Cane Sugar and Coups: How Hawaii Became a State

If you grew up on the mainland, you probably don’t know very much about Hawaiian history. Most of what I know about it comes Drunk History. Actually, most of what I know in general comes from Drunk History. But in school, it’s just not something that’s focused on very much. It’s the same for Alaska, but that’s because, honestly, it’s Alaska.

Hawaii is known for its beauty and hospitality, as well as its relaxed approach to life. The motto is “Ua Mau ke Ea o ka Aina i ka Pono” which loosely translates to “Live your life well and treat the land with respect.” How did this laid-back paradise become part of the United States? Well, the government treated the natives and their land with such respect that Hawaiians decided to just become a part of the country.

LOL. Kidding. It was through imperialism and capitalism.

Early Relationship

The first American tradesmen visited the Kingdom of Hawaii in the 1700s, in search of sandalwood to sell to China. Missionaries arrived later, in search of heathens to convert to Christianity. Mainlanders really became interested when the sugar industry blossomed there in the 1830s. It was a highly lucrative business, and it was supported by the US government.

I never knew slavish working conditions could be so sweet

The influx of whities entering Hawaii only grew over the next few years, majorly affecting its cultural landscape. Sugar businessmen grew increasingly powerful over the affairs of the island. In 1840, they helped establish a constitution which shifted almost all the power of the monarch to a newly formed House of Representatives.

Unfortunately, the legislature was disproportionately American and European–indigenous peoples were all but unrepresented. On the surface, it seemed like shift towards democracy, but it was really a way for investors and businessmen to stay in power.

Sugar Daddies

Over the next forty years, Hawaii became America’s pseudo-colony. Although Hawaii was still considered an independent nation, the US was vigilant in making sure that European powers didn’t get involved. Americans helped push through a new constitution in 1887 that even included a section that allowed for an naval base to be built on Oahu–now known as Pearl Harbor. Hawaii was proving to be a very valuable little holding.

That turned out well…

In 1890, Congress raised the price of importing foreign sugar with the McKinley Tariff. This not only hurt the white planters of Hawaii, but everyone, since it was such a large percentage of the economy. The wealthy classes immediately realized their problem would be remedied if Hawaii became part of the US.

Long Live the Queen…Sort of

Native Hawaiians felt differently. Contrary to popular belief among Americans, they were not clueless. The sugar trade had become a means of controlling the islands, and they could see that their dependence on producing sugar was going to lead to annexation. They weren’t interested in losing their last modicum of autonomy.

The staunchest opponent of American involvement was Queen Liliuokalani, who ascended the throne in 1891 after her brother died. She believed that at the root of Hawaii’s issues was American involvement. After two thirds of the population voted to overturn the 1887 Constitution, she offered a new document that would return power to the monarch and voting rights to disenfranchised natives.

Yass kween

Enter Pineapple Man

In 1893, statesman Sanford B. Dole (yes, like the pineapples) became the mouthpiece of an organization for sugar interests, called the “Committee of Safety.” It was basically a group of all the people who hated the queen. The marshal of the Hawaiian Kingdom tried to arrest them. However, because they had ties to John L. Stevens, the ambassador to Hawaii, the queen’s cabinet was afraid to go through with it lest they inflame the situation further. Bad move–Dole staged a coup soon after with the help of the US Marines.

Sanford Dole, lead singer of ZZ Top

After ousting Liliuokalani, Dole became the president of the Republic of Hawaii. His butt buddy Stevens formally recognized the new government soon after its establishment.

Meanwhile, President Grover Cleveland was having a rage ulcer because no one consulted him on the whole “we’re taking over a kingdom” plan. He had never been a fan of imperialism, and most Democrats agreed that Hawaiians shouldn’t be forced to join the US if they didn’t want to. When Dole sent a petition for annexation, the president sent a new ambassador to Hawaii and demanded that Dole step down so that the queen could resume her reign.

(Screaming internally)

Yeah…Dole didn’t want to do that. Cleveland sort of just threw his hands up and walked away, not wanting to forcefully remove the new government.

Annexation Proclamation

Most of the United States actually favored annexation. William McKinley, Cleveland’s successor, failed to get an act passed in Congress in 1897 due to a petition signed by 21,000 of those pesky natives. Once the Spanish-American War broke out, though, Hawaii was too valuable a military advantage to let go. In 1898, McKinley annexed Hawaii, and two years later declared it a US territory. Dole became its very first governor.

The Aloha State

Dwight Eisenhower signed Hawaii into statehood in 1959, and the rest is history. It quickly transitioned into the idyllic vacation destination we know today. Crazy numbers of tourists started to flood the islands, and once again white people changed Hawaii forever. Hospitality became its number one industry.

Aloha, oe! (A song composed by Liliuokalani, btw).

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