Stephen Hancock, “On the Overthrow of the Hawaiian Monarchy, 1893″


Near the turn of the nineteenth century, the Hawaiian Monarchy was formed as the islands were unified. The system was a hybrid of European monarchical government and Hawaiian practice, and it presented a strong national image to the world as Hawaii sought to maintain its independence. By the end of the century, that Monarchy had been overthrown. This article argues that, while the paradigm of Monarchy was integrated into Hawaiian governance as a way to shore up independence, it was ultimately a form of government that accommodated capitalism in Europe, serving unwittingly to pave the way for capitalist interests in Hawaii as well.

photo of Liliuokalani

Figure 1: Photograph of Liliuokalani taken in 1891

In writing of the overthrow of the Hawaiian Monarchy, it is important to dispel at least two possible misconceptions. First is that the monarchy was a native form of government that had existed from a time before contact with Western powers. While I do not wish to dispute that there were some moves toward centralization of authority before Western contact, I will claim that the move to label the ultimate centralization of that authority a monarchy is another matter. In fact, the people of the island had been ruled by a system of Ali‘i, or chiefs, who organized labor on tracts of land inhabited by their followers and who husbanded resources. That government was essentially local (though there were ruling chiefs or mō‘i that appointed other chiefs within larger portions of the islands); the islands were not united until the reign of Kamehameha I, the first recognized “king” of the Hawaiian islands. His reign, if we consider him king from the time he conquered O‘ahu, began about 1795, introducing a hybrid system of government that sought to adapt traditional principles of government to a system that would be recognized by Western powers and enable interaction with them. Second is that the overthrow was a single event. On January 16, 1893, a self-proclaimed “provisional government” with the help of U.S. troops from the U.S.S. Boston displaced Queen Lili‘uokalani’s constitutional monarchy and the U.S. minister John Stevens recognized it as the de facto government. But six years earlier, on July 6, 1887, King Kalakaua, her brother, had already effectively signed away any real power the monarchy held (along with the democratic power of the citizens of Hawaii) under present threat of violence with what has come to be called the “Bayonet Constitution.” The Queen was deposed by a group of white business leaders specifically because she was trying to regain some of the authority of the monarchy under a new constitution in response to the petitions of a large number of her subjects.[1] Despite her loss of the crown, however, her people considered her their Mō‘i for as long as she lived. Thus two systems, the Ali‘i system and the monarchy, existed, joined together in a hybrid institution, though the elements of each that were included were of varying importance to different constituencies.

Thus the nineteenth century was roughly the era of the monarchy in Hawaii, but it was also the era of movement towards the rule of capitalist interests. The Ali‘i of Hawaii certainly borrowed the concept of monarchy from European models, adapting it to their purposes in an attempt to gain legitimacy in the eyes of Western nations and retain their autonomy. I would like to suggest, in fact, that the institution of a monarchy in the Hawaiian islands, particularly as it led to a constitutional monarchy, established a system of government in the islands that white businessmen expected to run its course, as it had in Europe. Increasingly, they would use their financial power, along with the military might of the United States, to make sure that it did. While the Ali‘i system continued to function in many traditional ways in its interaction with the native people of Hawaii, constitutional monarchy, established under the guidance of outside influences, both legal and financial, tended to produce the same ends that monarchy had in Europe as capitalism replaced more traditional communal ties, for better and/or for worse. Most significantly, white business owners exploited their economic position in relation to the crown assuming the crown would adapt to Western economic practice, as had the monarchies of Europe.

The oligarchy that eventually overthrew the government of the Queen of Hawaii was made entirely of non-native business leaders, many of them the children of missionaries. They were subjects of the kingdom but jealous of the power to rule that kingdom. Both the Queen and later historians have made much of the invention of the legal system of Hawaii through the influence of this “missionary” party. Indeed, the rulers of Hawaii, in order to negotiate their interactions with the powerful nations of the Western world that they were encountering, had encouraged outsiders to help them craft a nation that would be recognized and respected by European countries and the United States of America, trying to integrate Western forms with native traditional concepts on such issues as land-use and obligations to family. They had good reason to fear the intervention of these powers. In 1839, Captain Laplace used the guns of his warship to extort money and other demands in the name of France. Sovereignty was even ceded to England when the British under Lord George Paulet contested a legal case in 1843, though England restored their sovereignty after reviewing Paulet’s actions. It was clear from the outset that Hawaii was militarily vulnerable to outside powers. The question was how to ensure Hawaii’s independence despite this, and understanding and adapting to the legal systems of the foreigners seemed to be a likely way of doing that. Certainly the Ali‘i wanted first to provide leadership for their people, but in doing so they responded to both the traditional lifestyle of the native population and the demands of a changing world and economic climate. In doing so, they adopted a paradigm that while it was ostensibly respected by Western interests was also seen by those same interests as outmoded.

