Inspired By Nature

Marcin&Kamila travel journal&photography

Human History of the Hawaiian Islands

The story behind human conquer of Hawaiian Islands starts not in the island chain itself, but in some other place. A very distant place. Exactly 2,330 miles from Big Island, in the Marquesas Islands. The evidence provided through years of research around Polynesian culture and their voyages in the Pacific Ocean strongly suggest that first settlers came from these islands. Their constant desire to discover new land combined with sailing and navigation mastery brought them from southern Asia to Samoa, Tonga and later east to Tahiti and Marquesas. From here, they’ve expanded their knowledge about Pacific Ocean by sailing south and discovering New Zealand and Easter Island. By year 1200, Polynesians inhabited all major south Pacific islands, but overpopulation and wars forced them back to the sea. The mighty sailors who made all these discoveries overcame incredibly hard obstacles to reach their goal- they sailed in small double-hulled canoes without any navigational tools European captains had, yet they were very successful in finding new islands and returning to colonize them.

Meddo chart, Marshall Islands. From my visit to The Field Museum in Chicago,IL

Meddo chart, Marshall Islands. From my visit to The Field Museum in Chicago,IL

It turned out they’ve only used their senses and knowledge passed through generations of navigators. Orally, as they had no written language. To locate they position and direction in which they wanted to go, Polynesians learned and observed the motion of stars in relativity to Sun’s position, weather patterns during different seasons, sizes and direction of approaching wave, even the color of clouds and water paid an important part of their “imaginary” navigational map. Question is, how could they know there is a land north of Marquesas Islands? Mostly likely, they’ve observed bird migration routes, returning every year to pick up from where they’ve lost track of these feathery travelers the year before. If that was the case, it’s hard to imagine how unbelievably and tough their journey to discover Hawaii must have been.

Nevertheless, they arrived in Hawaii sometimes around AD 380,sailing over 2000 miles north from home. The newly discovered land seemed like heaven on Earth (not that they've believed in heaven as such)- a lush, tropical paradise with abundance of marine life in surrounding waters, lack of predatory mammals, poisonous reptiles, insects or plants and enough fresh water to build a civilization. Unfortunately, first impression was overshadowed by a fact Hawaiian Islands lacked the life sustaining source of protein- because the island chain was relatively young from geological point of view, there were no edible plants or large enough animals to support nutritional needs of first settlers. Nonetheless, Polynesians were no weekend campers and they came to stay, prepared for these circumstances. They had stone and bone tools, plant seedlings (first their staple vegetable, the taro plant and later sweet potatoes, bananas and coconut trees) and most important, company of skilled craftsmen, each one of them trained in different field.

Polynesians also brought with them a unique culture and religion. They lived in a two cast society- the chiefs who set rules and common people who obeyed them. Ruling families lived in peace with each other and took good care of their followers. This simple governing system worked so well, it hasn’t changed for the next 1000 years, a period in which Hawaiians enjoyed harmony where war was an unknown word. The peaceful society’s lifestyle has threaten to exist with the arrival of first Tahitian settlers who came between XI and XIII centuries. It is believed that among the Tahitian people were a high priest named Pa’ao, who introduced a new set of laws and religion beliefs, worshipping Ku, the god of war. He also taught people about mana- a spiritual energy that can be gained and accumulated only by acts of bravery,like offering human sacrifices to gods or through successes in warfare. The idea of high chiefs sharing power equally was abolished and Hawaii peaceful days were over. Hawaiians learned what we take for granted this days- a concept of an imaginary force that has an ultimate power over other human beings (where now mana comes in a form of paper money)

Hawaiian chiefs adopted mana as their new life doctrine and disputes started to get resolved with aggression. Wars emerged and soon each Hawaiian Island turned into a battleground, winning chiefs gathering more land and therefore more mana. For the next 500 years or so, war became the new realm. By the mid XVIII century, each island was controlled by rivaling chiefs fighting for the ultimate goal of being the sole island ruler-Moi, the supreme chief. Ordinary Hawaiians were dragged to participate in bloody battles, the only outcome being either death or victory. Using wood and stone weapons, each made by the warriors themselves, Hawaii of the 1770s fell under control by less than a dozen Moi. It seemed logical that warfare will soon shift to the seas separating Hawaiian Islands until the last chef claims the ultimate victory. However, no one could foresee what was coming- one event in history, the clash of civilizations that would turn Hawaiians lifestyle upside down and change fate of this island chain forever...

"Captainjamescookportrait" by Nathaniel Dance-Holland - from the National Maritime Museum, United Kingdom. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

"Captainjamescookportrait" by Nathaniel Dance-Holland - from the National Maritime Museum, United Kingdom. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Captain James Cook, a British explorer, navigator and master sailor, joined the Royal Navy as a teenager, starting from the lowest ranks and moving up all the way to becoming a Commander and later, a Captain. He was a skilled cartographer-the detailed map of Newfoundland, off the coast of Canada, that he drew after surveying the island, brought him attention and opened a path for his later career. During his many voyages, he discovered and mapped many islands in the south Pacific region, sailed to New Zealand and northern Australia (his almost error-less map of Australian Great Barrier reef helped other captains in avoiding these uncharted waters) and “filled in” blanks on World Map, finding new land wherever he sailed. Interestingly, on his second journey Cook was commissioned to find Terra Australis (South Land in Latin), a hypothetical land envisioned by cartographers (the existence of such land was purely based on theory that Northern Hemisphere continents should be balanced by the same amount of land south of Equator). He sailed into the Antarctic Circle and came very close to Antarctica shoreline (according to historians, he might have been as close as 150 miles from Antarctica mainland) , however he turned back to resupply his ships and never returned to discover the southernmost continent, which remained unknown to humans until almost 50 years later.

