Overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii

Overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii
Part of the Hawaiian Rebellions (1887–95)
USS Boston landing force, 1893 (PP-36-3-002).jpg
The USS Boston's landing force on duty at the Arlington Hotel, Honolulu, at the time of the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy, January 1893. Lieutenant Lucien Young, USN, commanded the detachment, and is presumably the officer at right.[1]
DateJanuary 17, 1893; 126 years ago (1893-01-17)
Honolulu, Hawaii

Hawaiian League / United States victory

Hawaii Committee of Safety
 United States
Hawaii Hawaii
Commanders and leaders
Honolulu Rifles
  • 1,500 Militiamen
United States
496 troops[2]
Casualties and losses
None1 wounded

The overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii began on January 17, 1893, with a coup d'état against Queen Liliʻuokalani on the island of Oahu by foreign residents residing in Honolulu, mostly United States citizens, and subjects of the Kingdom of Hawaii.[4] They prevailed upon American minister John L. Stevens to call in the U.S. Marines to protect United States interests, an action that effectively buttressed the rebellion. The revolutionaries established the Republic of Hawaii, but their ultimate goal was the annexation of the islands to the United States, which occurred in 1898.


The Kamehameha Dynasty was the reigning monarchy of the Kingdom of Hawaii, beginning with its founding by Kamehameha I in 1795, until the death of Kamehameha V in 1872 and Lunalilo in 1874.[5] On July 6, 1846, U.S. Secretary of State John C. Calhoun, on behalf of President Tyler, afforded formal recognition of Hawaiian independence under the reign of Kamehameha III.[6] As a result of the recognition of Hawaiian independence, the Hawaiian Kingdom entered into treaties with the major nations of the world[7] and established over ninety legations and consulates in multiple seaports and cities.[8] The kingdom would continue for another 21 years until its overthrow in 1893 with the fall of the House of Kalākaua.[9]

Sugar reciprocity

Sugar had been a major export from Hawaii since Captain James Cook's arrival in 1778.[10] The first permanent plantation in the islands was on Kauai in 1835. William Hooper leased 980 acres (4.0 km2) of land from Kamehameha III and began growing sugar cane. Within thirty years there would be plantations on four of the main islands. Sugar had completely altered Hawaii's economy.[11]

United States influence in Hawaiian government began with American-born plantation owners demanding a say in Kingdom politics. This was driven by missionary religion and the economics of the sugar industry. Pressure from these foreign born politicians was being felt by the King and chiefs with demands of land tenure. After a five month occupation by the British in 1843, Kamehameha III relented to the foreign advisors to private land demands with the Great Māhele, distributing the lands as pushed on heavily by the missionaries, including Gerrit P. Judd.[12] During the 1850s, the U.S. import tariff on sugar from Hawaii was much higher than the import tariffs Hawaiians were charging the U.S., and Kamehameha III sought reciprocity.[13] The monarch wished to lower the tariffs being paid out to the U.S. while still maintaining the Kingdom's sovereignty and making Hawaiian sugar competitive with other foreign markets. In 1854 Kamehameha III proposed a policy of reciprocity between the countries but the proposal died in the U.S. Senate.[14]

As early as 1873, a United States military commission recommended attempting to obtain Ford Island in exchange for the tax-free importation of sugar to the U.S.[15] Major General John Schofield, U.S. commander of the military division of the Pacific, and Brevet Brigadier General Burton S. Alexander arrived in Hawaii to ascertain its defensive capabilities. United States control of Hawaii was considered vital for the defense of the west coast of the United States, and they were especially interested in Pu'uloa, Pearl Harbor.[16] The sale of one of Hawaii's harbors was proposed by Charles Reed Bishop, a foreigner who had married into the Kamehameha family, had risen in the government to be Hawaiian Minister of Foreign Affairs, and owned a country home near Pu'uloa. He showed the two U.S. officers around the lochs, although his wife, Bernice Pauahi Bishop, privately disapproved of selling Hawaiian lands. As monarch, William Charles Lunalilo, was content to let Bishop run almost all business affairs but the ceding of lands would become unpopular with the native Hawaiians. Many islanders thought that all the islands, rather than just Pearl Harbor, might be lost and opposed any cession of land. By November 1873, Lunalilo canceled negotiations and returned to drinking, against his doctor's advice; his health declined swiftly, and he died on February 3, 1874.[16]

Lunalilo left no heirs. The legislature was empowered by the constitution to elect the monarch in these instances[17] and chose David Kalākaua as the next monarch.[18] The new ruler was pressured by the U.S. government to surrender Pearl Harbor to the Navy.[18] Kalākaua was concerned that this would lead to annexation by the U.S. and to the contravention of the traditions of the Hawaiian people, who believed that the land ('Āina) was fertile, sacred, and not for sale to anyone.[18] In 1874 through 1875, Kalākaua traveled to the United States for a state visit to Washington DC to help gain support for a new treaty.[19][20] Congress agreed to the Reciprocity Treaty of 1875 for seven years in exchange for Ford Island.[21][22] After the treaty, sugar production expanded from 12,000 acres (49 km2) of farm land to 125,000 acres (510 km2) in 1891.[23] At the end of the seven-year reciprocity agreement, the United States showed little interest in renewal.[21]

