On Hawaii

I recently wrote a long post about my fear of not understanding the long-term effects of the US’ imperialism around the world.  I am trying to combat this feeling of ignorance by learning new things about our past and our present.

There’s this podcast, “Stuff You Missed in History Class”, that I listen to as much as possible (They also have a Facebook page).  It is interesting, well done, and I always learn something from it.

One of their more recent podcasts was on the last queen of Hawaii, Queen Liliuokalani.  While it was based around her life, it was basically a podcast about how Hawaii became a state. [As far as I can tell, there are no transcripts to these programs.  If I ever find out otherwise, I’ll update this post.]

Even though I really, really encourage you to listen to the podcast, I am going to do my best to cobble the info from the podcast off of internet sources (so I can link to it).  Needless to say, it’s a sad history and American business ethics is at the center of it.  Those business ethics coupled with political ethics, of course.

So, here goes the first installment of “On US Imperialism”, the Hawaii edition.

Here’s the short version, thanks to Lonely Planet:

In 1893 a group of American businessmen overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy. The US government was initially reluctant to support the coup, but it soon rationalized its colonialism by citing the islands’ strategic importance and annexed Hawaii in 1898.

Sanford Dole, of the Dole pineapple family (maybe remember that the next time you are in the store), is a key American businessman in this overthrow.  But before we get to that, let’s talk sugar in Hawaii (oh, there’s that sugar again).  From Economic History (eh.net):

The U.S. tariff on sugar posed a major obstacle to expanding sugar production in Hawai’i during peacetime, as the high tariff, ranging from 20 to 42 percent between 1850 and 1870, limited the extent of profitable sugar cultivation in the islands. Sugar interests helped elect King Kalakaua to the Hawaiian throne over the British-leaning Queen Emma in February 1874, and Kalakaua immediately sought a trade agreement with the United States. The 1876 reciprocity treaty between Hawai’i and the United States allowed duty-free sales of Hawai’i sugar and other selected agricultural products in the United States as well as duty-free sales of most U.S. manufactured goods in Hawai’i. Sugar exports from Hawai’i to the United States soared after the treaty’s promulgation, rising from 21 million pounds in 1876 to 114 million pounds in 1883 to 224.5 million pounds in 1890.

The reciprocity treaty set the tone for Hawai’i’s economy and society over the next 80 years by establishing the sugar industry as the Hawai’i’s leading industry and altering the demographic composition of the Islands via the industry’s labor demands. Rapid expansion of the sugar industry after reciprocity sharply increased its demand for labor: Plantation employment rose from 3,921 in 1872 to 10,243 in 1882 to 20,536 in 1892. The increase in labor demand occurred while the native Hawaiian population continued its precipitous decline, and the Hawai’i government responded to labor shortages by allowing sugar planters to bring in overseas contract laborers bound to serve at fixed wages for 3-5 year periods. The enormous increase in the plantation workforce consisted of first Chinese, then Japanese, then Portuguese contract laborers.

The extensive investment in sugar industry lands and irrigation systems coupled with the rapid influx of overseas contract laborers changed the bargaining positions of Hawai’i and the United States when the reciprocity treaty was due for renegotiation in 1883. La Croix and Christopher Grandy (1997) argued that the profitability of the planters’ new investment was dependent on access to the U.S. market, and this improved the bargaining position of the United States. As a condition for renewal of the treaty, the United States demanded access to Pearl Bay [now Pearl Harbor]. King Kalakaua opposed this demand, and in July 1887, opponents of the government forced the king to accept a new constitution and cabinet. With the election of a new pro-American government in September 1887, the king signed an extension of the reciprocity treaty in October 1887 that granted access rights to Pearl Bay to the United States for the life of the treaty.

In 1890, the U.S. Congress enacted the McKinley Tariff, which allowed raw sugar to enter the United States free of duty and established a two-cent per pound bounty for domestic producers. The overall effect of the McKinley Tariff was to completely erase the advantages that the reciprocity treaty had provided to Hawaiian sugar producers over other foreign sugar producers selling in the U.S. market. The value of Hawaiian merchandise exports plunged from $13 million in 1890 to $10 million in 1891 to a low point of $8 million in 1892.

