By Eric Vandenbroeck 6 Jan. 2020

Honolulu (including Waikiki) is loved by people all over as one of the most multicultural in the world. It also has an interesting history. The Hawaiian Kingdom was the first non-Western state to achieve full recognition as a co-equal of Western powers notably England France and Belgium. Technologically at the cutting edge of modernity but at the same time grounded in tradition and identity, the Hawaiian kingdom’s nineteenth-century vision of a Polynesian confederation furthermore was a political project to create a Hawaiian-led entity encompassing Fiji, Tahiti, Samoa, and Tonga, that could both defend the kingdoms of Polynesia from imperial control and be recognized as a Polynesian power, much like the Hawaiian kingdom had already achieved for itself.

Few people today, however, know that in the nineteenth century, Hawai‘i was not only an internationally recognized independent nation but played a crucial role in the entire Pacific region and left an important legacy throughout Oceania.

Important for the developments described underneath, initially when the Hawaiian delegation met with British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs George Hamilton-Gordon, 4th Earl of Aberdeen on February 22, 1843, their pleading for recognition as an independent nation was unsuccessful. Hence they traveled to Brussels where (knowing the latter was on good terms with both France and England) they gained the support of King Leopold I of Belgium who was sympathetic and promises to use his influence to help them gain recognition.

Joint French and British declaration recognizing the independence of the Hawaiian Islands:

On 6 July 1846, U.S. Secretary of State John C. Calhoun, on behalf of President Tyler, afforded formal recognition of Hawaiian independence. As a result of the recognition of Hawaiian independence, the Hawaiian Kingdom entered into treaties with the major nations of the world and established over ninety legations and consulates in multiple seaports and cities.

As described in popular books like among others those of Nicholas Thomas, Paul F. Hooper, Stephen Henningham, Stephen Dando-Collins Taking Hawaii: How Thirteen Honolulu Businessmen Overthrew the Queen of Hawaii in 1893, With a Bluff (2014) and Daniel Immerwahr in How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States (2019) initially the conceptual framing of the Pacific island region created the context in which the establishment of imperial control of these societies was thought possible, and indeed became part of the imposition and management of empire. It was also an important influence on the successful efforts of evangelical Christians to spread their religious ideas across all Pacific island societies in the nineteenth century.

Particularly remembered in reference to Hawaii there is also how in January 1893, a coup led by Sanford Dole took over the Hawaiian government and pressed the U.S. government to annex the islands. Two years later, after a failed insurrection by Queen Liliuokalani's supporters to return power to Hawaiian royal rule, she was charged with treason and put under house arrest. In a statement, in exchange for a pardon for her and her supporters, she "yield[ed] to the superior force of the United States of America" under protest, pointing out that John L. Stevens, U.S. Minister to Hawaii, who supported the provisional government, had already "caused United States troops to be landed at Honolulu." She continued:

"Now, to avoid any collision of armed forces and perhaps loss of life, I do, under this protest, and impelled by said forces, yield my authority until such time as the Government of the United States shall, upon the facts being presented to it, undo the action of its representative and reinstate me in the authority which I claim as the constitutional sovereign of the Hawaiian Islands."

While Europeans and later also Americans shared the idea of the existence of a regional unity within which particularities might be approached, they differed on the content they gave to the idea. To adapt Nicholas Thomas’s insight, colonialism’s culture was complex: it was never a coherent imposition.1 In fact, there were contending ideas about how to represent the idealized Pacific society and how that society should be changed. There were also contending ideas about the question of whether it was possible or desirable for Pacific islanders to have political agency, and indeed on the question of who belonged to the region, and on what basis. These differences varied over time depending on the changing self-image of Europeans, on geopolitical developments and on the rise and fall of grand ideas such as neoclassicism, racial hierarchy, Darwinism, imperialism, evangelism, and self-determination. For example in the context of Darwinism, of course, the Pacific emerged as was seen as an evident link between the investigation of biological evolution and the understanding of Western conceptions of race and anthropology.