The story continues with James Cook’s third and final voyage. The mission was to find the Northwest Passage, a sea route through Canadian Arctic Circle that would connect Atlantic and Pacific Oceans (that was the theory at least). Cook ship’s first planned stop was Tahiti, where he was to drop a young man named Omai, a Pacific Islander who spend the previous 2 years entertaining British elite (he was also Cook’s interpreter and translator). From Tahiti, Cook’s fleet consisting of two rigged ships, the HMS Resolution (which he commanded himself) and HMS Discovery (under Captain Charles Clerke command) set sails north towards the Arctic Circle. Halfway through the journey, he made an unremarkable discovery- a remote island chain in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. In January of 1778, his crew sailed past the island of Oahu and two days later they landed in what today is the town of Waimea on Kauai. According to Cook’s journal, Hawaiians, fascinated by enormous ships and unknown to them metal tools, welcomed Englishmen with opened arms and even traded iron for food and sex (which later turned to be a fatal for Hawaiians, as sailors brought with them diseases that decimated the population of Hawaiian Islands significantly). James Cook named the archipelago Sandwich Islands and returned to the sea in pursuit of fulfilling his mission.

Hawaiian Islands (Sandwich Islands)chart,  printed by G. Nicol and T. Cadell for the 1785 edition of Captain James Cook and James King’s, A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean

Hawaiian Islands (Sandwich Islands)chart,  printed by G. Nicol and T. Cadell for the 1785 edition of Captain James Cook and James King’s, A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean

He sailed north-east to survey Pacific Northwest coastline and landing in US Oregon coast. From there he traveled even farther up north, arriving in Nootka Sound in today Canada’s Vancouver Island on March 29th 1778. Discovery and Resolution continued north until the ships reached Bering Strait, a mass of water separating the continents of Asia and North America. James Cook mapped the entire coastline of Pacific Northwest, although Bering Strait set limit to his aspirations and despite the many attempts to sail through this natural channel, it proved to be impassable. The natural barrier forced the captain to turn back and resupply. The great explorer set a course in direction of the newly discovered land- Sandwich Islands.

An Offering before Capt. Cook in the Sandwich Islands John Webber [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A year from his first visit, on January 17th 1778 Captain Cook returns to Sandwich Islands Archipelago, landing this time in Kealakekua Bay on the island of Hawai’i . Cook arrives in time of Makahiki, Hawaiians holiday celebrating the god of fertility Lono. One scientific theory is that the direction from which Cook entered the bay along with certain features of Englishmen ships resembled the shape and form of artefacts associated with the god Lono. It may have been that Hawaiians were so amazed of this event that they have mistaken Cook for the reincarnation of Lono. They greeted the captain and his crew and treated them with great respect. For the next month, the British exploited native people hospitality, probably raising uncertainty of their god status (it could have also been that Hawaiians were simply curious of the western technology and welcomed the Westerners warmly to share the knowledge of the sea). When one of Captain’s Cook crewmembers died, exposing sailors’ mortality, tension between them and Hawaiians arose and the Europeans decided it is time to leave Sandwich Islands. On February 4th 1779 Resolution and Discovery leave Kealakekua Bay, but after only a week at sea, the expedition is forced to return to Hawai’i for repairs, as one of Resolution masts breaks during a storm. This time around, the Europeans are greeted with anger rather than excitement- after a series of incidents, Hawaiians steal one of Cook’s cutter vessels (smaller boats used to ferry sailors from anchored mother ship to shore and back). Captain, using a technique that has proven effective in disputes with native people on other Polynesian islands, run ashore to take hostage the high chief of the area, named Kalani’ōpu’u-a-Kaiamamao. He is unsuccessful, returns the next day to try to capture and trade him for the stolen ship. This time, the chief lets himself be taken without protesting, however a large group of Hawaiians start accumulating at the beach where Cook is heading (Hawaiians mostly likely found out what is really going on by that time). When Cook enters the bay with his hostage, trying to get the chief to the boat, he gets hit with a wooden club and falls to the ocean. He tries desperately to reach the main ship, but cannot make it, simply because the greatest English explorer and one of history best sailors, doesn’t know how to swim...

Death of Captain James Cook  , oil on canvas by George Carter, 1783, Bernice P. Bishop Museum

Death of Captain James Cook, oil on canvas by George Carter, 1783, Bernice P. Bishop Museum

James Cook died of multiple stab wounds and with his death the third voyage remained unfinished. His body was recovered, prepared according to old Polynesian rituals and later returned (in parts) to his crewmen. The tragic outcome of this event changed the course of history and reshaped the future of the Hawaiian people. The British expedition returns to England, spreading news about a paradise island archipelago in the middle of the Pacific, telling story of  barbaric people who murdered James Cook and the need for them to be “civilized”. Meanwhile in Hawaii, a young, fierce looking chief named Kamehameha witnesses Europeans’ arrival and the conflict they've initiated. According to local legends, he was destined to be a great warrior (which later helped him keep his army morale up to the roof). Legends aside, he also turned out to be a brilliant young man that quickly learned how to use the technology Westerners brought with them against his rival chiefs in order to claim the title of a Supreme Chief. Kamehameha visited Cook in his ship before Captain’s death, seeing how its build and witnessing the power of European weaponry first hand. It seems that from the moment he saw all this, he knew obtaining such weaponry would give him a huge advantage in a war to control the island of Hawai’i.