La Croix and Grandy (1997) argued that the McKinley Tariff threatened the wealth of the planters and induced important changes in Hawai’i’s domestic politics. King Kalakaua died in January 1891, and his sister succeeded him. After Queen Lili’uokalani proposed to declare a new constitution in January 1893, a group of U.S. residents, with the incautious assistance of the U.S. Minister and troops from a U.S. warship, overthrew the monarchy. The new government, dominated by the white minority, offered Hawai’i for annexation by the United States from 1893. Annexation was first opposed by U.S. President Cleveland, and then, during U.S. President McKinley’s term, failed to obtain Congressional approval. The advent of the Spanish-American War and the ensuing hostilities in the Philippines raised Hawai’i’s strategic value to the United States, and Hawai’i was annexed by a joint resolution of Congress in July 1898. Hawai’i became a U.S. territory with the passage of the Organic Act on June 14, 1900.

In 1900 annexation by the United States eliminated bound labor contracts and freed the existing labor force from their contracts. After annexation, the sugar planters and the Hawaii government recruited workers from Japan, Korea, the Philippines, Spain, Portugal, Puerto Rico, England, Germany, and Russia. The ensuing flood of immigrants swelled the population of the Hawaiian Islands from 109,020 people in 1896 to 232,856 people in 1915. The growth in the plantation labor force was one factor behind the expansion of sugar production from 289,500 short tons in 1900 to 939,300 short tons in 1930. Pineapple production also expanded, from just 2,000 cases of canned fruit in 1903 to 12,808,000 cases in 1931.

Five firms-Castle & Cooke, Alexander & Baldwin, C. Brewer & Co., Theo. Davies & Co., and American Factors-came to dominate the sugar industry. Originally established to provide financial, labor recruiting, transportation, and marketing services to plantations, they gradually acquired the plantations and also gained control over other vital industries such as banking, insurance, retailing, and shipping. By 1933, their plantations produced 96 percent of the sugar crop. The “Big Five’s” dominance would continue until the rise of the tourism industry and statehood induced U.S. and foreign firms to enter Hawai’i’s markets.

So, about Dole, who became PRESIDENT of the Republic of Hawaii (from Wikipedia – where else?):

The monarchy ended in January 1893 after a coup d’état organized by many of the same actors involved in the 1887 revolt. The U.S. Minister to Hawaii John L. Stevens, returning on the U.S.S. Boston while these events were in progress, requested the landing of U.S. Marines and bluejackets in Honolulu the day before the Provisional Government was declared, “for the purpose of protecting our legation, consulate, and the lives and property of American citizens, and to assist in preserving public order.” Historian Russ Kuykdendall states, “the troops did not cooperate with the committee, and the committee had no more knowledge than did the Queen’s Government where the troops were going nor what they were going to do.”[1] The Provisional Government that was formed after the coup was led by President Dole, and was recognized within 48 hours by all nations with diplomatic ties to the Kingdom of Hawaii as the legitimate government of the islands, with the exception of the United Kingdom. With Grover Cleveland‘s election as President of the United States, the Provisional Government’s hopes of annexation were derailed for a time. Indeed, Cleveland tried to directly help reinstate the monarchy, after an investigation led by James Henderson Blount.  The Blount Report of July 17, 1893, commissioned by President Cleveland, concluded that the Committee of SafetyJohn L. Stevens to land the United States Marine Corps, to forcibly remove Queen Liliʻuokalani from power, and declare a Provisional Government of Hawaiʻi consisting of members from the Committee of Safety. conspired with U.S. ambassador

On November 16, 1893, Albert Willis presented the Queen with Cleveland’s request that she grant amnesty to the Revolutionists in return for reinstatement. The Queen refused.

The Provisional Government held a constitutional convention and on July 4, 1894, established the Republic of Hawaiʻi.

Lorrin A. Thurston declined the presidency of the republic and Dole was chosen to lead the government instead; Dole would serve as the first and only president from 1894 to 1900. Dole in turn appointed Thurston to lead a lobbying effort in Washington, DC and secure Hawaiʻi’s annexation.

