by Rusty DeSoto
HAWAII HAS BEEN invaded three times in the past 100 years: By the Japanese at Pearl Harbor in 1941, by tourists in the 1920s — and in 1893 by American businessmen, who overthrew Queen Liliuokalani and forced an illegal territorial annexation to the United States.
We bet you only knew about the first two.
When you arrive in Hawai’i, sporting your authentic reproduction Hawaiian shirt, women in grass skirts will toss plastic leis over your head at the airport. Ersatz ‘Hawaiian music’ will ooze in from somewhere. But remember, this is a sham. Behind these smiling Hawaiian faces is a people whose country was taken away from them by a group of greedy businessmen 105 years ago. A people whose real culture is barely visible to the tourists. But this is the last thing your tour guide wants you to think about as you’re whisked to your ultramodern Japanese-owned luxury hotel.
Here, have another Mai Tai, brah.
The Hawaiian people are lobbying hard to get their land back, which is now almost wholly owned by the Japanese and non-Hawaiian Americans. Native Hawaiians are finally coming to grips with the negative cumulative impact that colonization, World War II and commercial exploitation has had on their country and culture. Now, 100 years later, they’re asking for sovereignty. President Clinton made a formal apology to the Hawaiians in 1993 for the shameful events of 1893 and 1898. But we seriously doubt that America will ever concede the state back to its people. Heck, we’d have to give back the rest of the country for the same reasons.
Now, we don’t want to rain on your Luau. We’re not suggesting that you shouldn’t enjoy Hawai’i, that you shouldn’t buy a lei, attend a hukilau or feel guilty about those vintage Matson cruise ship menus on your wall. But in addition to your Disneyland-type faux-Hawaiian fun, be sure to take some time to understand what happened to the native Hawaiians 100 years ago — the details of which are conspicuously absent from our haole (white) classroom texts and history books.
Here’s the gist of it: In the early 1800s, foreign commodities merchants dealing primarily in sugar began exerting greater and greater economic power over a relatively poor Hawaiian economy run by monarchs. Many arrangements favorable to the United States and other countries had been put in place in exchange for opening up trade routes. Favors granted by King Kalakaua to the United States included preferential economic deals and the granting of a military base, Pearl Harbor. Some of these deals, however, were made under duress. And then it got even worse.
In 1877, a group of 400 American businessmen banded together to form “The Hawaii League” with the intention of severely curtailing, if not overthrowing the monarchy. They forced King Kalakaua to sign a revised Hawaiian constitution which sharply cut his powers. This document is known as “The Bayonet Constitution” — a document never put to a vote before the 400,000 Hawaiian people, who were said to strongly oppose its principles.
When Queen Liliuokalani was crowned in 1891 after the death of King Kalakaua, she intended to proclaim a new constitution which she had written herself, rescinding the Bayonet Constitution and restoring power to the throne and rights to the native Hawaiian people. But American missionary Lorrin Thurston and his Annexation Club were behind the scenes, plotting the overthrow of the queen and Hawai’i’s annexation to the United States. In January, 1893, he and his cohorts succeeded, with the good-will wishes of President Benjamin Harrison and 163 strategically-placed American troops. Sanford B. Dole was appointed as president of the republic’s government in 1894. Although President Grover Cleveland denounced the coup in the mid 1890s and tried to have the decision reversed, Congress overruled him and signed the annexation agreement in 1898.
There is another side to this story. The Americans asserted all along that they were working in the best economic interests of the Hawaiian people; that the trade agreements they brought to their country allowed the Hawaiians to become more stable and prosperous. The Americans felt that the dissembling Hawaiian monarchs were incapable of ruling a country by then-modern standards and leading it into the 20th century. Missionary Lorrin Thurston felt he was doing the right thing by pushing to raise the standards of people he considered, by his estimation, to be uneducated heathens. In all their arrogance and focus on their own self interests, they didn’t bother to consider that these decisions were not legally theirs to make.
The natural resources that blessed Hawai’i were ultimately her downfall. But fortunately, her cultural riches are just as great. Although the country may no longer be their own, Hawaiian culture can never be taken away from its native people, who still are gracious enough to share it with the rest of the world.
We’ve only touched on the story of the Hawaiian coup of 1893. For further reading, we recommend “The Overthrow of the Monarchy,” by Pat Pitzer from a May, 1994 article in Aloha Airlines magazine.