The messy entanglement between the imperial ideas of Europe, the United States, and the Australasians, on the one hand, and Pacific societies, on the other, began in the nineteenth century and particularly in the 1840s, when the period of annexation and European missionary and trader activity began. The impact varied enormously across the region. The colonial powers had different approaches (contrast the indirect rule of Britain with the assimilationist approach of France), and some island groups experienced several waves of colonial rule (some Micronesian islands experienced Spanish, German, Japanese and American rule, for example). Furthermore, a particular colonial power could adopt different approaches to different Pacific island territories (for example, the significant difference between French colonial rule in New Caledonia and that in French Polynesia).2

Although the imperial powers were in strong competition with each other, and while each imparted distinctive forms of colonial rule, there were also shared dominant European norms concerning legitimate statehood and appropriate social organization, which could be said at a very general level to dramatically influence the political change in the Pacific island region over the following century. While imperial norms could be seen as being diffused by one imperial power in one particular island society, they could also be seen as ‘international’ norms in the sense that they were accepted shared norms of the European system of states. The rights and responsibilities associated with imperialism itself could be seen as norms of the interstate system of Europe. There was a general acceptance of the idea that the norms concerning sovereign equality did not apply to those who were ‘child races’ or who were not organized politically in such a way to meet the standard of civilization.

But these dynamics, while in this case conducted over vast areas of ocean, were not framing Oceania in a global context. There is an important exception: the Hawaiian kingdom’s nineteenth-century vision of a Polynesian confederation, encompassing Fiji, Tahiti, Samoa, and Tonga.3


Rediscovering Hawaii's place in the pacific.

Putting nineteenth-century Hawai‘i into a comparative perspective Hawai‘i’s trajectory stands apart from the other Island states and, if compared larger non-western states is most similar to that of Japan since it went through an early revision of its treaties, began to conclude its own advantaging unequal treaties with neighboring states and was never colonized but went through a phase of occupation, which, however, in Japan’s case endured only seven years from 1945 to 1952, whereas in the Hawaiian case it has been going on since 1898.

                                 Political status evolution of selected non-Western states:


Faced with the problem of foreign encroachment of Hawaiian territory early on, Liliuokalani's father King Kamehameha III deemed it prudent and necessary to dispatch a Hawaiian delegation to the United States and then to Europe with the power to settle alleged difficulties with nations, negotiate treaties and to ultimately secure the recognition of Hawaiian Independence by the major powers of the world. In accordance with this view, Timoteo Ha'alilio, William Richards and Sir George Simpson were commissioned as joint Ministers Plenipotentiary on April 8, 1842. George Simpson, shortly thereafter, left for England, via Alaska and Siberia, while Ha'alilio and Richards departed for the United States, via Mexico, on July 8, 1842.

An ensuing vision as explained in Paul F. Hooper's book "Elusive Destiny" was promoted actively as a diplomatic project from the 1880s. Under King Kalākaua, extensive relations were pursued with the Polynesian kingdoms: King Pomare V of Tahiti, King George Tupou I of Tonga and Malietoa Laupepa of Samoa. The project was, however, severely constrained by the growing impact of imperial powers on the sovereignty of these kingdoms. It also has contemporary importance as a source of inspiration for attempts to forge subregional links among Polynesian leaders in the Polynesian Leaders’ Group.4

The vision was promoted actively as a diplomatic project from the 1880s. Under King Kalākaua, extensive relations were pursued with the Polynesian kingdoms: King Pomare V of Tahiti, King George Tupou I of Tonga and Malietoa Laupepa of Samoa. The project was, however, severely constrained by the growing impact of imperial powers on the sovereignty of these kingdoms. Ultimately, it was the Missionary Party’s ‘Bayonet Coup’ of 1887, followed by the American invasion and occupation of Hawai`i, which abruptly stopped any further development of the idea of a Polynesian confederation. The confederation nevertheless has its historical significance in being the first indigenous project to create an Oceanic regional grouping to control the pressures of an impinging global system.

