On a standard map of the United States, Hawaii sits in the bottom left corner in a box next to Alaska. It would seem that the islands are as close to the Southwest as Cuba is to Florida. These maps obscure the fact that the distance between Los Angeles and Honolulu is roughly the same distance as L.A.to New York City. The sense of closeness modern American maps imply has been carefully created. Hawaii was once an independent kingdom in the Pacific, far from the reaches of the fledgling republic of the United States of America. Today, Hawaii is the 50th state, as American as it is exotic. Our current president, Barack Obama, was born there. Today, the status of its statehood is rarely questioned by those in the continental United States, but it was a long, complex road that changed a Pacific kingdom into the Aloha State.

The Hawaiian Kingdom (1810-1893)

In January 1778, during the second year of the American Revolution, a British explorer, Captain James Cook, landed on the Pacific island of Kauai. The British Admiralty and the British Royal Society sponsored Cook’s exploration of the previously Spanish dominated Pacific. He famously probed the major islands of Australia and New Zealand, which later enabled the British settler societies to colonize the South Pacific. He named the contemporary Hawaiian islands the “Sandwich Islands,” after the Earl of Sandwich.

The islands were not empty. In fact, Cook encountered a well-developed society.

The present-day Hawaiian Island were first settled by Polynesian seafarers over a thousand years before Cook’s arrival. These Polynesian explorers first settled on the coasts, and then moved further inland as the population increased. When Cook arrived, it is estimated that somewhere between 200,000 and 1,000,000 people lived there—today Hawaii’s population is just 1,374,810.

Ancient Hawaiian society developed into a caste society, comparable to India’s. A land tenure system existed in the islands that looked much like the feudal system in Medieval Europe. Farming was integral to Hawaii. The people grew crops including sweet potatoes, yams, and bananas, and kept livestock. A complex legal system existed based on religious taboos, known as kapu. One of the most serious kapu was that men and women were not allowed to eat together. Breaking this law was punishable by death.

Captain Cook died on the island of Hawaii, just a year after his arrival. Cook attempted to take Kalaniopuu, the King of the island of Hawaii, hostage as collateral for a stolen boat. A Hawaiian chief killed Cook in retaliation.

King Kamehameha, Bishop Museum, Honolulu, Hawaii
King Kamehameha, Bishop Museum, Honolulu, Hawaii


European contact coincided with a fierce struggle for power in the islands. There were four dominant chiefdoms that vied for power over the islands: the Hawaii, Maui, Oahu, and Kauai. Chief Kamehameha managed to conquer all islands except for Niihau and Kauai. He gained control of the remaining islands through diplomacy by 1810.

Kamehameha (1810-1819) proclaimed himself king of the Hawaiian Islands, ending feudalistic chiefdoms. With his rule, Hawaii became a constitutional monarchy, modeled after Europe. Although he accepted many western customs, he maintained kapu, the religious laws that governed Hawaiian society.

The British Empire, which would battle to hold its imperial ties in North America during the War of 1812, considered the islands to be a British protectorate. As King Kamehameha was able to rule a united Hawaiian kingdom, the British crown recognized Kamehameha as the legitimate ruler with the hope that he would maintain order and allow the British to use the islands in their increasing Pacific trade networks with China.

In 1819, King Kamehameha died from an unknown illness. After his death, his son Liholiho, or King Kamehameha II (1819-1824) came to power. But, when Liholiho arrived to take power, he discovered that Kamehameha’s favorite wife, Queen Kaahumanu, had already done so herself. She boldly invited Liholiho to a feast in which men and women would dine together, violating kapu.

Shortly thereafter, Queen Kaahumanu and King Kamehameha II officially ended kapu. In doing so, they ended the old religion that had governed life in the islands, just months before the arrival of American protestant missionaries. Christianity allowed Kaahumanu to restore order in the islands in the midst of the chaos from the end of kapu. Throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century, missionaries radically changed Hawaii. The introduction of Christianity meant outlawing many tenets of Hawaiian culture including hula and traditional healing. The Hawaiian people had lost their faith, traditions, and quite literally themselves. Much like Native Americans on theU.S.mainland, the native population in Hawaii dwindled rapidly due to the introduction of new diseases such as smallpox. In the midst of this chaos, missionaries offered hope through Christianity and western civilization. Furthermore, they provided Hawaiians with written language and by the 1830’s,Hawaii held the highest literacy rate in the world.

