By Roy Alameida
Hawaiians often reach back into antiquity, when the land was protected by akua, the gods, and the `aumākua, family ancestors, and genealogy was recorded in oli, chant, to teach about the traditions and to learn about their ali`i. The leadership was in the hands of the ali`i or chiefs who, as stewards of the land, were responsible for the spiritual and physicalwell-being of the maka`āinana, the people. Through the counsel of kahuna, teachers and priests, the ali`i were to rule until time immemorial.
With the Hawaiian islands’ entry into the international struggle among Western nations in the late eighteenth century, the ali`i became increasingly aware that to maintain independence as a kingdom, a precarious strategy was required to deal with the interests of mercantile nations seeking to expand their influence throughout the Pacific and Asia. Situated at the crossroads of the Pacific Ocean, Hawai’i became, as one Native Hawaiian historian wrote, the “little fish” pursued by the “big fish.”
The islands, unified under Kamehameha the First in 1810 engaged in international alliances that would continue to perpetuate the rule of the ali`i. Even the flag of the Hawaiian kingdom symbolized in its patterns and colors that the intention of Hawai`i was to maintain friendly relations with all countries. But, as American economic, political, and military interests in the Hawaiian kingdom grew throughout the nineteenth century, the stage was being set for a confrontation leading to the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy.
Queen Lili`uokalani, the last reigning Hawaiian monarch, was the younger sister of King David Kalākaua and designated heir to the throne. Her personal motto was ‘Onipa`a, to remain steadfast. When she ascended to the throne after her brother’s death in 1891, she publicly declared her opposition to the Constitution of 1887. This constitution was also known as the Bayonet Constitution because the foreign community, comprised primarily of American businessmen and sugar planters, imposed it on the king under threat of force. It limited the king’s powers and the voting rights of the Hawaiian people.
The Queen steadfastly pursued efforts to rectify the injustices of that constitution by promulgating a new one with the support of a signed petition by two-thirds of the registered voters in the Kingdom. But, the Legislature, who was continually at odds with the Queen, defeated a bill that called for a constitutional convention. Believing her to be a threat to their business interests, a group of businessmen, primarily Americans, established the Annexation Club and through discussions with American diplomats and naval representatives in the islands began to plot the overthrow of the Queen.
On the afternoon of Monday, January 16, 1893, U.S. soldiers from the U.S.S. Boston, anchored in Honolulu harbor, marched to within a block of ‘Iolani Palace. When the Queen questioned her ministers as to why the soldiers were stationed in the heart of the government district, she was told, “…it was for the safety of American citizens and the protection of their interests.” “Then why”, she asked, “had they not gone to their residences, instead of drawing a line in front of the Palace gates, with guns pointed at us….” As a light rain fell upon the grounds of the Palace, the troops settled in for the evening.
The U.S. military occupation of Hawai`i became more apparent the following day, January 17, as they stood in formation at the main entrance to the palace grounds. Many Hawaiian citizens were curious about seeing the Boston’s military on shore. When it became evident that the Queen would be asked to abdicate the throne, her ministers met with the U.S. Minister John Stevens who told them that he would protect the annexationists if they were attacked or arrested by government police.
At 3:00 that afternoon, Sanford Dole and his supporters took over the offices of the Interior Ministry and began to formulate plans to organize a provisional government. At 6:00 that evening, the Queen’s ministers recommended to her to surrender. They believed that resistance would provoke bloodshed and that the U.S. forces were too strong to overcome. But, it was the Queen’s idea to surrender pending a settlement from Washington. She believed that through intervention by the President and Congress of the United States she would be reinstated as the rightful ruler of the Hawaiian Kingdom.
On the grounds of ‘Iolani Palace, thousands of Hawaiians waited as the sun slowly set. From behind the glass-paneled doors of the Palace, emerged Queen Lili`uokalani. In a carefully worded note of protest, the Queen said to her people:
The Queen continued:
The Queen then turned and walked into the darkness of the Palace.
Later that evening, a provisional government under Sanford Dole quickly set up its own forces at the Palace. Dole signed two proclamations, one urging supporters to furnish the new government with arms and ammunition; the other declared martial law and suspended the writ of habeas corpus.
In Washington D.C., news of the overthrow and the involvement of U.S. Minister Stevens and troops of the U.S.S. Boston concerned President Grover Cleveland and the U.S. Congress. To determine what actually took place, Congressman James Blount was sent to the islands to conduct an investigation.
In his message to Congress in December 1893, President Cleveland reported fully and accurately on the illegal acts of the conspirators. He described the event “as an act of war, committed with the participation of a diplomatic representative of the United States and without the authority of Congress.” He acknowledged that by such acts the government of a peaceful and friendly people was overthrown. He further concluded that a “substantial wrong has thus been done which a due regard for our national character as well as the rights of the injured people requires that we should endeavor to repair.”
In a letter to Sanford Dole, President Cleveland acknowledged the wrong and asked Dole to resign and restore the authority of the Hawaiian Kingdom. In his reply to the President, Dole refused. Instead, Hawai`i was proclaimed a Republic on July 4, 1894 with one goal in mind: annexation to the United States. The intensive lobbying efforts in the U.S. Congress by pro-annexationists convinced Congress that Hawai`i ’s strategic location in the Pacific would be beneficial to the United States and Hawai`i was annexed in 1898.
In the days and months following the overthrow, there were unsuccessful attempts by the Hawaiian people to restore the queen to the throne. To discourage the Royalists (supporters of the Queen), Lili`uokalani was brought to trial by the Provisional Government and charged with “misprision of treason,” that is, the failure to disclose knowledge of an act of treason to the appropriate officials. She was sentenced to five years of hard labor, but instead she served a humiliating eight-month house arrest and confined to a second-floor room in her former palace. In the darkness of the Palace, a single light shone through a window in the room that was the Queen’s prison. The light was a symbol of the Hawaiian people’s loss of freedom and sovereignty.
Since Hawai`i became the 50th State in 1959, the tremendous economic, political and social changes of the 19th century continued into the 20 th as land, native language, culture, and political sovereignty were denied to the Hawaiian people. Determined to preserve their cultural identity, Hawaiians today look to the 21st century as a new beginning for self-determination and self-governance.
Choosing the right path to achieve Hawaiian sovereignty remains a great task. But, the Hawaiian people will draw on their cultural heritage, their faith, and their steadfastness to build a nation for the betterment and enrichment of lives within the Hawaiian Islands.
Ua ‘Ike Anei ‘Oe (Did you know…)
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