After being developed among both native and non-native intellectuals close to the Hawaiian court, King Kalākaua’s government started implementing this vision in 1887 by concluding a treaty of confederation with Sāmoa, the first step toward a larger Hawaiian-led pan-Oceanian federation. Political unrest and Western imperialist interference in both Hawaii and Sāmoa prevented the project from advancing further at the time, and a long interlude of colonialism and occupation has obscured its legacy for over a century.

Flow chart showing political status:

Most remarkable, the Kingdom’s that time leaders, including monarchs, government officials and diplomats, used their country’s secured political status to promote the building of independent states on its model throughout the Pacific Islands and envisioned a unified Oceania. Such a polity would be able to withstand foreign colonialism.

Hawaiian Treajury Certificate of Deposit:


Hawaii's idea of a Polynesian confederacy

While Paul F. Hooper suggested that first glimmerings of internationalist activism in Hawaii came shortly after the Islands were first unified early in the nineteenth century 5 the actual proposal for a Polynesian confederacy started with the Hawaiian diplomat Charles St. Julian. And while other leading members of the Hawaiian government continued to support this vision throughout the following decades, it was in the 1850s that St. Julian wanted to help create a Polynesian confederation with Hawaii “as the guide[,] the guardian and the natural leader … occupying … a position not dissimilar from that which is filled by Austria in connection with the small German States.”6

As a basis for building a political confederation of Polynesian states, however, Tahiti under French and Aotearoa under British rule had been thrown out of the picture. Hawai‘i thus needed to look elsewhere and engage with Oceanian islands not under Western imperial rule.


To be extended to Eastern and Western Polynesia.

When in 1853 Kamehameha III appointed St. Julian as “His Hawaiian Majesty’s Commissioner, and Political and Commercial Agent, to the Independent States and Tribes of Polynesia,” and in 1855 he also took charge of the Hawaiian Consulate-General for New South Wales and Tasmania St. Julian attempted to increase the Hawaiian Kingdom’s sphere of influence, disseminate knowledge about Hawai‘i among the other island rulers, and promote the Hawaiian Kingdom’s constitution as a model for them to follow.

And while much of St. Julian’s initiatives might have been failed ventures in terms of his personal ambitions, the impact of his Polynesian diplomacy on Pacific politics was far from negligible. Thus, for example, the constitutions of Fiji, Tonga, and Sāmoa all bear a strong resemblance to that of Hawai‘i, and this similarity is ultimately traceable to St. Julian’s efforts.

The Samoan ratification of the 1887 Hawaiian-Samoan treaty of Confederation. Signed by King Malietoa Laupepa, his secretary William Coe, Samoan secretary of the Interior M.K. Le Mamea, as well as eight Ta‘imua and eight Faipule. Original in FO& Ex., Samoan Affairs 1887, as can be viewed in the Hawaii State Archives:

Arguably, the most lasting impact he had was in Tonga. Dutch anthropologist Paul van der Grijp considers him one of the two most important foreign advisors to King George Tupou I, second only to Methodistmissionary-turned-Tongan-Prime-Minister Shirley Baker.7 And unlike in any other Pacific Island nation, St. Julian is officially remembered in Tonga today, as the Tongan history textbook for secondary schools sympathetically mentions his role in the formation of the Tongan constitutional monarchy.8 


From King Lunalilo's interlude to King David Kalākaua

When Prince William Charles Lunalilo became the sixth monarch of the Kingdom of Hawaii he made the unwise decision to appoint Charles Reed Bishop as a new foreign minister. Bishop, a Hawaiian banker of American birth, was a close associate of what would be called the Missionary Party, the sons and grandsons of the original ABCFM missionaries to Hawaii, most of whom were lawyers or businessmen, and who despite their Hawaiian birth were for the most part disloyal to the Hawaiian state and worked towards its destruction and takeover by the United States.