Hawaii Protectorate Proclamation, 1851


By the time Queen Kaahumanu died in 1832, Hawaii was a Christian nation. Foreigners from Europe and the United States began to settle in the islands at a rapid rate. At a time of rapid territorial expansion, the islands were a hot commodity for these imperial powers. There were lucrative opportunities for trade in Hawaii from sandalwood to whaling. Foreign powers found it easy to influence the monarchy, weak from loss of population. In 1839, the French forced Kamehameha III to sign the Edict of Toleration, in which the Hawaiian government and allowed the establishment of a Hawaiian Catholic Church and ended the persecution of Catholics that had begun at the behest of Protestant missionaries.

In 1843, the British, under Captain Lord George Paulet, occupied the Hawaiian Islands for five months because of a land dispute involving a Briton, Richard Charlton. Hawaiian sovereignty was restored by Rear Admiral Richard Thomas five months later, who renounced the actions of Charlton and Paulet. In 1849, the French arrived in Honolulu with ten demands for the monarchy, including an end to continued persecution of Catholics and high tariffs on French goods. When these demands were not met in a timely fashion, the French invaded Honolulu and captured the city. They left one month later, after raiding government buildings and other property in Honolulu.

In the face of increasing European interest in the islands, Kamehameha III decided to solicit protection from the United States. On March 10, 1851, the King formally applied to the United States Congress to become a protectorate of the United States. Hawaii did not become a protectorate of the United States in 1851, but the seeds were sown for the relationship of dependence that would color the remaining years of the Hawaiian monarchy.

The Business of American Missionaries

Kamehameha III filled his cabinet with foreign-born ministers who advised him on how to rule the islands. In 1848, the Mahele divided Hawaiian lands into private property for the first time. In 1850, the Alien Land Ownership Act allowed for foreign ownership of Hawaiian lands. Because of Hawaiian unfamiliarity with private property, higher classes and foreigners were easily able to obtain much of the land in the islands, leaving many native Hawaiians landless. Much of the available land was bought up by Protestant missionaries and their descendants.

American missionary families, over the years, became extremely successful businessmen. While the whaling industry declined, these missionaries-turned-entrepreneurs found great success in the creation of vast sugar plantations in the islands. Soon, the need for labor surpassed the number of available workers. Immigrants from Japan,China, the Philippines,Korea,Portugal, and other nations came to Hawaii to labor on these booming plantations. This sparked the creation of an extremely diverse population inHawaii. Meanwhile, a new class of wealthy, white planters emerged in Hawaii alongside the growing immigrant population.

Chinese contract laborers (also known as 'Coolies') on a nineteenth century sugar plantation in Hawaii. Published in Chinese in Hawai'i: A Historical and Demographic Perspective by Eleanor C. Nordyke and Richard K. C. Lee, Hawaiian Journal of History, 1989.
Chinese contract laborers (also known as ‘Coolies’) on a nineteenth century sugar plantation in Hawaii. Published in Chinese in Hawai’i: A Historical and Demographic Perspective by Eleanor C. Nordyke and Richard K. C. Lee, Hawaiian Journal of History, 1989.


A sugar-cane mill and plantation in Hawaii. Stephen A. Schwarzman Building / Photography Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs


By the 1850’s, three-fourths of all business in Hawaii was controlled by American businessmen, and the primary export market was to America’s Pacific Coast. These missionary families acquired great wealth, and then great political power, even forming their own political party—the Missionary Party. With perceived instability on the part of the Hawaiian monarchy, these families began to push for annexation in order to ensure protection from the United States.

In 1854, the United States made its first attempt to annex the Hawaiian Islands.

The treaty was negotiated between U.S. Commissioner David L. Gregg and Hawaiian Minister of Foreign Affairs Robert Crichton Wyllie. For King Kamehameha III, annexation would further ensure Hawaii’s security, much like the protectorate had. Negotiations were underway when King Kamehameha III died in December of 1854. His heir, Kamehameha IV, ended all negotiations with Gregg, in effect killing any possible annexation treaty.

Read Hawaiian-born missionary descendant William De Witt Alexander’s take on the Uncompleted Treaty of Annexation of 1854, including text of the treaty in the appendix here

However, the Missionary Party continued to push for greater ties. During the Civil War, demand for sugar increased as a result of the blockade from the Confederate states that had provided it previously. American planters in Hawaii saw that they were perfectly poised to fill the market, but did not like the high tariff rates they encountered. The Reciprocity Treaty of 1875 allowed for duty-free importation of Hawaiian sugar. In exchange, the United States was granted land for a naval base, which eventually became Pearl Harbor.

