The Hawai’i Question: 50th State, or A Country Under Military Occupation?

Nicknamed the “Aloha State”, Hawai’i is one of America’s most beautiful and most visited states, with the main island seeing over 6 million visitors annually, bringing in around $10 Billion dollars of profit to the state.

But beneath its diverse natural wonders, a multi-cultural society, an abundance of beaches, and the Hawai’ian peoples legendary positive attitude, lies a seething anger towards America for crimes committed on the islands more than a century ago.

Hawai’i Before America

Prior to the arrival of Americans, the island known as Hawai’i was already inhabited by various Polynesian tribes. While the exact date of discovery and habilitation by humans is still a matter of speculation, it’s generally accepted that one of the first people to call Hawai’i home were Polynesian settlers from the Marquesas Islands, followed by a second wave of settlers from Bora Bora and Raiatea.

With the arrival of Tahitian immigrants in the mid-10th century, Hawaiian culture became to take form. The Hawai’ian mo’olelo, or Hawai’ian mythology, credits these Polynesian tribes with creating much of Hawai’i’s culture, from the kapu system of forbidden etiquette to the heiau temples.

Captain James Cook
Captain James Cook( 1728-1779). Nathaniel Dance.
(c): Wikimedia Commons

The arrival of James Cook in 1778 was the first documented instance of European contact. He dubbed Hawai’i the “Sandwich Islands” in honor of the Earl of Sandwich. After James Cook was killed by the natives over the European explorer’s theft of some temple idols for firewood, books of his journeys were published across Europe, leading to an influx of European traders and explorers into Hawai’i. While these early trade missions brought mutual prosperity to both Hawai’i and the West, it, unfortunately, brought European-borne diseases like malaria and smallpox to the otherwise healthy Hawai’ian population. By the 1810’s, more Hawai’ians had died because of European diseases than war, famine, or natural causes.

British influence was strong in Hawai’i for the longest time, with the original design of the Hawai’ian flag bearing the Union Jack. This influence turned into an alliance, when western military advisors John Young and Isaac Davis provided King Kamehameha (later renamed Kamehameha the Great) with valuable tactics and western weapons to unite the islands of Hawai’i, Oahu, and Maui, with the chief of Kaua’i swearing fealty soon after.

The unification of these islands gave birth to the Kingdom of Hawai’i, a constitutional monarchy modeled after the European Kingdoms. It was headed by the Kamehameha dynasty for almost 100 years.

Arrival of the U.S.A.

In the 1820’s, American missionaries arrived to spread Christianity and settle in the islands. By the early 1860’s, a small community of European-born residents had noticed the economic potential of Hawai’i. The rich lands were perfect for exotic crops like pineapple and sugarcane, and soon enough, these white residents started buying up large tracts of lands to start plantations. By the end of the 1860’s, a large majority of the land was owned and controlled by a few powerful white Americans. However, at the time, Hawai’i was an independent kingdom that was friendly to America, but not part of it. This meant that plantation owners had to pay massive tariffs to the U.S. government whenever they would import goods from the island.


Sanford Dole, an American-born resident of Hawai’i had become a local economic leader, thanks to his ownership of large plantations. In his capacity as a representative of the district of Kaua’i, he severely limited the rights of native Hawai’ians in order to retain American control. His cousin, James Dole, became the head of Dole Plantations, creating a de facto monopoly on canned fruit products, specifically pineapples.

By this time, a group of American-born residents and businessmen started the Committee of Thirteen, a group of non-native naturalized American citizens (with some German and British nationals) sought to gain more economic power and vied to wrest control of the islands from the natives. In time, they plotted the overthrow of the Hawai’ian monarchy in favor of annexation by the United States. Their group was bolstered by American pundits, like Alfred Mahan, naval officer, and historian, who campaigned heavily for America to become a dominant sea power by boosting their naval capabilities. He was a staunch supporter of the annexation of Hawai’i, arguing that if America didn’t take over Hawai’i, another country would, like Japan or England.

By 1887, American plantation owners signed a treaty with the American government to cede full control of the Pearl Harbor Naval Base to the United States, fulfilling Alfred Mahan’s wish of establishing America as a formidable naval force in the Pacific, and Asia in general.

American State, or Occupied Territory?


