Securing Paradise at the Point of a Bayonet

Bluejackets of the U.S.S. Boston occupying Arlington Hotel groundsBluejackets of the U.S.S. Boston occupying Arlington Hotel grounds. (Photo: Hawaii State Archives)

On January 17th, 1893, more than 120 marines and sailors from the U.S.S. Boston helped thirteen powerful American business and political leaders calling themselves the Committee of Safety to overthrow Hawaii’s Queen Liliuokalani and install a new provisional government led by Sanford Dole. President Grover Cleveland opposed the coup and demanded that the Queen be returned to power, but the Committee refused. In 1895, an attempted royalist revolt failed to reinstall the Queen; Liliuokalani was convicted of treason for her supposed role in the revolt, and while in custody agreed to abdicate and dissolve Hawaii’s monarchy. Three years later, the McKinley administration annexed Hawaii, making the island nation part of the United States.

These 1890s events represented the culmination of decades of maneuvering by both Hawaiian monarchs and American business interests. After his 1874 ascent to the throne, King Kalakaua (Liliuokalani’s brother) worked to reduce the power of the American Missionary Party. A group of powerful business leaders within that party, led by Dole and Lorrin Thurston and known by the ominous name the Hawaiian League, resisted those efforts. The conflict came to a head in 1887, when the League drafted a new constitution (one that, besides limiting the king’s powers, also disenfranchised numerous Asians and native Hawaiians while giving the vote to wealthy non-citizens) and used the threat of violence to force Kalakaua to sign. It was this document, subsequently known as the Bayonet Constitution, that Liliuokalani was attempting to revise in January 1893 when the Committee’s soldiers executed their coup.

The events of these Hawaiian coups have often been contextualized as part of America’s broader 1890s moves toward imperialism, most notably in the Spanish American War and subsequent occupations of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. Yet in their treatment and repression of those Hawaiian natives and their leaders, the coups also echoed – and could indeed be described as the last of – the 19th century’s Indian Wars. As was so often the case in those conflicts, American business interests and settlers wanted Hawaii’s land and resources, and manipulated governmental and legal documents to produce the desired effect. Like Sitting Bull, Chief Joseph, and so many others before her, Liliuokalani struggled valiantly but unsuccessfully to maintain both her own and her people’s sovereignty in the face of these invasions. And the alliance between corporate interests, government bureaucrats, and military force that proved too powerful for the native leaders and resistance also comprised a consistent pattern across the history of the Indian Wars, as well as in the 20th century Caribbean and Latin American coups that these events foreshadowed.

Remembering the Hawaiian coups thus offers a new perspective on some of the most longstanding, defining, and troubling American domestic and foreign policies. To most of us, Hawaii is a tropical paradise, full of spectacular vistas and thundering surf (and now the birthplace of our 44th president). But how that paradise became part of us is a long, complex, and often dark story.

About the Author

Ben Railton

Ben Railton is Associate Professor of English and Coordinator of American Studies at Fitchburg State University. He's working to create public American Studies scholarship and to impact our collective memories and narratives, as evidenced by his books (most recently The Chinese Exclusion Act: What It Can Teach Us about America), his daily AmericanStudies blog, and many other ongoing projects.

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