story by Ronald Williams, Jr.
At 5:10 p.m. on May 25th, 1894, the steamer Iwalani quietly pulled out of Honolulu Harbor. She had arrived only that morning, made swift and secretive preperations, and promptly left. Although the crew tried to slip away unnoticed, that was nearly impossible with the heightened sense of anxiety around town. Under normal circumstances the hurried departure of a ship might not have aroused much suspicion. But circumstances in the Honolulu of 1894 were anything but normal.
Just sixteen months prior, in January 1893, a critical moment in Hawaii history had occured: A small group of mostly American and European bussinessmen, backed by US Minister John L. Stevens, had overthrown the kingdom of Hawaii. They had chosen missionary descendant and former politician Sanford B. Dole to lead a provisional government, but they had no intention of actually running the country themselves; instead, they sent a treaty to the United States proposing immediate annexation. President Grover Cleveland, however, was not receptive; he dismissed the treaty and called for an investigation that later declared the coup an “act of war” and Minister Stevens complicit.
Things got complicated for the newly declared provisional government. New US Minister to Hawaii Albert Willis arrived in Honolulu with orders to negotiate the reinstatement of Queen Liliuokalani. Some believed that Willis had authorization to use force. Rumors spread—some of them true—that both the annexationists and supporters of the kingdom of Hawaii were gearing up for a possible military conflict. Throughout the early part of 1894, the newspapers had reported that groups of mercenaries had offered to sail to Hawaii and defend the teetering provisional government. People in Honolulu were keeping close tabs on everything and everybody, and so, when a steamer myseriously pulled into port and shipped out in a matter of hours, the tense town filled with gossip.
When the next morning’s papers came off the press, the whispers became a roar. All the papers suggested that a secret mission on behalf of the provisional government was under way; the Hawaii Holomua wrote specifically that the aim of the operation was to suppress an insurrection among Japanese laborers on one of the Islands’ plantations. The Hawaiian-language newspaper Ka Makaainana added to the general mystery by reporting that “Kapena Kini, Kuhina Kalaiaina” (Capt. [James A.] King, minister of the interior) had been seen boarding the Iwalani with “he mau pu”—guns—and “he pahuhae”—a flagpole.
Still, few knew the Iwalani’s true destination, and those who did weren’t talking. The Hawaiian Star quoted Attorney General William O. Smith as saying, “I can say nothing of the Iwalani’s mission further than she has gone to one of the westward islands and will return in a few days.” If rumors around town were wild, the truth was perhaps even more bizarre.