After an unsuccessful attempt at armed rebellion on January 6, 1895, the Queen abdicated and swore allegiance to the Republic of Hawaii on January 24, 1895. While under arrest and a prisoner of her enemies, she wrote, “I hereby do fully and unequivocally admit and declare that the Government of the Republic of Hawaii is the only lawful Government of the Hawaiian Islands, and that the late Hawaiian monarchy is finally and forever ended, and no longer of any legal or actual validity, force or effect whatsoever.”[4]

Dole’s government weathered several attempts to restore the monarchy, including an attempted armed rebellion in which Robert William Wilcox participated; Wilcox and the other conspirators had their sentences reduced or commuted by Dole after being sentenced to death. Dole was successful as a diplomat – every nation that recognized the Kingdom of Hawaii also recognized the Republic of Hawaii.

President William McKinley appointed Dole to become the first territorial governor after U.S. annexation of Hawaiʻi had been procured. Dole assumed the office in 1900 but resigned in 1903 to accept an appointment as U.S. District Court judge. He served in the latter post until 1915 and died after a series of strokes in 1926.

This is a CRAZY story of American imperialism that I know doesn’t get taught in any way, shape, or form in American classrooms.


The minority white sugar businessmen of Hawaii used guns and violence in order to enact a constitutional reform that gave them power.  When they suddenly found themselves having to pay the tariffs on sugar, they decided that the best plan would be to depose the sitting Queen and make Hawaii part of the US so that they could get around that tariff issue.  Using the might and power of the US, they took over Hawaii and deemed it a Republic.  From 1984 to 1900, WHITE AMERICAN SUGAR BUSINESSMEN RULED HAWAII.  Even though President Cleveland didn’t like it, the Blount Report found the coup to be illegal, and Congress failed to annex Hawaii in the mid-1890s, the Spanish-American War (which started out about Cuba was really always about the Phillipines) made Hawaii an important strategic space in the Pacific for America.  So Congress overlooked all the violent illegal shit and annexed Hawaii.  Then a couple years later, made it a territory and half a century later, made it a state.

Now you know, that’s why Hawaii is our fiftieth state.  Thanks, American business guys!  Thanks, American military, illegal coups, and selective Congressional blindness.


5 thoughts on “On Hawaii

  1. Pingback: Your Garden

  2. Found you via the linkback from _the_ Feministe thread (you know…THE thread).

    Thought you might find it interesting that there are continuing tensions between the US government and the indigenous population of the state. It’s been a couple years since I’ve dealt with this, and I’m probably rusty on some of the details, but….

    For instance, Hawaii used to have an office which dealt with indigenous affairs, and they had a rule which required that people have a certain amount of native ancestry before gaining certain benefits, most well-known was probably serving as trustee-ship of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (which handled indigenous issues). The Supreme Court overruled that decision, saying that membership in the group of “native Hawaiians” had to be based on a definition which they crafted themselves (applying the terms of self-definition crafted in previous cases regarding tribes on the continent). In Hawaii that was of course something of a problem – since they were a monarchy on an island nation, anybody who lived there (pre-occupation) was considered part of their culture, and their official government has been deposed. They didn’t have any way to determine membership other than an arbitrary standard of descent. So the Supreme Court decided that, if there could be no clear definition of who is a “native Hawaiian”, membership could not be limited at all.


    Colonialism doesn’t ever end – the colonizers just think it does.

  3. Hey, thanks for this info. I will look into this. I am still in shock at my ignorance (part of me hopes that I live a life wherein everyday I learn something new and my ignorance shocks me – Hawaii’s history is still getting me a week later).

    I do know that indigenous peoples in the continental US have similar issues with ancestry and benefits and deciding who is in and who is out. It’s all sad and I think that something like this will never be remedied or even begin to be remedied until there is more knowledge about it out there in the public.

    And I agree with your last sentence so much. So much.

    Thanks for your comments.

  4. Pingback: what does it mean by "road-mapping a system of preference for importing Hawaiian goods by eliminating tarrifs"

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