As Jonathan Osorio points out, the Kings of Hawaii, recognizing the military and economic might of foreign powers, sought to incorporate that power within their governments by bringing in foreigners who would swear allegiance to the king. Until the Mahele, or division of land that took place between 1845 and 1850, the rulers of Hawaii still held the power to distribute land. Osorio states, “With this power still intact, it was not unreasonable for the Mo‘i to envision a nation strengthened by haole [white outsider] so long as they were carefully controlled by the granting of lands and offices” (38). But it was precisely this division of power through the granting of office and land that had begun to wear away at the power of the monarchies of Europe. As Michel Foucault points out, the selling of offices in European nations gradually eroded the office of King. This happened well before the concept of kingship was offered to the Hawaiian people to translate the Ali‘i system into terms that ostensibly would ease relations with Western powers. He states:

It was because the king, in order to raise money, had appropriated the right to sell legal offices, which “belonged” to him, that he was confronted by magistrates who owned their offices and who were not only intractable, but ignorant, self-interested and frequently compromised. It was because he was constantly creating new offices that he multiplied the conflicts of power and authority. (80)

The division of power and incorporation of the foreigner in Hawaii may have begun as early as the beginning of Kamehameha I’s reign. After consolidating his power, Kamehameha began to divide it with those who had made him the sole ruler of the islands, beginning by handing out land, to which titles were attached. Samuel Kamakau tells us that Kamehameha gave his closest allies “large tracts of land from Hawaii to Oahu in payment for their services; Kamehameha himself had no power to recover these lands” (175). He also appointed a “treasurer” through whom all gifts must be approved. Thus, while he was the sole ruler and in that way resembled kings of Europe, he also had a council much like early councils that kept control of the king. Certain ideas such as the holding of land in perpetuity seemed to be becoming naturalized to the Hawaiian milieu. For example, John Young, an Englishman whose expertise in weapons helped Kamehameha conquer the islands, was made a high chief and given the governorship of Oahu.[2] However, as long as the king still owned all land, in theory—as long as no haole, or white outsider, could sell the land—power was still concentrated in the Mō‘i. The king was accomplishing his goal of bringing the foreign mana, or power, under his sway. Thus for a change to take place in the affairs of the kingdom, a permanent change in land tenure had to take place.

Those foreigners who came seeking their fortunes in Hawaii were concerned with attaching those fortunes permanently to themselves, and they became insistent that the only civilized way to deal with land was with the holding of it in fee simple terms as personal property. With the Mahele, they accomplished this. The Ali‘i system, as has been often noted, is not as similar to the system of feudalism as early accounts would have made it out to be. Yet the changes from that system to a capitalist economy were similar in many respects, especially in the alienation of the people from an attachment to the land. In the Ali‘i system, the maintenance of the land was given to the Ali‘i, or chiefs, whose responsibility it became to manage the land in such a way that the traditional residents of that land would be prosperous. The intent, though it may not have been always carried out effectively in every instance, was to assure the proper use of resources, and an Ali‘i who did not have prosperous people would be removed by the Mō‘i, the ruling chief. The system assumed that those maka’ainana, or common people, in an area had a tie to the land and were family or seen as family to those that oversaw their districts.

