Capital is King: Overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi

2109 words (8 pages) Essay in International Studies

08/02/20 International Studies Reference this

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Economic power is closely tied to political influence as the condition of a nations economy defines its prosperity. Unlike government institutions capitalism is adaptive, not ridged, regardless of the cultural and institutional variance of a nation. It follows that private ownership and capital for production will affect the legislation of a nation. I researched how capitalism affects a nations government, and the fall of the Hawaiian monarch provides sufficient evidence. White businessmen leveraged their economic dominance, and the political influence of the United States to remove the authority of the Hawaiian monarch, and establish a new monarch where Capital is King.


In 1795 King Kamehameha I seized control over the free islands of Hawaiʻi, Oʻahu, Maui, Molokaʻi and Lānaʻi under one authority; “Kamehameha I was, indeed, the founder of Hawaiian unity and worthy of the surname of ‘the Great’” (Liliuokalani 2). To escape violence, bloodshed and slaughter Kauaʻi and Niʻihau yielded to King Kamehameha I. Two families ruled the newly established Kingdom of Hawai’i: the house of Kamehameha and the house of Kalākaua. European powers took notice of the young sovereign nation. The United States seeing the potential of this gem in the Pacific quickly established a close relationship with the Kingdom of Hawai’i, and became a primary trading ally. “The Hawaiian Ali’i certainly borrowed from European models the concept of monarchy, adapting it to their purposes in an attempt to gain legitimacy in Western nations’ eyes and retain their autonomy” (Hancock par.  2).

The story of Hawai’i moving from a unified self-governing nation to a tactical, economic and military part of the United States is complicated. “It has often happened in the history of nations that the most eminent men have won the crown, and…have placed the executive office in the hands of another.” (Liliuokalani 2) Queen Liliuokalani was the last sovereign monarch of the Hawaiian kingdom. Reigning from January 29, 1891, until the annexation of Hawaiʻi. Missionaries from Europe began to emigrate to Hawai’i in the 19th century, as the nation slowly progressed towards a government that embraced trade and capitalism. Recognizing the economic dominance of Western governments, Kings of Hawai’i endeavored to implement that same economic dominance within their institutions. Europeans were appointed by the King to serve in his cabinet if the foreigner would swear allegiance to the monarch. American merchants who settled in Hawai’i fiercely opposed the Hawaiian monarch, who at the time had absolute power over the nation. These Americans desired a constitutional monarchy. “[T]he institution of a monarchy in the Hawaiian islands, particularly as it led to a constitutional monarchy, established a system of government in the islands that white businessmen expected to run its course” (Hancock par. 2). The fertile lush land of the Hawaiian Islands was ideal for large-scale agriculture, especially for sugar. There was a growing interest to exploit these lands for the purpose of producing sugar. Soon, those interested in capitalizing upon the land, which, “was more and more adapted to the purposes of large-scale agriculture,” (Hancock par. 2) sought to gain control over the kingdom.


Enterprise is in the blood of those who have the ambition to seek out opportunities and the tenacity to overcome obstacles in the pursuit of capitalism. Sugar consumption was on the rise in the United States. “[S]ugar was consumed in the United States in a much higher volume than in Europe. In the early 1880s, consumption exceeded 50 pounds per capita per annum, and after 1900, 70 pounds” (“German Historical Institute”). In the United States, there was an excessive demand for Hawaii’s sugar where the conditions were favorable, and already being successfully cultivated. American capitalists speculated that like other products traded by the United States, such as tobacco, raw sugar would soon become an item of export rather than an import. “In 1616 [John Rolfe] took the first commercial [tobacco] crop to England…By 1638 Virginia was exporting three million pounds of tobacco to Britain every year” (Gordon 15). American entrepreneurs settled in Hawai’i to seek their fortune and soon discovered that the land could not be bought. Tension grew between the monarch and the American settlers. Americans believed that the only informed approach to resolving the issue would be to hold land in fee-simple terms.


