Save money on your next flight

Skyscanner is the world’s leading flight search engine, helping you find the cheapest flights to destinations all over the world.

The exotic and strategic Hawaiian Islands have long captured the imagination of Americans. But interest reached new heights in the final decade of the 19th century, culminating in the islands becoming an American territory in 1898.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: American interest in annexing Hawaii surged in the 1890s primarily due to economic and military factors. Hawaii’s sugar plantations were valuable for American business interests, while Pearl Harbor offered a prime Pacific naval base location.

In this comprehensive article, we’ll explore the confluence of forces – spanning political, economic, cultural, and military realms – underlying America’s rising interest in seizing these Pacific islands during the 1890s.

The Economic Attractiveness of Hawaiian Sugar and Pineapples

Valuable exports for American business

The Hawaiian islands were blessed with rich volcanic soil, plentiful rainfall, and year-round growing seasons – ideal conditions for cultivating sugarcane and pineapple crops. During the 1880s and 1890s, sugar became Hawaii’s most lucrative export.

By 1890, Hawaii was the leading exporter of cane sugar to the United States, supplying over 20 percent of America’s imported sugar.[1] Pineapple cultivation also took off in the late 1800s, quickly becoming another major export crop. Shipping pineapples to the mainland US generated handsome profits.

The thriving Hawaiian sugar and pineapple industries enticed American business interests. Several plantations were owned or financed by American businessmen, who recognized Hawaii’s potential as a critical supplier to meet rising American sugar demand.

Control of Hawaiian cropland could reap tremendous wealth.

Reciprocity Treaty of 1875 boosted trade

Trade ties deepened between Hawaii and the US through the landmark Reciprocity Treaty of 1875. Under this treaty, Hawaii exported sugar, rice, potatoes, bananas, wool and other goods tax-free to the United States. In return, Hawaiian ports were opened to American products duty-free.

The number of sugar plantations quintupled in Hawaii by 1890 compared to before the Treaty.[2] By removing tariffs, the Treaty stimulated booming commercial exchange.

The reciprocity pact aligned Hawaii’s economic fortunes ever-closer with the United States. American business profits ballooned from Hawaiian trade, fuelling later expansionist aims. Hawaii grew reliant on US markets too.

As the historian Samuel Kamakau remarked, the islands were already becoming “a dependency of the United States”.

McKinley Tariff threatened Hawaiian economy

This prosperous trade was jeopardized when the 1890 McKinley Tariff Act raised import taxes on foreign sugar entering America. The Hawaiian sugar industry panicked. Losing duty-free access to its #1 customer would destroy livelihoods across Hawaii’s plantations.

King Kalākaua even travelled to Washington D.C. to unsuccessfully lobby for Hawaii’s exemption from the Tariff.

The McKinley Tariff fiasco highlighted Hawaii’s economic dependence on American trade policy decisions. Seeking greater political control over Hawaii became more appealing to American expansionists wanting to secure lucrative access to Hawaii’s bountiful sugar and pineapple output.

The Strategic Importance of Pearl Harbor

Prime location to project naval power

Pearl Harbor’s location in the central Pacific provided an ideal base for the U.S. Navy to project its naval power across the region. As the largest natural harbor in the Pacific, it gave the navy a safe place to anchor a large fleet with room for expansion as the fleet grew in the early 20th century (History of Pearl Harbor).

From Pearl Harbor, U.S. ships could reach Asia within days and had broad access to shipping lanes across the Pacific.

Coaling stations enabled global reach

In the late 19th century, steam-powered ships still needed frequent refueling at coaling stations. Pearl Harbor’s location allowed the U.S. to establish coaling stations across the Pacific, enabling the great circle route to Asia and global naval reach.

As one naval officer noted in 1897, Pearl Harbor would enable coal-burning ships to “sail with full bunkers from our western coast, make a cruise in Oriental waters, and return without resorting to foreign coaling stations or paying tribute to any foreign nation” (The Opening of Pearl Harbor).

Fear of Japanese control

U.S. interest rose in the 1890s partly from fear that if they did not control Pearl Harbor, an expansionist Japan would. If Japan controlled such a strategic location in the central Pacific, it could project naval power far beyond its homeland and threaten vital U.S. economic and political interests across the Pacific.

Securing Pearl Harbor for exclusive U.S. use became a strategic priority to check Japanese influence and protect American interests (Acquisition of Hawaii).

Native Hawaiian Political Instability

Power struggles following King Kalākaua’s death

After King Kalākaua passed away in 1891, his sister Liliʻuokalani inherited the throne. However, many Hawaiian elites and American businessmen were wary of the new queen and concerned that she would try to restore native Hawaiian rule and roll back some of the policies favoring American interests that Kalākaua had adopted.

This set up a big power struggle in the early 1890s.

