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First colonized around 200 A.D. by intrepid Polynesian islanders, Hawaii existed for hundreds of years in splendid isolation. Foreigners did not visit the islands until 1788, when Captain Cook, looking for the fabled Northwest Passage, stumbled upon this nation with its own belief system and culture. Three decades later, fourteen Calvinist missionaries left Boston bound for Hawaii, and when they arrived they converted the royal family to Christianity, and set up missionary schools where English was taught. A thriving monarchy had ruled over Hawaii for generations. Taro fields and fish ponds had long sustained native Hawaiians but sugar plantations had been gradually subsuming them. This fractured, vulnerable Hawaii was the country that Queen Lili‘uokalani, or Lili‘u, inherited when she came to power at the end of the nineteenth century. Her predecessor had signed away many of the monarchy’s rights, but while Lili‘u was trying to put into place a constitution that would reinstate them, other factions were plotting annexation. With the help of the American envoy, the USS Boston steamed into Honolulu harbor, and Marines landed and marched to the palace, inciting the Queen’s overthrow. The annexation of Hawaii was extremely controversial; the issue caused heated debates in the Senate and President Cleveland gave a strongly worded speech opposing it. This was the first time America had reached beyond the borders of the continental U.S. in an act of imperialism. It was not until President McKinley was elected and the Spanish-American War erupted, that Hawaii became a critical strategic asset, and annexation finally passed Congress in 1898.
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Julia Flynn Siler is an award-winning journalist. Her book, The House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty was a New York Times bestseller. She has written for Business Week and The New York Times, and is now a contributing writer for The Wall Street Journal in San Francisco. She lives in Northern California with her husband and sons.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The queen was back at the palace, just a few blocks from Honolulu Harbor, having been rebuffed two days earlier in her attempt to introduce a new constitution. Hearing the beat of the American military drums, she stepped onto the veranda and watched from above as the troops marched from the harbor. As they kicked up dust in the unpaved streets, she could see they were heavily weighed down with double belts of cartridges. The sun sank and the skies over Honolulu darkened. The blue-jacketed sailors approached the palace.
Beneath the town’s newly installed electric streetlamps, Lili uokalani could see them pushing a revolving cannon and a fearsome Gatling gun that could rip through a large crowd. Following their movements in the streets, she felt fear. Why had the troops landed when everything seemed at peace? The air was heavy with the scent of gardenias. Mosquitoes were drawn to the sweat of the blue-jacketed sailors. As the troops marched past the palace grounds, accompanied by drum rolls, they hoisted their rifles to their shoulders and seemed to point them in the queen’s direction.
Were their weapons drawn and ready to fire, as Lili uokalani later recalled? Or were they merely signaling their respect for Hawai i’s queen by marching past and beating the drums in a royal salute, as one of their commanding officers later insisted? Whatever their intention, this brash display of military power ignited a crisis that would change the course of American history.
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