Any historian will tell you that it is important to understand where you come from if you want to understand where your journey will take you. Living on the Hawaiian Islands, it is crucial to both recognize and respect Native Hawaiian culture and its place in history. Integral to the modern significance of Native Hawaiian culture is the ways in which it interacted with Western cultural expansion and, in particular, the imposition of American power in the 19th century . The history of Hawaii’s annexation has heavily impacted Native Hawaiian culture–and not always in a positive way. Understanding this cultural legacy and its political, economic, and social implications is key to living a respectable and enlightened existence on the Hawaiian Islands.
The Beginning of Foreign Entanglement
As of the 18th century, the Hawaiian Islands had long been characterized by inter-island conflict between competing chiefdoms. Formed by incoming Polynesian settlers between 500 C.E. and 700 C.E., these warring chiefdoms were the dominant socio-political units for over 1,000 years. In 1810, Kamehameha I finally triumphed over his competitor clans, declaring himself King of the Hawaiian Islands. Just nine years later, in 1819, his son ascended to the throne. His son eliminated the traditional kapu laws, a system of conduct codes and regulations integral to Native Hawaiian culture. The unification of political power in combination with the dissolution of legal tradition paved the way for the arrival of new people, practices, and industries.
Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, foreign presence in Hawaii continued to intensify. In the 1820’s, New England protestants began to launch conversion missions on the islands. In the 1830’s, Britain and France acquired economic privileges on the islands. Afraid that the European empires would work to incorporate Hawaii into their own territories, the United States took action. The U.S. saw Hawaii as both an economic opportunity and a political advantage. It offered favorable conditions for farmers to grow and export sugar to the Americas. Establishing a foothold in Hawaii would also expand the U.S.’s international reach by broadening their political influence in the Pacific. The U.S. therefore worked to solidify economic relations with the islands by granting favorable conditions to Hawaiian sugar growers, many of whom were born in the U.S. To the same ends, Hawaii and the U.S. established a treaty of friendship in 1849.
The Mid-19th Century: Economic and Cultural Change
The middle of the 19th century was a time of significant change for the native populations of Hawaii. New religions, crops, people, and farming methods were pouring into the islands, diluting Native Hawaiian culture. Farmers imported paniolos to work on Hawaii’s emerging cattle ranches, while the economy became increasingly dependent upon sugar and pineapple exports. Furthermore, white plantation owners–particularly those growing sugar–accumulated increasing political and economic clout in the interest of keeping trade conditions favorable. As the interests of white farmers became ever more critical to the economic livelihood of the islands, Native Hawaiians were effectively disenfranchised, their needs and desires becoming less and less important to the prevailing political powers.
Formal changes in the islands’ legal structure paralleled the drastically shifting socioeconomic landscape. The establishment of a constitutional monarchy in 1840 significantly reduced the political power of the King. The United States, of course, saw the dissolution of the monarchy as an opportunity to politically penetrate the islands. In 1846, Secretary of State John C. Calhoun officially acknowledged Hawaii’s political independence under a weaker monarchy.
Mounting Tensions in the Late 19th Century
Tensions continued to mount into the late 19th century. Hawaii’s economy grew even more dependent on sugar exports to the United States. The U.S. created a treaty of reciprocity with Hawaii in 1875, promoting Hawaiian dependence on the sugar economy. This dependence was revealed to be quite a liability in 1890, when the McKinley Tariff raised taxes on imported sugar and, by extension, instigated an economic depression on the islands. The creation of a new constitution and subsequent establishment of a naval base in Pearl Harbor in 1887 only exacerbated Natives’ discontent with foreign influence.
In 1891, Queen Liluokalani ascended to the throne. As the Queen saw it, dependence on foreign trade had had a negative impact upon the Hawaiian economy. Favoring an increase in monarchical power, the Queen largely disregarded the 1887 constitution. Instead, she advocated for a new constitution that would be more favorable to the Hawaiian people than to American businessmen. The Queen’s proposed policies threatened to dilute the U.S.’s political and economic dominance on the islands. They also ran counter to the desires of American planters and many Hawaiians, who recognized that annexation would eliminate the economic distress that the McKinley tariff had generated.
The End of the Monarchy
In 1893, local farmers who opposed the Queen’s policies finally took action. Under the banner of the “Committee of Safety,” a group of foreign planters living in Oahu surrounded the palace with the support of 300 U.S. marines and the approval of the foreign minister. They forced the Queen to abdicate and named the Governor, Sanford Dole, the president of the newly proclaimed Republic of Hawaii.
Washington had a different agenda. Anti-imperialist President Grover Cleveland was appalled with the forced dissolution of the monarchy. In 1894, Cleveland assigned a new foreign minister to restore the constitutional monarchy, bringing the deposed Queen back to power. However, Dole refused to acquiesce, maintaining that Hawaii should exist as an independent republic. Dole submitted a treaty proposing annexation to Congress, but both the Senate and the President refused to approve it.
The Influence of the Spanish-American War
Most Americans were in favor of annexing Hawaii for economic purposes. However, it was largely the advent of the Spanish-American War that incentivized annexation in the eyes of the national government. The President saw Hawaii as a strategic location from which military bases could access the Spanish Philippines. The Senate recognized the necessity of Pear Harbor in particular. Furthermore, the war ignited nationalist sentiment that intensified America’s desire for international hegemony. Under the Newlands Resolutions of 1898, President McKinley formally annexed the Hawaiian Islands. By 1900, Hawaii became a formal territory, achieving statehood many years later in 1959.
Why is the history of U.S. – Hawaii relations significant for a community of agriculturalists? The land that we occupy and grow our food upon is sacred to us. We have worked to cultivate a relationship of mutual sustenance and trust with our natural environment. It is important to us to understand the legacies that this land carries. That includes the people who occupied it, the struggles that played out upon it, and the energy that it carries.
From the beginning, the U.S.’s interest in the Hawaiian Islands was a strategic one. Trade and political clout in Hawaii granted the United States military prowess, economic leverage, profit, and international power. In many ways, the “friendship” that the United States sought to establish with Hawaii was forced, unwanted by many Natives. The imposition of the United States’ economy, politics, agricultural practices, and religions have stifled Native Hawaiian culture and disrupted our interactions with Hawaiian land. In acknowledging the problematic history of Hawaiian annexation, we can better understand how to pay our tribute to the environment we occupy. Respecting Native Hawaiian culture and practices and acting with love instead of exploitive prerogatives cannot mitigate the effects of politics past, but it is certainly the only way forward.