All Islands: HISTORY

Polynesia means many islands

The HISTORY of Hawaii can be broken into several phases: Polynesian settlement, European arrival, Hawaiian kingdom, American annexation, and international tourism. Native history is preserved in chants, songs, and legends about early explorers, gods, and demi-gods. Much of this oral tradition prior to 1778 has been lost with the deaths of kahuna (priests) and kûpuna (elders). Captain James Cook named the Sandwich Islands upon first sight of Oahu (January 18, 1778) and the islands' Western history is well documented after this date.


  • BC - Populating of French Polynesia from other islands
  • 600 AD - Marquesans arrive
  • 1100 - Society Islanders arrive
  • 1778 - Captain Cook arrives
  • 1779 - Captain Cook's death
  • 1780 - Kamehameha the Great unifies kingdom & becomes king
  • 1819 - Kamehameha I dies & Kamehameha II becomes king
  • 1824 - Kamehameha II dies & Kamehameha III becomes king
  • 1854 - Kamehameha III dies & Kamehameha IV becomes king
  • 1863 - Kamehameha IV dies & Kamehameha V becomes king
  • 1872 - Kamehameha V dies & William Lunalilo becomes king 
  • 1874 - Lunalilo dies & David Kalakaua becomes King
  • 1891 - Kalakaua dies & Liliuokalani becomes queen
  • 1893 - Queen Liliuokalani surrenders to USA under protest
  • 1894 - Hawaii is a Republic
  • 1898 - Hawaii annexed by US
  • 1900 - Hawaii is a US territory
  • 1941 - Pearl Harbor attacked
  • 1959 - Hawaii is 50th state

Polynesian Settlement

Polynesia means "many islands" and what we know about its settlement is based on archeology and native oral history prior to 1778. Polynesia (as opposed to Micronesia, small islands, or Melanesia, black islands) is geographically designated as the Pacific Ocecan islands in a triangle (click on map opposite) drawn from Hawaii to Easter Island, New Zealand, and back to Hawaii (including Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, Tahiti, and the Cook Islands, who all share lanugage similarities). The Polynesians were great explorers who sailed the seas on rafts made of native trees and without navigation instruments or charts, using natural signs such as the stars, water currents, winds, clouds, and bird flight.

You may remember Thor Heyerdahl who sailed 4,300 miles (6,900 kilometers) from Peru to Tahiti and French Polynesia on the homemade, balsa wood, Kon-Tiki raft to prove his theories that the islands were settled from mainland South America thousands of years ago by proto-Peruvians. Some anthropologists suggest that Polynesians came as Formosans, originally from Taiwan near China, through the Philippines, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Cook Islands, eventually to Tahiti and French Polynesia.

Whichever theory you support, we know Hawaii was settled from French Polynesia by two large migrational waves originating at the Marquesas around 600-700 and then the Society Islands in 1100 AD. The journey north from Tahiti to Hawaii is about 2,800 miles (4,500 kilometers) and is many times the distance of each small 500mi (800km) hop between islands along the chain back to China (you can imagine the difficulties of exploring the vast oceans in hope of reaching tiny islands).

Early hawaiian society was stratified on castes, with royalty (ali`i) at the top, priests (kahuna) second, commoners (maka`ainana) third, and outcasts or slaves (kauwa) at the bottom. Women were second class to men in all castes. According to kapu (taboo) laws, people were born into their caste and could not move up, but could be outcast to the lowest caste for bad behavior. Each caste had tasks and accountabilities for the greater good of society. Royalty governed (king) and divided land (chiefs), priests managed religion, commoners labored for the economy by fishing or farming, and slaves performed the hard work or were sacrificed. Prisoners from wars were placed in the lowest caste and reveared explorers were said to have "mana" (power or divine spirit) on par with priests.

Islands were divided into tribal kingdoms, often at war with one another, and each headed by a king who ruled over several chiefs. Each chief had an area of land or open water that he was responsible for and typically these were divided up and assigned (based on reward or punishment) to farming or fishing families. The priests were experts in the crafts of canoe building, medicine or science, geneology (as lineage was critical to royalty), casting and removing spells, exploring, and the religion of the four gods (Ku, Kanaloa, Lono and Kane). The commoners fished from constructed ponds and open water, farmed fertile fields, built houses and manufactured cloth or other construction materials. They paid a tax of products or materials to the king and chiefs. When war broke out, the men became soldiers. Life was regulated by the kapu (sacred) system.

