Pursuing Recognition of Hawaiian Independence

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The journey to have Western powers recognize our long-independent Hawaiian Nation began in the 1800s.

In 1824, King Kamehameha II went to London to secure recognition of the Hawaiian Kingdom but tragically passed away before any commitments were made. Two years later, Queen-Regent Kaʻahumanu successfully negotiated with U.S. envoy Captain Thomas ap Catesby Jones (the “ap” in his name is Welsh for “son of”) to begin bilateral relations with the United States.

Jones was conferred ambassadorial powers by the U.S. State Department to settle debts owed by Hawaiian chiefs to American sea captains and to deal with American deserters of U.S.-flagged merchant ships.

Kaʻahumanu asserted that the only way the Hawaiian government could assist was if the U.S. recognized Hawaiʻi as an independent nation. This led to the signing of the U.S.-Hawaiʻi Agreement of 1826, also known as the “Jones Treaty,” which recognized both the independent government of King Kamehameha III and Native Hawaiians as its subjects.

This was an important point. In treaty negotiations, Kaʻahumanu emphasized that her government would never concede any Hawaiian land to the United States, nor would she tolerate Native Hawaiians being captured, enslaved, and/or trafficked.

While Ka’ahumanu remains a controversial figure because of her role in the abolishment of the kapu system, she negotiated the Kingdom’s first international agreement with a Western power – although the Jones Treaty was largely ignored by Americans living in Hawaiʻi because it was not ratified by the U.S. Senate.

In 1837, Rev. William Richards went to Washington, D.C., to meet with U.S. Attorney-General Benjamin Franklin Butler as an envoy of Kuhina Nui Princess Elizabeth Kīnaʻu Kaʻahumanu II in an effort to push the U.S. to enforce its treaty obligations.

Richards was a missionary in Hawaiʻi since his arrival in 1823 and was pastor to Queen Keōpūolani. Richards and Butler communicated at length about updating the Jones Treaty. Richards presented Butler with an amended treaty signed by Kamehameha III and the Kuhina Nui for ratification in the U.S. Senate. Butler agreed that a more formal treaty would need to be ratified by the U.S. Senate, but Richards was unable to secure the necessary support. Upon his return to Hawaiʻi, he became an advisor to the King.

In 1842, Kamehameha III sought formal agreements with the U.S., France, and the United Kingdom to never seize the Hawaiian Kingdom, to step up diplomatic engagement, and to support Hawaiian independence.

He wanted a Native Hawaiian to lead a delegation and selected Timoteo Haʻalilio, appointing him his personal ambassador. Haʻalilio already served as governor of Oʻahu, private secretary to the King, and treasurer for the Kingdom. He spoke English fluently and was widely read, eloquent and pious.

Photo: Timoteo Haʻalilio
Timoteo Ha‘alilio served as an ambassador for the Kingdom of Hawai‘i under King Kamehameha III. – Photos: Courtesy

Since Richards had previous experience on treaty matters, he, too, was appointed to this delegation. A third delegate, Sir George Simpson, the colonial governor of the Hudson Bay Company in Canada, was also appointed to the delegation to leverage his connections with the royal courts of London and Paris. Simpson traveled separately from Haʻalilio and Richards, going directly to Europe.

Photo: Timoteo Ha‘alilio and Rev. William Richards.
Timoteo Ha‘alilio and Rev. William Richards.

Haʻalilio had a premonition that he would not return to his native land and did not wish to go, but ultimately accepted the assignment out of a sense of duty. Throughout the 28-month-long journey, he wrote heartfelt letters to his mother thanking her for raising him and expressing his wish to pass away by her side.

The delegation departed Honolulu for Mexico. While there, Haʻalilio wrote about the hardships of their travel but also glowingly about Mexico. From Mexico, they proceeded to New Orleans and then to Washington, D.C.

Throughout Haʻalilio’s stay in the U.S., he experienced much racism. One incident occurred on the steamship Globe when the captain refused to allow Haʻalilio to purchase a full breakfast dining ticket believing him to be Richard’s slave. U.S. newspapers, particularly in the North, celebrated Haʻalilio for being the most distinguished person of color to visit the U.S., and abolitionists touted Haʻalilio as an example of what Blacks were capable of if they were freed.

In Washington, D.C., Haʻalilio and Richards sent a diplomatic note to U.S. Secretary of State Daniel Webster on Dec. 14, 1842, asserting the treaty rights of the Hawaiian Kingdom stating in part:

“In the year 1826 articles of agreement, in the form of a treaty, were entered into between His Majesty’s Government and Thomas ap Catesby Jones, commanding the United States sloop of war Peacock. His Majesty has never received any notice of that treaty’s being ratified, nor intimation that it was approved by the Government of the United States. His Majesty has, nevertheless, during the last sixteen years, governed himself by the regulations of that treaty in all his intercourse with citizens of the United States…”

Within two weeks, U.S. President John Tyler extended the Monroe Doctrine to the Hawaiian Kingdom – essentially guaranteeing American support for Hawaiian independence with a promise that a new treaty, ratified by the Senate, would be forthcoming. With that, the delegation left for Europe.

Three months later, on March 17, 1843, King Louis- Philippe of France formally recognized Hawaiian independence, followed by the United Kingdom on April 1.

An international agreement recognizing Hawaiian independence, the Anglo-French Proclamation, was signed on Nov. 28, 1843. In Hawaiʻi, this was commemorated as Lā Kūʻokoʻa – Hawaiian Independence Day.

The agreement included upgrading diplomatic relations, and forming a non-aggression pact promising to never take possession of the Hawaiian Kingdom in any form – an agreement to which both European powers abided. This debunks arguments that, had the U.S. not taken Hawaiʻi, France or Britain would have.

To celebrate, Haʻalilio commissioned a royal coat of arms from the Royal College of Arms in London on behalf of Kamehameha III.

After securing European support, Haʻalilio returned to the U.S. to lobby for concrete action from the U.S. On July 6, 1844, the United States formally recognized Hawaiian independence – minus a non-aggression pact. An upgraded treaty with the U.S. followed in 1849.

In November 1844, while still in America, Haʻalilio contracted tuberculosis and passed away on December 3 aboard a ship departing New York for Hawaiʻi. Haʻalilio was just 36-years-old. He never saw his mother or his motherland again but left all of us a profound legacy.

November 28, or Lā Kūʻokoʻa, not only marks the successful mission of Haʻalilio but the work of all Kānaka Maoli who fought, struggled, and sacrificed for the lāhui – and who continue to do so.

From the beginning, our aliʻi took steps to safeguard the sovereignty of the Hawaiian Kingdom from foreign colonial powers and assert our right to self-determination. It is the kuleana of the present generations of Kānaka Maoli to continue that journey.