Falling are the Heavens, Part II


With the growth of the sugar industry in the second half of the nineteenth century, Hawaiians found work on the large plantations owned by the descendants of missionary families and early settlers, although the mill workers, boiler tenders, coopers, and carpenters were all haoles (Caucasians) from Honolulu. Between 1852 and 1856, however, thousands of Chinese, most of them Cantonese men from the Pearl River delta near Macao, were brought to the Islands as indentured workers. Laborers from Japan began to arrive in 1868, hired by the plantations against the wishes of the Japanese government (by the end of the century, forty percent of the population of Hawaiʻi was Japanese). The plantation owners were disappointed in the workers conscripted from Asia — they ran away, quarreled with the Hawaiians, smoked opium, protested that the law mandating nine-hour work days was too arduous, fell sick, and most irritating of all, died (plantation managers complained that many of the Chinese were already half-dead when they arrived).


chinese immigrants
Chinese indentured laborers arriving in Honolulu


Although Hawaiians were thought to be good at heavy labor, they did not like the routine of daily field work. They began to find work more amenable to their temperament on the growing number of cattle ranches, where the Hawaiians, already fearless horsemen, were taught by paniolo (cowboys) who had been brought by ranchers from Spain in 1830. Hawaiian cowboys, already adept at riding over lava, became known for their courage, stamina, and skill in running cattle. By 1890, when sugar and pineapple were dominant, Hawaiians were no longer part of the plantation work force.



Miike Maru
Japanese indentured workers disembarking in Hawaiʻi


Throughout the last half of the nineteenth century, the oral history of the Hawaiians, and their music and dance were kept alive with the help of numerous Hawaiian-language newspapers, especially during the reign of King Kalākaua (1874-1891). Intent on preserving his people’s history, Kalākaua encouraged the study of Hawaiian culture. The fire-burning kapu which had once allowed those aliʻi who possessed it to light torches by day, had originated with a high chief whose daughter had been killed by one of his wives, causing him to roam across the island of Hawaiʻi with lighted torches. It was a prerogative long out of use, but Kalākaua, as one of the chiefʻs descendants, insisted on restoring the practice (he did not, however, order that his subjects fall to the ground in his presence, as was also his right), and the torches in his court burned day and night. Despite his efforts at good governance, Kalākauaʻs reign was fraught with ineptitude, compromise, foreign interference, rebellion, and the growing threat of annexation by the United States.


Lūʻau in Waikīkī with Kalākaua at rear. Robert Louis Stevenson sits in front of the woman in the checked muʻumuʻu.

In 1885, Kamehameha School was founded for the education of Hawaiian children (the trust was not challenged until 2003 when a haole resident of Hawai’i sued the school for violating civil rights laws — the dismissal of the lawsuit was appealed, but the plaintiff eventually dropped his suit to accept the school’s settlement of seven million dollars) by Bernice Pauahi Bishop, the niece of one of the wives of Kamehameha II, who inherited an estate that made her the largest private landowner in the kingdom, with ten percent of all Hawaiian land. When it was founded, Kamehameha School mandated that all instruction be in English — a practice that continued until 1924 when the formal teaching of Hawaiian was allowed. The princess, married to the American businessman Charles Reed Bishop, also endowed the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, which collects and preserves the ethnographic and natural history of the Islands.


bpb age 35 ca 1866
Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop, age thirty-five, Honolulu


Kalākauaʻs poor health was aggravated by chronic drinking. In 1891, he suffered a stroke at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, and died a few weeks later. His sister, Lili’uokalani, became queen, inheriting a kingdom whose chaotic and riven politics were beyond her capacities to control or to mend. One of her first acts was to request the making of a new constitution in which the rights of native Hawaiians would be protected.

Lorrin Thurston, a lawyer and state legislator who was the grandson of Lucy and Asa Thurston, missionaries of the First Company, held that the queen, by demanding a new constitution, was guilty of an act of sedition. He formed a Committee of Safety with a group of friends, which aimed to end the monarchy and to establish a provisional government. The Committee, six of whom were Hawaiian citizens by birth or naturalization, wrote to the United States Minister to Hawai’i, John L. Stevens, to ask for the protection and support of the American forces under his command. Marines from an American warship were posted throughout the town as Thurston and his fellow annexationists took possession of several government buildings.

Liliʻuokalani and her supporters surrendered, certain that once the United States learned the true nature of the revolt, she would be restored to power. The newly-elected American president, Grover Cleveland, was at first willing to support Lili’uokalani, provided she give amnesty to the revolutionaries, which she refused to do. Cleveland then asked Thurston if the provisional government would be willing to relinquish its authority and restore the monarchy, and Thurston answered that it would not. The queen eventually changed her mind, but Cleveland had by then grown tired of the fracas, and left it to Congress to resolve. Sanford B. Dole was made president of the new republic in July 1894, and Cleveland sent a letter of recognition.

That year, the McKinley Act, which had raised protective rates fifty percent for most American-made products and goods and increased tariffs on imports while removing those on sugar, tea, molasses, and coffee, was repealed, restoring to Island planters their favorable trading position and their profits.

A badly organized counter-revolution came to nothing when contraband arms were discovered hidden at the foot of Diamond Head and in the garden of the queen’s house. Lili’uokalani was arrested and detained in ‘Iolani Palace, where she signed a letter of abdication which she later claimed was forced. She was released the following year, and immediately traveled to Washington in an emotional attempt to save her kingdom, as did her heir, the young Princess Kaʻiulani. Sereno Bishop, a son of the Rev. Artemas Bishop, missionary of the Second Company (1823), was the Hawaii correspondent of United Press, and had spent the previous few years undermining the cause of the monarchists, writing, among other things, that Lili’uokalani was under the influence of black-magic sorcerers, and that she made sacrifices to the fire goddess (he also helped to popularize the rumor that Kalākaua and Lili’uokalani were the children of a minor chiefess and a Negro bootblack named John Blossom). Lorrin Thurston published a pamphlet in which he wrote that annexation by the United States would bring an end to the growing danger of a militaristic Japan, and incalculable benefits to commerce, agriculture, ranching, and shipping. In the spring of 1898, the United States, at war with Spain, sank a fleet of Spanish ships in Manila harbor, reminding Americans that the nation’s global hegemony could only be enhanced by strengthening its position in the North Pacific. Three months later, on July 6, the Congress of the United States voted by joint resolution to annex the Hawaiian Islands. The kingdom of Hawaiʻi was no more.


Liliʻuokalani in the garden of her home, Washington Place, Honolulu. 

One thought on “Falling are the Heavens, Part II

  1. Peter Davis March 20, 2016 / 1:26 am

    Susanna Moore keeps on giving us these beautiful and painful excerpts from her brilliant work to remind us that Hawaiian history is not merely a stack of chronological facts but is instead our own living past as much as is the tragic and ineradicable history of African slavery on the North American continent.


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