being devoured by the United States in 1898, illegally and against the wishes of its population.
People have lived on Hawai’i for a millennium and a half. The first were Polynesians from the Marquesas Islands, who navigated more than 2,000 miles by starlight in canoes. More settlers arrived from Tahiti 500 years later, and instituted a strict social hierarchy based on a system of taboos known as kapu. Hawai’ian culture flourished, developing hula dance and surfing, however conflicts between chieftains over land were commonplace.
In 1778, Captain James Cook landed at Waimea Bay on Kauai, and named the islands the Sandwich Islands, after the Earl of Sandwich. Cook was killed a year later at Kealakekua Bay on Big Island – the island of Hawai’i.
In 1791, King Kamehameha, known as Kamehameha the Great, began to unite the competing factions on Big Island, and then the other islands, also. He established a kingdom in 1810 with the assistance of Western arms. Kamehameha took advice from white businessmen, as did his successors. He died on December 11, 1819. His son, Liho’liho, abolished kapu.
In the 1800s, settlers arrived from the United States. Between 1820 and 1850, over 100 Presbyterian and Congregationalist missionaries arrived from Boston. They received a warm welcome and many decided to stay on the islands rather than return to the chilly Northeast. Many became sugar planters, and some acted as advisers to the king. They ordered the prohibition of the teaching of Hawai’ian language, performance of hula, and public nudity, often supported by physical punishment. There was a religious vacuum after the abolition of kapu, which Christianity happily filled. The Bible was the first book translated into Hawai’ian, which had never previously been a written language. Christianity was widely adopted by natives, and English became the primary language.
Hawai’i's harbor was the finest of the mid-Pacific, a highly convenient place for U.S. sailors to stop when traveling to or from Asia. The U.S. Navy gained rights to Pearl Harbor as a repair and coaling station.
Sugar was introduced to Hawai’i in 1836. Americans lavished millions of dollars upon Hawai’ian sugar cane plantations. Labor, knowledge, and machinery were imported. An agricultural boom ensued. Sugar, and indeed all of Hawai’i, became dominated by the Big Five: Alexander & Baldwin, Amfac (American Factors), C. Brewer, Castle & Cooke and Theo Davies. Most had originally supplied whaling ships, but switched to all the stages of the sugar production process: planting, harvesting, processing, and shipping. They also owned grocery stores and banks, and were responsible for most employment within Hawai’i. The United States was the largest market for Hawai’ian sugar. During the War of Northern Aggression, the Union states relied heavily on Hawai’ian sugar imports as sugar was no longer available from the Southern states..
The white man had brought disease, initially of the venereal sort. Gonorrhea, influenza, cholera, dysentery,smallpox, measles, meningitis, typhus, leprosy, Hansen’s disease, whooping cough, and influenza reduced the Hawai’ian population from 300,000 in 1778 to 40,000-50,000 one hundred years later.
By 1890, 75 percent of the privately held in Hawai’i was owned by foreigners, mostly Americans. The construction of a U.S. naval base on the island of Oahu was approved. By this time, Hawai’i imported more than six million dollars’ worth of goods and exported more than 13 million dollars’ worth.
Congress approved the McKinley Tariff, which slapped a tariff of nearly 50 percent on almost all products imported from overseas. Hawai’ian sugar now cost more than U.S. sugar, and the islands became economically depressed. Business interests were concerned by this and by the proposals of Queen Lili’uokalani to revise Hawai’i's constitution. The existing constitution had been adopted by King Kalakaua in 1887 under threat of violence from white businessmen who had formed a militia of slightly less than 200 men called the Honolulu Rifles. The circumstances of its enactment led to its being known as the Bayonet Constitution. Lili’uokalani intended to remove the property qualification for voting which few natives had a hope of meeting, restrict voting to native Hawai’ians, and implement new controls upon foreign-owned businesses.
Planning for a coup d’etat and annexation by the United States began. 18 men, mostly sugar farmers, formed the Committee of Public Safety, also and more aptly known as the Annexation Club. They were actively supported by John Stevens, the U.S. Minister to Hawai’i. In a letter to the State Department of February 1893, Stevens declared that “The Hawaiian pear is now fully ripe and this is the golden hour for the United States to pluck it.” The club had at its disposal the Honolulu Rifles, which now numbered 1,500 men. A coup was effected on January 17, 1893.