The time Cook came to Hawai'i marks as the bloodiest period in the history of the archipelagoi. Every island turned into a war theater,  where rivaling chiefs fought for dictatorship over the entire island chain. In 1782, a ruling chief of Big Island died, creating an opportunity for Kamehameha to begin his rise to power. Initially, he were losing most battles, but with each loss, he trained his warriors and tweaked his strategy to further resemble British army tactics. That has proven to be successful and soon Big Island was in his hands. Around this time, outsiders returned to the island, just like Kamehameha predicted. First came the British, then in 1790 two American ships, the Fair American and the Eleanora, arrived. The foreigners came looking for a highly priced around the world fragrant sandalwood that happened to grow on Big Island volcanoes’ slopes and traded the Supreme Chief arms for access to the rainforest. Abroad Eleanora was Captain Simon Metcalfe, while the smaller Fair American was controlled by his son Thomas Humphrey Metcalfe. They arrived on the island of Maui on January 1790 and was welcomed by the chief Kame’eiamoku. Somehow the welcoming party wasn't received well, resulting in the chief being beaten by the Americans. Hawaiians, in revenge, stolen a small boat and killed one of sailors watching over it. Simon Metcalfe found out the boat has been taken to the village of Olowalu in North Maui and finding it stripped of nails, he got mad with anger. He tricked villagers to trade with him and when they arrived with goods in their canoes, Metcalfe ordered to fire all his cannons, killing at least 100 people in the act (it was later named by historians the Olowalu Massacre). Few weeks later the Fair American arrived at the island of Hawai’i, where humiliated Kame’eiamoku set a trap to capture the ship. He killed all but one crewmen abroad, taking the lone survivor named Isaac Davis hostage. Then another sailor, John Young was captured when Eleanora sailed to Big Island in search of its missing “twin”.

Isaac Young Davis  By unknown photographer

Isaac Young Davis By unknown photographer

They both got into King Kamehameha hands, who offered them a deal they couldn’t refuse- the king will spare their lives and in return both men were to stay and serve Kamehameha as military and political advisers. During the following years, Young and Davis helped the king in trading with Europeans and Americans, taught him old world military tactics and shipbuilding. Kamehameha was so fascinated by British culture, he even started to dress like an European. Soon he became Britain’s biggest Hawaiian trading partner, exchanging sandalwood and food for nothing but arms. His army rose to enormous proportion and, aided with foreign technology, he became to fulfill his goal of unifying the archipelago and making it a part of United Kingdom. In 1794, the island of Maui with the neighboring Molokai, Lanai and Kahoolawe all fell under his rule. Only a year later (exact dates are uncertain) his army reached shores of Oahu and quickly conquered the island, winning a key battle of Nu’uanu. This was Hawaii bloodiest battle, as many as 1000 people died that day. After winning Oahu, Kamehameha was left with only the last two islands- Kauai and Nihau to conquer. His first attempt to overturn Kauai chief Kaumuali’i was unsuccessful when a fierce storm disrupted his plans. Then in 1804, an epidemic decimated his troops, making the second invasion a fail. By this time Kamehameha realized diplomacy could be the only way to include Kauai under his reign, therefore he came out to Kaumuali’i with a proposal- if the high chief of Kauai join Kamehameha and recognize his supremacy, he’ll retain control of his Island. Kaumali’i agreed, finalizing Kamehameha’s “unification” of Hawaiian Islands. In 1810, a new nation was erected- the Kingdom of Hawaii, under rule of King Kamehameha I.

Portrait of king Kamehameha I (Hawaii State Archives)

Portrait of king Kamehameha I (Hawaii State Archives)

King Kamehameha first decree was a peace treaty stating that from the moment Kingdom of Hawaii was formed, no war shall disrupt the new order. However, peaceful times were soon threaten by a German named Georg Anton Schäffer, who in 1815 arrived to Hawaii as a foreman for Russian-American Company with plans to take the archipelago by force, with help of Russian fleet and arms. His plan was ill-fated from the beginning as he was no match for King Kamehameha army. Fortunately for him, Schäffer left just in time to save his and his crew from certain death. That incident prompted the King to be more vary of outside intruders and to seek allies who will respect Hawaiian independence.

It is worth mentioning that Kamehameha, despite adapting cultural, political and military customs from the West, also respected traditional Hawaiian religion and laws. The society was kept under the conduct of laws and rules called kapu which can be translated to English as “forbidden”. Kapu regulated relations between high chiefs, the royalty and the rest of population. Generally speaking, the kapu system was invented to make ordinary people pay respects and serve Ali’i (chiefs). Everything about chiefs’ way of life was forbidden (or even better “forbidden because it was sacred” as most kapu laws worked around mana)- their homes were kapu, rare food was kapu (to everyone else of course) you couldn’t even walk into ali’i shadow. Kapu system of laws also dealt with relations between men and women- for example, it was kapu for men and women to eat together. Sometimes ali’i made their wives kapu to others. Moreover, kapu was used to manage and maintain resources (it was kpu to eat certain food and catch fish at certain times of the year) as well as to limit access to some places on the island. Punishment for breaking any of the kapu laws was in most cases death by clubbing or strangulation. These day we may look at Kapu system as barbaric, but it successfully kept order in Hawaiian society, regulated the use of natural resources and somehow limited conflicts between classes for hundreds of years.

