Pacific Postcards

The Bayonet Constitution: The Beginning of the Illegal Overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom (Jolie Numasaki)

On July 7th, 1887, the New Hawaiian Constitution was signed and adopted by King Kalākaua with guns pointed at him and the threat of harm to him and his people by the Hawaiian League; a group of wealthy haole (people of non-Hawaiian ancestry, but typically are of European descent) businessmen, and landowners. This new Constitution changed voting laws that disenfranchised Native Hawaiians and Asian immigrants and also extended the right to vote to foreigners who were not naturalized in Hawai‘i. Commonly referred to as the Bayonet Constitution because of the duress that Kalākaua was coerced to sign it under, the 1887 Hawaiian Constitution stripped the King of power and detrimentally changed who could participate in the government. The Bayonet Constitution of 1887 is the epitome of how white foreigners felt they were entitled to Hawaiian land and resources and undermined indigenous sovereignty to achieve their capitalist agenda.

In Article 59 of the Constitution, the requirements for electors are laid out; stating that to be eligible to vote you must be a male of Hawaiian, American, or European descent, be literate in the Hawaiian, English, or European language, and own land. This provision limits voting rights and thus the voices of Native Hawaiians and Asian immigrants that fueled the sugar economy. The Constitution also stated that voters needed to swear allegiance to the new Constitution which caused conflicting views; even if some Native Hawaiians wanted to vote, some did not because they disagreed with the changes in the Constitution and argued against its legality due to the coercion that Kalākaua signed it under. This provision actively excluded a large portion of Native Hawaiians from their right to vote because they either did not meet the eligibility requirements or did not want to support the new Constitution. While the Constitution stripped many kānaka (Native Hawaiians) the power to vote, it was granted to wealthy, landowning, non-citizens of Hawaii, allowing foreigners to elect officials that will cater to their capitalist interests. This section of the Constitution deliberately strips kānaka of a voice in their government to transfer power to haole businessmen. But as Jonathan Kay Kamakawiwo‘ole Osorio analyzes the events that led to the signing of the Constitution in his book Dismembering Lahui, he acknowledges that “for kānaka, the Bayonet Constitution was much more than a change in voting rights or the king’s powers and prerogatives. It was the final demonstration of their helplessness with regard to the haole, and that their own government and their sense of national identity counted for little” (Osario, 241). The Bayonet Constitution is a pivotal moment in Hawaii’s history because it marks the beginning of the end of Hawaii’s sovereignty. 

David Kalākaua was the second King to be elected following the death of William Lunalilo which brought an end to the Kamehameha dynasty in Hawai‘i. By this time, foreigners were already heavily involved in Hawaii’s politics. Haoles ran the sugarcane business which flourished in Hawaii’s tropical climate. Sugarcane was the cash crop of the Pacific, and Hawaii’s climate provided the perfect place for Western businessmen to invest in and many of them were annexationists. But why annex Hawai‘i to the U.S.? American businessmen believed that they could make more money on sugar cane without the tariffs and anti-monarchists wanted to strip away power from the King and turn Hawai‘i into a “democratically” run nation where haoles could gain more power. To achieve their goal, members of the Hawaiian League drafted a version of the constitution that would grant more legislative power to the cabinet and render the king as a figurehead. This undermines the long history of the Hawaiian monarchy and the importance of mō‘ī (king) and ali‘i (chief or chiefess) to Hawaiian culture. 

Osario makes an interesting argument as to why the haoles chose to push for change specifically during Kalākaua’s reign. Many people, both kānaka and haoles, were upset with Kalākaua for spending government money on his coronation nine years after he was first crowned king. The coronation celebrated not only Kalākaua’s reign but also the resurgence of Hawaiian culture that had previously been banned due to the missionaries’ belief that Native Hawaiian cultural practices, such as hula, were unchristian and uncivilized. But Osorio views the coronation as a way that the king was reaching out to his Native subjects, providing an arena in which they,

"could all come together and share an appreciation for the things that made them Hawaiian. It is not at all coincidental that the very aspects fo the coronation that the haole objected to, the hula… the expense, were precisely those things that made it possible for over 5,000 people, most of them kānaka, to enjoy the hospitality of a ruling Mō’ī for the first time in anyone’s memory (Osorio, 207)."

Kalākaua’s ceremony was a show of Hawaiian nationalism, something that the haole resented. The King represents Hawai‘i’s sovereignty which unified kānaka, but his power scared the haole businessmen, who created a plan to reduce the king’s power. In Article 31 of the Bayonet Constitution, Executive power is granted to both the King and now the Cabinet members, who can not be removed by the King without a legislative vote as stated in Article 41. The drafters of the Constitution ensured that they would be able to be elected and hold positions without interference from the King. 