Stevens enlisted the assistance of 162 marines and two pieces of artillery from the USS Boston, ostensibly to “protect American lives and property in case of riot.” U.S. forces took offensive action without presidential approval. The U.S. commander, Admiral Skerrett, later admitted that the troops were “well located if designed to promote the movement for the Provisional Government and very improperly located if only intended to protect American citizens in person and property.”
Stevens raised the Stars and Stripes in Honolulu. The Annexation Club declared itself to be the Provisional Government, and Stevens recognized it without the permission of the State Department or indeed before it had properly seized Hawai’i: the coup’s leader, American businessman Sanford B. Dole, informed Stevens by that “we are not actually yet in possession of the station-house…and our forces may be insufficient to maintain order.” Acknowledgment of a government that was not complete or stable was against U.S. protocol and represented an abuse of power on Stevens’ part.
Eventually, the haole (white) forces triumphed over the Hawai’ian army of 272 men, and Dole declared himself president. The coup had required 32 days of planning, 15 of which were spent waiting for a treaty of annexation to reach the United States. President Benjamin Harrison signed the treaty, but he was replaced in office by Grover Cleveland before it was ratified by the Senate. Cleveland was an ardent anti-imperialist and believed the United States had behaved shamefully toward Hawai’i. He withdrew the treaty and appointed former congressman James Blount to investigate events.
Upon arrival in Hawai’i, Blount declined to accept gifts from either Queen Lili’uokalani or the Provisional Government, to preclude any possibility of being accused of accepting bribes. He spent four months gathering testimony from every class of Hawai’ian society. He noted that Hawai’ians were “over-generous, hospitable, almost free from revenge, very courteous – especially to females” and the literacy rate was comparable to that of England. The Provisional Government’s newspaper, the Hawai’ian Star, was already given to slandering Queen Lili’uokalani and also attempted to blacken Blount’s name.
The resultant 1,500 page Blount Report actually comprises a third of the House Foreign Relations Committee Report of 1894, which is entitled Affairs in Hawaii. Blount discovered that the population of Hawai’i was mostly against the Provisional Government and the annexation of Hawai’i. He found that Stevens had acted under a false pretext when requesting assistance from the Marines. He ordered the lowering of the U.S. flag from government buildings. The overthrow of Queen Lili’uokalani, he said, had been unlawful and would not have occurred without illegally-given U.S. assistance. He ordered that the Queen be restored to power, but Dole refused to comply, arguing that the United States had no right to interfere with the internal affairs of Hawai’i..
Cleveland dismissed Stevens and apologized to the Queen, whose reinstatement he recommended. He later wrote “the provisional government owes its existence to an armed invasion by the United States. By an act of war… a substantial wrong has been done.” The commander of U.S. armed forces in Hawai’i was disciplined and forced to resign.
In the face of Dole’s refusal to reinstate Lili’uokalani, Cleveland turned the matter over to the Senate. It was claimed that the Blount Report contained factual errors, hence the Senate instigated the Morgan Report. Senator John Tyler Morgan, chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations, held two months of hearings in Washington and never visited Hawai’i. No royalist witnesses were heard, it being felt the royalist position had been well-represented by the Blount Report and Blount’s own testimony.
The Morgan Report was issued in February 1894. It began on page 363 of the Reports of Committee on Foreign Relations 1789-1901 Volume 6. It found that Queen Lili’uokalani invited overthrow by failing to adhere to laws which protected foreign interests. It approved the actions of Stevens and urged recognition of the Provisional Government. It described Blount’s as “an intentionally one-sided report for use as a propaganda tool.” Anxious to be rid of the issue, Cleveland accepted the report.
Clevland failed to be re-elected and was succeeded by Benjamin Harrison in March of 1897. Harrison favored annexation. He signed a treaty with the government of the Republic of Hawai’i, which was tendered to the Senate for ratification.
The natives of Hawai’i had formed male and female groups to oppose annexation. For males there was Hui Hawaii Aloha Aina (the Hawaiian Patriotic League, more or less) and for females, the Hui Hawaii Aloha Aina o Na Wahine. A petition was organized and signed by 21,269 people, more than half the native Hawai’ian and mixed-blood people reported by the census of the Hawai’ian Commission that same year. The 556 page petition was taken to Washington, where the Senate accepted it. By the time the Hawai’ian party left Washington, only 46 senators were prepared to vote for annexation. The petition is now held in the Records of the U.S. Senate, Record Group 46, at the National Archives and Records Administration.
