Taking Hawaii: How Thirteen Honolulu Businessmen Overthrew the Queen of Hawaii in 1893, With a Bluff – Stephen Dando-Collins

I am consistently amazed to learn history that is not taught in classrooms. I do not always question why but acknowledge that topics my teachers discussed were sometimes lacking in detail through no fault of their own. In fact, much of what we learn in life takes place outside of the classroom. That applies here to this book that examines the annexation of Hawaii in 1893.  The State became a hotbed topic during the 2008 Presidential Election due to it being the birthplace of Democratic nominee Barack H. Obama. Conspiracy theories ran amuck, and the consensus was that Hawaii was not legally United States Territory and thus the candidate should not have been elected to office.  The reality is that Hawaii was officially declared a state in 1959, two years before Obama was born. However, the story of Hawaii is one of intrigue, heartbreak and unofficial foreign policy that serves as an eerie premonition of future actions abroad by the Central Intelligence Agency (“CIA”).

When I saw the cover of the book, my interest peaked but I quickly realized that I did not have solid understanding of how Hawaii came into possession by the United States.  I knew the only thing to do was start reading. And I soon learned that the author had a significant story awaiting readers.  The book begins with a fascinating history of Hawaii itself, focusing on the Polynesian roots of its inhabitants and the society they created which would be upended by the arrival of unfamiliar faces. The arrival of European explorers marked the first stage in the downfall of the monarchy that ruled Hawaiian society.  But what Americans might not know be aware of is the role of the British in Hawaii’s history. This part of the story is interesting and raises the question of what if America had followed Britain’s example. As the story moves forward, the monarchy which had regained control over the Hawaii, changes leadership multiple times and the arrival of foreign businessmen brings trouble to the doorstep of the last monarch, Queen Liliuokalani (1838-1917).  Surprisingly, it is easy to overlook that Hawaii was not a target of the United States Government. In fact, the White House had no official policy of annexation. But there were individuals in the government who had their eyes set on the islands.  The author explains that,

“As far back as 1853, US Secretary of State William Learned Marcy had said of the Hawaiian Islands, ‘It seems to be inevitable that they must come under the control of this government.”

The events that transpire in the book, which are re-created with exceptional detail, highlight the covert operation in place that is carried out with unbelievable gall. However, the road to overthrowing the Queen was not without its issues which the author also points out. Eventually the Queen’s overthrow comes into focus and how it plays out is surreal.  The title says, “with a bluff”. It most certainly was, and the fact that it succeeded left me speechless. However, the blame for the coup should also be placed on those within the monarchy who failed the Queen and others who failed to take action that would have derailed the conspirators’ plans. Back in Washington, President Grover Cleveland (1837-1908) soon realizes what has happened in Hawaii and its implications for U.S. foreign policy. The dramatic fallout is captured including Cleveland’s own struggles with a financial panic and divided Congress. Despite strong annexation sentiment, there were officials in Washington deeply concerned about what happened. The seriousness of the plotters’ actions should not be overlooked. In fact, Congress did get involved and we learn that:

‘James Blount had found that Queen Liliuokalani had been overthrown as the result of a conspiracy between US ambassador John L. Stevens and the members of the Committee of Safety, and that Captain Wiltse had landed US forces in Hawaii with the intention of influencing the outcome of the coup staged by the annexationists against the legitimate and lawful Hawaiian Government.’ 

But the plotters were not about to let Hawaii go and used any opportunity to their advantage to keep possession of Hawaii, including stalling tactics. To their surprise, the native people did not give in easily and did take a stand, however, in the end, Hawaii’s fate had been sealed. A bloodless coup had been executed and the people of Hawaii would never go back to their ancestral ways. And if there was any hope of as last-minute reprieve by Washington, this act put the final nail in that coffin:

“The joint resolution for the annexation of Hawaii passed the Senate on June 15, and the House on July 6. On July 7, 1898, President McKinley signed into law the Newlands Joint Resolution for the annexation of Hawaii.”

And with that, the history of Hawaii was changed for good. On August 21, 1959, Hawaii was admitted to the Union as the 50th State, marking the end of the road that the annexation faction had envisioned in 1893. But they could never erase the dark history that came with annexation which the author here has exhaustively researched and presented for our understanding and education. This is the history you may not learn in school, but it is a part of American history every citizen should know. The amount of detail is extensive, but the book is an excellent account of a pivotal moment in world history. Hawaii may be the site today of military bases and vacation resorts, but the islands also contain an ancient history that is sacred and important.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s