The Empire of the Calabash
How prospered the alliance grand
Among the Chiefs of Isles of sand
By the eternal trade winds fanned:
How there among the breaker’s dash
Is planted, now with armed clash
The Empire of the Calabash!
— Anonymous anti-Hawaiian-expansionist poem published in the Hawaiian Gazette, 1887
The 1880s were not a good decade to be a non-European country. Colonialism had entered its final push; “the good parts” of the world had been parcelled out more than a century ago, and now Europe’s attention turned to the leftovers. The Scramble for Africa got underway at the Berlin Conference in 1884. Southeast Asia was subdivided between the British, French, and Dutch. The nations of the Pacific Ocean had long resisted European control, partly from sheer distance and partly because they were so small (and so the same for any profits they’d bring). But now it was their turn.
In the central Pacific, Hawaii had a pre-eminent position. It was still independent, an internationally recognized kingdom that was larger and more populous than anything else east of the International Date Line or north of the equator. In all of Polynesia only New Zealand’s Maori had more potential strength than the Hawaiians—and the Maori had been under the control of the British since the 1840s. As it became more and more clear that the remaining unclaimed islands in the Pacific were in danger of falling under European control, some Hawaiians resolved to do something about it.
Kalākaua I was the elected king of Hawaii at the time, and his Prime Minister was Walter Murray Gibson. Both were characters, to say the least. Gibson had come to Hawaii in 1861 as part of an elaborate con on the Church of Latter-Day Saints, in which he was dispatched to the island of Lānaʻi to found a Mormon colony. He was eventually excommunicated for heresy, only to reveal that the large tracts of Hawaiian land bought by the Church were in his name. For the rest of his life, he was a powerful man in the islands. Kalākaua, meanwhile, had launched what is sometimes called the First Hawaiian Renaissance—an Indian summer of native culture after several decades of decline which was, unfortunately, was based on the backs of Chinese and (later) Japanese immigrants. He was much like Charles II of England in miniature: a flighty sensualist who nevertheless presided over a highly creative period in his country. The analogy wasn’t lost on his contemporaries, who dubbed him “The Merrie Monarch” in imitation of his 17th century counterpart.
Both Kalākaua and Gibson were interested in Hawaiian greatness as a way of extending their own reputations. Being annexed to the US ran counter to that, so they first tried counterbalancing American and British influence over the Kingdom by proposing to Japan a “Union and Federation of Asiatic Nations and Sovereigns” during a visit by Kalākaua to Emperor Meiji in 1881. This was wildly ambitious, and the Japanese themselves were really only beginning their own self-strengthening process, so they were unenthusiastic about the proposal.
Rebuffed, Hawaii returned to a process that had begun years before. The Kingdom of Hawaii, as originally constituted, contained only the eight main Hawaiian islands, from Hawaii to Ni’ihau. Starting with Kamehameha IV in the 1850s, though, it began extending itself through the smaller, uninhabited islands trailing north and west of the main group. That king had annexed Nihoa, and so in 1886 Kalākaua felt free to annex all the rest as far as Mokupāpapa (modern-day Kure Atoll)—except for Midway Island, which had been taken by the Americans in 1867 under the Guano Islands Act.
More interesting to Kalākaua was another odd event during Kamehameha IV’s time that gave the later king an excuse to look farther afield. The island of Sikaiana is a tiny atoll off the coast of Malaita in the Solomon Islands. Though it’s some 5600 kilometers from Hawaii, in 1857 a rogue Hawaiian ambassador of French and British descent, Charles St. Julian, had convinced the chief of Sikaiana (acting on behalf of perhaps 100 of his people) to ask Hawaii for annexation. King Kamehameha IV accepted and then, due to the enormous stretch of ocean between the two, nothing ever came of it. King Kalākaua, however, was the sort who could confuse appearance with actuality, and he decided to build on this nascent Polynesian Federation.
Now far to the south of Hawaii was Samoa, which by 1886 was in danger of being taken over by either Germany or the United States. Germany had only just entered the colonial race and was dead-set on snapping up what little of the world wasn’t already under someone else’s control, while the harbour of Pago Pago in the east of the island chain was—next to Pearl Harbor—the most important stopping-over point for American traders in the Pacific. Just to complicate the situation further, New Zealand was anxious to control the islands themselves, and so even though the British weren’t very keen on bringing Samoa into the Empire political considerations meant they felt the need to stick an oar in.
So what were arguably then the three most powerful nations on earth were squabbling over exactly who would get what when Kalākaua and Gibson decided that Samoa really should be part of the Kingdom of Hawaii. If they convinced the Samoans to sign up, then they’d try Tonga too, and who knew where it would go after that?