The wealth gained from this new treaty was largely concentrated in the hands of a few of the corporations descended from missionary families, known as “The Big Five.” These corporations—Castle & Cooke, Alexander & Baldwin, C. Brewer & Co., American Factors, and Theo H. Davies & Co.—not only controlled the sugar industry, but had a hand in most of Hawaii’s economic matters. Furthermore, these elites enjoyed a close relationship with the Hawaiian monarchy—one they would betray when that relationship was no longer profitable.

The End of the Hawaiian Monarchy (1887-1893)

King Kalakaua (1874-1891) began his reign as a friend to the United States. He negotiated the aforementioned Reciprocity Treaty. In 1881, he became the first king to travel around the world, leaving his sister, Liliuokalani to rule as regent in his absence. During Kalakaua’s reign, he also built the iconic ‘Iolani Palace, which still stands today.

King Kal?kaua and staff on ?Iolani Palace steps. Left to Right: James H. Boyd, Col. Curtis P. Iaukea, Chas. H. Judd, Edward W. Purvis, King Kal?kaua, George W. MacFarlane, Governor John Owen Dominis, A. B. Hally, John D. Holt and Antone Rosa. Photograph taken by James J. Williams before 1888.


The Missionary Party was unhappy with Kalakaua’s rule, most importantly his spending. Those who favored annexation joined together in a group called the Hawaiian League. In 1887, the League forced Kalakaua at gunpoint to sign a new constitution that virtually stripped the monarchy of its power. Known as the “Bayonet Constitution” because of the manner in which King Kalakaua was forced to sign it, the new constitution further consolidated power in the hands of wealthy elites.

Queen Liliuokalani, the last monarch of the Hawaiian Kingdom, came to power in 1891 after her brother Kalakaua died of illness in San Francisco.

The situation in Hawaii worsened drastically towards the end of the nineteenth century due to the 1890 Tariff Act, also known as the McKinley Tariff. In 1891, just before the tariff went into effect, 274,982,295 pounds of sugar was transported from Hawaii to the United States while Hawaii exported only 285 pounds to the rest of the world.  The new tariff effectively ended the advantageous position American sugar planters had enjoyed under the Reciprocity Treaty. The effect of this economic downturn was felt by all Hawaiian residents. In the face of this crisis, in 1893 Queen Liliuokalani attempted to promulgate a new constitution, one that would place more power with the monarchy instead of the American and European-dominated legislature.

In response, members of the Missionary Party formed the Committee of Safety, a group committed to the end of the Hawaiian monarchy and U.S.annexation (which would eliminate all tariffs on sugar exports to the continental United States). Their plan to overthrow the monarchy was set into action on January 17, 1893. Committee members enlisted the Honolulu Rifles, an armed regiment of non-Hawaiians, to depose the Queen. U.S. Government Minister John L. Stevens simultaneously solicited the U.S.government for further protection, claiming that American lives were in danger. U.S. Marines soon joined the coup, leading to Queen Liliuokalani’s surrender.

Queen Liliuokalani surrendered that day, but did not give up the fight for her kingdom:

“I Liliuokalani, by the Grace of God and under the Constitution of the Hawaiian Kingdom, Queen, do hereby solemnly protest against any and all acts done against myself and the Constitutional Government of the Hawaiian Kingdom by certain persons claiming to have established a Provisional Government of and for this Kingdom…Now to avoid any collision of armed forces, and perhaps the loss of life, I do, under this protest and impelled by said force, yield my authority until such time as the Government of the United States shall, upon the facts being presented to it, undo the action of its representative and reinstate me in the authority which I claim as the constitutional Sovereign of the Hawaiian Islands.

Debating Annexation (1893-1898)

In the aftermath of the coup, a provisional government was established under President Sanford Dole.

US Marines in Hawaii during the coup. State of Hawaii Archives.
US Marines in Hawaii during the coup. State of Hawaii Archives.


The provisional government in Hawaii, though pleased with the end of the monarchy, still desired complete annexation to the United States. Then-President Benjamin Harrison was also a strong supporter of annexation. Less than a month after the coup, he sent a treaty to the Senate to annex the Hawaiian Islands. In a message to the Senate he stated:

“Only two courses are now open; one the establishment of a protectorate by the United States, and the other, annexation full and complete. I think the latter course, which has been adopted in the treaty, will be highly promotive of the best interests of the Hawaiian people, and is the only one that will adequately secure the interests of the United States. These interests are not wholly selfish. It is essential that none of the other great powers shall secure these islands. Such a possession would not consist with our safety and with the peace of the world.”

