World History 2 141 - 9.3.4 The Pacific

Colonization of the Pacific by Europeans had begun as early as the sixteenth century when Spain claimed the Philippines. Over the course of the eighteenth through the early nineteenth centuries, France and Britain had also laid claim to the islands of the Pacific. Britain established a colony in Australia in 1788 and colonized New Zealand in 1840. France made Tahiti a protectorate in 1842. In the second half of the nineteenth century, those islands that did not already belong to a great power were quickly absorbed into larger colonial empires.

In some cases, competing powers agreed to share possession of large islands or island chains. For example, in 1899, Germany, Britain, and the United States formally agreed to divide the Samoan islands between Germany, which took control of those now known as Samoa, and the United States, which received those now called American Samoa. In exchange for Britain’s forfeiting any claim to the islands, Germany gave it control of some of the territory it had settled in the North Solomon Islands and made concessions regarding its holdings in Africa. The foreign powers took the additional step of abolishing the Samoan monarchy.

The United States was particularly active in the Pacific. Unlike the other industrial powers, it had not attempted to claim any parts of Africa or Asia beyond some trading concessions in China. Throughout the later nineteenth century, it was developing the land and exploiting the resources within its North American borders. It pushed steadily westward from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific, acquiring territory by purchase, treaty, or conquest from France, Britain, and Mexico on the way. To clear the land for use by farmers, ranchers, miners, and timber companies, by the end of the century the federal government had confined the Indigenous peoples to reservations. In 1867, it purchased the Russian colony of Alaska. By the 1890s, it had settled all its vast territory and began to look abroad. The United States wanted access to the wealth of China as well as land to grow sugarcane, one of the food commodities it could not produce in a quantity to suit its needs.

The United States’ first significant move to acquire territory for an empire beyond the North American mainland was to take control of Hawaii. Although it had annexed a number of minor islands in the Pacific, including Baker Island, Howland Island, and Midway Atoll, it had done so only with the intent of collecting guano for fertilizer and did not develop or settle them.

People from the United States had visited and lived in the Kingdom of Hawaii since the mid-nineteenth century, and a substantial American community owned land there. Many grew sugar for export to the United States. In 1887, the Hawaiian Patriotic League was founded. Consisting primarily of American members, the League forced Hawaii’s King Kalakaua to adopt a new constitution that disenfranchised many Indigenous Hawaiians while giving property-owning U.S. citizens the right to vote and hold public office. In 1890, a new tariff passed by the U.S. Congress increased taxes on foreign sugar, which raised the price of Hawaiian sugar and threatened the profits of American plantation owners. However, if Hawaii were to be annexed by the United States, its sugar would no longer be taxed as a foreign import, giving an advantage to the planters.

When Kalakaua died in 1891, his sister Liliuokalani inherited the throne (Figure 9.26). Resenting U.S. interference in Hawaii’s government, she proposed a new constitution to restore voting rights to many Native Hawaiians while denying them to American and European residents. Fearful of losing political power in Hawaii and the hope of annexation, in 1893 a group of primarily American conspirators forced Liliuokalani to abdicate. In 1898, the United States annexed Hawaii.

A woman is shown in a black and white photograph. She is wearing a low cut beaded dark dress with lacy cap sleeves. A brooch hangs from a beaded ribbon around her neck, her hair is up, adorned with a butterfly pin and she wears earrings, rings, and bracelets. A white sash runs from her right shoulder and ends at her left waist with a circular ornament. She holds white gloves in her hands and leans on a cane. In the left of the picture is a table with a round, carved vase filled with flowers. The wall behind her is decorated with leaves and plants.
Figure 9.26 While still a princess, Liliuokalani of Hawaii attended the courts of other royal families around the world. For example, in 1887 when this photo was made, she traveled to London to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. (credit: modification of work “Liliuokalani in London” by Hawaii State Archives/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

The annexation of Hawaii was not the only imperial conquest of the United States in 1898. In 1895, the inhabitants of Cuba, one of Spain’s few remaining colonies, had risen to demand independence. U.S. businesses had invested heavily in Cuba, and many traded with the Spanish colony. The Cuban revolutionaries appealed for help in winning independence, but U.S. president Grover Cleveland was intent on neutrality. When riots in Havana threatened U.S. lives and property in December 1897, however, President William McKinley dispatched the battleship USS Maine to protect them. In February 1898, an explosion on the ship was blamed on a Spanish mine. With newspapers and the public calling for the U.S. government to “remember the Maine” and avenge the loss of U.S. lives, Congress declared war on Spain on April 25, 1898.