The Death Penalty of Public Execution by Clubbing', by Jacques Arago circa 1819

King Kamehameha ruled the nation of Hawaii for 9 years since its establishment in 1810 He died of an unknown disease on May 8, 1819. Before his death, Kamehameha appointed one of his sons named Liholiho a successor to the throne. However, he also announced Liholiho would share his power with Kamehameha’s beloved wife, Ka’ahumanu. She would be the first woman in Hawaiian history to hold a governing function. Although Kamehameha clearly stated his will is to make Ka’ahumanu the king’s advisor, she quickly dominated young Liholiho, virtually taking all power from his hands and making herself the sole ruler of Hawaii.

Hawaiian ancient tradition stated that after a death of the supreme chief, his land was to be equally redistributed among high chiefs. That created a problem both for Ka’ahumanu and Liholiho, who didn't want their land to be taken away from them. Ka’ahumanu had only one way to keep her inheritance- to destroy Hawaii foundation, a conduct of laws that were practiced for as long as 2000 years- and she took the drastic move, once again changing the course of Hawaiian history.

 Queen Ka’ahumanu with her servant on rug, lithograph by Jean-Pierre Norblin de la Gourdaine after painting by Louis Choris

a’ahumanu invited a man to eat with her, thereby disobeying one of Hawaiian society's most sacred kapu. That move was only the beginning of a path to annihilate and replace the ancient system of laws. Later, she ordered all holy structures demolished and religious artifacts burned. Ka’ahumanu essentially destroyed the traditions her ancestors brought with when they first set foot on Hawaiian soil, a dogma passed down through generations and the only way of life Hawaiian people knew. That radical move didn’t went without resistance-Liholiho’s cousin gathered an army on a mission to overthrow the new king. Unfortunately, the opposition didn’t stand a chance in a battle with king’s soldiers yielding firearms and in a river of blood sunk Hawaii ancient culture and religion. Hawaii was about to undergo an irreversible process of radical changes for the second time in history. Ka’ahumanu victory cemented her place on Hawaiian throne, forcing people to adapt to the new reality or die refusing to accept it. In the meantime, 5000 miles away, a young Hawaiian named Henry Opukahaia was giving a speech at Yale College- a speech that turned out to be an ideal excuse to fund an American missionary expedition to the Hawaiian Archipelago.

"Henry Opukahaia, Imiola Church portrait" by Unknown 

"Henry Opukahaia, Imiola Church portrait" by Unknown 

Henry Opukahaia was a resident of Big Island who, as a young, boy, boarded an American ship during Kamehameha wars. He came to New Haven in the state of Connecticut to be  adopted by a Christian family and later converted to Christianity. During his studies, Henry met a Reverend (Christian cleric) Edwin W.Dwight at Yale University. Dwight decided to “civilize” the young Hawaiian and taught him English grammar and other subjects in public school curriculum of that time. Henry ought to be a brilliant student- he almost finished translating Hawaiian language into a written form and made first version of the English-Hawaiian dictionary. His successful attempt to translate Bible’s “Book of Genesis” into Hawaiian planted a seed of idea to convert “Pagan" Hawaii inhabitants to Christianity. In 1819, a year of Kamehameha death, a ship named Thaddeus carrying Congregational Missionaries sailed from Boston, arriving at the shores of Big Island on March 30th 1820. Henry Opukahaia himself was not present aboard Thaddeus, dying two years earlier of typhus fever. Nevertheless, four other Hawaiian converts who played a role of translators and guides to the missionaries, got to the island of Hawai’i. The Americans were clueless Hawaii was undergoing a religious turmoil when they arrived. It turned out to be an excellent opportunity to introduce Jesus Christ to Hawaiians questioning their fate. For Queen Ka’ahumanu, Christianity was equally opportunistic, as it would guarantee her dominance of the Kingdom of Hawaii. She allowed foreigners to build missions on her islands and later converted to Christianity too, changing the religious landscape on the island chain. Without the Kapu system, Ka’ahumanu gained not only executive, but also judicial and legislative powers (meaning that nothing could stop her from writing and changing laws without approval from the general populous). Hawaiians embraced Christianity fairly quickly, but it might have not been only because of Jesus teachings, but a written language they didn't understand. Writing was like magic to them, something they wanted to learn badly and church offered that opportunity. Missionaries, with help from some Hawaiians bilinguals, standardized written form of Hawaiian language and created the alphabet made of only twelve letters- 7 consonants and 5 vowels. Hawaiian were so eager to learn reading and writing that by the year 1831, Kingdom of Hawaii had the lowest illiteracy rate of any known country in the world.

Ka’ahumanu used her newly adopted religion to rewrite laws and customs, essentially abolishing the traditional Hawaiian way of life (or rather what little was left of it). Practicing any aspect of Hawaiian culture was banned (even the Hula dance was outlawed). Missionaries’ goal to erase all traces of “barbaric rituals” from Hawaiians’ minds seemed soon to be reached. Surprisingly, something else happened- scholars on the island of Maui used their recently acquired ability to write and went to the elders, the last generation who hold the history and traditions of Hawaiian people in their minds. The students wrote down an unimaginable amount of information and it’s thank to them we have such detailed knowledge of the people of Hawaii.