A permanent change to land tenure would have to occur throughout the islands for capitalism to flourish because no haole or white outsider could sell or buy estate. “It is true that no one of the common people could mortgage or sell his land, but the wisdom of this limitation is abundantly proved by the homeless condition of the Hawaiians at the present day. Rent, eviction of tenants, as under stood in other lands, were unknown” (Liliuokalani 3).

Stuart Alan Banner, an American legal historian argues that the Hawaiian land tenure reform (the Māhele – Hawaiian land redistribution proposed by King Kamehameha III) was a strategic move on behalf of the kingdom of Hawai’i. Banner says, “when change seems inevitable…[t]here is always the middle ground of anticipating the change and ordering ones affairs so as to come out as well as possible under the new regime.” (Banner 309) However, Banner also argues that although land tenure reform did help in a lot of ways, it also had devastating effects for the native Hawaiians. The land became fee-simple and Americans purchased most of the land. This resulted in a monopoly of Hawaiian estate by Americans and income inequality for the native Hawaiians.


In the early sugar boom capitalists came to Hawai’i, with invented strategies to seize monarch land drastically changing the Hawaiian landscape. One such capitalist was Claus Spreckels, an affluent entrepreneur in Hawai’i throughout the kingdoms reign. Spreckels was born in Lamstedt, Hanover, now a city of Germany. Spreckels invested considerable capital as he transitioned into the sugar industry in the mid-1870s. “Spreckels had assembled a veritable sugar empire…that produced much cheaper sugar than competitors” (“German Historical Institute”). In 1875 the Reciprocity Treaty was signed and authorized. The treaty stipulated that Hawai’i have unrestricted trade to the United States market for commodities cultivated in the Kingdom of Hawai’i. The compromise was the United States acquired estate in Pu’u Loa, which is now recognized as Pearl Harbor naval base. Spreckels fought against the Reciprocity Treaty with the independent Kingdom of Hawai’i, worried that competition would shrink his profits. Nevertheless, this did not stop Spreckels from continuing to utilize the opportunity to plant cane sugar in the Hawaiian Islands.

In 1884 Spreckels invested an additional $10 million dollars and incorporated the Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company. With the additional capital Spreckels acquired four sugar refineries, thirty-five miles of railroad, a water reservoir, and the most innovative irrigation system in the Pacific. Spreckels, having 40,000 acres of land for his plantation on the island of Maui constructed the largest sugar plantation and refinery in the world.

The Reciprocity Treaty proved exceedingly profitable for sugar capitalist in the Hawaiian kingdom. Spreckels expanded his enterprise utilizing vertical integration, and profiting from economies of scale. With revenues from Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company Spreckels bankrolled J.D. Spreckels & Bros. and now had his own shipping line. Within five years following the Reciprocity Treaty Spreckels held one-third of the sugar industry in Hawai’i. “[O]n the Island of Maui, [Spreckels]erected an impressive system of irrigation, infiltrated the King’s inner circle – corrupting him and his government, and extended his economic power year by year” (“German Historical Institute”). Spreckels certainly cornered the Hawaiian sugar market and became a close ally of King Kalākaua.

 Spreckels’ conquest of the Hawaiian sugar industry was closely tied to his association with the monarch, and manipulation of the political elite. To advance his economic interests Spreckels used his political sway and maintained secretive communications with United States presidents. American capitalist abused their economic influence relative to the Kingdom of Hawai’i, assuming the monarchy would adjust to Western economic practice. Determined to attain prominence in the Hawaiian kingdom, sugar planters allowed the monarch to accrue debt, which gave the sugar industrialists leverage over the kingdom of Hawai’i. The now colossal enterprise of Mr. Spreckels rapidly expanded. The ports of the Pacific Coast were filled with Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company goods. To transport Hawaiian sugar to San Francisco Spreckels utilized his vast fleet of ships.


