History of Hawaii

From Academic Kids

The history of Hawai‘i involves phases of early Polynesian settlement, Euro-American and Asian immigration, takeover of control by immigrants whose economic interests seemed likely to advance under US control, and formal integration by stages into the United States. This subject is also discussed in capsule form.


Discovery and Settlement

Main article: Ancient Hawai‘i

The islands were first settled by Polynesians, probably from the Marquesas, sometime between 200 and 600 AD. It is possible that Spanish explorers arrived shortly after 1527: Juan Gaetano, a Spanish navigator, may have visited in 1555. However, Spain never claimed the islands and on January 18, 1778 Captain James Cook and his crew were surprised to find high islands as far north in the Pacific as these islands, and named them the Sandwich Islands, after the First Lord of the Admiralty, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, John Montague.

Kingdom of Hawai‘i

Main article: Kingdom of Hawai‘i

Hawai‘i was united under a single ruler, Kamehameha I, for the first time in 1795. Until 1816 it was under British protection, flying the Union Jack. It then adopted a flag similar to its present flag, with the Union Jack in the canton (top quarter next to the flagpole) and eight horizontal stripes (alternating white, red and blue from the top), representing the eight islands of Hawai‘i, which it has since retained.

The Great Mahele (land division) was signed in Hawai‘i on March 7, 1848 by King Kamehameha III, son of the unifier of the Hawaiian Islands.

On March 18, 1874 Hawai‘i signed a treaty with the United States granting Americans exclusive trading rights.

The 1876 Reciprocity Treaty between the Kingdom of Hawai‘i and the United States allowed for duty free importation of Hawaiian grown sugar (from cane) into the United States. This act greatly altered the Hawaiian landscape by promoting sugar plantation agriculture. Although the treaty also included duty free importation of rice, which was by this time becoming a major crop in the abandoned taro lo‘i of the wetter parts of the islands, it was the influx of immigrants from Asia (first Chinese, and later Japanese) needed to support the escalating sugar industry, that provided the impetus for expansion of rice growing in Hawai‘i. Thus the Treaty had several far reaching impacts on Hawai‘i:

  • Sugar cane and plantation agriculture expanded greatly.
  • High water requirements for growing sugar cane resulted in extensive water works projects on all of the major islands to divert streams from the wet, windward slopes to the dry lowlands.
  • An influx of Asian immigrants was encouraged to work the plantations.
  • The traditional Hawaiian staple (taro) was replaced by rice growing to satisfy an expanding local market for the latter.

Overthrow and Annexation

Main article: Republic of Hawai‘i

Up to the 1890s, the Kingdom of Hawai‘i was independent and had been recognized by the United States, Great Britain, France and Germany with exchange of ambassadors. This did not, however, mean there were not threats to the Kingdom's sovereignty made during that time.

The most serious incident occurred on February 10, 1843. Lord George Paulet of the Royal Navy warship H.M.S. Carysfort entered Honolulu Harbor and captured the Honolulu fort, effectively gaining control of the town. Paulet then demanded King Kamehameha III abdicate and that the Hawaiian Islands be ceded to the British Crown. Under the guns of the frigate, Kamehameha stepped down, but lobbied a formal protest with both the British government and Paulet's superior, Admiral Richard Thomas. Thomas repudiated Paulet's actions, and on July 31, 1843, restored the Hawaiian government. In his restoration speech, Kamehameha declared that "Ua mau ke ea o ka ‘āina i ka pono" (The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness), the motto of the future State of Hawai‘i.

In 1887, a group of American-born cabinet officials and advisors to King David Kalākaua and an armed militia forced the king at gunpoint with a bayonet at his throat to promulgate what is today known as the Bayonet Constitution. The constitution stripped the monarchy of its authority and instead empowered Americans who were not legal citizens of Hawai‘i. Over 75% of the native Hawaiian population lost its right to vote in its own elections while Americans who were not legal citizens of Hawai‘i were given full voting rights. When Kalākaua died in 1891, his sister Lili‘uokalani assumed the throne. With the support of native Hawaiians and other Hawaiian citizens, the queen drafted a new constitution that would restore the monarchy's authority and strip American non-citizens of the suffrage they awarded themselves.