The Mahele sought to change this. The ostensible reason was that foreign governments would not see such land tenure as securing ownership of the property. The whites who sought to extend the power of their positions assumed that ownership was needed to keep others from claiming the land. To a great extent, as Osorio points out, they “believed that no truly civilized country could exist without private property” (32). The intent, then, was to protect the rights of the individual resident of land by providing ownership, but the reality was that most of the common people of Hawaii were thus separated from their rights to land and their communal ties. The translation of traditional ties into fee-simple ownership alienated them from their more traditional ties to the land. Land that was originally entrusted from the Mō‘i to overseers, or Konohiki, and worked by commoners, or maka‘ainana, was divided roughly into thirds, with one third reserved to the king, one third going to the lesser chiefs, and one third reserved to the government but claimable by the common people. The traditional view of the way land tenure progressed is that the common people ended up only claiming about 1% of the total available land due to the complex system of laying claim. While more recent studies have questioned this, emphasizing that the people fought legally in very innovative ways to keep land, the Western legal and economic systems that had become influential in the islands were still effective in alienating the maka’ainana from their homesteads. It is actually to the point that it was not the Mahele alone that dispossessed the Hawaiian people from their lands. Before the Mahele, as B. Kamanamaikalani Beamer and T. Kaeo Duarte point out, the people and the Ali‘i held “undivided interest” in the land (n. pag). The 1839 legislation merely began the process of translating this communal oversight of land into property ownership. From this point the power of the “King,” along with that of the Ali‘i more generally, began to divide just as it had in European monarchies, and the relationship of the common people to the land became increasingly alienable. The result was that the people were separated from the land and any future gifts of the king were available to foreigners and under the control of outside elements that held no allegiance to the crown.

While the particulars of the Ali‘i system are different from feudalism, there is in each case no necessary separation from the land as in capitalism. As Karl Marx points out in “Wage Labor and Capital,” “The serf sells only a part of his labour power. He does not receive a wage from the owner of the land; rather the owner of the land receives a tribute from him. The serf belongs to the land and turns over to the owner of the land the fruits thereof. The free labourer, on the other hand, sells himself and, indeed, sells himself piecemeal” (205).[3] With the change to private property, land left the hands of the king and eventually entered into the hands of large-scale capitalists such as Claus Spreckels. Spreckels came to Hawaii in the early sugar boom, found ways of appropriating crown lands so that he owned large parts of the island of Hawaii, and literally changed the landscape by redirecting streams for irrigation of sugar fields. Other land was given to high Ali’i and to the common people. The high Ali‘i, however, were not given the same subsidies ($1 million/year) as large planters, and were expected to lead lifestyles that they could only support by mortgaging their land, so that in some ways their economic position (as opposed to their meaning to their own people) resembled that of the aristocracy in a changing Europe. Finally, there was the land that was in the hands of the common people, something that reflected indigenous ideals of communal life, but this land was also put in jeopardy by laws and taxes that made it imperative that the occupants engage in capitalist economics. While some (e.g., those in the Kahana Valley of Oahu) tried to replicate traditional farming practices in communes, depopulation, lack of laws enabling inheritance, and the need for money to pay high taxes eventually alienated this land from its indigenous occupants as well. A handful of foreigners soon owned much more land than the 30,000 or so acres total that were claimed by common native Hawaiians. Laws such as the 1965 legislation stipulated that if any owner of kuleana homestead land (land deeded to those whose families had worked it during the time leading up to the mahele) died without heirs that land passed to the owner of the surrounding land, often a Haole plantation owner (Stauffer 79). Severe depopulation among the native Hawaiians meant that such situations were common, further concentrating land in the hands of non-indigenous owners. Because the people had used their lands for subsistence farming, alienation from those lands, on which they had often lived even if they were not legal heirs, left them with the options of starving or of becoming wage laborers for foreign owners of large plantations. The results were much like those of enclosure, which alienated people in Britain from common lands forcing them to seek wage labor. That is, while the original structures were different, in both cases capitalism used the same strategies to produce the laborers it required.

