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The 1897 Hawai’i Crisis
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
July 2015

The coming of coal-fired warships highlighted the need for coaling stations to project naval power across any large distance. And no potential naval coaling station had strategic value even close to that of Hawai’i; a steam-powered fleet based in the islands could dominate most fo the Pacific Ocean, a huge circle with a radius of 2,000 miles.

Hawai’i had been “discovered” by the white man in 1778, and things went downhill pretty quickly for the locals. Within a few years the islands became a frequent stop for whalers and fur traders, and missionaries soon followed. The Westerners provided the muskets and cannon that Kamehameha I used to forge a united Kingdom of Hawai’i by 1810. And they also brought disease.

Polynesian settlers arrived in Hawai’i sometime around 300 AD. Over the next 1,500 years they became a genetically isolated population, and one no longer resistant to many diseases. Modern estimates vary, but by the time James Cook arrived in 1778 the population stood at somewhere between 200,000 and 800,000 people. By 1898, the islands’ total population had fallen to 109,000, of whom 31,019 were Native Hawai’ian.

In the meantime, a valuable cash crop had arrived: sugar. Hawai’ian sugar plantations developed efficient means of squeezing every last drop of juice, and therefore, out of the cane. But they could not escape the fact that chopping cane is a highly labor-intensive process – most of the world’s sugar cane is still harvested manually, since machines tend to damage the stalks and cause the sweet juice to leak out and evaporate.


Landing party from USS Boston enters Honolulu, January 1893.

Native Hawai’ians could not fill the need for sugar plantation labor, and the planters first looked to the Portuguese-ruled Azores, recruiting experienced cane workers there. But the Portuguese could not meet the numbers desired, and the planters next turned to Asia. Chinese workers filled some of the void, but the most dependable source of workers became Japan.

Japan had signed a treaty of friendship with Hawai’i in 1871, promising equal treatment of one another’s citizens in one another’s territory. King David Kalakaua of Hawai’i visited Japan in 1881 and appears to have struck up a genuine friendship with Emperor Meiji the Great. The Japanese agreed to allow recruitment of Japanese workers, who would work the fields on three-year contracts and then return to Japan.

Japanese workers poured into Hawai’i, and while most returned at the end of their contracts, some did not. Their remittances home became a major source of foreign exchange for Japan, and many returned home with enough money saved to purchase farms, start businesses and build homes. Hawai’i benefitted from a stable work force, and Japan accumulated capital. Both sides appeared to value the arrangement.

Things changed in January 1893, when a group of white planters overthrew Queen Liliu’okalani under the watchful eye of a landing party from the American cruiser Boston. Believing the Americans would fight them, the tiny Royal Hawai’ian Army (just under 300 men, armed with Winchester rifles, a Gatling gun and eight late-model Krupp cannon) offered no resistance and allowed itself to be disarmed.

The Japanese armored corvette Kongo soon arrived, prompting the rebel government to ask for American protection even though Kongo did not place a landing party ashore. The protectorate would be cancelled in late 1893, but not before the Japanese government came to believe that the United States intended to annex Hawai’i. The Americans had already extracted an agreement from the Hawai’ians granting them exclusive rights to the Pearl River Lagoon, a wide estuary that could be made into a vast protected harbor when given full access to the sea.


Captain Heihachiro Togo's cruiser Naniwa.

The Japanese cruiser Naniwa arrived in February, and her captain Heihachiro Togo (who would later command the Japanese fleet in the Russo-Japanese War) refused to lower the Kingdom of Hawai’i’s flag. When a Japanese convict swam out to the cruiser and asked for asylum, Togo refused to hand him over to the rebel government, telling them that Japan did not recognize their regime. Naniwa, a modern ship armed with a pair of 10-inch guns, outgunned the entire American squadron in Hawai’ian waters even without her sister Takachiho, another frequent visitor to Honolulu.

The Republic of Hawai’i was fully control by the islands’ tiny white minority, totaling less than 10 percent of the population. But under the Kingdom’s odd “denizen” rules, foreign nationals could vote in Hawai’ian elections if their home nation had a reciprocity treaty with Hawai’i. Japanese representatives argued that the 1871 treaty was just such an agreement, which the Republic’s leaders rejected.

