The 1889 Rebellion
In 1889, Robert W. Wilcox led an insurrection against the so-called Reform Government, composed of a small cadre of sugar planters, missionary descendents, and their allies, who two years earlier had imposed the “Bayonet Constitution” upon King Kalākaua. Wilcox intended to return rights to the monarchy and to Native Hawaiians.Robert William Kalanihiapo Wilcox was the son of an American father from New England and a mother descended from Maui royalty. He was educated at the Turin Military Academy in Italy under the Kalākaua Studies Abroad program. Six feet tall, with burning dark eyes, a Roman nose, and the power of oratory, the charismatic Wilcox was rash and changeable. But he had a genuine concern for the Hawaiian people.
In 1888, Wilcox led some three hundred armed men in his first attempt to unseat the new government. Unsuccessful, the scrappy Wilcox made another attempt, on July 30, 1889, this time leading an army of 150 Hawaiians, Europeans, and Chinese. Wearing his Italian officer’s uniform—and with his men attired in red Garibaldi shirts made famous by the great Italian revolutionist—Wilcox and his men briefly occupied government buildings across the street from ‘Iolani Palace. Stronger government forces drove them out. Seven insurgents were killed and a dozen more wounded.
The government brought Wilcox to trial for high treason. Hawaiians, however, accused those in power of being usurpers and having blood-stained hands. A jury of his peers refused to convict Wilcox.
The 1895 Rebellion
After the two failed rebellions, Wilcox remained at the storm center of politics through the 1890s. A legislator and newspaper editor, he was outraged by what he considered injustices to Hawaiians by the planter-business-missionary oligarchy.
Following the overthrow of Queen Lili‘uokalani in January 1893, there were plots to return the queen to the throne. Wilcox’s third uprising began on January 6, 1895. In an exchange of shots in the night at Diamond Head, Charles L. Carter was killed—the only death during the insurrection but shocking to the public.
In retreat against the government army, Wilcox led the rebel remnants from Diamond Head, through Palolo and Mānoa valleys, and by ancient trails to Nu‘uanu. They lived in the uplands until, half-starved, Wilcox finally gave up.
The Republic of Hawai‘i tried the men by military tribunal. Ringleaders were sentenced to be hanged. The queen renounced the throne. With an eye toward annexation and U.S. public opinion—sentiment was that Wilcox’s was a political, not a criminal act—Republic President Sanford Dole commuted the sentences to hard labor. Wilcox was finally released on the condition that he would never again go against the government.
He didn’t—he joined it, and with his gifts of leadership and fiery oratory, he gave the government a good fight after annexation as the first elected delegate to Congress.
Home Rule Party
After his third and last armed attempt failed to overturn the oligarchy’s rule of Hawai‘i, Wilcox returned to the political arena. A mix of cultural values—Hawaiian, American, Italian—sometimes in conflict with each other, Wilcox nonetheless stayed true to his central belief of “Hawai‘i for the Hawaiians.”
With annexation in 1900, Hawai‘i was allowed one non-voting representative to the U.S. Congress. Wilcox led the Home Rule Party, organized by former royalists, and was elected delegate in 1901. For two years he fought for Hawaiian rights, successfully backing education or literacy as the qualification for voting rather than property, which the oligarchy favored.
His wife, Theresa Owana Wilcox, ran the Home Rule newspaper in Honolulu while he was in Washington. Both made headlines in mainland papers.
Enraged by Wilcox, his favorable publicity, and the Home Rulers, the oligarchy backed Prince Kūhiō on the Republican ticket for 1903, thus splitting the Hawaiian vote. Newspapers like the Advertiser accused Wilcox of sowing racial hatred and ran a cartoon showing him as the devil. Denying he was racist—he had many haole friends and backers—Wilcox fiercely campaigned even while very ill. When he died in late 1903, thousands joined the funeral procession of the famous “Iron Duke of Hawai‘i.”
By Helen G. Chapin