Ka’ahumanu died a faithful Christian on June 1832, due to intestinal disease brought by Westerners. Before her death, she banished Catholic Christians from the island (she was converted Protestant), although what’s even more important, she tighten relations with the West, signing a trade treaty that allowed American ships to enter all ports on Hawaiian Islands to do business. Americans started coming in masses- the same year Ka’ahumanu died, missionaries had their presence on every major Hawaiian Island. Kamehameha II brother, Keaweaweʻula Kīwalaʻō Kauikeaouli Kaleiopapa ascended the throne after his brother death in 1824. He continued following his mother’s will and strengthen relationship with West even further, embracing Christianity and allowing foreigners to reshape the land his ancestors discovered 1400 years ago.

"View of Honolulu Harbor and Punchbowl Crater. (c. 1854)" by Drawn on stone by G.H. Burgess. / Lith. of Britton & Rey. / Published by Paul Emmert. 

Honolulu on the island of Oahu became Hawaii major port and the center of American, French and British immigrants. They were here to stay and soon started appearing in Hawaii political stage. A missionary named William Richards, serving as Kamehameha III advisor, proposed the new king with a constitution that would guarantee the archipelago sovereignty. At this time Hawaii was considered by the world’s superpowers as a precious landmass to acquire. British attempts to raise their nation’s flag in the islands resulted in United States declaring in 1843 that it would never allow any nation in the world to violate Hawaii independence (oh sweet irony). Americans quickly changed their minds when they figured out Pearl Harbor (named after an abundance of oysters in the area) would be an excellent spot for military naval base. For that reason, they continued to influence Hawaii politics, gaining more seats in the government. That in turn induced a series of protests by Hawaiians, unhappy to see foreigners as their decision makers. Kamehameha III didn't seem to listen to his people and in 1845 he signed a law allowing outsiders to become citizens of the Kingdom of Hawaii. The newly naturalized Westerners demanded the possibility to buy and sell land, while for Hawaiians, the very concept of ownership was alien. Nevertheless, the land redistribution law called Mahele, signed in 1848, was nothing short of disproportionate- most of Hawaii landed in king’s, chiefs’ and government hands, with native Hawaiian land ownership being less than 1% of the total landmass. Moreover, Mahele law allowed foreigners to purchase land, which white people exploited, buying huge areas for next to nothing. By 1850, native Hawaiians had virtually no land they could call their own.

Hawaii geopolitical situation shifted earlier in 1845 when American Board of Foreign Missions cut findings to missionaries and ordered them home. They in turn faced a tough choice-return to North America or try surviving by doing something else.They've chosen the later, which initiated an era of farming on Hawaiian Islands- huge landmasses were leveled and stripped off rainforest to accommodate crops, mainly pineapple and sugar cane. The new industry brought fortunes to landowners, meanwhile native Hawaiians populations dwindled due to diseases and lack of access to medical care foreigners enjoyed. Around this time, first talks about Hawaii annexation (acquisition of state’s territory by another, larger state) were born. Virtually all government was American and so were most landowners, therefore declaring Hawaii an US territory seemed like an inevitable course of action.

On December 11, 1872 Kamehameha V, the last king of the Kamehameha genealogical tree died without naming a successor. Because of that, a new king would have to be elected by the legislature consisting of remaining royal family members. William Charles Lunalillo, whose grandfather was half-brother of Kamehameha I, was chosen, but he died of tuberculosis less than 2 years later. He also did not announce who is going to take his role, therefore another election had to take place. On one side was Queen Emma, a widow of Kamehameha IV, who favored the British monarchy, on the other David Kalākaua, a high chief supported by the Americans in Hawaiian government. The electorate appointed Kalākaua the new king, despite protests among native Hawaiians and British minorities living on the islands, who backed Queen Emma.

"Kalakaua (PP-96-11-001)" by not given - Hawaii State Archives. Call Number: PP-96-11-001.

"Kalakaua (PP-96-11-001)" by not given - Hawaii State Archives. Call Number: PP-96-11-001.

Shortly after his accession to the throne, Kalākaua went to Washington DC to meet the US president and talk about a reciprocity treaty that would guarantee Hawaiian export products to reach US Soil tax-free. The treaty was signed on January 30, 1875. By that time, the Americans knew exactly what they wanted in return- Pearl harbor. The unusual shape of the harbor combined with surrounding mountains made it a perfect spot for military naval base. Add to it Hawaii location (halfway between America and East Asia) and you end up with one of the best (if not the best) strategic locations in this part of the world. When the reciprocity treaty was due to be renewed, the US government made Kingdom of Hawaii an updated offer -  the treaty would be extended indefinitely in exchange for an exclusive use of Pearl Harbor. To the US surprise, Kalākaua did not sign the deal, which angered American elite lobbyists to the point of forming an opposition party-the Hawaiian League. The new party goal was strait and simple- to overthrow the ruling monarchy and replace it with US backed government. Since its formation, Hawaiian League started criticizing king Kalākaua, saying that he is corrupt and unable to maintain kingdom’s prosperity. One particular man, Walter Murray Gibson, an American who sat in kingdom’ s government as a Prime Minister to Kalākaua, openly opposed Hawaiian League. His political views put him in an unpopular position and he quickly became Hawaiian League’s enemy no.1. Walter M. Gibson believed in Hawaiian independence and their right to self-govern the archipelago, although he also knew Kingdom of Hawaii needs an ally that can defend the nation from other world’s superpowers. He and Kalākaua planned to strengthen Japanese presence on the islands in hope for Japan acceptance to the Empire. When Hawaiian League found out king Kalākaua is plotting against them, their strategy shifted from negotiations to demands. They decided to take Hawaii by force.