Portrait of Captain James Cook
In Kealakekua Bay on the Kona coast of the Big Island, the Captain Cook Obelisk inscription reads; "In memory of the great circumnavigator, Captain James Cook, R.N., who discovered these islands on the 18th of January, A.D. 1778 and fell near this spot on the 14th of February, A.D. 1779"
A statue of Captain Cook stands in Waimea on Kauai, where he first landed on January 20th, 1778, only after sighting Oahu two days earlier and naming the "Sandwich Islands"

European Arrival

Captain Cook was the initial European, who first landed at Kauai (January 20) and Niihau (January 29). Cook also died on the Big Island of Hawaii on February 14, 1779 (see monument photographs in the margin). James Cook was born in Marton, Yorkshire, England on October 27, 1728. He led three Pacific expeditions and discovered the Hawaiian Islands by sighting Oahu on Janaury 18th of the last voyage. Cook named them the "Sandwich Islands" for his friend, John Montague, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, and recorded the native name as Owyhee.

His first was as a Lieutenant aboard the Endeavor (1768-1771) to Tahiti, New Zealand, and Australia covering almost 40,000 miles (70,000 kilometers). His second was as commander of the Resolution with the Adventure (1772-1775) to Australia, New Zealand, Easter Island, Tahiti, and Tonga in about 70,000 miles (110,000 kilometers). His third was a captain of the Resolution with the Discovery (1776-1779) to Australia, New Zealand, Antarctica, Tonga, Tahiti, Christmas Island, Hawaii, and the North American coastline (from Oregon to Alaska) in well over 110,000 miles (180,000 kilometers).

On his way back from Russian waters, Cook stopped at Hawaii again, and was killed in a dispute with natives. He arrived in Kealakekua Bay on the Kona coast and was initially thought to be the god Lono by the natives (this was during Makahiki season, when all battles cease in honor of Lono). Cook was lavished with gifts, games, and ceremonies. After departing the Big Island, the Resolution was damaged by a storm. A quick return to Kealakekua Bay, showed the natives that a god would not allow his ship to be damaged. Escalating misunderstandings led to conflict and Cook was killed in an attack on the beach. Captain Clerke took over command of the expedition and landed at Oahu (Feb 28), but only viewed Maui, Molokai, and Lanai (Feb 25) afar for the first time, on his return to England via Africa and the Cape of Good Hope (Cape of Storms).

Following Cook's explorations, for the period of 1780-1850, whalers, loggers, merchants, and missionaries flocked to the Hawaiian Islands. These were primarily Americans, British, and other Europeans (mostly Russians, Portuguese, Spaniards, Germans, or Norwegians). They were called "haole" or outsider, but the word came to mean just European (as these were the first groups to immigrate and intermarry with Hawaiians). As a result, the term may be used derogatively today by some people.

Whalers came from Russian waters in search of whale oils. They established a huge whaling station at Lahaina on Maui and several smaller stations on other islands. Lahaina received over 400 ships per year at the height of the whaling era (1840-1865) and soon became recognized as the capital of Maui. Whaling industry died at the turn of the 19th century, as seemingly abundant and inexpensive petroleum oil replaced whale oil. Today, one can view the remains of the whaling station in Lahaina.

Loggers cut down forests of sandalwood trees. Sandalwood was prized for its fragrance used in perfumes and incense. Other trees fell for construction of buildings.

Merchants established businesses and the most profitable businesses involved agriculture. Numerous plantations sprung up on several of the islands to grow sugar cane, pineapple, macadamia nuts, and coffee. James Dole, president of Hawaiian Pineapple Company (later Dole Foods), purchased the entire island of Lanai in 1922 and turned a large part of it into the world's largest pineapple plantation.

Missionaries clothed the natives, banned the hula dance, converted Hawaiians to Christianity, developed a written form of the Hawaiian language, established schools for reading and writing, recorded native history, conducted a population census, and introduced medicine. Unfortunately, the incoming Americans, British, and other Europeans also introduced diseases (smallpox, measles, leprosy, whooping cough, influenza, gonorrhea, and syphilus) that dessimated the native people. They also brought foreign plants, animals, alcohol and firearms.

