The Shot Heard ʻround the Town: Beginning of the Overthrow

#205 in the Moʻolelo series, this post is the first of what Iʻll be calling “vignettes” of Hawaiian history – short, but I hope interesting, anecdotes that illustrate the Hawaiian past.

Depending on who writes the history books, a revolution is an act of treason, while a successful revolution is a turning point in history” – Stephen Dando Collins, Taking Hawaiʻi

On January 17, 1893, Hawaiian newspapers ran an installment of the moʻolelo of Pele and Hiʻiaka, as if anticipating the day’s events and harkening back to tradition to cope with them. That afternoon at 2 oʻclock, Castle and Cooke driver Ed Benner was driving a coach that contained arms meant to overthrow the queen in a violent coup dʻetat. He was recruited by John Good, who was determined to revolt against Queen Liliʻuokalani and had arranged the shipment, as this was not planned as a “bloodless revolution” as it was later described by its insurgent leaders. Hawaiian police were aware of the shipment, which had been approved in customs. So when officer Kealoha (as Act of War informs us his name was) attempted to stop the carriage, John Good was prepared and drew a pistol and shot him.

This shot was heard all over Honolulu town, and was Hawaiʻi’s version of the “shot heard ʻround the world,” as it initiated a revolutionary change that has set the course of Hawaiian history ever since.

The Honolulu Rifles club was in existence for years before its services were needed in the 1887 Bayonet constitution pseudo-coup. Lunalilo had disbanded them out of a rightful fear of overthrow. Kalākaua paradoxically allowed the group to reform. But their weapons would not be enough for an all out attempt on government, and an extra shipment was needed – this is what was in the carriage on that fateful day.

The coup had been orchestrated by “The Directorate” – a committee of leaders within the sugar-driven insurgents’ Hawaiian League (which, by definition, had no Native Hawaiian members – the oath of membership was to “protect the white community of this Kingdom”) .

Knowing that what they were attempting was no mere play-acting, but a genuine act of treason, the oligarchy and its fellow-travelers were somewhat careful not to appear too brazen. But when four Hawaiian policemen charged the carriage, which had departed from the store of E.O. Hall and Sons, Benner whipped one of them and Good shot Kealoha, initiating the event which would first be nearly erased, then continually be debated over the next century as perhaps the main turning point of Hawaiian history. Whether the events of January 17th (and 16th) were successful, is likewise a matter debate. Those who say they were not point to the fact that external intervention was needed – a point that Grover Cleveland noted in his address to Congress requesting their support in reinstating Queen Liliʻuokalani.

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