On July 6th 1887, a group of armed militia called the Honolulu Rifles, under command of Hawaiian League, marched to the king’s palace to present Kalākaua new constitution. Written the day before, it was to bring fundamental changes to Hawaiian nation- a constitutional monarchy would replace existing regime (virtually stripping the king of all power) and United States would gain exclusive rights to enter Pearl Harbor. Fearing his own death, king Kalākaua signed the document, unintentionally ending Hawaiian monarchy rule over the land and its people. The king, devastated by these recent events, took a trip to California, hoping to recover and come back to try re-gaining the power that has been forcibly taken away from him. Unfortunately, he died on a return ship, never seeing his homeland again. King’s sister, Lili’uokalani was summoned to the throne by the new government on January 29th, 1891.

Queen Lili’uokalani in 1913

Queen Lili’uokalani in 1913

Chosen carefully by the Hawaiian League, Queen Lili’uokalani was expected to “smile and observe” how her nation is irreversibly transformed by US interest. The League members were confident that Lili’uokalani, being a woman, could be easily manipulated and will do whatever they tell her. Adding to that the fact native Hawaiian population faced drastic decline (by late XIX century they became a minority on their own land), the Hawaiian League took their dominance for granted. Meanwhile, Queen Lili’uokalani turned out to be a more than just a puppet for the League. This brave woman stood up to American oppression, first by tearing up the Constitution her brother signed and presented her own version of it that gave executional and legislative power back to the monarchy. This act frustrated Hawaiian League, which committee warned the queen that they will not accept her new constitution. The Cabinet Ministry members who first supported Queen’s efforts, now backed away from her plans, fearing the American agenda. They’ve joined the opposition and a new party, called the Committee of Safety, arose. Kingdom of Hawaii Marshall Charles Burnett Wilson, trying to save the Queen, requested warrants to arrest Committee of Safety’s 3 members after he was informed of their plans to overthrown government and put Hawaii under martial law. This turn of events triggered a response from the Committee, asking US Government Minister John L. Stevens to deny Wilson’s requests. Moreover, they turned to Stevens in search of protection from Us Government while they were planning to seize power from the Queen. Stevens agreed to send help and on January 16th, 1893, 162 armed US sailors and Marines arrived in the port of Honolulu and soon were stationing near Kings Palace. Queen Lili’uokalani, trying to avoid bloodbath and seeing her own hopelessness, ordered the Royal Guard to surrender. The Queen still thought Americans will pronounce her the President after replacing political structure, but instead on January 17th a new Provisional Government was erected under leadership of one of Committee of Safety’s members- Sanford B. Dole who self-proclaimed himself the President. The new government quickly started the push for US annexation process, sending a commission to President of the United States Benjamin Harrison to negotiate a treaty. However, a new US President, Grover Cleveland, took office and being an anti-imperialist himself, refused to implement the treaty. Even he changed his mind after an official U.S Congressional investigation report (called the Morgan Report) stated that there was absolutely no U.S Army involvement in the events leading to the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii. Cleveland abandoned his idea to restoration of the Queen and deemed the Provisional Government a legal and accepted authority over Hawaii. On July 4, 1894, Hawaiian Islands became officially the Republic of Hawaii.

Proclaimation of the Republic of Hawaii  By Frank Clifford (Hawaii State Archives. Call number: PP-36-11-004) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Proclaimation of the Republic of Hawaii By Frank Clifford (Hawaii State Archives. Call number: PP-36-11-004) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

One last attempt to re-institute the monarchy came from a German-born financier and owner of one of the largest sugar plantation operation in Hawaii, mister Claus Spreckels. He financed and armed rebels who drew a plan of overthrowing the new government. Few hundred people lead by native Hawaiian named Robert William Wilcox marched in to the Kings Palace in hope of restoring order, but they were no match for the republic army. Royalists were forced to retreat to the mountains, captured and later put on trial. Spreckels himself fled Hawaiian Islands in fear of prosecution and all blame were to lay on Queen Lili’uokalani. She was accused of forming a rebellion and sentenced to home confinement. With a broken heart, she accepted her defeat and the end of Hawaiian Kingdom by signing a document stripping her of any and all powers.. She wrote a farewell song to his people-“Ke Aloha O Ka Haku” or “the Queen’s Prayer”.