Hawaii Queen liliuokalani
(c): Wikimedia Commons

Queen Lili’uokalani, the last monarch of Hawai’i, was distraught over what she saw as exploitation of her islands and her people. She soon launches a “Hawai’i for Hawai’ians” campaign that sought to promulgate self-rule and self-governance for the island. To counter this, American business leaders demonize her in mass media, calling her “uncivilized” and de-humanizing her in various editorials and political cartoons in newspapers across the United States.

In 1893, the Committee of Thirteen funded a successful uprising against the Queen, establishing the Republic of Hawai’i one year later in 1894. Prior to the establishment of the Republic of Hawai’i, the islands were managed by a provisional government led by none other than Sanford Dole, who later became the President of the Republic of Hawai’i.

Despite this, America did not immediately annex the island nation, with then-President Cleveland voicing concerns over the legality, and indeed the ethics, of Queen Lili’uokalani’s overthrow. This hesitance by the United States to annex Hawai’i, however, ended when President McKinley came into power and formerly occupied the islands in 1898. 124 years later, the Native Sovereignty movement continues to fight for Hawai’i’s freedom from what they believe is an illegal occupation of a sovereign state by a foreign power.

But is it illegal?

On one side, the annexation of Hawai’i was a deal brokered between two sovereign nations: the United States of America, and the Republic of Hawai’i. The overthrow of the monarchy itself was justified by the rebels as a response to the general mismanagement of the Kingdom under King David Kalākaua. A senate investigative report in 1894, dubbed the Morgan Report in honor of its author Senator John Tyler Morgan, found all individuals involved in the overthrow to be “not guilty” of rebellion, save for Queen Lili’uokalani.

On the other hand, however, many native Hawai’ians, both then and now, staunchly oppose this view of things. Their argument lies in the circumstances of the overthrow and the historical context that led to the provisional government being established in the first place.

Around the same time in the American homeland, various political pundits from senators to military officers became convinced of the “Manifest Destiny”, a belief that American expansion was not only a God-given right but also a moral responsibility, thanks to the special virtues of the American people. This expansionist mindset, coupled with Hawai’ian businessmen-politicians of European descent controlling the island’s government, precipitated America’s annexation of Hawai’i.

After the annexation, many native Hawai’ians, and even most of the American Congress and then-President Cleveland, sought to restore Queen Lili’uokalani and negate the expansionist efforts of the foreigners. In a Senate investigation conducted one year before the Morgan report,  Congressman James Blount found the United States to be complicit in “the lawless overthrow of the lawful, peaceful government of Hawaii.” The Blount Report continues to find U.S. Minister to Hawaii John L. Stevens to be guilty of unauthorized partisan activities, which include allowing a contingent of U.S. Marines into Hawai’i under a “false or exaggerated pretext” and for supporting anti-royalist conspirators.

hawaii us

Cong. Blount found the actions of the businessmen, in conspiracy with the U.S. Minister to Hawai’i, to be crucial to the success of their overthrow, an action that was against most of the native Hawai’ians. He concluded that this was an “act of war against a friendly and sovereign nation” and pleaded to the President to restore Queen Lili’uokalani to her rightful place as monarch.

However, despite the Blount Report’s findings, President Cleveland’s attempts at restoration, and the sentiments of the Hawai’ian people, annexation still took place, thanks to Manifest Destiny and the ambitions of Euro-American businessmen in Hawai’i.

When confronted with the Blount Report and the Morgan Report, the Native Hawai’ians Study Commission deemed in 1993 that “the truth lies somewhere between these two reports”, despite the fact the Morgan Report interviewed only Caucasian settlers and plantation owners and was conducted by a segregationist Senator who was vocal about his anti-black sentiments and his desire to turn Hawai’i into a relocation site for the blacks.

The truth lies somewhere between, and while Hawai’i today is one of America’s most popular and beautiful states, many native Hawai’ians have not forgotten the betrayal they felt 124 years ago, nor have they forgotten the cultural genocide that took place after their rightful queen was overthrown.

For now, the question of Hawai’i’s status remains answered: it is a state of the United States of America, but it was annexed because of the green of businessmen, the racist-expansionist ideals of the time, and a disregard for the welfare of the native peoples.

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