On October 8,1897, Hawai’ian royalists gathered in their thousands at Palace Square, opposite the royal Iolani Palace. There were impassioned speeches and a message to the U.S. President, Congress, and people was sent. Some newspapers said as many as 4,500 people were present. Senator Richard Pettigrew of South Dakota went to Hawai’i to collect information and later announced: “I have failed to find a Native Hawaiian who was not opposed to annexation.”
In 1897, the Japanese foreign minister, Okuma Shigenobu, protested U.S. moves toward annexation, which seems only to have served to hasten it.
On February 15, 1898, the U.S. man of war Maine exploded in Havana Harbor in Cuba. The Spanish-American War that ensued highlighted the strategic importance of the Hawai’ian islands for naval purposes. A mid-pacific fueling station was of critical importance, as declared by Alfred Mahan, “the most important American strategist of the nineteenth century.” The support of two thirds of members was necessary to ratify a treaty, but the senators for Louisiana, California and other states where sugar was grown opposed annexation as did anti-imperialists and supporters of organized labor who feared competition. Some senators objected because so much of the Hawai’ian population was, well, dark.
It was decided to annex Hawai’i by joint resolution. While two thirds of senators must support the ratification of a treaty, a joint resolution requires only a majority. In the spring of 1898, Consul General William Haywood requested additional coal storage space in Hawai’i for the U.S. Navy. He told the Provisional Government that if they acceded, passage of the joint resolution would be assured. The temporary use of four lots was granted, where coal was piled eight feet high.
House Joint Resolution 259, 55th Congress, 2nd session – the “Newlands Resolution” – passed Congress by 209 votes to 91 in the House and 42 to 21 (26 abstentions) in the Senate. It became law under McKinley on July 7, 1898. There is debate over whether a joint resolution applies outside of the Untied States.
Texas was also annexed in this way, but there, a plebiscite took place which was open to all white males who swore loyalty to the Republic of Texas. In Hawai’i, the commitment was made by the elected legislature, for which the kânaka maoli – Hawai’ian natives – had been mostly ineligible to vote.
The annexation treaty refers to the “republic of Hawaii” – “Republic” was not capitalized, suggesting the entity was unofficial. The “Territory of Hawaii,” its proposed designation under American rule, is capitalized. Hawai’i was frequently referred to as “the Hawaiian Islands,” a geographical rather than political term, to minimize the impact of taking over another country: it sounds more like a territory free of political organization than an independent state. The Hawai’ian officials who signed the treaty were all white.
On 23 November, 1993. a joint resolution was adopted by both Houses of Congress and signed by Bill Clinton which accepted the Blount Report and apologized for the role of the United States in the overthrow of Queen Lili’uokalani. This was a resolution of sentiment, whose only legally-binding instructions are to “acknowledge historical significance”, “recognize and commend efforts”, “apologize”, “express commitment to acknowledge”, and “urge the President.” It constitutes, alas, insufficient grounds for refusing to pay a parking ticket.
David Keanu Sai brought a lawsuit which petitioned that the annexation was illegal. It was dismissed on March 9, 2010 by U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly because it was a political question beyond the jurisdiction of the court. Kollar-Kotelly said, “We do not disagree with Appellants’ assertion that we could resolve this case through treaty analysis and statutory construction; we merely decline to do so as this case presents a political question which strips us of jurisdiction to undertake that otherwise familiar task.”
The implication is that treaty analysis and statutory construction would lead one to agree that the annexation was illegal.
Sai was no more successful with his contention that his conviction on March 7, 2000 by a Hawai’ian court for theft, racketeering, and tax evasion was a violation of his civil rights under Hawaiian Kingdom law and various international treaties, and also a war crime. The Hawai’ian Kingdom Trust Company he founded to act as a provisional government for his independent country has yet to carry out its intended role. Sai is the acting Regent.
Francis Boyle, professor of international law at the University of Illinois, said, “The legal cause for the restoration of the kingdom is air-tight.” He added that native Hawai’ians operate under the Aloha spirit, akin to Mahatma Gandhi’s Satyagraha force: “I take the position that if Gandhi can throw the mighty British Empire out of India with Satyagraha, Native Hawaiians can throw the mighty American empire out of Hawai’i with Aloha.”
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