`O kou aloha nô

Aia i ka lani

A `o Kou `oia `i`o

He hemolelo ho`i


Ko`u noho mihi `ana

A pa`ahao `ia

`O `oe ku`u lama

Kou nani ko`u ko`o


Mai nânâ `ino`ino

Nâ hewa o kânaka

Akä e huikala

A ma`ema`e nô


No laila e ka Haku

Ma lalo o kou `êheu

Kô mâkou maluhia

A mau loa aku nô




Your loving mercy

Is as high as Heaven

And your truth

So perfect


I live in sorrow


You are my light

Your glory, my support


Behold not with malevolence

The sins of man

But forgive

And cleanse


And so, o Lord

Protect us beneath your wings

And let peace be our portion

Now and forever more




Lili’uokalani was released from her home detention almost a year later. She traveled to Washington DC, hoping she can lobby the president to restore her kingdom. Unfortunately for her, Grover Cleveland was no longer in office, he was succeeded by William McKinley. The new president, being an expansionist and advocate for growing US influence in the Pacific, refused to even listen to Queen’s demands. At the time, United States was engaged in war with Spain, therefore having a military base in the middle of the Pacific Ocean concerned him far more than restoring the monarchy. He put out the annexation of Hawaii idea up for Congress to vote and despite Lili’uokalani efforts to stop it from happening, the Congressmen voted in favor of the annexation. On August 12, 1898, the Hawaiian Islands became officially an Us territory.

Annexation of Hawaii  By Frank Davey (Hawaii State Archives. Call Number: PP-35-8-012)

Annexation of Hawaii By Frank Davey (Hawaii State Archives. Call Number: PP-35-8-012)

Even that annexation of Hawaii was approved by US Congress, the international political scene did not recognized the island chain as a legally acquired territory. After winning the Spanish-American war, United States secured the Philippines and Guam, therefore Pearl Harbor became a strategic location of utmost importance. Few years after annexation the US Navy started a total transformation of Pearl Harbor- what used to be a commercial port since Hawaiians started trading with Europeans, now turned into a construction zone for a state-of-the-art military naval base. Meanwhile, the growing sugar industry combined with new laws initiated a wave of immigration to the Islands- workers arrived from all over the world- Japanese, Korean, Philippine, Spanish, Puerto Rican, German, Russian and English workforce set foot on Hawaii ground in search of a better life. World War I didn’t affect American economy much, the sugar and pineapple industries grew, bringing new people to the archipelago and strengthening its economy. Pearl Harbor continued to grow and evolve , quickly setting standard as the most sophisticated and advanced military base in this region of the world.

United States maintained their isolationist form of foreign policy, however the US military became aware of the growing influence of the Japanese Empire on the Pacific. American-Japanese relations worsen when Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1924, which limited the number of immigrants who can be admitted to USA and its territories annually to 2% of total the number of people from given country already residing within United States. That law virtually banned all Japanese immigration to the US (by that time the Japanese were the largest minority in the US territory of Hawaii, surpassing even native Hawaiians). Tensions between Japanese Empire and United States reached new high when Japan declared war on China, an act Americans took as an obvious expansionism. US Congress imposed economic sanctions on the Empire (Japan relied heavily on American oil), hoping that it would weaken its economy and stop Japanese from conquering Pacific Islands. At the same time, Pearl Harbor was updated and armed for the possibility of military conflict. With Europe Already at war by the end of 1939, the US Government begun talks of possible war with the Empire. It turned out Japan already had a plan...

"Burning ships at Pearl Harbor" December 7, 1941 by USN

December 7, 1941 at 7:55 in the morning, the Japanese army launched a surprise attack (the Empire fleet moved with an advancing storm and kept radio silence to avoid detection), sending 183 fighter planes and six bombers onto the United States Naval base in Pearl Harbor on the island of O’ahu. American soldiers were caught off guard, unable to defend their base from Japanese bombs. First phase of the attack concentrated on destroying US fighter planes in order to disable American air defense. The second wave arrived at 8:30 with a mission to destroy all American warships, especially the battleship USS Arizona that, at the time, was one of the most advanced military ships in the world. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that lasted less than two hours out to be one of the most successful military operations in history of humankind. US Navy had to face the grim outcome- 9 ships were sunk (including USS Arizona and its 1,177 crewmen), 21 severely damaged, nearly 300 airplanes destroyed. The death toll reached over 2,500 people including 2,400 military personnel. Despite being a tactical success, Japan overlooked a critical target- US fuel supply storage, which later helped the US win battles on the Pacific. Today, the remains of USS Arizona warship can be viewed at the USS Arizona Memorial on the island of O’ahu.

USS Arizona Memorial, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii by U.S Navy Photographer, PH1 William R. Goodwin

The same day Empire of Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave a famous speech beginning with words “December 7th, a date which will live in infamy...”. The day after, United States of America declared war on Japan, war that will continue for the next four years and include both Pacific and European fronts. The US involvement in World War II officially ended with the surrender of the Japanese on August 15, 1945.

Hawaii has changed dramatically after attack on Pearl Harbor. A martial law was utilized, to which Hawaiian residents responded surprisingly well- citizens of all races and ethnic groups united and organized voluntary teams aimed to help with recovery and to prep for possible future attacks. Interim hospitals and supply shelters were built, all to support the necessary warfare. On top of that, many man and women of Hawaiian residency fought alongside American soldiers in Pacific war theater. The downside of ongoing war with Japan was that many Japanese immigrants living and working on Hawaiian Islands became target of repressions, grievance and general public distrust. With people of Japanese descent being sent to relocation centers, the sugar industry suffered an economic disaster and many plantations went bankrupt due to lack of labor.

