January 24, 1895– Hawaii’s monarchy ended as Queen Liliuokalani was forced to abdicate after an armed coup on January 17 led by American sugar planters. Hawaii was then annexed by the U.S. It remained a U.S. territory until statehood was granted in 1959.
The Hawaiian Islands became united as the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1795 under King Kamehameha I, beginning the Kamehameha Dynasty. By this time westerners were already in contact with the Hawaiians, following Captain Cook’s “discovery” of the Islands in 1778. By the 1840’s westerners had become firmly established in Hawaii, leasing land to create sugar plantations that quickly became Hawaii’s most valuable export.
At the same time, these foreign planters began demanding more and more say in Hawaiian politics. Legal changes suggested by planters resulted in more and more land becoming owned by these foreign interests, and with that land came an increase in political power. Simultaneously, the US government began pressuring the Hawaiian government into leasing Pearl Harbor, a move that most native Hawaiians opposed. This increase in foreign pressure, combined with the death of the heirless King Lunalili in 1874, caused a political crisis in the kingdom that the planters were happy to exploit.
Despite widespread opposition among native Hawaiians, the new King, Kalakaua, appointed by the Hawaiian legislature, agreed to let the US government lease Pearl Harbor. When that lease began in 1887, a group of non-native planters calling themselves the “Hawaiian Patriotic League” formed an armed militia and threatened Kalakaua with assassination if he did not agree to a new constitution. Kalakaua, under duress, agreed to this new “Bayonet Constitution” in the summer of 1887.
This “Bayonet Constitution” greatly reduced the power of the monarchy, disenfranchised a majority of the native-born Hawaiians, and directly benefited white, foreign-born planters, giving American and European citizens the right to vote and hold office without giving up their American or European citizenship. Asian immigrants, on the other hand, were denied the right to become citizens or vote. Not surprisingly, the legislature came under the complete control of foreign planters.
In 1890 Kalakaua (who had survived a coup attempt in 1888) died, and his sister Lili’uokalani assumed the throne. Lili’uokalani sought to restore the monarchy’s former power, and in 1892 she proposed replacing the Bayonet Constitution with a new one that returned voting rights to native Hawaiians and eliminated those given to white foreigners. While the vast majority of native Hawaiians supported Lili’uokalani and her proposed new constitution, the mere suggestion of these changes prompted the foreign planters to act to remove Lili’uokalani before any such change could take place.
On January 14, 1893, Lili’uokalani met with her cabinet at the royal palace to discuss her proposed new constitution. Her cabinet members refused to support her for fear of how the powerful planters would react. In fact, some later leaked the plan, setting a coup in motion. That same evening a group of planters met to determine how to respond, and they decided to create a “Committee of Safety,” overthrown the Queen, establish a provisional government that they would control, and petition the US to be annexed. They organized a 1,500 man paramilitary force called the “Honolulu Rifles” as the muscle behind their coup.
Given her own cabinet’s refusal of support, Lili’uokalani backed down and publicly announced that she would not attempt to amend the Constitution. Despite this declaration, the plotters moved forward with their plan. Along with their force of “Honolulu Rifles,” they were also able to easily convince the US Minister to Hawaii, John Stevens, to bring in US Marines (anchored in Pearl Harbor) to their efforts.
Lili’uokalani’s supporters learned of the planned coup and rallied to her defense. The Marshal of the Kingdom, along with the Captain to the Royal Household Guard, assembled a force of 500 men to protect the Queen. The stage was now set for a fight between the Royal Guard and the Honolulu Rifles.
It did not take long. On January 17, 1893, a local policeman was shot while trying to stop the delivery of a wagon-load of weapons to the Honolulu Rifles. Fearing losing control of the situation, the Committee of Safety acted. The Honolulu Rifles stormed the palace while the contingent of US Marines waited outside. Queen Lili’uokalani, who wanted to avoid bloodshed, ordered her forces to surrender without a shot being fired. The coup was over within a few minutes, with the Honolulu Rifles quickly taking control of the Palace and government buildings.
The Committee Chairman, Henry Cooper, an American, stood on the Palace steps and read aloud a proclamation to the assembled crowd. That proclamation announced that Queen Lili’uokalani was formally deposed, the Hawaiian monarchy was abolished, and a new Provisional Government of Hawaii was thereby established, with its first president to be American planter Sanford Dole (yes, that Dole).
Lili’uokalani was placed under house arrest in the Palace, where she would remain for two years. While the US government under Grover Cleveland initially opposed recognition of the Provisional Government and supported the restoration of Lili’uokalani to the throne, in 1894 that position changed, and the US government acknowledged the Provisional Government.
In January 1895, Lili’uokalani’s remaining supporters tried one last time to restore Lili’uokalani to power with an armed rebellion. After a few days of fighting that effort collapsed, and Lili’uokalani was arrested and charged with being involved in the plot. On January 24, 1895, Lili’uokalani signed a document formally abdicating the throne in exchange for the commutation of the death sentences that had been given to several co-conspirators.
Lili’uokalani herself was convicted and sentenced to five years of hard labor, although that sentence was commuted to imprisonment in the Palace. In October of 1896 she was granted a full pardon and released from Palace arrest. In 1898 the US formally annexed Hawaii as the US Territory of Hawaii, something that Lili’uokalani and most native Hawaiians bitterly opposed. No native Hawaiians attended the annexation ceremony held on August 12, 1898, when the Hawaiian flag was lowered for the last time. In 1959, Hawaii became the 50th US state.