honolulu fort 1850s

Hawaii is smack in the center of the Pacific Ocean, and as such it was always destined to be the crossroads of empires. The two emerging empires in the 19th century that most coveted Hawaii were, of course, the United States and Japan, but before either country really entered the imperialist sweepstakes, some of the more established world powers had already tried their hand at dominating Hawaii. One of them, surprisingly, was France.

As strange as it is to think of France invading anything–at least post-Napoleon–the French did, in fact, sack Honolulu. It happened in 1849, and what came to be known as the “Tromelin Affair” illustrates something I talked about in yesterday’s article on the early missionaries who came to Hawaii: how the inroads of missionaries often bring the military might of empires behind them. This is exactly what happened on the island of Oahu in 1849.

You may have noticed in yesterday’s article that all the missionaries I talked about were Protestant. That wasn’t a coincidence. Protestant missionaries were eager to convert the Hawaiian Islands to their version of Christianity, and in fact after the conversion to (Protestant) Christianity of several prominent members of the Hawaiian royal family Catholicism was, for a short time, officially suppressed. By the late 1840s there were a few Catholic missionaries in Hawaii, almost all of them French. The French government believed, not without foundation, that Protestant missionaries–most Americans and British–were manipulating the royal Hawaiian government to squeeze out French interests and Catholicism in general. Particularly irksome was King Kamehameha III’s high tariff on the importation of brandy into Hawaii, most of which came from France. With British and American influence growing in Hawaii every day, if the French were going to do something about it, they had to move fast.

kamehameha iii


Kamehameha III, King of Hawaii, refused to give in to French political and religious demands. His refusal triggered a militaristic response by French admiral Louis de Tromelin.

Louis Tromelin, a French admiral, arrived in the islands with two ships in August 1849. After talking over the situation with the French consul, Tromelin–a career officer who fought in the Napoleonic Wars–decided on a bold course of action. Tromelin addressed a manifesto to King Kamehameha with ten demands aimed at improving the conditions of Catholics and of French political and business interests in the islands. The king ignored Tromelin’s demands.

Angered, Tromelin sent a force of 140 French marines ashore, and on August 22, 1849, they took over the Hawaiians’ lightly-defended fort defending the harbor. The French destroyed all the Hawaiians’ weapons they could find, dumped gunpowder into the harbor and raided various royal properties in Honolulu, doing $100,000 in damage. Then they retreated to the fort. The Hawaiian people regarded the invasion as ridiculous and jeered and made fun of the French whenever they encountered them. Kamehameha continued to ignore Tromelin’s demands. Ultimately realizing that there was no way he was going to enforce the demands without embroiling the French government in a costly operation against Hawaii, Tromelin finally gave up. On September 5 he and his men left Honolulu, returned to their ships and sailed away.

gerrit judd

Gerrit P. Judd was a Protestant missionary before he quit religious life and became a close friend and advisor to Kamehameha III. He was unable to get French reparations for their invasion of 1849.

The Hawaiian royal government was, predictably, outraged at the behavior of the French. This was the second incident in 10 years in which French Navy ships had meddled in Hawaii–an earlier incident in 1839 was also sparked by Hawaiian persecution of Catholics. Kamehameha sent an American-born diplomat, Dr. Gerrit Parmele Judd, to Paris to press for French reparations. The governments of the USA and Britain, more than happy to see France with egg on its face over the incident, supported him. Judd’s negotiations in Paris were inconclusive and ultimately he came home without reparations, though the French government stopped short of enthusiastically endorsing Tromelin’s invasion.

Although the Tromelin affair didn’t end up amounting to much on its own, it can definitely be seen as a cautionary tale. Over the next few decades, great power interest in Hawaii would only grow, and the more European, American and Asian powers took an interest in the islands, the more inevitable it was that Hawaii would eventually become a part of one of these empires. This is precisely what happened in the 1890s.