Royal Hawaii

By Phillips, Jeff | Sunset, January 1993 | Go to article overview

Royal Hawaii

Phillips, Jeff, Sunset

It's been a century since the end of the monarchy. But royal history and landmarks are still reminders ... especially this year

STANDING IN REGAL SOLITUDE IN FRONT OF Aliiolani Hale, the seat of Hawaii's supreme court, the black and gold statue of King Kamehameha I wears the feathered cape and helmet of Hawaii's ancient rulers. It is a popular photo stop for tourists, especially on June 11, when the statue is draped with garlands of flowers. Officially, it's Kamehameha Day, but, for a growing number of Hawaiians, those flowers honor the royal heritage of the 19th-century Kingdom of Hawaii. This includes all of Hawaii's rulers, from Kamehameha I to Liliuokalani--the vanquished nation's last monarch. A hundred years ago this month, she was deposed from her throne.

As local organizations complete plans to solemnly commemorate the January 14 through 17 centennial of the monarchy's overthrow, the important events that led to the United States' annexation of Hawaii in 1898 loom ever larger in the land of aloha. At best this will be a time for reflection and for focusing overdue public attention on important native Hawaiian issues. Several native Hawaiian organizations are promising marches and demonstrations during commemoration events in Honolulu.

For any thoughtful visitor, this year is a good time to visit historic sites that offer a greater understanding of Hawaii's royal heritage (indeed, it is how we interpret Hawaii's royal past that will shape solutions for the future). The tours outlined on pages 70 and 71 offer compelling glimpses into the lives and times of Hawaii's sovereigns.

Yesterday: money, power, and Pacific politics

On January 14, 1893, Queen Liliuokalani left the government offices at Aliiolani Hale after presiding over the ceremony ending the 1892 legislative session. As the royal band played, her carriage clattered across the road to Iolani Palace, where she met with her new cabinet. Her purpose was clear: to nullify the 1887 Bayonet Constitution, which had severely limited her powers and the rights of native Hawaiians.

For Hawaii's last ruling monarch, it proved to be the wrong move, at the wrong time. The mood in Honolulu was already ugly. American interests, dominated by sugar growers and suffering from two years of economic depression, were critical of the government and advocated annexation of Hawaii to the United States.

The idea of foreign annexation wasn't a new one. English, French, Russian, and American ships and diplomats had been maneuvering for influence in the Islands practically ever since Captain James Cook had made the first Western contact in 1778.

Although Hawaii's monarchs tended to feel more comfortable with the British, from the arrival of the first American whalers in 1819 (missionaries followed a year later), Americans became the dominant foreign influence. Even royal government had a distinctly American flavor. Hawaii's first constitution--signed by Kamehameha III in 1840--was drafted with help from American advisers.

While the machinations of European and American interests in the Pacific helped keep Hawaii from being gobbled up by a single power, proximity and growing trade inexorably tilted the kingdom's economic interests toward the United States. As whaling began to decline in the 1860s, it was gradually replaced by agriculture on lands owned primarily by missionary families and Americans.

But more than any other single factor, the kingdom's fate was sealed by the rapidly declining population of native Hawaiians. Between 1877 and 1890, more than 55,000 immigrant laborers, half of them Chinese, were brought to work the sugarcane fields. The big wave of Japanese workers began in 1886. By 1890, foreign residents outnumbered Hawaiians, and foreign diseases had so ravaged native Hawaiians that they numbered fewer than 35,000--down from 400,000 estimated by one of Captain Cook's lieutenants in 1779.

Liliuokalani's people, having lost most of their land and influence to foreigners and being a minority in their own country, had little political clout left by 1893. …

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