The State of Aloha
January in Hawai’i is the month for political violence. Let’s go back to 1893. That was when treasonous conspirators who had planned and plotted to take over the government led an insurrection against Queen Liliuokalani.
What was the spark that lit this seditionary fire? The queen told her cabinet that she going to reform the kingdom’s constitution to return more authority to the throne. This caused consternation among the business class in the kingdom.
A cabal of 13 white men (there were no women) calling itself the Committee of Safety formed to stop her attempt to reform the constitution. The committee believed the queen was acting like a tyrant.
Queen Liliuokalani tried to calm everyone down by explaining that she planned to reform the government within the framework of the already existing constitution. It didn’t work. The committee comprised of lawyers, businessmen and politicians had the pretext it wanted to overthrow the throne and annex the islands to the United States. The committee even justified its coup in the name of establishing law and order.
Americans stationed in the islands were in on it too. The marines and sailors invaded two days after the queen tried to institute reforms. The next day, the committee alongside a white militia known as the Honolulu Rifles moved into Aliiolani Hale, the building that now holds our state Supreme Court. While they would later declare it a bloodless revolution, there was the Hawaiian police officer Leialoha, who spotted a wagon full of firearms and tried to raise the alarm before being shot down by an insurrectionist.
A crowd gathered on King Street. The committee chairman stood outside the building and declared the queen deposed. A provisional government was “established,” and martial law was declared almost immediately. The queen wasn’t having it. She spurned their proclamation and called them out for what they had done: conducted an insurrection that overthrew a legitimate government.
Both the queen and the insurrectionists sent envoys to Washington. President Grover Cleveland was not pleased with what happened. After a tepid debate in Congress, the Americans decided to do nothing. They would not annex the islands as the insurrectionists had hoped and did not lift a finger to help restore the monarchy.
The insurrectionists were stuck. The provisional government gave way to the Republic of Hawai’i. It was a republic in name only. The constitution of this strange nation allowed the government to control “the supervision, registration, and control and identification of all persons, or any class or nationality of persons.” It could restrict where people could live and determine how long they could live there.
In the months that followed, loyalists planned to restore the monarchy by force. They were headed by Samuel Nowlein and Robert Wilcox, a Maui-born revolutionary who studied military tactics in Italy.
On Jan. 6, 1895, the police learned about the planned insurgency and went to investigate a house near Diamond Head in Waikiki. They found hidden weapons and were ready to arrest one of the men, when the loyalist insurgents attacked. A firefight erupted, killing one of the government officers. The military and police forces were driven back toward the beach at Waikiki.
The next day, President Sanford Dole declared martial law (again) and sent the military to put down the counterrevolution. Artillery shells rained down on Diamond Head. The insurgency forces did not give up and went on the move toward Honolulu.
The plan was to march toward the palace, surround the unlawful government and reinstate the throne. They were met with a force of military and police officers outside of town where Moiliili is today. Despite the casualties that day, the leaders and most of the loyalists escaped.
Fighting continued days later. On Jan. 9, government forces went into Manoa Valley and were fired upon by the loyalists who were hiding in the cliffs above them. The government managed to kill three insurgents. Once again, most were able to escape deep into the mountains.
The police went on a manhunt looking for the insurgents. Many loyalists were hungry and wild-looking after spending days on the run deep in the forests and among the steep cliffs of the Koolau Mountains. They did not find Nowlein and Wilcox until Jan. 14. The government also placed Liliuokalani under house arrest in the palace. By Jan. 20, the last of the insurgents surrendered.
The government moved swiftly. Wilcox was among the many convicted by military tribunal. He was sentenced to death, but it was commuted to 35 years. Three years into his sentence, he was pardoned because the United States pressured the government to appear lenient as a prerequisite for annexation.
In the end, we cannot forget that the violence brought on by the insurrectionists against the queen unleashed more violence in the failed counterrevolution. It helped no one.
* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer, currently with the Office of the Public Defender, who grew up on Maui. His email is email@example.com.