American Sugar Barons Take Over Hawaii

Appears in

Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets

Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets

By Darra Goldstein

Published 2015

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The Civil War that devastated Louisiana’s sugar industry fueled Hawaii’s, which skyrocketed as it strove to satisfy the voracious appetites of the sugar-deprived North and gold-enriched California. Many of the new planters were Americans who, in 1875, over the bitter opposition of Louisiana and other southern states, succeeded in winning duty-free status for bringing Hawaiian sugar into the United States.
The politics of sugar in late-nineteenth-century Hawaii were so brutal that President Bill Clinton apologized for them in the late twentieth century. In 1887 the Hawaiian League, a quasi-secret, American-dominated cabal of sugar planters, forced Hawaii’s king to accept the “bayonet constitution,” which transferred most of his power to a cabinet they dominated, granted voting rights to non-Asian foreigners, and imposed heavy property qualifications that eliminated most native Hawaiians. Four years later, Queen Lili’uokalani, King Kalakaua’s sister and successor, attempted to abolish the “bayonet constitution” and to limit American political power in Hawaii. The sugar plantocracy, outraged, arranged for U.S. Marines to overthrow Lili’uokalani, who was forced to abdicate. President Grover Cleveland later called Lili’uokalani’s ouster “an act of war” perpetrated on behalf of the Hawaiian sugar interests. But the American sugar barons wanted even more: free access to the huge American market, and they lobbied hard until the United States annexed Hawaii, which in 1900 became an American territory.