top of page

Annexation of Hawaii

By Kimberly Dennin

Businessmen vs. Native Hawaiians

The story of the annexation of Hawaii is one of the struggle between white businessmen after favorable trade conditions and native Hawaiians protecting their cultural heritage and national identity. After the arrival of Captain James Cook in 1778 early missionaries reported that Hawaii had an ideal climate for planting sugar cane. This drew white planters, missionaries, and businessmen to Hawaii and had significant political, social, and economic impacts. These included changes in governing style, the replacement of traditional agricultural practices with plantation economy, and aspects of traditional culture being prohibited including teaching of the Hawaiian language and performing the native Hula dance.

King Kalakaua via BRI

In 1887 David Kalakaua was elected to the Hawaiian throne and signed a reciprocity treaty with the U.S. This treaty gave Hawaii duty-free access to export certain products, like sugar, to the U.S. and made it so Hawaii’s sugar industry had to serve American markets only. In order to fully take advantage of this treaty, white landowners pressured King Kalakaua to pass a new constitution to preserve the political power of the land-owning planter class. The new constitution, which became known as the “Bayonet Constitution”, stripped the monarchy of executive powers, replaced the cabinet with members of the businessmen’s party, and disenfranchised most native Hawaiian voters. The new constitution also established a U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor. Hawaiian sugar planters lost their unique trade position with the U.S. in 1890 with the McKinley Tariff. This tariff annulled the exclusive reciprocity arrangement between the U.S. and Hawaii and allowed other nations and territories to export sugar to the U.S. without paying duties. This provided significant incentive to the businessmen’s party to push for annexation.

Queen Liliuokalani

Queen Liliuokalani via NEA

Just as white businessmen were considering annexation, Kalakaua’s sister, Liliuokalani succeeded him in 1891. Queen Liliuokalani wanted to break Hawaii’s economic dependence on the U.S. and restore political rights of native Hawaiians. She drafted a new constitution to restore native rights and powers, but was countered by the Committee on Annexation, a small group of white businessmen and politicians. They overthrew Queen Liliuokalani in a bloodless coup on January 17, 1893, which involved the unauthorized landing of the American warship the U.S.S. Boston, and established a revolutionary regime with Sanford Ballard Dole as president. John Stevens, the U.S. Minister to Hawaii, recognized the new government and proclaimed Hawaii a U.S. protectorate, without permission from the U.S. State Department. President Benjamin Harrison signed a treaty of annexation with the new government, but before it was ratified, Grover Cleveland replaced Harrison as president and withdrew the treaty.

U.S.S. Boston Occupation via NEA

Path to Annexation

President Cleveland appointed James Blount as special investigator to look into the events in the Hawaiian Islands. After the investigation President Cleveland acknowledged that “The Hawaiian Kingdom was unlawfully invaded by United States marines on January 16, 1893, which led to an illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian government the following day”. He ordered the American flag to be lowered from Hawaiian government buildings and Queen Liliuokalani to be restored to power. Dole, however, refused, arguing that the U.S. had no right to interfere in the internal affairs of Hawaii, and he proclaimed Hawaii to be a republic in 1894. Shortly after, Native Hawaiians staged mass protest rallies against the overthrow of Queen Liliuokalani and the imposition of the Republic. Out of this, two gender designated groups were formed; Hui Hawaii Aloha Aina, which translates to the Hawaiian Patriotic League, and the female Hui Hawaii Aloha Aina o Na Wahine. On January 5, 1985 there was an armed attempt to derail the annexation, but it was suppressed. The leaders of the revolt were jailed along with Queen Liliuokalani for failing to stop the revolt.

Hawaiian Annexation Celebrations via BRI

Another attempt at annexation was started on June 16, 1897 when President McKinley signed a treaty of annexation and submitted it to the Senate for ratification. The Hui Aloha Aina groups organized a mass petition drive against the annexation. The petition, titled “Petition Against Annexation”, was signed by 21,269 native Hawaiian people and was presented to the Senate by four delegates; James Kaulia, David Kalauokalani, John Richardson, and William Auld along with Queen Liliuokalani. The treaty was defeated in the Senate, with only 46 Senators in favor of the resolution. A second move for annexation occurred soon after with the explosion of the U.S.S. Maine in February 1898 and the start of the Spanish American War. The U.S. decided they needed a mid-Pacific fueling station and naval base. The Hawaiian Islands were the obvious choice both because of their location and the already existing naval base, Pearl Harbor. Congress moved to annex the Hawaiian Islands by Joint Resolution, which required only a simple majority in both houses, and on July 12, 1898 the Joint Resolution passed and Hawaii was officially annexed. Hawaii remained a U.S. territory until 1959 when it was admitted to statehood as the 50th state.



Schamel, Wynell and Charles E. Schamel. "The 1897 Petition Against the Annexation of Hawaii." Social Education 63, 7 (November/December 1999): 402-408.

Sai K. (2018) The U.S. Occupation of the Hawaiian Kingdom, neaToday,

Miller B. The Annexation of Hawaii, Bill of Rights Institute,


bottom of page