David Kalakaua, the king of Hawaii, was on a commercial mission when he arrived in Washington, D.C., in December 1874 to meet with President Ulysses Grant. His independent island nation had sugar to sell, and the United States had a sweet tooth. Americans consumed 33 pounds of sugar per capita in 1870, and they wanted more. But tariffs on sugar imported from Hawaii were driving production down and costs up. While diplomats parsed the details of a free trade treaty, official Washington feted the first reigning monarch ever to visit the United States. Grant hosted a state dinner at the White House for Kalakaua, and the National Republican declared the evening “royal and generous to the last degree,” complemented by Havana cigars, Russian cigarettes and plentiful champagne. The afterglow faded a bit in early 1875 when the trade agreement was announced. Hawaii and the United States would exchange sugar and other goods duty free as long as the king did not make similar treaties with, or lease ports to, any other countries. It was the economic boon Hawaiians wanted, but it also opened the door to eventual annexation. The U.S. had long considered Hawaii—specifically Pearl Harbor—necessary to protect American interests in the Pacific. Now, as the U.S. ambassador to Hawaii noted, generous trade would “hold those islands with hooks of steel.”
Originally published in the February 2013 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.