As the land was more and more adapted to the purposes of large-scale agriculture, mainly sugar, these interests began to seek a greater share in the control of the government. From an early period, foreigners were influential in the creation of laws. They claimed these laws would help Hawaii gain the respect of the world community and help the islands keep their independence. As businessmen in the islands gained influence and the government took on debt to them, a constitution was proposed to limit the power of the monarchy and give the world the idea that Hawaii was advancing towards “civilization.” King Kauikeauoli (Kamehameha III) granted this constitution in 1840, and, though he oversaw the drafting of the document, he was under some pressure to comply with foreign standards of governance as foreign powers sought enforcement of the government’s debts. This constitution formalized the idea that the King could not seize property once distributed, and it established a legislature that made law, rather than allowing the king to establish it by decree. In this way, property was secured and a method was established for effecting policy change. The King appointed the House of Nobles, and thus he had control over many of those who made policy. However, it was now legally binding that the King could not act alone. While this act may, as Beamer argues, have sought to codify relationships between the Mō‘i and the other Ali‘i that already existed, the result still amounts to a constitutional monarchy from the point of view of the business interests who aided in the cultural translation that was occurring. In 1852, those restrictions were extended in a new constitution, designed to curry favor with white businessmen on whom the King had come to rely heavily. The constitution was drafted by a newcomer to the islands, a lawyer from New England named William Little Lee whom the government was eager to make use of. It made the stipulation that the King could not act without the approval of his cabinet, which was appointed but usually consisted of more haole than the legislature. It also separated powers between the executive and legislature more clearly, with the King as the chief executive. In some ways, the new constitution resembled the three branches of American government, but, in others, the insistence that the King share power with his cabinet resembled the developments that came with the Magna Carta in England, though, instead of resulting from the actions of native subjects, outside forces were responsible.

Alexander Liholiho (Kamehameha IV) spent a great deal of time and effort trying to amend the constitution to bring back to the King many of the powers ceded in 1852. His successor to the throne, Lota Kapuāiwa (Kamehameha V), refused to take the oath to uphold that constitution at his ascension and called for a constitutional convention. He hoped, among other things, to separate himself from the necessity of relying on his cabinet. Eventually, he proclaimed a new constitution by his own authority in 1864. The authority he claimed in doing so represents a debate regarding the prerogatives of the monarchy in England that had continued until as late as George III. That is, if the King authorized the legislature and granted the constitution, then behind the constitution still lay the authority of the king. And as George III attempted to recuperate the power that tied his kingly body to his people, so did Kapuāiwa assume that, if the King had granted a constitution, he could call for and institute a new constitution. This new constitution, while still tied to commercial interests, left the King with great latitude to determine the policies of the government for the next 23 years.

Kalākaua, the brother of Queen Lili‘uokalani and her predecessor on the throne, came to power in unprecedented circumstances. First, he was not a direct descendant of Kamehameha, though he was an Ali‘i Nui, or high chief, and he did have ties to the closest chiefs to Kamehameha. He also ruled at a time of increasing pressure from sugar plantations in the islands. He saw, as did many of his predecessors, that independence rested on mediating the influences of trade that made the islands valuable to outsiders. Because of this, two of the new King’s priorities were a treaty of trade reciprocity with the United States and “increasing the nation,” which meant both helping the native population to grow and encouraging immigration.[4] At the same time, he was interested in encouraging the cultural life of his people and their sense of pride in their nation. Partha Chatterjee speaks of “the creation of a cultural ideal in which the industries and the sciences of the West can be learnt and emulated while retaining the spiritual greatness of Eastern culture” (73). Kalakaua certainly meant to encourage the spiritual life of his people. He started the Hale Naua, a society to establish the preservation of the chants, genealogies, and practices of his people, and at a grand coronation and other public events he revived the hula, much to the chagrin of some of the foreign population. The coronation was also designed to unite his people, and with a celebration lasting two weeks it spoke to ancient traditions of aloha, in which the Ali‘i provided for their people. He also expanded and executed construction plans for the grand ‘Iolani Palace that still stands today and began the formation of a military force, including a plan for the construction of warships (one British ship was actually refitted). In all of this, he sought to build a sense of unity in his people and also provide for the commerce of a European-styled nation. He negotiated the differing duties of the constitutional monarch and Mō‘i.