Being a closeted American imperialist despite his Hawaiian nationality, Bishop thus tried to destroy all that St. Julian had built in over two decades, and apparently the King let him do so.

Thus after St. Julian’s resignation from his position to become Chief Justice of Fiji, and after the end of the Kamehameha dynasty, pro-American interests hostile to Oceanianism exerted a strong influence over the Hawaiian government and temporarily shut down the policy. However, barely one year later, a new King David Kalākaua, acceded to the throne, and initiated a more vigorous internationalist program than even St. Julian had envisioned.9

Within days of having acceded to the throne King Kalākaua would overturn Bishop’s decisions and take up the pan-Pacific ideas from where Kamehameha V had left it.

Journey of King Kalākaua in 1881

Most far-reaching during the Kalākaua era was the influence the Hawaiian state had as a model for modern governance in the region including the Hawaiian Kingdom's delegation to Sāmoa in 1887 and negotiations over a proposed Polynesian confederacy.

Flow chart of Hawaiian constitutional development and institutional transfer to Tonga, Fiji and Sāmoa:

After being developed over three decades among both native and non-native intellectuals close to the Hawaiian court, King Kalākaua’s government started implementing this vision in 1887 by concluding a treaty of confederation with Sāmoa, the first step toward a larger Hawaiian-led pan-Oceanian federation. Political unrest and Western imperialist interference in both Hawai‘i and Sāmoa prevented the project from advancing further at the time, and a long interlude of colonialism and occupation has obscured its legacy for over a century. Nonetheless, it remains an inspiring historical precedent for movements toward greater political and economic integration in the Pacific Islands region today.

Underneath a photo of the formal meeting, following Samoan protocol, between high chief Mata‘afa Iosefo (center, in white shirt) and officials of the Hawaiian legation and officers of the Kaimiloa including Envoy John E. Bush and Secretary Henry Poor (to the right of Mata‘afa). Note the Kaimiloa’s band in the background. The location is likely Lufilufi, the capital village of Ātua district. The photo was taken by Joseph Strong in 1887.

Later that same year 1887, when David Kalākaua still reigned, he was forced to sign a new constitution by an armed militia controlled by the Hawaiian League, a group of lawyers and businessmen. Preceding the above-mentioned coup of January 1893 was the so-called “Bayonet Constitution” which transferred much of the monarchy’s power to the legislature, which was elected with voting restrictions favoring non-Hawaiians.

The usurpers of 1887 not only closed down the Hawaiian Legation in Sāmoa but also many other diplomatic and consular posts abroad that connected to Kalākaua’s pan-Asia-Pacific project, for instance, the Hawaiian consulates in Singapore and Bangkok that provided the liaison to the courts of Johor and Siam. By early 1887, Hawai‘i maintained 103 legations and consulates worldwide, an impressive number given the comparatively small size of the country. 10

Domestically, the ‘bayonet’ coup marked Hawai‘i’s fall into a decade of political instability and civilian unrest, with frequent changes in the composition of the government and various attempted revolutionary acts taking place 11. For a short while, Hawaiian resistance to the 1887 coup proved successful, the Honolulu Rifles were disbanded in 1890 12, and Kalākaua’s successor Queen Lili‘uokalani [reg. 1891-1917] was planning to replace the ‘Bayonet Constitution’ with one somewhat similar to that of 1864 but more liberal. However, members of the Missionary Party, unwilling to hand back their usurped power to a pluralistic Hawaiian government, in January of 1893 conspired with the US diplomatic representative to initiate a US military invasion of the Kingdom, which, without a declaration of war, was in blatant violation of the then valid rules of international law.

The result was that despite clearly expressed Hawaiian popular opposition, the United States began permanent occupation of the Islands in 1898, purportedly annexing them through a joint resolution of the US Congress, a procedure that both defied the US constitution and once more violated international law. Even though the illegality of both actions [1893 and 1898] was admitted by US government officials at the time, an admission reiterated in 1993, the United States government has yet to undo these actions and the Hawaiian Islands.

