Skip to main content

Reviewed by James W. White


William Michael Morgan, Pacific Gibraltar: US-Japanese Rivalry Over the Annexation of Hawaii, 1885-1898. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, ISBN 978-1-59114-529-5, 2011, 330 pp., $34.95.

In this book, William Morgan offers a plausible, readable analysis of the annexation of Hawaii by the United States in 1898. He begins by noting the stunning strategic position of the archipelago: no other spot in the world dominates such a vast space so absolutely, and in the late 19th century age of steam (and consequent importance of coaling stations), US control of the islands (and especially Pearl Harbor) made the American west coast (and later the Panama Canal) essentially impervious to attack. Still, there was nothing inevitable about annexation, and Morgan addresses—successfully, in my view—both both the causation and the timing thereof. Morgan’s analysis proceeds on three levels: the global—economics, imperialist designs, technological change, disease, and population movement all played a role—the US national, including strategic thought, trade policy, and ideology; and the local Hawaiian, featuring racial and political conflict. Three themes run throughout the analysis: the overall primacy of geostrategic factors, the conflicts between native Hawaiians, Asians, and whites; and American rivalry with a rising Japan.

In chapters 1-4 Morgan sets the stage. In the century after Captain Cook’s arrival in 1778 three trends dominated: the horrific decline of the native population in the face of imported disease (the native population declined by perhaps 90%, to less than one-fifth of the total); the gradual emergence of sugar as the core of the economy, which entailed the rising role and desire for power of the white grower stratum and its allies; and the rapid growth of the immigrant Japanese labor force until, by the 1890s, it constituted a non-citizen, disenfranchised plurality of the total population. By the 1880s a tense status quo had emerged: a limited native monarchy in acute tension with much of the white population, a subordinate Japanese population, growing but regulated by Hawaiian-Japanese agreement, and a predominant role for the US, which would brook no foreign interference, in Hawaiian foreign affairs.

Chapters 5-9 trace in great detail—sometimes day by day—domestic Hawaiian politics in the 1880s and early 1890s, culminating in the deposition of the Queen in an 1893 “revolution” by white dissidents (who wanted US-style government, capitalist economic development, and Western religious and legal norms) in the face of the Queen’s unilateral action in promulgating a new constitution which would, on the contrary, enhance her powers and the role of native Hawaiians in politics. The revolution was preceded by coups and counter-coups, and followed by an abortive attempt to restore the monarch and another to get the US to annex the islands, and by a new constitution, which further limited native Hawaiian political influence. It gets a little confusing, the cast of characters is sometimes a little difficult to remember, and those interested primarily in geostrategic matters might do well to skim this material.

The balance of the book returns more to the global and US national levels. The context of Hawaiian politics at the time was the emergence of steam-driven naval power, battleships with long-range naval artillery, the tremendously influential ideas of Alfred Thayer Mahan (a huge fan of Hawaii’s strategic value), American designs on an isthmian canal, and the spread of social Darwinism on the racial (with Hawaiians and Asians among the lesser races) and national levels—unsurprisingly, the US saw itself as the fittest, and its survival necessitated control of Hawaii. Nevertheless, all this was compatible with the continued independence of Hawaii under US “protection,” as long as the immigrant Japanese could be kept in their place and the sugar economy continued to thrive. The US was intent on fending off foreign designs on Hawaii, but colonialism was not yet a major force in Washington, DC, and the annexationists among the white Hawaiian oligarchy were not getting very far.

Two events changed everything. The first was the rise of Japanese anti-imperialism. Japan, after flexing its military muscles in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894, was deprived of some its conquests by Western intervention and determined not to be humiliated again. It was also pushing for more equal treaties with the Western powers and for suffrage for the Japanese in Hawaii (almost one-third of the total population, and increasing even faster after the Japanese government unilaterally privatized and deregulated labor migration). Japan, with a hawk in the Foreign Ministry, reacted with outrage to Hawaiian attempts to restrain immigration and, in 1897, sent warships and demanded an indemnity, suffrage, and free immigration. The US made annexationist noises—annexation would have made an attack on Hawaii an attack on the US—and ultimately Hawaii paid an indemnity and the situation cooled. But US sensitivity to the position of Hawaii was dramatically enhanced, and the white Hawaiian oligarchy, ever more fearful of Japanization, looked to Washington for protection.

The second, crucially catalytic, event was the Spanish-American War. It was not that the US was suddenly swept by colonialist lust (although the war did bring us our first colonies), but rather that the war—especially its Pacific theater—made crystal clear the importance of Hawaii to US security. Even so, the annexation debate in Washington was heated, but geostrategic arguments carried the day, and the islands were annexed in 1898.

Thus Morgan argues the why—national security—and the when—Japanese provocation and war with Spain—of annexation. He also jumps into three related debates. The first is American involvement in the revolution of 1893, which he denies. He argues that we—sort of—gave the rebels the green light and acted in ways that, intentionally or not, intimidated the royalists, but denies that the US took either an active, passive, or conspiratorial role in the takeover. The rebels, he asserts, were better led and better armed, and the royalists passive and weak, although firm US opposition to the revolution probably would have squashed it. Second, he argues that the crisis with Japan in 1897 was wholly Japan’s responsibility: neither Hawaii nor the US wanted trouble, nor was the US intent on annexation, but Japan was feeling its oats (the Russo-Japanese War was soon to come) and was determined to look out for its people in Hawaii. Finally, he emphasizes the primacy of geopolitics. Racism mattered. So did trade. So did ideas like Manifest Destiny and Darwinism. But in the end, he argues, it was the geopolitics of Hawaii’s natural position as a Gibraltar in the middle of the Pacific that was determinative. All three of these positions have been debated, but Morgan makes his case persuasively, and his critics will have to address his positions empirically.End.


James W. White
James W. White

James W. White is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, specializing in the politics of East Asia. He is the author, translator, or editor of ten books, primarily on Japan, and has published essays in the American Political Science Review, World Politics, Comparative Politics, the Journal of Asian Studies, and the Journal of Japanese Studies, inter al.


Comments are closed.