The USS Boston’s landing force on duty at the Arlington Hotel, Honolulu, at the time of the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy, January 1893. Lieutenant Lucien Young, USN, commanded the detachment, and is presumably the officer at right.

A group of eight major islands located in the Pacific Ocean 2,500 miles off the California coast, Hawaii became the first overseas territory of the United States in 1898. Throughout the nineteenth century, Hawaii served as central crossroads of the North Pacific for whaling and the Asia trade. The islands’ strategic location in the central Pacific made Hawaii of major importance to all great powers, especially the United States.

Since the 1820s, American protestant missionaries turned planters and businessmen helped to maneuver the kingdom of Hawaii, which had been politically unified in 1810 under Kamehameha the Great, into a position of a culturally and commercially dependent protectorate of the United States. The new residents on the islands accelerated the “Americanization” of Hawaiian society. Hawaii’s first constitution of 1840 reflected the dual influence of American political thought and missionary work, as it was based on the Declaration of Independence and the Bible. Americans shaped the educational system, advised Hawaiian monarchs, achieved government positions, and increased the Hawaiian aristocracy’s economic dependency through debt stimulation.

From 1842 up to the 1890s, successive U.S. administrations supported the Tyler Doctrine, which extended the Monroe Doctrine to Hawaii and warned Britain and France against any attempts at annexation. In 1881, Secretary of State James G. Blaine even described Hawaii as an essential part of the American system of states and key to the North Pacific trade. The 1875 reciprocity treaty gave the islands’ most important product, Hawaiian sugar, duty-free entry into the United States provided Hawaiians would not allow territorial concessions to other powers. The relationship further intensified when the Hawaiian government granted Washington naval rights in Pearl Harbor.

Expansionist pressure for annexation during mid-century failed to convince the U.S. government, as Americans virtually dominated most aspects of Hawaiian life without the responsibility of formal rule. In 1893, however, an American-supported rebellion deposed Queen Lilioukalana in response to a deepening social and economic crisis in the islands and the queen’s efforts to contain American influence. The new government was immediately recognized in Washington, but annexation was heavily debated and ultimately postponed. The prospect of inclusion of a substantial body of “racially diverse” Chinese, Japanese, and native Hawaiians remained a main argument against annexation. Only a few years later, however, changing strategic considerations of control over the Pacific, the fear of Japanese domination of the islands, and the lure of the Asian mainland resulted in the annexation of Hawaii in 1898. The Organic Act of 1900 incorporated the Territory of Hawaii into the United States and granted Hawaiians U.S. citizenship. By the outbreak of World War I, Hawaii had been transformed into a major army and navy base for the protection of America’s colonial Pacific empire.

FURTHER READING: Kuykendall, Ralph Simpson. The Hawaiian Kingdom. 3 vols. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1965; Merry, Sally E. Colonizing Hawai’ i: The Cultural Power of Law. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999; Osborne, Thomas J. “ Empire Can Wait” : American Opposition to Hawaiian Expansion, 1893–1898. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1981.




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