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Robert Wilcox and the 1889 Rebellion

Helen G. Chapin, Courtesy of the Hawaiian Historical Society

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 300 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. He would lead another rebellion in 1895.