top of page

How the U.S. Stole Hawaii

King Kamehameha I

Even the date of Hawaii’s first settlement is contested. Somewhere between as early as 124 CE and as late as after 1120 CE, the first people settled permanently on the island after sailing north from Polynesia. The history of Hawaii from before European contact is shrouded in myth, as the Hawaiians had no written language and understood their history through genealogical chants that do not include dates. Through most of their long history, the islands were not unified and the ali’i, or nobles, ruled small kingdoms that often warred with each other. Over the course of 15 years, Kamehameha the Great unified all of the Hawaiian islands but Kaua’i, which he vassalized. It was during this period that Captain Cook landed in Hawaii, and though he was not the first European to do so, his crew were the first to place the islands on European maps. During the years following, the people of the islands were subject to mass death on a scale unknown on the islands, with the population dropping from somewhere between 400,000 to 1 million in 1778 to around 135,000 in only forty-five years. It was in this period of upheaval that the missionaries entered Hawaii.

King Kamehameha III

In 1824, the dead king Kamehameha I’s favorite wife, Ka’ahmanu, converted to Protestant Christianity. The first group of missionaries had set sail for Hawaii only 5 years prior. One of the reasons for this swift conversion was the fact that the missionaries offered to give Hawaiian a written language, which they did, but in a way that facilitated conversion. Words in native Hawaiian that had multiple meanings were reduced to a singular, Judeo-Christian meaning. Though Kamehameha II never converted to Christianity, he disbanded the office of priest, destroyed many temples, and broke old Hawaiian religious and cultural taboos. His successor, Kamehameha III officially converted to Christianity, the first Hawaiian king to do so. Under his reign, however, Hawaii rebuffed various attempts at subjugation by European powers, obtaining a joint declaration from France and Great Britain that they would respect Hawaii’s sovereignty as an independent nation, proclaiming on July 31st 1843, “Ua mau ke ea o ka ‘aina ka pono,” which would later become the state motto of Hawaii. Though translated now as “the life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness,” it was most likely originally meant as “the sovereignty of the land has been continued because it is righteous.”

A Sugar Plantation in Hawaii

The missionaries brought more than just Christianity, they brought capitalism. Mostly hailing from the United States, these missionaries often viewed the Hawaiians they sought to convert as lazy and indolent, and sought to put them to work. They transformed Hawaii’s land tenure system into a capitalist one and then used their considerable funds to buy huge portions of the land and employ the Hawaiians as laborers and farmers on massive sugar plantations. Using these plantations, they grew increasingly wealthy, and using their wealth, they took greater control of Hawaii’s politics. When there were not enough Hawaiians to work the plantations, they brought in immigrant laborers from Asia, Portugal, and other countries. They often served in the cabinets of Hawaiian kings and controlled a majority of the islands’ newspapers. Hawaiian constitutions, the first signed in 1840 by Kamehameha III, grew more and more stringent over time, placing literacy requirements on voters and property requirements on representatives, making it more and more likely that missionaries and their family members would hold the power in government.

King Kalakaua

After Kamehameha V’s death in 1872, King Kalakaua was elected to the throne after the short reign of King Lunalino, who died in 1873. Though he endeavored to preserve Hawaii’s culture, he was forced to sign both a reciprocity treaty in 1875, which gave planters living in Hawaii, most of whom were American missionaries, the ability to sell sugar to the United States duty free. In this treaty, the Hawaiian government gave the United States the land that would later become Pearl Harbor. In 1887, a band of white planters and missionary sons formed a militia called the Honolulu Rifles and stormed the palace, forcing Kalakaua to sign a document that became known as the Bayonet Constitution. It removed all the powers the king held, gave resident aliens the ability to vote, with the exception of Asian immigrants, who were specifically denied the right to vote by the constitution, and placed even more stringent requirements on voters, effectively making it so that only the wealthy white landowners

In 1893, Lili’uokalani presented the legislature with a new constitution, which would restore the monarch and native Hawaiians with the political power they lost in the Bayonet Constitution. The same landowners who had forced this constitution on Kalakaua took this as an excuse to overthrow the queen. With the support of American marines and soldiers, they overtook Iolani Palace and placed Lili’uokalani under house arrest, forcing her to abdicate.

Even by the rather low standards of the19th century, the overthrow of Lili’uokalani, the establishment of the Republic of Hawaii, and the following annexation of the islands were illegal. Hawaii’s government boasted European-style constitutions, had embassies in European nations and the United States, and its monarchs were Christian. Many of them toured Europe, meeting with other national leaders and monarchs as they did so. Hawaii stood amongst the so-called “family of nations,” one of the only non-white nations to do so. The fact that it was seen as such is obvious in the fact that President Cleveland regarded it as so, and multiple attempts at annexation failed either in Congress or at the desk of various presidents. Many Native Hawaiians still refer to these action as an “illegal overthrow,” and there are a number of Hawaiian sovereignty movements across the islands. In 1959, President Eisenhower signed a bill recognizing Hawaii as the 50th state. In 1993, President Clinton signed a resolution that issued a formal apology to the Hawaiian people, which ended with the words, “Nothing in this Joint Resolution is intended to serve as a settlement of any claims against the United States.”

President Clinton signing apology resolution

Most of the information in this post is taken from two sources, the first being the book Aloha Betrayed by Noenoe K. Silva, which focuses heavily on Hawaiian resistance to colonialism. Stipulations of time required me to focus more heavily on the actions of the colonialists, as the story I wanted to tell in this document that of the theft of sovereignty itself. The second is my experience in the course AAST498Q: Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Studies. The quote from the resolution is, of course, taken from the resolution itself, which you can find here:

bottom of page