In February 1893, the New York Tribune wrote: “Nothing can be more certain than that the sentiment of our country is practically unanimous in favor of a prompt ratification of the treaty. The views of the American people have grown with their growing empire.” As Democrats in Congress stalled the treaty, the Tribune warned that “the dangers of delay are numerous and serious,” especially when President Grover Cleveland was set to take office in just a short time. “If, too, we are to have in Mr. Cleveland a Chief Magistrate who so little appreciates the opportunity presented to us in this treaty as to be willing to see it fail, the duty of the Senators who have a truer conception of what is due to our interest and our dignity becomes the more pressing.”

Much to their chagrin, the treaty was not passed in 1893. Upon assuming office, President Cleveland called for an investigation into the proceedings of the coup. The investigation produced the Blount Report.

The report concluded that “United States diplomacy and military representatives had abused their authority and were responsible for the change in government.”

President Grover Cleveland further denounced the coup in his 1893 State of the Union Address:

“…the constitutional Government of Hawaii had been subverted with the active aid of our representative to that Government and through the intimidation caused by the presence of an armed naval force of the United States, which was landed for that purpose at the instance of our minister. Upon the facts developed it seemed to me that the only honorable course for our Government to pursue was to undo the wrong that had been done by those representing us and to restore as far as practicable the status existing at the time of our forcible intervention.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee conducted their own investigation, resulting in the Morgan Report. This new report contradicted the Blount Report, claiming that U.S.intervention was necessary to ensure the safety of U.S.citizens in the islands during the chaos of the coup:

“There was not in Honolulu at the time any efficient executive power through which the rights of American citizens residing there could be protected…In a country where there is no power of the law to protect the citizens of the United States there can be no law of nations nor any rule of comity that can rightfully prevent our flag from giving shelter to them under the protection of our arms…”

On July 4, 1894 the Republic of Hawaii was created with Dole, again, as President. Officials in the new Hawaiian government still wanted annexation above all, largely because of a desire to avoid the tariffs the U.S.government levied on all foreign entities. Native Hawaiians continued to protest the annexation.

Executive council of the Provisional Government (left to right): James A. King, Sanford B. Dole, W. O. Smith and P. C. Jones. Published by Ann Rayson, Helen Bauer (1997) Hawai?i, the Pacific State (4th ed.), Bess Press , 61.
Executive council of the Provisional Government (left to right): James A. King, Sanford B. Dole, W. O. Smith and P. C. Jones. Published by Ann Rayson, Helen Bauer (1997) Hawai?i, the Pacific State (4th ed.), Bess Press , 61.


The flag of the Kingdom of Hawai?i over ?Iolani Palace is lowered to raise the United States flag to signify the annexation on 12 August 1898. State of Hawaii Archives,
The flag of the Kingdom of Hawai?i over ?Iolani Palace is lowered to raise the United States flag to signify the annexation on 12 August 1898. State of Hawaii Archives,


Sanford Dole inauguration as first governor of Hawaii with him transfering the Sovereignty of Hawaii to United State Minister Harold M. Seewall.


In 1897, William McKinley became president of the United States. He, unlike Cleveland, was much more open to annexation. In 1897 a new treaty was negotiated to allow for the annexation of the islands. The treaty was, however, never ratified by the Senate. In 1898, in the midst of the expansionist Spanish-American War, McKinley signed the Newlands Resolution, which officially annexed the Hawaiian Islands on July 7, 1898. On August 12, 1898 the flag of the Republic of Hawaii was ceremonially lowered and replaced with the United States flag at ‘Iolani Palace. On February 22, 1900 the Hawaiian Islands officially became a territory of the United States.

The Hawaiian Organic Act, enacted on April 30, 1900, provided a government for the new territory of Hawaii. President McKinley appointed former President Sanford Dole to serve as governor of the territory.

Teaching the History of Annexation? Explore our collection of primary sources and research guides:

From Pacific Territory to Aloha State (1898-1959)

As early as 1903, the territorial legislature of Hawaii began petitioning Congress for statehood. View the document from the National Archives here

The territorial status o f Hawaii was ideal for the Big Five and the sugarcane industry. During these years, these corporations were able to consolidate their power so much that the territory effectively became an oligarchy. They were able to bypass tariffs for sugar export to the mainland while still importing cheap foreign labor (something prohibited for states in the Union). There were also concerns among Americans in the continental United States about annexing Hawaii. During the era of segregation at home, many Americans were uneasy about admitting such a racially diverse state into the union.