Japanese nationals were the largest single ethnic group in Hawai’i, and Asians as a whole represented nearly half of the population. Native Hawai’ians came next, followed by whites – and most whites were Portuguese cane workers or their children, with whom the white planter class had no intention of sharing power. When the Republic held a new constitutional convention in the summer of 1894, strict property and education requirements made sure that Hawai’ians and Portuguese could not vote, while the document bluntly banned Asian suffrage by limiting citizenship to people originating in countries with which Hawai’i had a naturalization treaty (rather than merely an “equal treatment” agreement, thereby excluding all Asians).

Japanese warships hovered just offshore, and the Japanese made their displeasure with the new constitution and its racist provisions clear. The Japanese consul pressed for full suffrage rights for Japanese, which all parties understood would mean a pro-Japanese government quickly assuming power and requesting the Empire’s protection if not outright annexation.

Before the crisis could involve armed force, the looming Sino-Japanese War caused the recall of all Japanese warships to Japan. Before the month was out Togo would take it upon himself to fire the war’s first shots, sinking a Chinese troop transport and refusing to rescue survivors.

By early 1897, the Republic had grown to fear the “Japanese menace” and sought to cut off further Japanese immigration. That sparked a great deal of anger in Tokyo; the immensely profitable contract-labor business had been spun off into the hands of private Japanese companies which now lobbied furiously to protect their income.

When a shipload of contract workers was turned away at Honolulu’s docks, the Japanese government protested furiously and demanded a cash indemnity. The Hawai’ians refused, staking their hopes on a new American president. In Washington, the pro-annexation Republican administration of William McKinley took office in March, replacing Grover Cleveland’s Democrats, who held that the United States should not expand overseas.

As tensions grew, the Japanese began to demand suffrage rights equal to those of other nations. The cruiser Naniwa returned to Honolulu and rumors spread that the newly-built battleships Fuji and Yashima would steam directly from their English shipyards to Hawai’i to join her. The Americans dispatched a small flotilla of cruisers and gunboats, and readied the battleship Oregon to make the trek from San Francisco to join them. Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt lobbied intensively for a preventive war with the Japanese and ordered the Naval War College to prepare plans for war with Japan – the precursor to Plan Orange.

McKinley unveiled a secret annexation treaty in June, and pressed the Hawai’ian delegation then in Washington to sign. They did so, but the treaty still lacked ratification.

“I desire to submit for your consideration what I believe is the only possible means by which the proposed annexation could be prevented,” Japan’s Minister to Washington, Toru Hoshi, cabled to his foreign minister, Shigenobu Okuma. “It is this: that taking advantage of the present strained relations between Japan and Hawai’i a strong naval armament should be at once dispatched for the purpose of occupying the islands by force.”

Okuma answered simply, “It is too late.”

The U.S. Congress finally ratified the annexation treaty in July 1898, in the midst of the Spanish-American War. Seeing the Americans already mobilized, Okuma recommended that Japan take no action. Hawai’i belonged to the Americans.


Hawai'i's national flag is lowered for the last time, July 7, 1898.

An 1897 Naval War?

Japanese moves to occupy Hawai’i would have been met with American force – Teddy Roosevelt would make sure of that. The American gunboats had little military value, but the cruisers Boston and Philadelphia were about equal in fighting power to Naniwa and Takachiho. The two new Japanese battleships were each a better fighting ship than Oregon.

Had the Japanese defeated the American squadron, reinforcements were months away in the days before the Panama Canal, while Japan was 18 days off at minimal speed. The Japanese would be well-entrenched before any American help would arrive.

Would the United States have embarked on war with Spain less than a year after suffering a likely military and diplomatic defeat at Japanese hands? Would a firmly Japanese Hawai’i have made the difference in the Pacific War two generations later? Or, as Okuma decided, had the moment already passed?

Lead Naniwa and Oregon in battle: order Russo-Japanese War and Remember the Maine.

Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.