Capt. James Cook arrived in Hawaii, the first known Western explorer to do so, in 1778, and was baffled by the island cluster populated — against all odds — by voyagers who had read the stars to navigate to a few tiny dots of land in the vast sea. On Valentine’s Day the following year, in an attempt to assert dominance over the islanders, Cook and his men tried to kidnap Hawaii’s King Kalaniʻōpuʻu. But instead of being intimidated, a fight ensued, and Cook was beaten to death.
An enduring myth that Cook was cannibalized is no longer widely believed, but his bones were likely cooked in a pot — oh, the cruel irony of names — and distributed as talismans. For some, the Kingdom of Hawaii’s problems started there, and it wasn’t even a kingdom yet. What followed for the next 180 years, until President Dwight D. Eisenhower made it the 50th U.S. state, is a story of racism, war and the importance of voting rights.
[Hawaii] faced continual denigration of [its] beliefs and practices by missionaries and other white supremacist ideas.
Hawaii’s islands were ruled by a system of chiefs until the early 19th century, when Kamehameha I instituted the island’s first dynasty. Key to maintaining power were weapons, first brought by Cook and his men and then sold by traveling merchants to warring factions of native Hawaiians. Kamehameha grabbed power from his cousins through a series of bold moves, and — aided by two advisers, the sole surviving sailors of separate ship massacres — amassed muskets, cannons and soldiers to gain control of the other islands. By 1810, when he acquired the island of Kauai, a kingdom was born.
But nothing in this world is safe. Hawaii was awash in trading partners and, in turn, deadly new diseases that were killing off natives. The islands, in short, were vulnerable to the European empires and, later, the U.S. Hawaii “had to reconfigure itself to be recognizable as a country and unavailable for colonization,” says Dr. Noenoe K. Silva, a professor of political science at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. At first the U.S. expressed disinterest in annexing the territory, but the 1870s and influential sugar barons brought new treaties, like the Reciprocity Treaty supported by monarch David Kalākaua, which cemented American dominance by allowing a military base at Pearl Harbor and snagging Hawaii’s sugar industry’s tariff-free imports.
Kalākaua, meanwhile, worked to cement Hawaiian culture, bringing back traditional dancing and shoring up support for the monarch. The population collapse weakened the island nation, which was also subjected to “continual denigration of [its] beliefs and practices by missionaries and other white supremacist ideas,” says Silva. But the monarchy remained well-liked, Silva explains, and Hawaii continued to adapt its native culture.
With the native population dwindling, Hawaii was now seeded with wealthy nonnatives who’d made their homes and plantations on the islands. “Although settled among us, and drawing their wealth from our resources,” wrote Queen Liliuokalani in 1898, “they were alien to us in their customs and ideas respecting government, and desired above all things the extension of their power. …” A group of white soldiers, along with white businessmen like son-of-missionaries Sanford B. Dole (whose cousin would become a pineapple magnate) and mainlander Peter Cushman Jones demanded a new constitution, known as the 1887 Bayonet Constitution, because the king’s choices essentially were: sign or resign. This agreement meant you no longer needed to be a citizen of Hawaii to vote — you just needed to own property and make several hundred dollars a year. That meant native Hawaiians no longer controlled their kingdom — nor did the king, who saw his powers stripped. Hawaii essentially became a plutocracy — but the monarchy, still popular, endured. Four years later, Hawaii got a new — and its last — queen, Liliuokalani, and she wanted a new constitution.
Hawaiian plantation owners, dismayed by the isolationism of U.S. trade policy — thanks, 1890 McKinley tariff! — hoped annexation would ease their importation taxes. So as Liliuokalani readied her new constitution in 1893, ships of American troops disembarked in Hawaii and marched past the palace. The next day, she surrendered at gunpoint, giving over governance of the island to its white sugar growers, who petitioned the U.S. for annexation. The kingdom was declared a protectorate by the U.S. minister to Hawaii before he’d even gotten an OK from the state department. Although President Grover Cleveland thought the takeover of Hawaii was wrong and wanted to reinstate Liliuokalani, she was forced to give up her title when weapons were found in her garden.
Cleveland’s successor, William McKinley, was pro-annexation, so the 39,000 native Hawaiians left swung into action, lobbying, petitioning and hoping to defeat the treaty that would make them part of the United States. Which they did, using grassroots action to convince enough senators to allay the needed two-thirds majority — until the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898 and the U.S. government needed a military base in the Pacific. Then it took only a simple majority to annex Hawaii.
The queen, deposed and disempowered, continued trying to get voting rights for her people — which came, ironically, in 1959, when Hawaii became a state.