Two days later, U.S. commodore George Dewey sailed from Hong Kong to the Philippines, another Spanish colony. Entering Manila Bay, Dewey quickly destroyed the Spanish fleet. The war in Cuba also proceeded swiftly—and in favor of the United States. Spain’s last two island colonies, Guam and Puerto Rico, surrendered with little fighting. In December 1898, Spain recognized Cuba’s independence, ceded Guam and Puerto Rico to the United States, and allowed the United States to purchase the Philippines. Spain was finished as a colonial power, but the United States was just beginning.

Not all in the United States favored making the Philippines a U.S. territory, but many did. The Philippines’ proximity to China attracted those who sought to trade with the latter. Many feared Japan or a European power like Germany would seize control of the islands if the United States did not stake its claim to them. Indeed, Germany attempted to establish a base in the Philippines only a few weeks after the Spanish forces surrendered.

Dueling Voices

The Future of the Philippines

While Filipinos fought U.S. troops for their country’s independence, those at home debated the islands’ fate. Senator Albert Beveridge (R-IN) argued in 1901 that the United States must retain control of the islands. The preceding year, members of the Negro National Democratic League had spoken out against annexation. As you read the following excerpts, ask yourself why Beveridge was so eager for the United States to own the Philippines, and why members of the Negro National Democratic League opposed annexation so strongly.

MR. PRESIDENT, the times call for candor. The Philippines are ours forever, ‘territory belonging to the United States,’ as the Constitution calls them. And just beyond the Philippines are China’s illimitable markets. We will not retreat from either. We will not repudiate our duty in the archipelago. We will not abandon our opportunity in the Orient. We will not renounce our part in the mission of our race, trustee, under God, of the civilization of the world. And we will move forward to our work, not howling out regrets like slaves whipped to their burdens but with gratitude for a task worthy of our strength and thanksgiving to Almighty God that He has marked us as His chosen people, henceforth to lead in the regeneration of the world.

This island empire is the last land left in all the oceans. If it should prove a mistake to abandon it, the blunder once made would be irretrievable. . . .

Our largest trade henceforth must be with Asia. The Pacific is our ocean. More and more Europe will manufacture the most it needs, secure from its colonies the most it consumes. Where shall we turn for consumers of our surplus? Geography answers the question. China is our natural customer. . . . The Philippines give us a base at the door of all the East.

—Sen. Albert Beveridge, a speech to the 56th Congress, January 1900

We hold that the policy known as imperialism is hostile to liberty and leans toward the destruction of government by the people themselves. We insist that the subjugation of any people is ‘criminal aggression’ and is a pronounced departure from the first principles taught and declared by Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, and all the great statesmen who have guided the country through as many dangers of the past. Whether the people who will be affected by such policy be or consider themselves Negroes, nor yet because the majority of them are black, is of but little moment. They are by nature entitled to liberty and freedom. We being an oppressed people, to use the words of Daniel O’Connell, should be ‘the loudest in our protestations against the oppression of others.’ It may be that our government can and will govern the people of the Philippines and Puerto Rico better than they can govern themselves; but with equal force can it be said that the white men of the south can govern the localities in which the Negro is a majority better than they can govern themselves, and if we are prepared to support an administration that is engaged in suppressing liberty and freedom in our so-called possessions, why not be consistent and cease to complain of the same thing being done in any part of our own land? A nation cannot oppress a people without the borders of the country without sooner or later introducing some such oppression within its borders.

Negro National Democratic League, “Address to the Public,” July 1900

  • What are Beveridge’s chief concerns? How does he justify U.S. control over the Philippines?
  • Why does the Negro National Democratic League oppose annexation? What parallels do its members draw?
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The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax