Liberty Lost Volume 3: How the U.S. Stole Hawaii


“…the Native Hawaiian people never directly relinquished their claims to inherent sovereignty as a people. On the path forward, regardless of the mechanism or process in getting there, Native Hawaiians, as a people, should be empowered to determine their own future and what kind of relationship they choose to have with the U.S. federal government.” – Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, Hawaii



In 1993, US apologized for the 1893 conspiracy to overthrow the Kingdom of Hawaii. Instigated by John Stevens, U.S. Minister to Hawaii (aka Ambassador), but without permission from President Cleveland, troops that had been stationed on the Hawaiian islands to protect them were subsequently used to raid the royal palace and force the monarchy to subjugate lands to the U.S. No blood was shed; the Queen had not the means to protect herself or her people. President Cleveland ordered the lands to be returned to the Hawaiians, but the order was ignored. In 1898, President McKinley annexed Hawaii to the U.S. In 1900, it was upgraded to a territory, and in 1959, U.S. citizens on the islands voted for statehood.


The original native Hawaiians never consented for the U.S. to rule their lands. Today, many of their descendants are fighting to regain their sovereignty. This is a heartbreaking story of the events surrounding the theft of Hawaiian freedom.


King Kalakaua reigned over the Kingdom of Hawaii from 1874-1891. Before and during this time, businessmen from the U.S., Japan, China, and Europe had been immigrating–with consent of the King–to the islands. Their motives were to grow sugar, mine coal, and hunt whales. U.S. businessmen also wanted to secure as much land as possible to prevent Japan and China from acquiring it first. They knew the islands were ideal for a navy base, which they later named Pearl Harbor. Further, whichever group owned the most land also paid the most taxes, and whoever paid the most taxes would have the most political power.


As early as 1873, U.S. officials grew interested in annexing Hawaii to make business easier for the immigrants on the islands, a reason with which the European businessmen agreed, because they, too, would have benefited economically from annexation. To gain support from Americans on the continental U.S., officials told them that annexation would help missionaries promote Christianity. As the years passed, American and European businessmen increasingly supported annexation because the monarchy was unprepared to manage the multitude of immigrant workers.


As the number of immigrant businessmen grew, but even while still a minority, Americans began influencing policy by occupying advisory and cabinet positions within the monarchy. Throughout King Kalakaua’s reign, foreigners and their descendants began to outnumber the original native Hawaiians. The number of white advisors and cabinet members became greater than the number of original Hawaiian advisors, partly because the King needed their perspective to manage foreign workers, and partly because the King did not believe his own people were qualified to advise him. By the time of his death in 1891, the Brits, French, Norwegians, Chinese, Japanese, and especially Americans owned most of the land. Americans alone paid 52% of the taxes, and reasoned that their majority contribution justified granting the U.S. total control of the islands.


King Kalakaua was succeeded by his sister, Queen Liliuokalani (called “Lily of Kilarney” by English-speaking whites). She governed the mass immigration no better than her brother, which frustrated the American businessmen and politicians. Because of this, some U.S. politicians wanted to remove the royalty altogether. To gain support for this regime change, they demonized the Queen by attacking her moral character in newspapers. Support for regime change grew upon discovering that the Queen wanted to end the “white domination” via creation of a new constitution that restored property rights favorable to her people. When Americans and Europeans discovered her plan, they feared for their safety and requested that U.S. troops protect them.


The U.S. Minister/Ambassador to Hawaii, John Stevens, conspired to overthrow the monarchy without the consent of President Cleveland. His plan was to first seize the police stations, then the palace. Troops took the island without bloodshed; the Queen believed (wrongly) that the military occupation represented the will of the U.S., a nation she would not dare battle against. She could not defend her people, and surrendered under protest. Her capitulation reads as follows:


“I, Liliuokalani, by the Grace of God and under the Constitution of the Hawaiian Kingdom, Queen, do hereby solemnly protest against any and all acts done against myself and the Constitutional Government of the Hawaiian Kingdom by certain persons claiming to have established a Provisional Government of and for this Kingdom. That I yield to the superior force of the United States of America whose Minister Plenipotentiary, His Excellency John L. Stevens, has caused United States troops to be landed a Honolulu and declared that he would support the Provisional Government. Now to avoid any collision of armed forces, and perhaps the loss of life, I do this under protest and impelled by said force yield my authority until such time as the Government of the United States shall, upon facts being presented to it, undo the action of its representatives and reinstate me in the authority which I claim as the Constitutional Sovereign of the Hawaiian Islands.”



The new government established by John Stevens was not recognized as valid by other nations. Japan neither recognized nor protested this action, but insisted that the rights of Japanese workers be protected. Immediately, this government issued three executive orders: confiscate all arms and ammunition from citizens, suspend habeas corpus, and institute martial law. President Cleveland ordered the monarchy to be restored, but his order was ignored.


Sixty years later, the descendents of Chinese, Japanese, European, and American immigrants overwhelmingly voted against the wishes of descendents of original Hawaiians, and made Hawaii a state. This is how the original native Hawaiians, who had managed all of the land, lost all of their power; they were overwhelmingly outnumbered by foreigners.


To regain their power, many descendents of original Hawaiians began the Hawaiian Sovereignty Movement. Their vision is similar to that of the First Nations, but they emphasize that they are not First Nations people and do not want laws to treat them as such. They oppose the “compromise” of living on reservations because reservations are managed by the federal government rather than the people living on them. Instead, they desire to form their own nation, and be recognized internationally along with other similar nations such as Lithuania, Estonia, and Switzerland. These Hawaiians believe in the right to self-determination, economic independence, educational freedom, and the ability to choose their own destiny.


However, they face the challenge of convincing the majority non-original Hawaiians living on the island to support their cause. People tend to fear the freedom of those who belong to different cultures, because with more freedom comes more power. Will members of the Hawaiian Sovereignty Movement use their newly gained power to harm descendents of immigrants? This would not be inconceivable. Members of the movement have already created a constitution, which grants descendents of immigrants the same rights as the originals except for the ability to vote. History has shown that events unfold poorly for the originals when immigrants and their descendents are given the power to vote. This prompts critics of the movement to describe a potential Nation of Hawaii as a race-based government.


The legal action that should be taken concerning the relationship between the original Hawaiians and the United States is debatable. However, what is not debatable is that all persons involved desire control over their lives and the lives of their children. To deny this power is to treat others in a manner one would not want to be treated–an effective way to create an unhealthy and hostile relationship.




Denoon, Donald, ed., Malama Meleisea. The Cambridge History of the Pacific Islanders. Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Dougherty, Michael. To Steal a Kingdom: Probing Hawaiian History. (p. 167-168)

Russ, William Adam Jr. The Hawaiian Revolution 1893-94. Associated University Presses, 1992.