Germany’s strategy in Samoa had been to support a rebel chief, Tamasese Titimaea, against the king of Samoa, Malietoa Laupepa. Kalākaua, being a Polynesian monarch himself and interested in bolstering his own legitimacy, decided to back the Malietoa (in both those previous names, the first section is part hereditary family name and part title). He first arranged for an ambassador to Samoa, and made sure it was known that the ambassador was being sent to Laupepa. Similarly, he inducted the Samoan monarch into the Royal Order of the Star of Oceania, a knightly order on the European model which Kalākaua had invented for the specific purpose of expanding Hawaiian influence in the Pacific.
Most importantly, though, he decided to copy the signature move of colonial powers in the 19th century: gunboat diplomacy. Hawaii outfitted the one and only long-distance armed ship in its history, the Ka’imiloa (“Far Seeker” or “Explorer”) and sent it on a voyage to Apia harbour—the de facto capital of the larger, western Samoan islands—to make its presence known among the other warships there.
That was the theory, anyway. Ka’imiloa had begun its life as a British steam-driven guano trader, the Explorer, and had only become a “warship” after being purchased by the Hawaiian government and outfitted with six cannons and two gatling guns. Four of the cannons would be traded en route for more provisions, namely live pigs. Contrast it with, say, one of the German ships assigned to Samoa, the SMS Adler, which was five times the size and likely never once swapped any armament for livestock. Whatever its rulers’ ambitions, Hawaii was an underdeveloped country with a population of under 100,000 people. For that matter, the Kingdom’s limited resources extended to its personnel.
The captain of the Ka’imiloa was George Edward Gresley Jackson, who had the advantage of being a former lieutenant in the British navy. Unfortunately, he was also a raging alcoholic of the “Hey! I could sell the ship’s supplies to buy booze!” variety (hence the bacon-related scandal). On top of that, he was head of the Honolulu Reformatory School and brought twenty-four of his “students” with him as seamen—over a third of everyone on board.
Heavily laden with coal, the Ka’imiloa lumbered out of Pearl Harbour on May 18th, 1887. Captain Jackson was apparently so drunk that he was physically incapable of navigating for the first eleven days of the voyage, then it turned out that the ship’s chronometers were broken and navigation was going to be quite tricky. The ship eventually made it to Apia on June 15th. Now that he was back in range of land and his beloved alcohol, Captain Jackson “fell ill” and discipline on the ship went to pieces. The reform school sailors clashed with the contingent of Hawaiian marines on board, the marines would jump overboard and swim to shore to carouse, and before long the entire crew mutinied—only the much bigger Adler (and, more to the point, her guns) pulling alongside was able to restore order.
Even before that fiasco, Walter Murray Gibson had had second thoughts about provoking the German Empire and had ordered the recall of the Ka’imiloa before it had reached Apia. Communication times in the South Pacific being what they were at the time, it was a couple of months before the new orders caught up to it. By then the Hawaiian ambassador, John E. Bush, had actually convinced Malietoa Laupepa to sign a treaty of confederation with Hawaii, but all that did was provoke the Germans into forcing his abdication and replacement by Tamasese on September 15th, 1887. By then, the Ka’imiloa and the Hawaiian ambassador had already followed instructions and returned to Honolulu. They’d done enough damage to the Hawaiian cause that there was now no thought of sending them out again. The ship was sold to an inter-island merchant, then eventually her steam engine was removed and used to power a sugar mill.
The other actors in the play had similar fates. Samoa would eventually be divided between Germany and the US (Britain received various concessions from Germany in return for giving up on the islands entirely), though not before the three countries nearly came to blows. Only the 1889 Apia Cyclone, which wrecked the warships engaged in a game of Mexican standoff in Apia Harbour, gave the three an excuse to stand down and wait for the situation in the islands to simmer down. This, unfortunately, consigned the Samoans to continuing civil war for another decade. Tamasese Titimaea would prove to have a mind of his own, to the point that Malietoa Laupepa was eventually returned to power and ended the war with the help of the Germans—in other words, all the fighting ultimately led back to where everyone was originally, except that the king was now under the control of a colonial power.
King Kalākaua himself was facing revolution by the end of 1887, and the so-called Bayonet Constitution stripped him of any real power. He died in 1891, and Hawaii’s colonization was just a matter of time after that. When the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898, the usefulness of Hawaii as a naval base for the control of the Spanish Philippines was too obvious. The first American troops arrived in the Philippines on the 30th of June; Hawaii was annexed eight days later.