In defiance of Lili‘uokalani's proposed constitution, a group of American residents in Hawai‘i, including United States Government Minister John L. Stevens, conspired to overthrow the government of the Kingdom of Hawai‘i on January 14, 1893. Minister Stevens, without the authority of the U.S. government or Congress, summoned a company of uniformed U.S. Marines from the U.S.S. Boston and two companies of U.S. sailors to land on the Kingdom and take up positions near the ‘Iolani Palace to intimidate the monarch, Queen Lili‘uokalani and her government.

During the overthrow the Japanese Imperial Navy gunboat Naniwa was docked at Pearl Harbor. The gunboat's commander, Heihachiro Togo, who would later go on to command the Japanese battleship fleet at Tsushima, left port rather than accede to the Provisional Government's demands that he strike the colors of the Kingdom.

A provisional government was set up without substantial support among indigneous Hawaiians or the government. Under this pressure, Lili‘uokalani gave up her throne to the Committee of Safety, made up of Americans and Europeans who owned many of the sugar plantations and controlled much of the economy. The Queen's statement yielding authority, on January 17, 1893, also pleaded for justice:

I Lili‘uokalani, by the Grace of God and under the Constitution of the Hawaiian Kingdom, Queen, do hereby solemnly protest against any and all acts done against myself and the Constitutional Government of the Hawaiian Kingdom by certain persons claiming to have established a Provisional Government of and for this Kingdom.
That I yield to the superior force of the United States of America whose Minister Plenipotentiary, His Excellency John L. Stevens, has caused United States troops to be landed at Honolulu and declared that he would support the Provisional Government.
Now to avoid any collision of armed forces, and perhaps the loss of life, I do this under protest and impelled by said force yield my authority until such time as the Government of the United States shall, upon facts being presented to it, undo the action of its representatives and reinstate me in the authority which I claim as the Constitutional Sovereign of the Hawaiian Islands.

An investigation established by President Cleveland was conducted by former Congressman James Henderson Blount, and concluded, "United States diplomatic and military representatives had abused their authority and were responsible for the change in government."

Minister Stevens was recalled, and the military commander of forces in Hawai‘i was forced to resign his commission. President Cleveland stated "Substantial wrong has thus been done which a due regard for our national character as well as the rights of the injured people requires we should endeavor to repair the monarchy." Cleveland further stated in his 1893 State of the Union Address that, "Upon the facts developed it seemed to me the only honorable course for our Government to pursue was to undo the wrong that had been done by those representing us and to restore as far as practicable the status existing at the time of our forcible intervention." However, the provisional government in Hawai‘i successfully defended its position, and persisted for several years as the Republic of Hawai‘i under the presidency of Sanford Dole.

Missing image
The Hawaiian people petitioned the U.S. government to halt the annexation.

In 1896, William McKinley replaced Cleveland as president. Two years later, he signed the Newlands Resolution which provided for the official annexation of Hawai‘i on July 7, 1898 and the islands officially became Hawai‘i Territory, a United States territory, on February 22, 1900.

American Territory

Main article: Territory of Hawai‘i

The territorial legislature convened for the first time on February 20, 1901.

An attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 by the Empire of Japan was a trigger for the United States' entry into World War II.


President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a bill on March 18, 1959 which allowed for Hawaiian statehood. Hawai‘i formally became the 50th state of the Union on August 21, 1959.

The Democratic Party has been a dominant force in state politics since before statehood. Democrats have held a majority in both houses of the state legislature since statehood, and held the governorship for 40 years (from 1962-2002).

The manner in which Hawai‘i became a U.S. possession has been a bitter part of its history, for which official verbal redress was long sought. With US Senators Daniel Inouye and Daniel Akaka of Hawai‘i championing it, President Bill Clinton signed Public Law 103-150, a joint resolution of the United States Congress, on November 23, 1993; it explicitly apologized for the American participation in what it acknowledged as an illegal overthrow. Sen. Akaka is also author of a bill that would extend federal recognition to Native Hawaiians as an indigenous people, enabling them to engage in nation-to-nation negotiations with the U.S. government in the same manner as Native American tribes. As of this writing, the "Akaka Bill" is being debated in Congress.

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