Unfortunately, the expenditures of Kalakaua were not as directed toward the interests of the planters as they wanted them to be. While they did not mind spending on infrastructure, the palace, the coronation, and other outlays of money seemed wasteful, if only because they were not directed toward what they saw as the life of the nation, the sugar trade. Kalakaua’s reign perhaps demonstrates that in some ways it is difficult to separate the beliefs of the people from the means of production to which they are traditionally tied and out of which they arise. While Chatterjee might argue that the spirit of a culture can be kept alive apart from the governing structures of a nation, the two are always connected at the level of economics. Acknowledging the beliefs of the Hawaiian people required resources, and thus ties to production that the businessmen were unwilling to accept. After struggling against the King for some time, a group of white businessmen headed by Lorrin Thurston and Sanford Dole created the secretive Hawaiian League. After some debate on the question of Annexation to the United States, the group’s stated goals became the institution of a new government. Having clandestinely gained control of the Honolulu Rifles, a shooting club that had become part of the nation’s armed forces, they put the group on patrol. With the threat of forceful takeover of government thus in place, they coerced the King into signing their new constitution, without a vote in the legislature, to avoid bloodshed. The “bayonet constitution” provided that the legislature could dismiss the King’s cabinet on a vote of no confidence, and it set high property requirements for voting, making it difficult for native resistance to make legislative changes in their favor. Effectively, it put the government in the hands of commercial interests.

When Queen Lili‘uokalani came to the throne, according to her own report, she was rushed to take an oath to this new constitution. From this point, for some time, she felt honor-bound to work for any change within the bounds of that document. She was also told, by Chief Justice Albert Francis Judd, “Should any of the members of your cabinet propose anything to you, say yes” (Liliuokalani 210). The cabinet attempted to intimidate the Queen into retaining them in office, but she refused, and the following period was a series of changes in the cabinet, with the legislature voting out each cabinet by a vote of no confidence. At one point, four cabinets were voted out in rapid succession. The situation might resemble that of Victoria’s early reign as she attempted to control her appointments and hold on to the last real powers of the monarchy. At least one critic has criticized the Queen for trying to be too like Victoria.[5] In fact, Lili‘uokalai was unwilling to do what Victoria eventually did by allowing the monarchy to become symbolic. She was unwilling to accept the limitations of the power of the monarchy. There were many petitions from her people asking her to promulgate a new constitution. “To have ignored or disregarded so general a request,” she claims, “I must have been deaf to the voice of the people, which tradition tells us is the voice of God” (Lili‘uokalani 231). The Queen did piece together parts of the previous constitutions with some changes suggested by two members of the legislature; however, she was dissuaded from signing the document, as by law she could not do so without the support of her cabinet, and told an assembled crowd that she could not give them a new constitution then but that she would at some future time.

This was Saturday, 14 January 1893. In three days there would be a revolution. As news of the Queen’s intentions had leaked, a large meeting of local businessmen met and, on hearing of the Queen’s remarks to the crowd, voted to form a “committee of safety.” Thurston, a member of this committee, motioned to form a provisional government, though this actually took three days to accomplish. The Queen soon rescinded her promise to sign a new constitution, but this was insufficient now to a “committee” that had decided it was time to put to rest the political power of a queen who could oppose them. They attempted to gain the support of at least half of the Queen’s cabinet, but failing this they decided to proclaim a provisional government on Tuesday the 17th. The evening before, troops from the U.S.S. Boston landed to protect ostensibly American lives and property. The actual result was to make the transition to the provisional government seamless, as John Stevens, U.S. minister, had already promised to support that government to the exclusion of the Queen’s claims. At about 5:00 pm, the Provisional government took over the unguarded government building, and, at around the same time, Minister Stevens recognized the provisional government as the de facto government of the islands. The new government enacted voting requirements that made it almost impossible for native Hawaiians to have serious representation and made the “Republic of Hawaii” an oligarchy of the business interests until the islands were finally annexed to the United States in 1898.

The Queen quickly surrendered her authority, but did not cease to protest. She delivered a formal letter to this effect that stated, “I yield to the superior force of the United States of America.” She did so to “avoid any collision of armed forces and perhaps the loss of life,” and she looked to the US government to “reinstate me in the authority which I claim as the constitutional sovereign of the Hawaiian Islands” (Kuykendall 602). She would continue to fight annexation to the United States and seek for reinstatement of her government until the end of her life in 1917.

