How Hawaii’s royal family was overthrown to turn archipelago into US territory

January 7, 2023

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Abigail Kinoiki Kekaulike Kawānanakoa was one of the heiresses of the Hawaiian royal family, deposed by American businessmen more than 120 years ago

On December 11, 2022, the death of Abigail Kinoiki Kekaulike Kawānanakoa, known as the last princess of the archipelago, was announced in Honolulu, Hawaii.

‘Iolani Palace, the only royal residence on US soil, noted that the heiress to the throne died peacefully at the age of 96. She left almost half of her fortune, of more than US$ 200 million (about R$ 1.04 billion), to a foundation that supports the native Hawaiian community.

Kawānanakoa’s death brought back discussions on a topic that still generates controversy in the archipelago famous for its paradisiacal beaches: the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy by American businessmen in 1893, which led to the annexation of Hawaii by the United States.

Thus, the archipelago located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, 3,200 kilometers from the American continent, became the 50th State of the United States (the last to be admitted to the Union). But what happened to the Hawaiian royal family that ruled until then?

the kingdom of hawaii

The 137 volcanic islands that make up Hawaii were governed by small clans until 1810. In that year, they were unified under the command of Kamehameha 1st, leader of the island of Hawaii, after which the entire archipelago was named.

The king became known as Kamehameha the Great; he founded the dynasty that would rule Hawaii for six decades.

In 1820, his heir, Kamehameha II, opened the archipelago’s doors to a group of missionaries from New England, in the United States. In a few years, the missionaries managed to convert most of the population into Protestant Christians.

They also attracted the interest of investors in their country, who were buying large plots of land in Hawaii, seduced by reports of untouched land and ideal climate conditions for growing sugarcane. And so the influence of American landowners grew.

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King Kamehameha II allowed a group of American missionaries to move to the archipelago, which would eventually lead to its colonization.

In 1839, the new king, Kamehameha III, enacted the Constitution of Hawaii. According to her, the reigning monarchy in the archipelago was no longer absolute and became constitutional. Many historians consider this to be a sign that royal power was beginning to wane.

Descendants of the first missionaries had made their fortunes in Hawaii and formed their own political party, the Reform Party, better known as the Missionary Party.

In the 1870s, the Hawaiian economy was heavily dependent on its trade with the United States. The businessmen and landowners of the Missionary Party then began to claim greater political power.

In 1887, they decided to face the situation and, threatening to use force, forced the ruler at the time, King Kalākaua 1°, to grant a new Constitution, which only granted the right to vote to white landowners. It became known as the “Bayonet Constitution”.

David Kalākaua, who had come to the throne by being descended from a cousin of Kamehameha 1° (since Kamehameha 5° died without heirs), was the founder of what would be the last dynasty to reign in Hawaii.

During his early years, he had to face growing pressure from the Missionary Party, which wanted to reform the system to adopt a monarchical model similar to the British one, in which the king is a figure with prestige but no real power.

“The Merry Monarch”, as he was known, began his reign in 1874 by touring the islands, which increased his popularity.

He also negotiated a reciprocity treaty with the United States, even meeting in the American capital, Washington, with President Ulysses S. Grant. The treaty allowed Hawaii’s main exports, sugar and rice, to enter the United States duty-free.

The agreement also granted the United States the exclusive right to maintain military bases on the islands.

During his reign, Kalākaua placed great importance on international relations. He was the first monarch in history to fly around the world, in 1881.

The King Kalākaua

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King Kalākaua was the first sovereign to travel around the world.

Leaving from San Francisco, in the United States, he visited, among other countries, Japan, China, India, Egypt and several European nations. And he also met with many heads of state such as King Umberto I of Italy, Pope Leo XIII and Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom.

King Kalākaua used many of the objects and furniture he brought back from his travels to decorate a new royal residence, the ‘Iolani Palace, considered an architectural jewel, which he had rebuilt due to the poor state of the original palace, inaugurated during the reign of Kamehameha 4 °.

The monarch tried to form a confederation of Polynesian countries and even sent representatives to Samoa for this purpose. But the project was put on hold after the “Bayonet Constitution,” which stripped Hawaiian royalty of power and strengthened the Missionary Party.

A few years later, in 1890, the then 54-year-old King began to suffer serious health problems. On medical advice, he traveled again to San Francisco, where he died, leaving no descendants.

Therefore, who took the throne was his sister, Lili’uokalani. She would be the last sovereign of Hawaii.


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Lili’uokalani was the last queen of Hawaii.

The end of the monarchy

Lili’uokalani had exercised power as regent in 1881, during the international tour of her brother the king.

When she came to power, she tried to revoke the “Bayonet Constitution” to give the natives back the right to vote, and the lost power to the crown. But she was accused by white subjects of subverting the Constitution.

In addition to seeking political power, the group wanted to overthrow the monarch for commercial reasons. The United States had decided to eliminate the privilege of Hawaiian sugar and the landowners wanted the annexation of Hawaii to the USA so that they could enjoy the same benefits as local producers.

Arguing that the rights of merchants and landowners of American origin were being harmed, the US ambassador in Hawaii, John L. Stevens, asked for the intervention of American troops stationed in the archipelago.

In 1893, Queen Lili’uokalani was placed under house arrest at ‘Iolani Palace and a provisional government was formed.

Queen Liliʻuokalani sitting in the sun in 1917, the year of her death

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Queen Lili’uokalani remained living in Hawaii after her deposition.

US President Grover Cleveland ordered a report on events in Hawaii, which concluded that the Queen’s deposition had been illegal. The US Congress, however, commissioned another report, the Morgan report, which determined in 1894 that neither Ambassador Stevens nor US troops were responsible for her overthrow.

On July 4 of that year (the same day that independence from the United States is celebrated), the Hawaiian provisional government proclaimed the Republic of Hawaii. Sanford Ballard Dole was declared its leader, and Washington recognized the new government.

Queen Lili’uokalani was held until 1896. Upon her release, she moved to another residence, where she lived an ordinary life until her death in 1917.

Like her brother, the Queen had no children. But, following tradition, she named other family members as her heirs. Abigail Kinoiki Kekaulike Kawānanakoa, who died in early December, was a descendant of one of these successors.

In 1898, American President William McKinley (Republican, who had defeated Cleveland) signed the annexation of Hawaii to the United States, despite protests from the opposition, who considered the annexation illegal. This act would pave the way for, in 1959, Hawaii to become the 50th state of the United States.

The transformation into an American state took into account the key role of the archipelago for Washington during World War II. After all, the United States entered the conflict in late 1941, when the Japanese Empire made a surprise attack on the US navy stationed at Pearl Harbor on the Hawaiian island of Oahu.

During the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, in the midst of the Cold War, the US Congress finally approved Hawaii’s entry into the Union. The decision was widely endorsed by Hawaiians, but some natives have maintained their protests against what is considered a prime example of American colonialism.

In 1993, 100 years after the coup d’état that deposed the queen, the US government formally apologized to Hawaiians for their deposition, which deprived them of their right to self-determination.

But while it also acknowledged that the native people had been forced to cede more than 700,000 hectares of land, it offered no compensation, making it clear that it would not accept claims.

The article is in Portuguese

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