From 1850 to 1920, a massive influx of workers from many nations supplied inexpensive labor for the growing plantations. This rich and diverse population forms the basis of the modern Hawaiian people. Immigrants included Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Filipinos, Puerto Ricans, and Samoans.

Ten thousand indentured Chinese plantation laborers arrived in 1852 from the Canton province near Macau. They intermarried with Hawaiians making Chinese-Hawaiians a common modern heritage. From 1890 to 1900, over 50,000 Japanese workers arrived and in the next decade they grew to represent 40% of the population. Due to growing hostility toward these workers, the Federal Exclusion Act of 1924 halted further immigration from several Asian nations. Between 1903 and 1924, Korean numbers increased by about 800 women bought over as brides for some of the 8,000 men working on the plantations. Filipinos were the last large influx of plantation laborers with over 120,000 workers. A Peurto Rican population of about 10,000 workers intermarried mostly with Filipinos, Portuguese, and Spaniards. Samoans did not arrive to work on plantations, but to labor on construction of the Mormon Temple on Oahu.

Kamehameha the Great (1750-1819)
Kamehameha II (1797-1824)
Kamehameha III (1814-1854)
Kamehameha IV (1834-1863)
Kamehameha V  (1830-1872)
Lunalilo (1835-1874)
Kalakaua (1836-1891)
Liliuokalani (1838-1917)

Hawaiian Kingdom

The kingdom was formed through violence and against the objections of many rulers from the separate island tribes. As a young man of about 30, Kamehameha the Great (1750-1819), also known as King Kamehameha I (KEH-meh-hah-MEH-hah) was present at Kealakekua Bay for Cook's final visit. Within several months, he had unified the Big Island of Hawaii. A few years later, he had united the islands and gave them all the name of Hawaii in honor of his home island.

Kamehameha moved progressively from Maui, through Lanai, to Molokai, gathering warriors as he moved. In 1790, he conquered Maui and defeated its ruler, Kamalalawalu, in the bloody Battle of Kepaniwai, fought in the Iao Valley, and then moved his capital to Lahaina from Kona.

He built a fleet of canoes to take his army to Oahu. They landed at Waikiki and Waialae. In a two pronged attack, they drove Oahu Chief Kalanikupuli's warriors up the Nuuanu Valley to the Nuuanu Pali, where they surrendered in order to avoid being pushed off the cliffs. Shortly afterwards, in 1804, Kamehameha established his royal court at Waikiki and later moved it to what is now downtown Honolulu in 1809.

During this time, Kamehameha prepared an armada of ships and canoes to cross the long distance from Oahu to Kauai. He was turned back twice due to a storm and an epedemic. Kaumualii, the ruler of Kauai and Niihau, surrendered in 1810 upon threat of a third invasion force.

Kamehameha I died in 1819, at the ripe old age of 69, after a long reign and a peaceful decade during which the caste system was overturned and religion was phased out by Kaahumanu, his favorite queen. A long line of successors followed Kamehameha the Great.

Kamehameha II (1797-1824) was born as Liholiho, the first son of Kamehameha the Great. Upon the death of his father, he became king at 22. He and his queen visited London in 1823 (as a guest of British aristocracy), where they contracted measles, and, without immunity, they both died shortly afterwards. Queen Kaahumanu continued in her role of Prime Minister.

Kamehameha III (1814-1854) was born as Kauikeaouli, the last son of Kamehameha the Great. Upon the death of his older brother, he became king at 10. He ruled for 29 years during difficult times involving trade, credit, and land title problems with foreigners. He moved the permanent capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom from Lahaina on Maui to Honolulu on Oahu in 1845. Iolani Palace remains standing today and is the only royal palace in the USA.

Kamehameha IV (1834-1863) was the first grandson of Kamehameha the Great. He ruled during times of political unrest, industrial desire to join the USA, and foreign interests in voting during local elections.

Kamehameha V  (1830-1872) was the brother of the previous king. He was the last direct descendant of Kamehameha the Great to sit on the Hawaiian throne. He faced growing conflict between haole (white Europeans) and Hawaiians. Childless, he died without naming a successor.