When Liliʻuokalani ascended to the throne, she refused to honor the 1887 constitution and proposed a constitution giving more power back to the monarchy. That was too much for Dole and the Americans. In January 1893, a “Committee of Safety” gathered near the queen’s Iolani Palace. Stevens ordered 300 marines from the U.S.S. Boston to protect the committee, giving the U.S. government’s unofficial stamp of approval to the coup. To avoid bloodshed, Liliʻuokalani surrendered to the militia.

The U.S. takeover of Hawai‘i virtually ‘beheaded’ Oceania, disabling its most developed nation-state, the only one enjoying full international recognition, and the only one with its own network of international diplomats, a fact which in turn facilitated the colonial takeover of the other archipelagos, i.e. figuratively the ‘dismemberment’ and ‘disemboweling’ of the Dismembering Lāhui: A history of the Hawaiian Nation to 1887.13 By the turn of the twentieth century, every single Pacific Island nation had in some way, directly or indirectly, become subject to Western imperial rule. This dividing up of the Pacific into colonial territories interrupted the Pan-Pacific and regional integration that the Hawaiian Kingdom had started and set it back for about a century. In the words of David Armitage and Alison Bashford, the actions [of the colonial powers] pushed Pacific integration into reverse and disengaged it from broader currents of what would later be called ‘globalization’.14

It also can be presumed that the marked reluctance of Hawai‘i’s European treaty partners to help out the Kingdom against American aggression during the 1890s was most likely motivated by their considering Hawai‘i a nuisance to their own colonial policies in the Southern Pacific. Hence, they must have been relieved overall that American imperialism was taking that nuisance out of their way.   The absence of the Hawaiian legation in Apia removed one of the obstacles for German colonization of the major part of Sāmoa, and similarly, Great Britain could colonize the atoll of Sikaiana in 1897 and attach it to the British Solomon Islands Protectorate 15, an act that would most likely have been disputed by Hawai‘i based on its earlier claims dating back to St. Julian in the 1850s. Significantly, the one country which protested vigorously against the 1887 coup, the overthrow of the Queen’s government and  American annexation was Japan, because at that time it shared Hawaii’s geopolitical interests and not those of the Western powers.16

Since Lili‘uokalani only effectively ruled the country for the first two years of her long reign from 1891 to 1917, it remains a matter of speculation how Hawaiian foreign policy might have evolved under her once the pressing issue of the constitution would have been.17

Queen Lili‘uokalani herself, however, did take interest in the Asia-Pacific region in the later years of her reign. In 1915, she involved herself in the newly formed Hawaii-based Pan-Pacific movement and also supported the establishment of Japanese Buddhism in Hawaii. 18

As far as King Kalākaua’s 1881 pan-Asianist proposals to the Meiji Emperor were concerned, the King’s visionary ideas were indeed taken up in the mid-twentieth century, albeit in a way somewhat different from what the King intended. In his 1984 study on Japanese plans for Hawaii, if they had conquered it from the Americans in the wake of the attack on Ke Awalau o Pu‘uloa [Pearl Harbour] in 1941, historian John Stephan cites Japanese policymakers of the 1930s and 40s who were fully aware of Kalākaua’s 1881 Asia-Pacific confederation proposal and explicitly regarded it as a precedent for the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” that Japan was building in the territories it had conquered during World War II. 19 They furthermore intended to liberate Hawaii from American occupation and restore the Hawaiian Kingdom as a Japanese client state akin to Manchuria, intending to count on the existing  “dissatisfaction with American rule among Hawaiian intellectuals” and to rely on Hawaiian political leaders with pre-US occupation connections to Japan such as Isaac Harbottle and James Haku‘ole that had been trained in Japan under Kalākaua’s study abroad program and were still alive in the 1940s. 20

Of course the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” was to a large extent window-dressing for Japanese imperialism at the expense of the rest of Asia and thus far less benign than what Kalākaua had originally envisioned the ‘Asia-Pacific Confederation’ to become.