In the meantime, a group of her supporters, seeing that the efforts to have her government reinstated, organized, apparently without her consent or advice, an attempted coup to restore the monarchy. The revolt was quickly put down, but it had lasting consequences for Liliuokalani. She was arrested and held in prison in a small apartment in the palace from which she once ruled. As Noenoe Silva points out, the Queen continued to resist from the palace. She wrote mele (songs, or hymns) in Hawaiian that were surreptitiously published in native newspapers and continued to try holding together her people. Among her other projects while imprisoned was to write down and circulate the “Aloha Oe,” which would eventually become the most famous song to a global audience in the Hawaiian language. While it was not a song of protest, it has become a point of unity for the people of Hawaii to this day. At one point, the Queen was threatened with a death sentence, though she was eventually only sentenced to five years at hard labor. This was commuted to simple incarceration. She finally signed an abdication when she was promised that her supporters, also being held, would be released. This promise was not carried out.

The Queen was eventually released on house arrest and eventually her privileges of travel were restored. Her government was never restored, however. The people signed petitions against annexation and in favor of her restoration in large numbers (according to Silva, more than those who voted in the constitutional convention that changed the provisional government into a permanent “republic”). President Cleveland also recognized the injustice of her position and recommended reinstating her authority. In the end, her cause came down to a vote in the Senate, and she was not given the support of the United States in re-establishing her rights and those of her people. While she was successful for some time in fighting annexation, eventually the US, at war with Spain in the Philippines, found the islands indispensably useful and agreed to make Hawaii a territory through a joint resolution of Congress. Today, while several determined groups still fight for Hawaiian sovereignty, there seems little chance of a restoration of the monarchy in anything like its original form.

Samuel Kamakau, a nineteenth-century historian, notes, “A learned man had arrived with knowledge of the law, and the foreigners who were holding office in the government hastened to put him forward by saying how clever and learned he was and what good laws he would make for the Hawaiian people. The truth was, they were laws to change the old laws of the natives of the land and cause them to lick ti leaves like the dogs and gnaw bones thrown at the feet of strangers, while the strangers became their lords” (399). As Sally Engle Merry points out, one early traveler “maps Hawaiian history onto British history as an earlier and more primitive stage of the same process” (37). It is not my purpose to re-enact that mapping. Rather, I believe that such mapping was intentional on the part of foreign economic interests, and that those interests always expected the concept of monarchy, as delivered to the Hawaiians, to lead to more “modern” republican government. When the monarchy itself refused to follow the narrative of “progress,” as defined within Western industrialist contexts, it was removed by violence. The foreigners who advised Hawaii’s rulers may have been correct in leading them to believe a strong nationalist image was necessary to shore up independence against Western nations. The paradigm of monarchy, however, was at best a two-edged sword that in attempting to translate native government into Western terms also provided a more peaceful and gradual road for the establishment of governmental practices favorable to capitalism.

Stephen Hancock is Associate Professor of English at Brigham Young University—Hawaii. He is the author of The Romantic Sublime and Middle-Class Subjectivity in the Victorian Novel (Routledge, 2005). His current work involves the importance of aesthetics in mediating the ethics of domestic space in the 19th century.


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[1] Her problem with the constitution went beyond her own power to take issue with voting rights and other elements of the constitution. I emphasize its effect on her position as Queen here because I am addressing specifically the paradigm of monarchy and its place in the affair.

[2] This is not to say that all foreigners were treated with such deference. Juri Mykkanen points out that many of those who chose to stay simply got along as best they could in the islands.

[3] Queen Lili‘uokalani also made comparisons between feudalism and the Hawaiian Ali‘i system, though in doing so she imagines feudalism in Hawaiian terms. Considering a portrait of a noble woman, on her trip to England for Victoria’s Jubilee, she states:

For these, their people, lived under their lords and mistresses with loving submission and loyal devotion, understanding the duties of their station in life, and therewith content; they looked to them for their maintenance and kind consideration, and asked no more. The relation between master and retainer was one of love on both sides, of pure affection for a trusted and faithful vassal, of devotion and desire to please from the man to the master.

She goes on to note, “But at the present day all this has gone . . . the laws of trade, the demands of mercantile life, the advancement of commerce . . . [have] entirely overthrown the relationship existing at other times between the country gentleman and his retainers. . . Is England better and happier for the extinction of a style of life read of in history but not to-day existing?” (169-170).

[4] The native population had steadily been dropping since the coming of the first white settlers to the islands. Disease and other factors had reduced the population of native Hawaiians from between 300,000 and 500,000 to less than 50,000. See for one set of population figures, though pre-contact population estimates vary widely.

[5] See Robin Bott’s chapter in Remaking Queen Victoria.