Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Hawaiian Sovereignty That Was

On July 6, 2011, a scant month before I had the chance to visit Hawaii for the first time, the state’s Governor Neil Abercrombie signed into law a bill officially recognizing Native Hawaiians as the “only indigenous, aboriginal, maoli population of Hawaii.” The intent is to give native Hawaiians a path toward self-determination, something they have lacked. The bill is not without controversy, however. Many Hawaiians feel that that the original 1898 annexation of their islands into the United States was an illegal act negating any ability of the current state government to govern. Others argue that the bill creates two separate entities: Hawaiians and Native Hawaiians, thus increasing segregation rather than unity.

A tourist in Hawaii is scarcely aware of the continuing turmoil underlying the status of native Hawaiians. The history of Hawaii’s transition to statehood is a discouraging chapter on all sides. Prior to annexation, Hawaii had been governed by a constitutional monarchy under Queen Lili’uokalani who had ascended the throne in 1891. The new queen attempted to strengthen the interests of native Hawaiians against American economic and political expansion. Ever since Captain James Cook landed at Oahu in 1778, western nations and western interests had sought to control Hawaii’s destiny.

In 1893 Lili’uokalani was overthrown by a party of American businessmen supported by the American diplomats on the island and unofficially by a contingent of Marines from the warship, U.S.S. Boston. A provisional government was imposed. A first attempt to annex the islands in 1897 was blocked in the U.S. Congress by the Hawaiian Patriotic League. However, Hawaiian sovereignty fell to political expediency the next year. The Spanish American War flared up in 1898, and the possibility of building a Pacific naval base was of sudden strategic importance. By July 12, 1898, Congress had officially annexed the Hawaiian islands.

After James Cook’s landing, trading ships from Britain and the United States began to arrive. Faced with great foreign power, it was natural for a native leader to think of uniting the Hawaiians under one rule. From 1790 to 1810, King Kamehameha fought internal wars until all the islands submitted to his authority. Kamehameha faced first British then Russian efforts to establish colonies. Christian missionaries from New English began arriving in substantial numbers in the 1820s. Despite colonization efforts, in 1842-1843, both Britain and America separately recognized Hawaii’s independence under the Kamehameha dynastic line.

After that line ended in 1872, rulers were elected. During this time, the foreign businessmen saw the royal line as the focal point of native opposition to their own business interests which derived from a rapidly growing lucrative trade with the United States. Gradually the businessmen coerced effective control of Hawaii’s government until under King Kalakaua, the business interests succeeded in replacing the monarchy’s executive cabinet with members of their own choosing. After 1891, Queen Lili’uokalani, Kalakaua’s sister and successor, pushed for a new constitution returning power to Hawaiians and the monarchy, but the business leaders, many of whom were sugar speculators supported by some missionaries, responded by overthrowing her government, placing her under house arrest, and attempting to present their actions as a creation of representational government in the face of monarchic tyranny. Sanford Dole, son of missionaries and a local politician (he was cousin to James Dole, the pineapple entrepreneur), became the temporary head of the provisional government.

Prior to western contact, native Hawaiians had developed the political organization of the islands to the level of chiefdom. Chiefdoms, according to anthropologists, are regional systems integrating several villages under an elite class of leaders who control and manage local resources. The people make obligatory payments to the chief, thus establishing his rank and giving him prestige. In return, the chief must provide for the safety, security and comfort of his people. Some chiefdoms are simple while others become large and complex. In eighteenth century Hawaii, many chiefdoms existed throughout the islands, but there were hierarchical connections among them. Some chiefs, the ali’i, were more important than others and were believed to be the direct descendants of gods. Kinship with the gods added to the power of the ali’i. Lesser chiefs, the konohiki, were nevertheless related to the ali’i. The common people of Hawaiian society were called the maka’ainana. These three social statuses were so discrete that virtually no intermarriage occurred. Before the institution of kingship, the Hawaiians recognized a paramount chief whom they called the ali’i nui.

Considering these sociopolitical developments, pre-contact Hawaii was already well on its way to becoming a monarchic state on its own. Perhaps the contact initiated by James Cook hurried this process along, but it may well have occurred on its own. Nevertheless, once faced by a need to withstand foreign pressures, the ali’i under ali’i nui Kamehameha quickly consolidated their power.


Baehr, Brooks. 2011. State Officially Recognizes Hawaii’s Indigenous People. Hawaii News Now. July 7, 2011. (accessed November 9, 2011)

Hanke, Jon. 2010. Today in 1898: Hawaii Annexed by United States. Westlaw Insider. August 12, 2010. (accessed November 9, 2011)

National Archives. n.d. Teaching With Documents: The 1897 Petition Against the Annexation of Hawaii. Based on: Schamel, Wynell and Charles E. Schamel. 1999. The 1897 Petition Against the Annexation of Hawaii. Social Education (November/December 1999), v. 63(7):402-408. (accessed November 9, 2011)

The Hawaiian Story. 1947. Congressional Digest (November 1947), v. 26(11):269-275.

Recommended Reading:

Silva, Noenoe K. 2004. Aloha Betrayed: Native Hawaiian Resistance to American Colonialism. Durham: Duke University Press, pp. 123-163.