Overthrow of Queen Liliʻuokalani

The tensions came to a head in 1893 when a group composed mainly of Euro-Americans and native Hawaiians with American roots overthrew Queen Liliʻuokalani. They established a provisional government with the intention of annexing Hawaii to the United States.

The overthrowers were supported by the landing of American troops ostensibly to “protect American lives and property”.

Opportunity for American intervention

The instability in Hawaii’s monarchy gave the United States an opportunity to gain greater influence. Many Americans, including key figures in the government, argued Hawaii was vital for American business interests and security.

The native Hawaiian political crisis enabled them to press the case for taking control of the islands.

After the overthrow of Liliʻuokalani, President Cleveland strongly condemned the actions of the American troops and provisional government. However, his successor President McKinley took advantage of the uncertain political situation to push for the annexation of Hawaii in 1898.

Cultural and Religious Ties

American Protestant missionaries

In the early 19th century, American Protestant missionaries arrived in Hawaii to spread Christianity and Western values. They established churches, schools, and hospitals, gaining influence among native Hawaiians. Many Hawaiians converted to Christianity, adopting aspects of American culture.

By the 1890s, the missionaries and their descendants, often called “haoles,” had formed economic and political ties between Hawaii and the US.

Descendants pushing for annexation

The missionary descendants, as well as American businessmen who had settled in Hawaii, began pushing for the islands to be annexed by the US in order to promote business interests. They exerted influence over the Hawaiian monarchy and formed the Hawaiian League in 1893, dedicating themselves to overthrowing the Hawaiian queen in order to achieve annexation.

These pro-American settlers feared rising Japanese influence and thought US annexation would best protect their interests. Their activism demonstrate the cultural and religious bonds that had developed between Hawaiians and Americans.

Opposition from native Hawaiians

However, many native Hawaiians strongly opposed annexation, seeing it as a threat to their cultural identity and independence. The pro-American missionary descendants and businessmen often disregarded native Hawaiian interests, believing that American-style government and capitalism would be beneficial.

Native groups like Hui Aloha ʻĀina rallied to resist annexation. When Hawaii was annexed in 1898 following the overthrow of the monarchy, native Hawaiians protested, arguing that the US had illegally seized their land.

Cultural divides between Americans and native Hawaiians were apparent even as economic ties increased.

The Spanish-American War and Global Competition

War heightened desire for Pacific bases

The Spanish-American War of 1898 greatly increased American interest in acquiring naval bases in the Pacific Ocean. As the US went to war with Spain over Cuba and other territories, they realized controlling key ports and coaling stations in the Pacific would be crucial to project naval power abroad.

Places like Hawaii and Guam were seen as ideal resupply points for American warships.

Alfred Thayer Mahan, a renowned naval strategist, wrote extensively about the need for naval bases across the Pacific to protect American interests in China and other Asian markets. His writings were highly influential in spurring the desire to annex Hawaii as an essential Pacific base.

As one naval officer remarked, possessing Hawaii would allow the US to “checkmate Asiatic powers in any attempt to control the Pacific or threaten west coast cities.”

Fear of Japanese or British control

There was also a strong fear that if the US did not take Hawaii, a rival power like Japan or Britain might seize control. Back in the 1850s, the Hawaiian king proposed putting his islands under British protection. And by the 1890s, Japanese migration to Hawaii was increasing rapidly.

Either scenario was seen as a threat.

“Should Japan seize the islands, it would be a severe blow to American prestige and leadership in the Pacific,” wrote one congressman. Controlling the Hawaiian Islands was deemed vital for the security and defensive perimeter of west coast ports like San Francisco.

Letting a foreign rival gain influence was unacceptable.

McKinley’s decision accelerated by war

When the Spanish-American War erupted in 1898, President William McKinley had already been considering closer ties with Hawaii but still hesitant about outright annexation. However, the urgency of the war and sudden need for Pacific naval bases forced his hand.

Within two months, McKinley submitted an annexation treaty and the US formally absorbed Hawaii by mid-1898.

“It was the guns of Dewey at Manila and sampson at Santiago that decided McKinley,” one observer noted. Fears of European intervention and losing Hawaiian ports to rivals also weighed heavily. As one senator argued, annexing Hawaii “was demanded by our future safety and welfare as a nation.”

The war’s outbreak accelerated long-standing interests.


As we’ve explored, American interest in seizing Hawaii surged in the 1890s due to an intersection of rising economic investments, military strategic concerns, political instability, cultural ties, and global imperial competition.

What had been a trickle of American settlers and traders in prior decades accelerated into a flood by the early 20th century. The consequence was the end of Hawaii’s sovereignty as an independent nation and its new status as an American colonial holding.

Modern debates continue around whether this was an ethical outcome, but the manifold of forces underlying 19th century American interest in the islands is undeniable.

Sharing is caring!

Similar Posts