Wednesday, February 8, 2012

February 25, 1843 – Paulet Seizes Hawai’i over American Protest

Since its discovery for the West by Captain James Cook in 1778, Hawaii, then known as the Sandwich Islands, served as an important harbor in the Pacific Ocean. The island chain was united soon after the coming of the Europeans by King Kamehameha the Great in 1795 after deposing his cousin and militarily dominating the other chieftains. Meanwhile, Europeans used the island as a port in the vast Pacific, refilling their stores aboard merchant ships and whaling vessels. Along with the Europeans came diseases that devastated the population, which had never experienced flu, small pox, and measles before. Missionaries soon arrived on the islands, aiding the sick and spreading the Word, converting even King Kamehameha III in 1833 after a youth of raucous rebellion.

Kamehameha III would prove to be the final native king of the islands. In 1843, Captain Lord George Paulet arrived aboard the HMS Carysfort to settle land claim disagreements between British citizen Richard Charlton and the Hawaiians. Paulet won an audience with Kamehameha by way of American translator Gerrit P. Judd, who had come to Hawaii as a missionary-physician and eventually served as a chief minister in Kamehameha’s government. Paulet had been warned by Charlton that Judd was acting as a dictator and refused the audience, listing specifically the demands of British citizens and writing to the USS Boston also in harbor that he was “prepared to make an immediate attack upon this town, at 4 o'clock P.M. to-morrow, (Saturday) in the event of the demands now forwarded by me to the King of these Islands not being complied with by that time.” Rather than fight, however, he received word that the Hawaiians would negotiate, and Paulet began three days of meetings that culminated in Kamehameha ceding the islands to British control.

Kamehameha announced, “"Where are you, chiefs, people, and commons from my ancestors, and people from foreign lands? Hear ye! I make known to you that I am in perplexity by reason of difficulties into which I have been brought without cause, therefore I have given away the life of our land. Hear ye! but my rule over you, my people, and your privileges will continue, for I have hope that the life of the land will be restored when my conduct is justified.”

Worries arose about the rights of Americans and others living on the islands, however, not mentioned in Kamehameha’s announcement. A march that night turned into a riot as drunken protestors turned weapons on Paulet’s men. Paulet responded with a bombardment from the Carysfort that scattered the rabble and left two natives and one American worker, all affiliated with the growing sugar plantations on the east side of Oahu, dead in the streets. Before dawn the next morning, Paulet set out to find the source of the protest, arresting Judd as well as anyone who disobeyed British rule and keeping them carefully watched for revolutionary behavior. Rumor circulated that Charlton had instigated the fight to blame it on the Americans, but there was little proof one way or another, and Paulet meant primarily to keep Hawaii peacefully within the British Empire. He destroyed any Hawaiian flag his men were able to find and ended the land-claim issues by clearing out 156 people on Charlton’s property.

Paulet dispatched Alexander Simpson to London to affirm the annexation and kept Americans from sailing with him, holding traders in the capital while his clerks reviewed business practices. While Paulet could prevent shipping from leaving Hawaii, a few traveled secretly, spreading the rumors of the British takeover. In July, the USS Constellation came into port, followed by the USS United States, carrying American Commodore Thomas ap Catesby Jones, who had mistakenly captured Monterrey from Mexico the year before. Just after, Paulet’s superior, Rear-Admiral Richard Darton Thomas, arrived in Honolulu to observe what had become a standoff between the British and Americans.

The standoff would be resolved in London, where Foreign Secretary Lord Aberdeen had answered the boundary dispute between Maine and New Brunswick with the Webster-Ashburton Treaty only the year before. Among his many other issues was the Oregon Dispute of overlapping territory claims beyond the Rocky Mountains. Discussions finally turned to dividing the islands, as they did with Oregon. The British would control the smaller islands, while Americans gained the Big Island of Hawaii, where Kamehameha III moved his court and became elected to the new territorial government as a representative. The French called for a reinstatement of independence, but further diplomacy ensured rights to Catholic missionaries and merchants there.

After the shuffling of Americans off Oahu to resettle in Hilo, the islands continued to be a bustling center for Pacific trade. Tension rose between the growers there, but international diplomacy headed off war potential war in the 1890s. After the Japanese raid on Midway in 1941 in which British patrols detected the fleet and gave adequate warning to the US, Hawaii became an important staging ground for the Allies with more Americans than ever stationed in hastily built bases while the British guard was minimized to aid the war effort in Europe. After the war, Britain began the process of decolonization, and, for the first time in over a century, Kamehameha’s descendants were allowed to return to Oahu, though Hilo continues to be the bustling center of the modern tourism-oriented islands.


In reality, there were no riots, and Judd worked in diplomatic secrecy to sneak merchant James F. B. Marshall aboard the same ship carrying British agent Alexander Simpson. Marshall spread word to the American press and traveled to London to plead the Hawaiians’ case. Rear-Admiral Thomas arrived to apologize to Kamehameha III and officially return his kingdom.

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