Opium and the Overthrow
More than a century ago, a conspiracy surrounding drug prohibition helped undo the Hawaiian monarchy
January 14, 2010
This week, 117 years ago, was a tumultuous time in Hawaii's history.
A series of events, concentrated within fewer days than the shelf life of this paper edition, culminated at 6pm on January 17, 1893, when Queen Liliuokalani effectively abdicated her authority and so ended monarchal rule in the Hawaiian islands.
On that day, as presented in Appendix B to her autobiographical account, Hawaii's Story by Hawaii's Queen, Liliuokalani signed the following protest:
I, Liliuokalani, by the grace of God and under the constitution of the Hawaiian kingdom Queen, do hereby solemnly protest against any and all acts done against myself and the constitutional government of the Hawaiian kingdom by certain persons claiming to have established a Provisional Government of and for this kingdom.
… Now, to avoid any collision of armed forces, and perhaps the 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.
Annexationists used three controversial bills to make their case against the queen. The first two public charges addressed Liliuokalani's promulgation of a new constitution (to which she asserted that "two-thirds of my people declared dissatisfaction with the old one; as well they might…") and the signing of a lottery bill (Liliuokalani, among other defenses, wrote that "[w]e were petitioned and besought to grant it by most of the mercantile class of the city—shopkeepers, mechanics, manufacturers—in fact, all the middle class of the people.")
It is the third argument made against Liliuokalani where the smoke of conspiracy thickens, as it regards the Opium Licensing Bill and her "propos[al] to issue licenses for the importation and sale of opium."
To create the drug, opiate alkaloids are derived from the dried latex obtained by lacerating the immature, scepter-shaped seedpods of the opium poppy. So prevalent was the use and trafficking of opium that in 1839 and 1858, China and Britain engaged in the two Opium Wars (also called the Anglo-Chinese Wars).
"I did think it would be wise to adopt measures for restricting and controlling a trade which it is impossible to suppress," wrote Liliuokalani. "With a Chinese population of over twenty thousands persons, it is absolutely impossible to prevent smuggling, unlawful trade, bribery, corruption and every abuse."
However, those connected to the underground opium trade—"some of the most prominent citizens," as Liliuokalani wrote—stood to suffer huge losses at the hand of regulation.
Liliuokalani wrote of "frauds unearthed even in the custom-house," and said confiscated opium had been sold in British Columbia by "sons of the missionaries" for $50,000.
An article published in The New York Times on September 26, 1879—originally from the September 17 edition of the San Francisco Bulletin—reported that "importation of opium into the islands is interdicted," and that while opium in San Francisco could be purchased for "about $14 a pound," it would "bring $60 or more per pound at the islands."
Many "ingenious" devices were employed for such a "remunerative" venture as opium smuggling in Hawaii. For example, the aforementioned story that piqued curiosity from the West to East coasts entailed "20 dozen men's stogy brogans, having large wide heels, consigned to a Chinese firm… the heels of the shoes were hollow, and when sent to Honolulu contained about a quarter pound of opium."
The article concluded that the methods were "an old device, having been resorted to years ago in this port," and estimated that the specific undertaking in question "[had] realized in the neighborhood of $3,000, less expenses."
A much larger number has been linked to Liliuokalani's late brother, King Kalakaua, and his "action on opium licenses," says the report Diplomatic And Congressional History: From Monarchy to Statehood, by the Naval Historical Research Branch. Earlier bribery scandals associated with Kalakaua—to the tune of $75,000, in one case—boded ill against the queen later on.
Page four of the May 17, 1887 edition of the Hawaiian Gazette reads, "To cap the climax in the opium matter, the Attorney General proceeds to acknowledge that the money was paid over by the Chinese."
Further editorial condemns Kalakaua and "Junius Kaae, previously conspicuous for nothing except being a 'Palace hanger on,' (since promoted to the office of Registrar of Deeds)," saying "[t]he opium bribery scandal has long been before the public… This matter is such a degradation to the country that we have hesitated heretofore to state the cold facts… backed by sixty odd pages of sworn affidavits, by fourteen persons…"
However, a September 5, 1887 article in the San Francisco Chronicle states, "not one of the Honolulu journals dared to reprint the comments of the American press on the so called revolution… the man who looks for facts in the Honolulu journals will not find them."
As for Liliuokalani, in Hawaii's Story by Hawaii's Queen, she writes of the days she was dethroned, making final contest against the opium scandals, saying, "the British government has long since adopted license instead of prohibition, and the statute proposed among the final acts of my government was drawn from one used in the British colonies; yet I have still to learn that there has been any proposition on the part of the pious people of London to dethrone Her Majesty Queen Victoria for issuing such licenses."
There remains one more curl of smoke twisted between opium and the overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom: Four and a half years later, on June 16, 1897, was done in duplicate in Washington D.C. the Treaty of Annexation of Hawai'i. Curiously, of only seven articles, Article V. reads: "There shall be no further immigration of Chinese into the Hawaiian Islands, except upon such conditions as are now or may hereafter be allowed by the laws of the United States, and no Chinese, by reason of anything herein contained, shall be allowed to enter the United States from the Hawaiian Islands."
It is the only reference to race or national origin—of any sort, American, Hawaiian or otherwise—in the entirety of the treaty. - MauiTime, Anu Yagi
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