Rebellion of 1887 and the Bayonet Constitution

On January 20, 1887, the United States began leasing Pearl Harbor.[24] Shortly afterwards, a group of mostly non-Hawaiians calling themselves the Hawaiian Patriotic League began the Rebellion of 1887.[25] They drafted their own constitution on July 6, 1887.[26] The new constitution was written by Lorrin Thurston, the Hawaiian Minister of the Interior who used the Hawaiian militia as threat against Kalākaua.[24] Kalākaua was forced under threat of assassination[27] to dismiss his cabinet ministers and sign a new constitution which greatly lessened his power.[18] It would become known as the "Bayonet Constitution" due to the threat of force used.[24]

The Bayonet Constitution allowed the monarch to appoint cabinet ministers, but had stripped him of the power to dismiss them without approval from the Legislature.[26]:152 Eligibility to vote for the House of Nobles was also altered, stipulating that both candidates and voters were now required to own property valuing at least three thousand dollars, or have an annual income of no less than six hundred dollars.[28] This resulted in disenfranchising two thirds of the native Hawaiians as well as other ethnic groups who had previously held the right to vote but were no longer able to meet the new voting requirements.[29] This new constitution benefited the white, foreign plantation owners.[30] With the legislature now responsible for naturalizing citizens, Americans and Europeans could retain their home country citizenship and vote as citizens of the kingdom.[31] Along with voting privileges, Americans could now run for office and still retain their United States citizenship, something not afforded in any other nation of the world[32] and even allowed Americans to vote without becoming naturalized.[33] Asian immigrants were completely shut out and were no longer able to acquire citizenship or vote at all.[34]

At the time of the Bayonet Constitution Grover Cleveland was president, and his secretary of state Thomas F. Bayard sent written instructions to the American minister George W. Merrill that in the event of another revolution in Hawaii, it was a priority to protect American commerce, lives and property. Bayard specified, "the assistance of the officers of our Government vessels, if found necessary, will therefore be promptly afforded to promote the reign of law and respect for orderly government in Hawaii." In July 1889, there was a small scale rebellion, and Minister Merrill landed Marines to protect Americans; the State Department explicitly approved his action. Merrill's replacement, minister John L. Stevens, read those official instructions, and followed them in his controversial actions of 1893.


Wilcox Rebellion of 1888

ʻIolani Barracks, 2007

The Wilcox Rebellion of 1888 was a plot to overthrow King David Kalākaua, king of Hawaii, and replace him with his sister in a coup d'état in response to increased political tension between the legislature and the king after the 1887 constitution. Kalākaua's sister, Princess Liliʻuokalani and his wife, Queen Kapiolani, returned from Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee immediately after news reached them in Great Britain.[36]

Kalākaua's distant cousin, a native Hawaiian officer and veteran of the Italian military, Robert William Wilcox returned to Hawaii at about the same time as Liliʻuokalani[37] in October 1887 when the funding for his study program stopped when the new constitution was signed. Wilcox, Charles B. Wilson, Princess Liliʻuokalani, and Sam Nowlein plotted to overthrow King Kalākaua to replace him with his sister, Liliʻuokalani. They had 300 Hawaiian conspirators hidden in ʻIolani Barracks and an alliance with the Royal Guard, but the plot was accidentally discovered in January 1888, less than 48 hours before the revolt would have been initiated.[38] No one was prosecuted but Wilcox was exiled. So on February 11, 1888, Wilcox left Hawaii for San Francisco, intending to return to Italy with his wife.

Princess Liliʻuokalani was offered the throne several times by the Missionary Party who had forced the Bayonet Constitution on her brother, but she believed she would become a powerless figurehead like her brother and rejected the offers outright.[39]

Liliʻuokalani attempts to re-write Constitution

In November 1889, Kalākaua traveled to San Francisco for his health, staying at the Palace Hotel. He died there on January 20, 1890.[40] His sister Liliʻuokalani assumed the throne in the middle of an economic crisis. The McKinley Act had crippled the Hawaiian sugar industry by removing the duties on sugar imports from other countries into the US, eliminating the previous Hawaiian advantage gained via the Reciprocity Treaty of 1875.[41] Many Hawaii businesses and citizens felt pressure from the loss of revenue; in response Liliʻuokalani proposed a lottery system to raise money for her government. Also proposed was a controversial opium licensing bill.[42] Her ministers, and closest friends, were all opposed to this plan; they unsuccessfully tried to dissuade her from pursuing these initiatives, both of which came to be used against her in the brewing constitutional crisis.[43]

Liliʻuokalani's chief desire was to restore power to the monarch by abrogating the 1887 Bayonet Constitution and promulgating a new one, an idea that seems to have been broadly supported by the Hawaiian population.[44] The 1893 Constitution would have increased suffrage by reducing some property requirements, and eliminated the voting privileges extended to European and American residents. It would have disenfranchised many resident European and American businessmen who were not citizens of Hawaii. The Queen toured several of the islands on horseback, talking to the people about her ideas and receiving overwhelming support, including a lengthy petition in support of a new constitution. However, when the Queen informed her cabinet of her plans, they withheld their support due to an understanding of what her opponents' likely response to these plans would be.[45]

Though there were threats to Hawaii's sovereignty throughout the Kingdom's history, it was not until the signing of the Bayonet Constitution in 1887 that this threat began to be realized. The precipitating event[46] leading to the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii on January 17, 1893, was the attempt by Queen Liliʻuokalani to promulgate a new constitution that would have strengthened the power of the monarch relative to the legislature, where Euro-American business elites held disproportionate power. The stated goals of the conspirators, who were non-native Hawaiian Kingdom subjects (five United States nationals, one English national, and one German national)[47] were to depose the queen, overthrow the monarchy, and seek Hawaii's annexation to the United States.[48][49]