The last chapter of Hawaiian history begins with the fall of the Empire of Japan in 1945. Only a year later, an idea of Hawaii joining the Union as a state was born. World War II aftermath-death toll, global economy collapse and fear of looming military conflict with newly formed communist regimes annihilated efforts to restore Kingdom Of Hawaii for good. Fighting alongside Americans to eradicate the common enemy, Hawaiians proved their loyalty to United States. On the contrary, US citizens in the Mainland were skeptical of Hawaii as a state due to its racial diversity (segregation was still a reality in after-WWII America), especially that large percentage of archipelago’s residents were of Japanese origins. Nevertheless, in early 1950s, Hawaii government officials sent numerous pleas to US politicians asking for statehood, but it wasn't until 1954 that these requests were taken seriously. That year, Democratic Party of Territory of Hawaii won the general election and gained majority of seats in both House and Senate. Their progressive views coupled with series of reforms in tax, education and labor departments, gained them support of Native Hawaiians as well as other immigrant minorities on the islands. The introduction of labor unions challenged the oligarchic structure of Hawaii economy (which was in total control of huge corporations known as “Big Five”) and gave people the right to openly express their criticism on how the Territory was run. This shift in political atmosphere of the island chain further reinvigorated the initiative of Hawaii statehood, with support of virtually all Hawaiian residents. The ultimate goal has been achieved on August 21, 1959, when US President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a proclamation admitting Hawaii into the Union- United States flag was rearranged to accommodate its 50th star, finalizing the long road from Kingdom of Hawaii to statehood.

Hawaii, now being officially a part of United States, becomes a land of opportunity for American investors. Declining pineapple and sugar industries are replaced by a new cash crop- tourism. The civilian airline corporations set foot in Hawaii for the archipelago’s convenient location as a “bridge” between North America and East Asia. Pan American World Airways emerges as the biggest player, promoting Hawaii as an exotic tourist destination. Initially a luxury only richest people in United States could afford, falling oil prices and technological advancements in airline industry open the doors to paradise to more and more adventure seekers. Pictures of deserted beaches, rainforests, emerald blue seas and exotic culture started showing up in magazines and travel ads. The 1961 musical “Blue Hawaii” starring young Elvis Presley (who later appeared in two more movies set in Hawaii) left no doubt- the state of Hawaii is to be considered “heaven on Earth”. Tourist boom caused Honolulu to grow rapidly, with new hotels, businesses and attractions lurking travelers from all over the world. 

Sattelite image of the Hawaiian Archipelago. Image courtesy Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Land Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC

Sattelite image of the Hawaiian Archipelago. Image courtesy Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Land Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC

The story finally brings us to the Hawaii of today. The eight main islands- (Kauai, O’ahu, Maui, Moloka’i, Lanai and Hawai’i), one private (Ni’ihau) and one uninhabited (Kaho’olawe)- together form the State of Hawai’i. The capital and archipelago’s largest city, Honolulu, have a population of over 390,000 people (2010 census), with its metro area having 950,000 residents. The whole state is home to just over 1.4 million. Since Hawaii was granted statehood in 1959, tourism became its largest industry, making for almost quarter of state’s GSP. Other contributing industries include military, education, food (with main exports being coffee, pineapples, macadamia nuts, livestock and cane sugar) and apparel. Everyday life changed drastically since 1950s- each island has system of paved roads and highways, electricity and other modern conveniences, just like mainland. However, due to fact that a lot of people dream of moving to Hawaii, the state has some of the highest costs of living in comparison to the rest of US. Majority of goods are imported from mainland and from Asian countries, while gas prices are usually on par (or even higher) with those in California and New York. In contrary, Hawaii ranks in top ten “happiest states” In America and it’s hard to see why- nowhere else you can enjoy a year round pleasant weather, tropical foliage, amazing beaches and crystal clear waters. Some people call it the best place on Earth to enjoy life (we agree).

If you managed to get to that point in the article (thank you for reading!), it is clear to see that Hawaii has a rich and interesting history. From the moment Polynesians arrived on their wooden canoes to inhabit the islands, the land and its people went through enormous, dramatic changes, each time adjusting to the new reality. The question that always goes through my mind when reading about Hawaii history is “How native Hawaiians see the role of United States in shaping their home land?” Because I am not Hawaiian myself, I cannot answer this question directly, nevertheless I can give my humble opinion based on what I learned so far. One thing is certain- there is no doubt Hawaii was annexed by US Government illegally and against Hawaiians will. In 1993, President Bill Clinton signed a legislation, officially apologizing for U.S role in the overthrow of Hawaiian Kingdom in 1893. However, we have to understand this is not the only place on Earth that was acquired in such manner (which, of course does not explain the act itself). What’s interesting is that this legislation was more viewed as an official recognition of a historical event rather than any form of compensation to Hawaiians for US Government actions. On the flip side, annexation of Hawaii lead to statehood and all the benefits of belonging to one of the world’s richest nations (Hawaii has the highest standard of living of any island chain in the Pacific). The debate is open and it wouldn't be easy to pick a side in this complicated issue. My personal view is as follows: it is true Hawaii could have been a very different nation without US involvement in its politics, however, following the historical path that shaped the archipelago’s to what we enjoy today, I highly doubt it could ever remained a sovereign island nation it once was. We cannot rewrite history, but instead that with United States leadership it will continue to be a place of wonder and dream destination we all love.


Please share your thoughts and thank you for reading!                                           

comments powered by Disqus



Copyright Marcin Smok & Kamila Sedziak. All rights reserved.