Stars, Stripes, and Palm Trees

How the humble postage stamp played a part in the Americanization of Hawai‘i.

Published August 15, 2016

Postage stamps are lessons in history, politics, science, or geography packed onto a small piece of gummed paper. They’re also beautiful works of art. In Stamped we’re going coastal, with postal.

Hawai‘i’s Queen Lili‘uokalani watched from a balcony as US Marines armed with Gatling guns marched through the streets of Honolulu and took up position outside the royal palace on January 16, 1893. US Minister to the Kingdom of Hawai‘i John Stevens had dispatched the troops in support of a small group of white businessmen and sugar planters, mostly local residents of American and European heritage, who were plotting to overthrow the monarchy and establish a new government.

The following day, with guns still pointed at the palace, Lili‘uokalani agreed to abdicate, though not without objection. In the presence of several of her cabinet ministers, the queen signed a formal protest, emphasizing that she was stepping down only “to avoid any collision of armed forces, and perhaps the loss of life.” She believed the US government would review the situation and restore her to the throne.

The coup was the culmination of a series of events that had begun six years earlier, when a different group of white businessmen called the Hawaiian League seized control from King Kalākaua, Lili‘uokalani’s brother, imposing a new constitution that reduced the king to a figurehead and disenfranchised many native Hawai‘ians. When Lili‘uokalani came to the throne following her brother’s death in 1891, she began drafting a new constitution to return power to the monarchy and reform voting laws. Soon afterward, Stevens arrived in Hawai‘i and started planning to abolish the monarchy and annex the islands, ignoring existing treaties, US policy, and international law.

After Lili‘uokalani’s abdication, the new Provisional Government of Hawai‘i (PG) submitted a treaty of annexation to the US Congress. Eager to discredit the former leaders and show their own political might, the revolutionaries modified existing postage stamps of the royals by splashing “Provisional Government” in red or black ink over the images. The new government promptly ordered an original series of stamps, including one showing palm trees embracing a star. According to the American Philatelic Society, “The design appears to reflect a hope that the palm tree islands would one day add another star to the United States’ flag.”

When the stamps were ordered in November 1893, the PG was still pushing for annexation, but by the time the series was issued, the political climate had changed. In December 1893, following an investigation, US President Grover Cleveland rejected annexation, calling the coup “an act of war” and “a substantial wrong.” Still, the new stamps were adorning letters by February 1894; on July 4, the determined PG declared a republic.

“We were within a hair’s breadth of the queen being restored,” says historian Ronald Williams Jr. The University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa faculty member interprets the star and palms stamp as part of a concerted effort by the PG to undermine Hawai‘ian nationhood. “I see this as them claiming power in an independent republic type of way. They were hanging on to power by a thread,” he explains. The new leaders were engaged in a “complicated dance” with the United States, trying to Americanize Hawai‘i, but without an essential ingredient: democracy.

Lili‘uokalani appealed repeatedly to the United States for reinstatement, without success. With the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898, Hawai‘i became strategically important, leading the United States to take the final step of annexation. Yet no treaty was ever signed and many argue the resolution approving annexation lacked any legal validity.

In the succeeding decades, US assimilation policy aimed to mask the many progressive achievements of independent Hawai‘i. Kalākaua was the first monarch to circumnavigate the globe, and the kingdom he and Lili‘uokalani ruled had more than 90 international consulates, electricity before the White House, and a literacy rate well above that of the United States for much of the 19th century. After the overthrow of the monarchy, the star and palms postage stamp contributed to the rewriting of Hawai‘ian history. Every time one of Lili‘uokalani’s former subjects sent or received a letter, the message was reinforced. But now, as Hawai‘ians rediscover their culture and heritage, these stamps tell a different tale: one of a small group of conspirators who stole a kingdom.