Hawaii may seem like just a picturesque honeymoon destination filled with leis and pineapples, but its history with the United States is rocky at best. This collection of islands was left to its own devices for centuries, with its own form of governance, its own traditions and religion. But, like with most indigenous populations, European and American settlers started arriving, and everything changed. Hawaii’s traditional whaling economy was taken over by sugar plantations, mostly owned by white businessmen. For a time, American and European businessmen leased this land from the kingdom of Hawaii and lived in relative peace with the natives, but that didn’t last. By 1887, the white men in Hawaii had become more powerful, forcing the king, Kalakaua, to sign a new constitution that turned him into nothing more than a figurehead. It also created extremely high property and wealth requirements in order to vote, disenfranchising the natives and Asian immigrants who labored on their plantations and giving themselves even more control over the governance of the islands. This has been dubbed the “Bayonet Constitution,” so called because the king was forced to sign at the end of bayonets.
It was in this environment that Liliuokalani, Kalakaua’s sister, became queen. On this episode of Noble Blood, host Dana Schwartz tells us the story of Liliuokalani trying to restrain the American businessmen from getting a tighter grip on the island, “but the waves of imperialism came flooding in, swallowing Hawaii and eventually its last queen.”
When Liliuokalani ascended to the throne, Hawaii was in the grip of an economic crisis. “For decades, the United States had provided generous terms for sugar growers in Hawaii in order to encourage American plantation owners to settle there,” Dana says, but the Tariff Act of 1890 eliminated the taxes on sugar, resulting in a market flood of cheap sugar from all over the world. “The Hawaiian economy was crippled. Over decades, Hawaii's economy had constructed itself up around the favorable terms the US had given, and now the US had pulled that framework out in one single stroke and the whole thing was threatening to collapse. Unless, of course, Hawaii agreed to be annexed by the United States.”
Annexation was a huge goal for the American businessmen; there was even an “Annexation Club,” led by a man named Lorrin A. Thurston, the son of the first two Protestant missionaries to the islands. He was the one who had written the Bayonet Constitution that Liliuokalani’s brother had been forced to sign. But while the Americans were all for it, “the same couldn't be said for the native population of Hawaii or for Queen Liliuokalani,” Dana tells us. “In fact, since her ascension, she had spent nearly all of her energy trying to build a new constitution for Hawaii, one that gave the monarchy back its power and one that once again granted native Hawaiians and immigrants of color the right to vote.” Liliuokalani spent most of 1892 traveling the country on horseback, talking to her people and getting them to sign a petition in support of her new constitution. She returned to her cabinet of ministers with overwhelming support, but they refused to sign it, afraid of the white businessmen’s response. “Later, some of the Queen's ministers met with the businessmen to tell them what had happened in the palace that day. The informants shared what had been in the Queen's constitution, how she was building power to take back Hawaii. They spoke with the crowd of supporters that had come to cheer for her. It was time for Lorrin Thurston and his coterie to strike before they lost their chance.”
Since the 1870’s, the US had been leasing Pearl Harbor from Hawaii, so there were some Marines stationed there. Lorrin and his group of twelve rich landowners, calling themselves the Committee of Safety, planned “to gather weapons and raise a militia, and, with the support of the American military, overthrow the Hawaiian monarchy altogether.” The military’s orders were to protect American business interests. “They would only get involved if there was fighting, which sounds well and good, except it meant, in practice, that the Queen and her supporters were paralyzed, powerless when it came to defending themselves against the coming insurrection,” Dana points out. “Almost 500 men were rallied to protect the Queen. The Committee of Safety had 1,500, all white and heavily armed. Under the strict gaze of the ship of American Marines in the Harbor, Liliuokalani surrendered.”
But that’s not the end of the story. Listen to the episode to learn more about the takeover of Hawaii and their last queen: how she contained a smallpox epidemic, her bravery standing up to American business interests, and her special connection to Spongebob Squarepants, on Noble Blood.
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