The Hawaiian League was a secret society “whose apparent goal was ‘Constitutional, representative Government, in fact as well as in form, in the Hawaiian Islands, by all necessary means” (Osario) and were the group of haoles responsible for the coercion of King Kalakaua to sign the Consitution of 1887 which they authored. Comprised of lawyers, businessmen, sugarcane plantations, and landowners within the Missionary party and the Committee of Safety, the Hawaiian League held powerful roles in controlling Hawaii’s economy by buying land and monopolizing industries. Prominent members include Lorrin Thurston and Sanford Dole, who were a part of the Hawai‘i Legislative Assembly in 1886. Within the league, there was a variety of opinions about the course of action that should be taken to achieve their goal of controlling the Hawaiian government. Some wanted to remove Walter Gibson, a prominent advisor to Kalākaua, whom they believed was corrupting the King, but others in the league had more extreme ideas for the future of Hawai‘i and argued that annexation to the U.S. would be the most beneficial to their agenda. The members of the Hawaiian League called on the Honolulu Rifles (which was the kingdom’s armed unit because the military had been disbanded by previous rulers) to a meeting with Kalākaua and forced him to sign the Constitution. The members saw the new Constitution as a revolutionary document that would change Hawaii’s government and allow for more haole businessmen to gain representation in the government by changing voting laws to silence kānaka’s opposition to the new Constitution. 

The Hawaiian Gazette, a newspaper that published anti-monarchy rhetoric, published a copy of the new Constitution the day it was signed. After the Bayonet Constitution was signed, they fully supported the new form of government and the white businessmen that gained power. Two members of the Hawaiian League; William Castle, and Sanford Dole ran the paper and push pro-annexation propaganda to the public. The publication of the new Constitution serves as an accomplishment for the Missionary party who sought to diminish the King’s role in Hawaii’s government and give power to the legislative body that was comprised of mostly foreigners. Although there were newspapers printed in the Hawaiin language and run by kānaka, predominantly white men ran the media industry and education in Hawai‘i. This gave haole’s control of the narrative of the power change in the government where they published propaganda in an attempt to convince the public that the Constitution was in the best interest of all residents of Hawai‘i.

The Bayonet Constitution is an example of American expansionism and the prioritization of a capitalist economy over the rights of the indigenous people. Hawai‘i became a U.S. territory in 1893 which was a part of a large-scale global expansion of U.S. outreach during the Spanish-American war. Daniel Immerwahr argues that the “Greater United States” has territories so far from the “mainland” U.S. they appear as little boxes in the corner. The outreach of the U.S. into the Pacific was a continuation of manifest destiny where Americans felt entitled to explore and settle westward, which continued into the Pacific. The annexation of Hawai‘i shows how the island and its people were viewed as a militaristic opportunity for the U.S. to gain power over other Western countries as they colonized the Pacific. The Bayonet Constitution is an example of how Westerners infiltrated indigenous governments and asserted their own agendas to gain access to indigenous land and resources. 

The Hawaiian Consitution of 1887 illustrates the essence of Western imperialism onto indigenous land through forceful and illegal means. With the new Constitution, haole businessmen and landowners effectively gained enough power in the government so that in 1893 they could successfully overthrow Queen Lili‘uokalani in a coup and subsequently illegally annex Hawai‘i to the United States. This particular print of the Constitution perpetuates the success of haoles in Hawai‘i and subjugates the (in)visibility of kānaka in their homeland. Native Hawaiians attempted to invalidate the constitution rightfully citing that a legal document can not be signed under coercion, but their arguments got them nowhere in attempting to reverse the Constitution. This foreshadows the illegal overthrow of Queen Lili‘uokalani and U.S. President Grover Cleaveland acknowledging Hawai‘i’s illegal occupation but not taking any action to reverse the damage done by the United States.

Link to Primary Source: 

Works Cited:

Immerwahr, Daniel. “The Greater United States: Territory and Empire in U.S. History.” Diplomatic History, vol. Volume 40, 2016, pp. 373–391. Oxford Academic,

Osorio, Jonathan Kay Kamakawiwo‘ole. “Bayonet.” Dismembering Lahui: A History of the Hawaiian Nation to 1887, University of Hawai’i Press, 2002, pp. 193–249,

The Hawaiian gazette. [volume] (Honolulu [Oahu, Hawaii]), 07 July 1887. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <>

The Learning Network. “Jan. 17, 1893 | Hawaiian Monarchy Overthrown by America-Backed Businessmen.” The New York Times, 17 January 2012, Accessed 20 September 2021.

Wong, Helen, and Ann Rayson. Hawaii's Royal History. Bess Press, 1987.


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