The question of Hawaii gained new importance on December 7, 1941 when Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor.

View looking up “Battleship Row” on 7 December 1941, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The battleship USS Arizona (BB-39) is in the center, burning furiously. To the left of her are USS Tennessee (BB-43) and the sunken USS West Virginia (BB-48). 7 December 1941.


In response to the attack, martial law was established in Hawaii under the new military governor, Major General Thomas H. Green.

The military was able to impose martial law because of the Organic Act of 1900 which stated that the governor may, “in case of rebellion or invasion, or imminent danger thereof, when the public safety requires it, suspend the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus, or place the Territory, or any part thereof, under martial law until communication can be had with the President and his decision thereon made known.”

Under martial law, the writ of habeas corpus was suspended and all criminal cases were tried in military tribunals. The military regime imposed strict curfews and blackout regulations on the populace while censoring the press and mail. In December, 1942 the Interior Department Solicitor wrote: “While fighting for democracy on a dozen fronts, we have dictatorship, quite needlessly—almost by accident, in one vital part of the United States of America.”

Martial law continued until October 1944, when it was lifted by a presidential order. Although Hawaii had been close enough to the United States to warrant attack by a belligerent power in World War II, it was not yet an actual state of the Union. In the aftermath of WWII, the idea of admitting a state with a large Japanese population was troubling to many Americans. But, many felt Hawaii had proved it’s loyalty to America during World War II and that it was only a matter of time before statehood became a reality.

 Further Reading about Hawaii Under Martial Law and the Growing Statehood Movement:

The Democratic Revolution of 1954 ended the almost complete control the Republican Party had held in Hawaii since 1898. The Democratic Party represented new interests—mainly lower classes and immigrant populations. A shift began in Hawaii away from the interests of the Big Five as government began to consider the interests of the islanders at large. This included statehood, which would give every Hawaiian a voice in their government.

In 1959, Hawaiian residents voted on whether or not their territory would become a state.

This petition, rolled onto a wooden spool, was signed by 116,000 supporters of Hawaii statehood and presented to the U.S. Senate on February 26, 1954. (National Archives. RG 46, Records of the U.S. Senate)
This petition, rolled onto a wooden spool, was signed by 116,000 supporters of Hawaii statehood and presented to the U.S. Senate on February 26, 1954. (National Archives. RG 46, Records of the U.S. Senate)


The islanders voted for statehood by an overwhelming majority. In March 1959, President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Hawaii Admission Act into law, changing Hawaii’s status from “non-self-governing territory” to American state.

The Aloha State Today

President Clinton signs Public Law 103-150, the "Apology Resolution" to Native Hawaiians, on November 23, 1993, as Vice-President Gore and Hawaii's Congressional delegation look on: Sen. Daniel Inouye, Rep. Patsy Mink, Rep. Neil Abercrombie, and Sen. Daniel Akaka (L to R).
President Clinton signs Public Law 103-150, the “Apology Resolution” to Native Hawaiians, on November 23, 1993, as Vice-President Gore and Hawaii’s Congressional delegation look on: Sen. Daniel Inouye, Rep. Patsy Mink, Rep. Neil Abercrombie, and Sen. Daniel Akaka (L to R).

The issue of annexation arose once again, one hundred years after the fact. In 1993, Congress passed United States Public Law 103-150, known as the Apology Resolution.

Bill Clinton signing the Apology Resolution into law http://www.hawaii-nation.org/publawsum.html

The law began, “To acknowledge the 100th anniversary of the January 17, 1983 overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii, and to offer an apology to Native Hawaiians on behalf of the United States for the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii.” Although the law did not change the legal status of Hawaii or native Hawaiians, it has sparked new debate about the islands’ complicated history and the legality of the annexation of Hawaii.

Read the Telegraph’s “Queen of Hawaii demands independence from ‘US occupiers,’” detailing a 2008 protest against American occupation.

Today, Hawaii’s official tourism website entices visitors with the phrase, “The people of Hawaii would like to share their islands with you.” Tourism is Hawaii’s largest industry, as people flock to the islands to see experience the exotic without ever leaving the comfort of the United States. It has taken over a century to transform Hawaii from a distant group of islands into the Aloha state, situated comfortably at the bottom corner of the U.S. map. Yet even today, there are those who still protest what they see as the continued occupation of the islands by a foreign, imperial power.

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