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The Fate of Hawaii: A History Book Club Wrap-Up

Most Americans don’t recognize that Hawaii had a rich history before we got over there and took it over and annexed it in 1898.  But they did. The story of Hawaii is a sad story of naivety, backhanded politics, and exploitation that was a culmination of one hundred years of disease, economic and political corruption, poor leadership, and oddly enough, advances in education and literacy that brought down a proud and noble people in a tropical paradise in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. 

This past month, the Greenfield Public Library History Book Club read and discussed Julia Flynn Siler’s Lost Kingdom: Hawaii’s Last Queen, the Sugar Kings and America’s First Imperial Adventure.  The book heavily focused on the life of Lili’uokalani, the final queen and monarch of the Kingdom of Hawaii.  The author portrays her life as almost having a similar fate to her nation: proud, but overwhelmed.  Though responsible and having the potential to be an able leader, Lili’uokalani seemed to have everything going against her and is the unfortunate victim of the “wrong place, wrong time” cliché. 

A question brought up at the Book Club was whether the natives had any chance of running their country once the white settlers started coming to Hawaii.   Of course in hindsight the answer is no, especially when one compares Hawaii to the world powers that had been grasping tiny islands and land around the world.  From an imperialistic standpoint, Hawaii was important militarily.  As early as the 1860s, eighty years prior to its fateful attack, Pearl Harbor was already being looked at by imperial forces as a potential military port and docking site.  Before airplanes and other advanced 20th century military innovation, 19th century military experts were already noting the strategic value of Hawaii as an ally…or territory.  Being largely midway between Asia and the Americas, and being fairly civilized to boot, Hawaii became a very attractive site for a colony.  Besides the Americans, huge international juggernauts such as Britain, France and Germany were all interested in making Hawaii part of their strategic and economic holdings.  In fact, Britain controlled Hawaii for a few months in 1843. 

Missionaries came to save the “godless heathens” and tried to civilize the islanders in their own Western ways, religion and culture.  Developing for the first time a written Hawaiian language (13 letters), the missionaries created for the Hawaiians a system to write and read their cultural records and provide a source for the Bible to be translated.  Despite making Hawaii one of the most literate nations on earth, missionaries also brought disease that decimated a good portion of the Hawaiian people who had never been exposed to Western disease.   

Businessmen also came to Hawaii in attempts to make profit.  The production and sale of sugar became a global trend in the mid-19th century and Hawaii, with its lush climate and favorable soil was ideal for sugar cane.  Sugar barons worked closely and tactically with Hawaiian government officials, even kings to ensure they got their ways, or at least loopholes to exploit later.   

Those who stayed around in Hawaii after their missionary and business duties had children in Hawaii, often intermarrying with the native Hawaiians.  This had a great effect on Hawaii as a whole.  With the increased number of whites staying in Hawaii, the population was starting to come close to equaling the native Hawaiians.  Plus, the increased intermarriage further entwined the white presence in Hawaii: a fact many native Hawaiians were disgusted by.   

Also, the common native Hawaiian did not wield power like their powerful, yet minority white counterparts.  Successive kings of Hawaii often picked educated whites, many of which had educated these Hawaiian elites, to sit on their cabinets.  Eventual Queen Lili’uokalani married an ambitious and conniving mama’s boy named John Dominis who eventually would wield great sway as part of the cabinet for numerous kings of Hawaii.  Often trying to sway favor toward their own interests instead of the good of Hawaii at heart, these men may have had more power than the kings in their own land. 

It also does not help that leadership from the Hawaiian royals was lacking.  Most kings of Hawaii never really had a chance to reign effectively due to an early death.  Every king from the end of the great Kamehameha I’s reign in 1819 to Lili’uokalani died before they reached the age of 43, with the exception of one: Lili’uokalani’s brother, King Kalākaua.  Unfortunately, Kalākaua as a monarch was viewed as a joke by both royal and business circles.  Deemed the “Merrie Monarch,” Kalākaua was often seen eating plentifully, smoking stogies, playing poker with the sugar barons and other white officials, and all around hamming it up.  One of the first duties he performed as King, instead of actually doing something diplomatic, was the reinstatement of hula dancing to the court after it was outlawed by missionaries because it was viewed as lustful.  Instead of any sort of positive legislation for Hawaii, Kalākaua viewed the highpoint of his reign as being the first monarch to circumnavigate the globe via steamship.  His playboy nature put a lot of hands in the proverbial pockets of Hawaii, leading to outsiders pulling the King’s strings via bribes and cronyism.  The lack of effective and long-lasting, enduring leadership led towards the watering down of the power of the Hawaiian monarch and the influence of the white settlers overtaking the islands. 

When the King was out cavorting around the world, Lili’uokalani ruled in his stead and was much more respected by the Hawaiian people.  Since Kalākaua did not have children, he appointed Lili’uokalani as his successor, but who in their right mind would want to inherit the kingdom left behind by Kalākaua?  Along with the pressure of American annexation, the King was also handed a proclamation deemed the Bayonet Constitution of 1887 (called the Bayonet Constitution because it was essentially handed to the King at gunpoint to accept).  The Constitution removed much of the King’s executive power and deprived most native Hawaiians of their voting rights.  Though he was still King, Kalākaua was a puppet to those he let around him, and he and Hawaii were both paying. 

Though Lili’uokalani officially became Queen of Hawaii in 1891 following her brother’s death, she inherited a Hawaiian monarchy on the brink of collapse.  By 1893, the queen was deposed by the illegal help of the United States Marines.  At the end of 1893, President Grover Cleveland proposed to give Lili’uokalani her throne back if she granted amnesty to all involved of this illegal taking.  When prompted for a response, the Queen stated that she would have her enemies beheaded.  Though probably mistranslated, this was not a good PR move.  On July 4, 1894, the Republic of Hawaii was proclaimed and Sanford B. Dole, cousin of pineapple baron James Dole, became President of Hawaii.  Four years to the day later, on July 4, 1898, President William McKinley annexed Hawaii to the United States, thus ending a free, self-governing era for the Hawaiian Islands.  Lili’uokalani lived to age 79, making many wonder what could have been if she had reigned for a sustained period of time. 

Maybe it was not intentional.  Perhaps the missionaries had the best, religious intentions to convert and educate the native Hawaiians.  Perhaps the businessmen coming to Hawaii were only looking to improve their own financial standing and just give the government and Kings of Hawaii “good advice.”  However, a long line can be clearly drawn to see how Hawaii went from kingdom to US territory and it is most unfair to the Hawaiians.  Hawaii was an interesting first shot at imperialism for a still relatively young United States.  It was just unfortunate that Hawaii, with its rich history and culture had to be the first victim.

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