HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND
By Kelly Moran
Is Hawaii Still a Nation?
Something happened in the 1890s, that has not yet been fully resolved. Last month, while most people in Hawaii were celebrating the 49th anniversary of Statehood, political activists briefly took control of Iolani Palace, in Honolulu, claiming it as the seat of a native Hawaiian government that had been illegally overthrown.
Was it illegal? After King Kalakaua died, his sister Liliuokalani became queen. She wanted to change some laws regarding land ownership, and extend the voting franchise to ordinary Hawaiians who did not own property: actions which would have undercut the disproportionally large influence that a few haole merchants had gained under her brother’s (admittedly sometimes careless) reign. So in 1893, a committee of Honolulu merchants persuaded a U.S. Marine commander to lead a company of armed men from their ship in the harbor, to surround Iolani Palace, while the merchants went inside and formally deposed Liliuokalani.
Furious, Liliuokalani sailed to Washington DC, and persuaded both President Grover Cleveland and many U.S. senators that her overthrow was illegal and should be nullified. But the merchants had allies in the Senate too, and considerable influence in the American economy, regarding the sugar trade. Within a few months, there was a brief armed putsch in Hawaii, which failed to restore Liliuokalani to the throne. Brought up on charges, she was convicted of knowing about the insurrection but failing to report it, and sentenced to house-arrest.
In Washington, despite five years of lobbying and debate, the Senate could not resolve the issue of her sovereignty; and in 1898, President William McKinley – an advocate of American’s “manifest destiny” to grow ever westward – annexed Hawaii.
Whether the queen was a victim or a tyrant, and whether annexation was a blessing or a curse, is still debated today. To make her case in Washington, Liliuokalani wrote her autobiography, Hawaii’s Story (Mutual Publications, facsimile edition, 1990); and many subsequent books have followed her lead and taken her side.
The annexationists’ case is especially well made by Thurston Twigg-Smith, grandson of one of the merchant committee’s leaders, in Hawaiian Sovereignty: Do the Facts Matter? (Goodale Publishing, 1998).
Feature films have never covered the drama, but The Trial of Liliuokalani is a provocative stage play – first mounted in Hawaii, in the 1970s – that playwright Maurice Zimring based on court transcripts.
A bill has now been introduced to the U.S. Senate, by Hawaii Senator Dan Akaka, that would grant native Hawaiians much the same status under law as Native American Indians have today, including the right to form a quasi-governmental organization. It has plenty of opponents, who claim it would create a race-based division of the citizenry; and the “Akaka bill” was tabled in the last congressional session. But Hawaii’s Republican governor favors the bill; and passing it is now a plank in the U.S. Democratic Party’s election platform.
It’s possible, therefore, that when the 50th anniversary of Statehood rolls around, next August, the nature of the day’s events may be rather different than they have ever been before.