The legacy of Kalākaua’s visionary policy today is re-emerging in the form of an increasingly assertive Oceanian regionalism emanating mainly from Fiji and other postcolonial states in the Southwestern Pacific. As a historical reference for both, nineteenth-century Hawaiian policy serves as an inspiration and guideline for envisioning de-colonial futures for the Pacific region.

Also in Hawaii itself, illustrative of a play that opened on 8 January 2020 in New York City, a rediscovering process has started. The play depicts the journey of four students at the University of Hawaii who starting to read old newspaper clips and documents rediscover the above history.


1. Nicholas Thomas, Colonialism's Culture: Anthropology, Travel, and Government Colonialism’s Culture, 1994, p. 3.

2.Stephen Henningham, "France in Melanesia and Polynesia’" in Kerry R. Howe, Robert Kiste and Brij Lal, Tides of History, 1994, pp. 119‒46.

3. On this subject see also Paul F. Hooper, Elusive Destiny: The Internationalist Movement in Modern Hawaii, 1980.

4. Hooper 1980 p.  65.

5. Hooper 1980 p.  32.

6.  Isabella Bird Bishop, The Hawaiian Archipelago: SixMonths Among the Palm Groves, Coral Reefs, and Volcanoes of the Sandwich Islands (New York, 1894), pp. 382. 46 ff.

7. Paul Van Der Grijp, Islanders of the South, 1993, p.662.

8. Helen Boutell, and Ian Campbell.  Tukulaumea. Book 4: The Age of King George Tupou I. Nuku‘alofa: Friendly Islands Bookshop and Taulua Press, 1993 pp. 16-17.

9. Kealani Cook, in Return to Kahiki: Native Hawaiians in Oceania. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

10. Details can be found in “Diplomatic and Consular Representatives of Hawaii Abroad” Printed broadsheet dated 1 June 1887. Copy in Miscellaneous Foreign 1890, FO&Ex, Hawai‘i State Archives.

11. Kanalu Young, Kuleana: Towards a Historiography of Hawaiian National Consciousness. Hawaiian Journal of Law and Politics, Vol. 2 (Summer 2006): 1-33, p. 18.

12. Ralph Simpson Kuykendall, The Hawaiian Kingdom 1874–1893, The Kalakaua Dynasty. 3, 1967, pp. 465-66.

13. Jonathan Osorio refers to the 1887 Bayonet coup and its ramifications as a process of “Dismembering [the] Lāhui [Hawaiian body politic]” in Jonathan Kay Kamakawiwo‘ole  Osorio  Dismembering Lāhui: A history of the Hawaiian Nation to 1887. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2002.

14. David and Alison Bashford Armitage (eds.) Pacific Histories: Ocean, Land, People. London and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, p. 17.

15. H. MacQuarrie, Sikaiana or Stewart Island. Journal of the Polynesian Society, Vol. 61, Nos. 3 and 4 (September and December 1952) pp. 209-221.

16. Gerald Horne, The White Pacific: U.S. Imperialism and Black Slavery in the South Seas after the Civil War. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2007, p. 166ff.

17.  Kealani R. Cook 2011a “Kahiki: Native Hawaiian Relations with other Pacific Islanders, 1850-1915.” Ph.D. dissertation in History, University of Michigan.

18. On this see also Karma Lekshe Tsomo (Ed.), Innovative Buddhist Women: Swimming Against the Stream, Curzon Press, Richmond (Surrey) 2000, pp. 235-248.

19. John J. Stephan, Hawaii Under the Rising Sun: Japan’s Plans for Conquest after Pearl Harbor. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press, 1984, p.18, p.142.

20. Stephan, 1984, pp. 157-158.


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