1,500 years ago, Polynesians arrived in Hawaii after navigating the ocean using only the stars to guide them. The Hawaiian islands had a well-established culture and long history of self-governance when Captain James Cook, the first European explorer to set foot on Hawaii, landed in 1778. The influence of European and American settlers quickly began to alter traditional ways of life. Originally governed by individual chiefs or kings, the islands united under the rule of a single monarch, King Kamehameha, in 1795, less than two decades after Cook's arrival.
Later the traditional Hawaiian monarchy was overthrown in favor of a constitutional monarchy. Eventually, the monarchy itself was abandoned in favor of a government elected by a small group of enfranchised voters, although the Hawaiian monarch was retained as the ceremonial head of the government.
In 1887, the struggle for control of Hawaii was at its height as David Kalakaua was elected to the Hawaiian throne. King Kalakaua signed a reciprocity treaty with the United States making it possible for sugar to be sold to the U.S. market tax-free, but the haole - or "white" - businessmen were still distrustful of him. They criticized his ties to men they believed to be corrupt, his revival of Hawaiian traditions such as the historic Hula, and construction of the royal Iolani Palace. A scandal involving Kalakaua erupted in the very year he was crowned, and it united his opponents, a party of businessmen under the leadership of Lorrin Thurston. The opposition used the threat of violence to force the Kalakua to accept a new constitution that stripped the monarchy of executive powers and replaced the cabinet with members of the businessmen's party. The new constitution, which effectively disenfranchised most native Hawaiian voters, came to be known as the "Bayonet Constitution" because Kalakaua signed it under duress.
When King Kalakaua died in 1891, his sister Lili'uokalani succeeded him, and members of the native population persuaded the new queen to draft a new constitution in an attempt to restore native rights and powers. The move was countered by the Committee on Annexation, a small group of white businessmen and politicians who felt that annexation by the United States, the major importer of Hawaiian agricultural products, would be beneficial for the economy of Hawaii. Supported by John Stevens, the U.S. Minister to Hawaii, and a contingent of Marines from the warship, U.S.S. Boston, the Committee on Annexation overthrew Queen Lili'uokalani in a bloodless coup on January 17, 1893 and established a revolutionary regime.
Without permission from the U.S. State Department, Minister Stevens then recognized the new government and proclaimed Hawaii a U.S. protectorate. The Committee immediately proclaimed itself to be the Provisional Government. President Benjamin Harrison signed a treaty of annexation with the new government, but before the Senate could ratify it, Grover Cleveland replaced Harrison as president and subsequently withdrew the treaty.
Shortly into his presidency, Cleveland appointed James Blount as a special investigator to investigate the events in the Hawaiian Islands. Blount found that Minister Stevens had acted improperly and ordered that the American flag be lowered from Hawaiian government buildings. He also ordered that Queen Lili'uokalani be restored to power, but Sanford Dole, the president of the Provisional Government of Hawaii, refused to turn over power. Dole successfully argued that the United States had no right to interfere in the internal affairs of Hawaii. The Provisional Government then proclaimed Hawaii a republic in 1894, and soon the Republic of Hawaii was officially recognized by the United States.
The overthrow of Lili'uokalani and imposition of the Republic of Hawaii was contrary to the will of the native Hawaiians. Native Hawaiians staged mass protest rallies and formed two gender-designated groups to protest the overthrow and prevent annexation. One was the Hui Hawaii Aloha Aina, loosely translated as the Hawaiian Patriotic League, and the other was its female counterpart, the Hui Hawaii Aloha Aina o Na Wahine. On January 5, 1895, the protests took the form of an armed attempt to derail the annexation but the armed revolt was suppressed by forces of the Republic. The leaders of the revolt were imprisoned along with Queen Lili'uokalani who was jailed for failing to put down the revolt.
The Hui Hawaii Aloha Aina o Na Wahine for Women and the Hui Aloha Aina for Men now organized a mass petition drive. They hoped that if the U.S. government realized that the majority of native Hawaiian citizens opposed annexation, the move to annex Hawaii would be stopped. Between September 11 and October 2, 1897, the two groups collected petition signatures at public meetings held on each of the five principal islands of Hawaii. The petition, clearly marked "Petition Against Annexation" and written in both the Hawaiian and English languages, was signed by 21,269 native Hawaiian people, or more than half the 39,000 native Hawaiians and mixed-blood persons reported by the Hawaiian Commission census for the same year.
Four delegates, James Kaulia, David Kalauokalani, John Richardson, and William Auld, arrived in Washington, DC on December 6 with the 556-page petition in hand. That day, as they met with Queen Lili'uokalani, who was already in Washington lobbying against annexation, the second session of the 55th Congress opened. The delegates and Lili'uokalani planned a strategy to present the petition to the Senate. By the time the delegates left Washington on February 27, 1898, there were only 46 senators willing to vote for annexation. The treaty was defeated in the Senate.
On February 15, 1898, the U.S. Battleship Maine was blown up in Havana harbor in Cuba. The ensuing Spanish-American War, part of which was fought in the Philippine Islands, established the strategic value of the Hawaiian islands as a mid-Pacific fueling station and naval installation. The pro-annexation forces in Congress submitted a proposal to annex the Hawaiian Islands by joint resolution, which required only a simple majority vote in both houses. This eliminated the 2/3 majority needed to ratify a treaty, and by result, the necessary support was in place. House Joint Resolution 259, 55th Congress, 2nd session, known as the "Newlands Resolution," passed Congress and was signed into law by President McKinley on July 7, 1898.
The story of the annexation is a story of conflicting goals as the white businessmen struggled to obtain favorable trade conditions and native Hawaiians sought to protect their cultural heritage and maintain a national identity. The 1897 Petition by the Hawaiian Patriotic League stands as evidence that the native Hawaiian people objected to annexation, but because the interests of the businessmen won out, over the coming decades most historians who wrote the history of Hawaii emphasized events as told by the Provisional Government and largely neglected the struggle of the Native Hawaiians. Today, there is a growing movement on the Islands to revive interest in the native Hawaiian language and culture. Primary sources such as this petition bear witness that there is another side to the story.
In 1993 the United States Congress adopted a joint resolution (U.S. Public Law 103-150 (107 Stat. 1510)) that "acknowledges that the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii occurred with the active participation of agents and citizens of the United States and further acknowledges that the Native Hawaiian people never directly relinquished to the United States their claims to their inherent sovereignty as a people over their national lands, either through the Kingdom of Hawaii or through a plebiscite or referendum." The resolution was adopted by both houses of the United States Congress on November 23, 1993. It was signed by President of the United States Bill Clinton on the same day.