In the United States, the criticisms concerning the Reciprocity Treaty had continued, mostly from southern sugar plantation owners. The Southern plantation owners alleged that the Reciprocity Treaty favored Hawaiian planters, chiefly Claus Spreckels. The political and economic landscape of the Hawaiian kingdom was shifting and resentment was building amongst the anti-monarchists (white merchants and capitalist) who now called Hawai’i their home. The anti-monarchists objective was to dissolve the power of the Hawaiian monarchy, initiating the transference of power to the United States.

In 1887, on June 30th, a cloak-and-dagger meeting took place. White residents of Hawai’i, including businessmen, politicians and the Honolulu Rifles militia: an assemblage of soldiers, and, covertly the Hawaiian League’s military arm, attended the meeting. The Hawaiian League was composed primarily of white industrialist and enthusiasts of the Reform Party. During this meeting the Hawaiian League premeditated the rebellion and overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi. Politicians, who were delegates of the Reform Party of the Hawaiian Kingdom, commanded that King Kalākaua remove his Cabinet. Walter M. Gibson headed the cabinet, and the disgust for Gibson by the anti-monarchists was due to the fact that Gibson supported the authority of the monarch and the King. The Hawaiian League controlled an enormous portion of the wealth in the Hawaiian kingdom, and they wanted to keep it that way by any means necessary. This rebellion in 1887 is now known as the “Bayonet Constitution” for obvious reasons. The Hawaiian League compelled King Kalākaua to sign the constitution by threatening to kill him if he did not cooperate. “The ‘Bayonet Constitution’ provided that the parliament could dismiss the King’s cabinet on a vote of no confidence…[e]ffectively, it put the government in the hands of commercial interests.” (Hancock par. 12) Lorrin A. Thurston was the main instigator of the subsequent overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy. On July 1, 1887, the Honolulu Rifles seized authority over the kingdom, and Gibson, who was nearly lynched. Kalākaua requested help from the US Minister George W. Merrill. After Kalākaua explained the situation, Merrill advocated that Kalākaua yield to the demands of the Hawaiian League, which he did.

Soon after the insurgence, Thurston became the commanding interior minister. A new constitution was prepared in less than a week. The new constitution was created by a group of lawyers, who by no surprise included Thurston, Dole, William Ansel Kinney, William Owen Smith, George Norton Wilcox, and Edward Griffin Hitchcock. Kalākaua ratified the constitution of the Republic of Hawai’i on July 6, 1887.

CONCLUSION. The consequence of capitalism for the Hawaiian monarch was transference of power. Now white businessmen controlled the once sovereign nation of Hawai’i and the affluent plantation owners selected government officials. If one wanted to serve as a Noble or representative, excessive requirements including substantial income and land ownership were now a prerequisite. Therefore, Native Hawaiians essentially became excluded in the legislative process. The provisional government established voting requirements, abolishing representation for native Hawaiians. Until the United States finally annexed the Hawaiian Islands in 1898, the Republic of Hawai’i remained an oligarchy of white capitalist pursuing only their political and economic interests, and to establish a government where capital is king.

Works Cited

  • Burnley, James. Millionaires and Kings of Enterprise: the Marvellous Careers of Some Americans Who Pluck, … Foresight, and Energy Have Made Themselves Masters. Forgotten Books, 2015.
  • German Historical Institute. “Claus Spreckels.” Immigrant Entrepreneurship, German Historical Institute, 1 Jan. 1970,
  • Gordon, John Steele. An Empire of Wealth: the Epic History of American Economic Power. Harper Perennial, 2005.
  • Hancock, Stephen. “On the Overthrow of the Hawaiian Monarchy, 1893.” Branch,  June 2015,
  • Liliuokalani. Liliuokalani: Hawaiis Story by Hawaiis Queen. Tuttle, 1964.
  • Maclennan, Carol A. “Sovereign Sugar.” Vol. 89, no. 4, 2014,
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