The End of the Kingdom of Hawaii

Like the Hawaiian people themselves, the Kamehameha dynasty in the mid-1800s was dying from within. King Kamehameha IV (Alexander Liholiho) ruled 1854-1863; his only child died in 1862. He was succeeded by his older brother Kamehameha V (Lot Kamehameha), who ruled until 1872. With his passing the Kamehameha line ended. William Lunalilo, elected king in 1873 by popular vote, was of royal lineage, but not of the Kamehameha bloodline. He died after only a year in office, and being a bachelor, he left no heirs.

Lunalilo was succeeded by David Kalakaua, known far and wide as the “Merrie Monarch,” who made a world tour and was well received wherever he went. He built ‘Iolani Palace in Honolulu and was personally in favor of closer ties with the United States, helping to push through the Reciprocity Act. Kalakaua died in 1891 and was replaced by his sister, Lydia Lili‘uokalani, last of the Hawaiian monarchs.

A six-foot statue of Queen Lili‘uokalani located in downtown Honolulu.
A statue of Queen Lili‘uokalani located in downtown Honolulu between the State Capitol Building and the ‘Iolani Palace. Photo © Loren Javier, licensed Creative Commons Attribution No-Derivatives.

Revolution and Annexation

When Lili‘uokalani took office in 1891, the native population was at a low of 40,000, and she felt that the United States had too much influence over her homeland. She was known to personally favor the English over the Americans. She attempted to replace the liberal constitution of 1887 (adopted by her pro-American brother) with an autocratic mandate in which she would have had much more political and economic control of the islands.

When the McKinley Tariff of 1890 brought a decline in sugar profits, she made no attempt to improve the situation. Thus, the planters saw her as a political obstacle to their economic growth; most of Hawaii’s American planters and merchants were in favor of a rebellion. A central spokesperson and firebrand was Lorrin Thurston, a Honolulu publisher who, with a core of about 30 men, challenged the Hawaiian monarchy. Although Lili‘uokalani rallied some support and had a small military potential in her personal guard, the coup was relatively bloodless—it took only one casualty.

Naturally, the conspirators could not have succeeded without some solid assurances from a secret contingent in the U.S. Congress as well as outgoing President Benjamin Harrison, who favored Hawaii’s annexation. Marines from the Boston went ashore to “protect American lives,” and on January 17, 1893, the Hawaiian monarchy came to an end.

Sanford B. Dole, who became president of the Hawaiian Republic, headed the provisional government. Lili‘uokalani surrendered not to the conspirators, but to U.S. Ambassador John Stevens. She believed that the U.S. government, which had assured her of Hawaiian independence, would be outraged by the overthrow and would come to her aid. Incoming President Grover Cleveland was outraged, and Hawaii wasn’t immediately annexed as expected.

In January 1895, a small, ill-fated counterrevolution headed by Lili‘uokalani failed, and she was placed under house arrest in ‘Iolani Palace. Officials of the Republic insisted that she use her married name (Mrs. John Dominis) to sign the documents forcing her to abdicate her throne. She was also forced to swear allegiance to the new Republic. Lili‘uokalani went on to write Hawaii’s Story and the lyric ballad “Aloha O‘e.” She never forgave the conspirators and remained queen in the minds of Hawaiians until her death in 1917.

On July 7, 1898, President McKinley signed the annexation agreement, arguing that the U.S. military must have Hawaii in order to be a viable force in the Pacific.

Pearl Harbor Attack

On the morning of December 7, 1941, the Japanese carrier Akagi, flying the battle flag of Admiral Togo of Russo-Japanese War fame, received and broadcast over its public address system island music from Honolulu station KGMB. Deep in the bowels of the ship a radio operator listened for a much different message, coming thousands of miles from the Japanese mainland. When the ironically poetic message “east wind rain” was received, the attack was launched. At the end of the day, 2,325 U.S. soldiers and 57 civilians were dead; 188 planes were destroyed; 18 major warships were sunk or heavily damaged; and the United States was engaged in World War II. Japanese casualties were ludicrously light. The ignited conflict would rage for four years until Japan, through the atomic bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, was brought into total submission. By the end of hostilities, Hawaii would never again be considered separate from America.

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