Lunalilo (1835-1874) was made king by the Hawaiian Legislature. Several poor decisions were made in a short time and he died, also without naming his successor, after only two years on the throne.

Kalakaua (1836-1891) was also elected by the Hawaiian Legislature and appointed many Hawaiians to government posts, much to the irritation of American and European business interests. His cabinet was overthrown, a new constitution left him powerless to respond, so he abdicated the monarchy, moved to San Francisco, and died shortly afterwards. During his rule, the USA obtains rights to build a naval base at Pearl Harbor.

Liliuokalani (1838-1917) became queen during great racial tensions between white businessmen controlling the economy and native politicians holding the power to govern. Queen Liliuokalani announced her intent to form a new constitution returning power to the throne. In a bloodless coup, she resigned under protest in 1983 and inadvertently cleared the path to American annexation of Hawaii. Hawaiian rebels revolted in an atempt to reseat her atop the throne, but they failed and she was placed under house arrest in the palace. She relinquished all claims to the monarchy in exchange for amnesty for her people. The annexation that followed is still hotly contested to this day by locals.

The USS Arizona explodes and burns
Multimedia map and interactive timeline of Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor

During World War II

  • Maui was a staging centre, training base, and place for rest and relaxation.
  • Kahoolawe was entirely used for maneovers and bombing practice.
  • Oahu was the main base of military operations with Pearl Harbor and Hickam Airfield.
The Hawaiian State Flag

American Annexation

The Republic of Hawaii was founded in 1894 and then the islands were annexed to the United States. President McKinley signed the resolution on July 7, 1898. Two years later, Hawaii became an American territory.

In the years that followed, a majority of global powers fought two world wars. World War I (1914-1918) was fought in Europe, and had little impact on the islands. Hawaii is probably more famous (or infamous as President Roosevelt intimated in his classic speech) for its role in World War II (1939-1945). Pearl Harbor was the Pacific Headquarters of the American Naval Fleet. The Imperial Japanese Navy attacked by air in the early hours of December 7, 1941 ("a day that will live in infamy").

At the time, Japan had been at war with China since 1937 and was running out of battle resources. In an effort to obtain raw materials, the Japanese Empire was expanding southward toward the oil and mineral-rich East Indes and Southeast Asian Peninsula. President Roosevelt transferred the US fleet to Pearl Harbor as a detterent to possible Japanese incursions eastward toward the USA. Safe behind this barrier, and before diplomatic relations failed, peace negotiators predicted Japan to attack the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, and/or the Indes.

In two waves of attacks, Japanese planes bomb Pearl Harbor, and concentrate their fire on "Battleship Row" presenting an attractive collection of tightly packed major targets. By the end of the day, 5 out of 8 battleships were sunk or sinking, with the other 3 heavily damaged. Half the support ships were crippled and 188 aircraft were destroyed and many others were grounded for repair. Over 2,400 soldiers and 68 civilians died. However, the event galvanized the US into entering the war and securing Japan's unconditional surrender on September 2, 1945, aboard the USS Missouri.

On August 21, 1959 (now celebrated as Admission Day holiday), Hawaii became the 50th US state. Supporters say statehood came about to recognize the critical role Hawaii played in the Pacific theater of WWII. Native rights advocates say that statehood has caused enless problems for the Hawaiian people. The issues remains contentious.

This clock stopped at the precise time (1:04) of the 1960 tsunami that washed away Waiakea Settlement in Hilo, Hawaii
More on government volcano, earthquake and tsunami mointoring

International Tourism

After Hawaii became one of the united states, international tourism boomed with a rapidly growing agricultural and industrial economy. In the five decades since then, tourism has emerged as the new economic engine and contruction of resorts and residences attest to that growth.

Modern air travel brought thousands initially, and then millions of tourists each year to the islands. A few tourists are concerned about dangers, especially in light of recent events. Here is an earthquake and tsunami list that shows how rarely these disasterous events occur.

  • Apr. 2, 1868, 7.5R earthquake kills 31 in landslide on Hawaii and the resulting 60' (20m) tsunami kills 46 on SE coast
  • Apr. 1, 1946 tsunami (from Alaskan earthquake) destroyed 1300 downtown homes and businesses in Hilo, Hawaii and killed 159 (including 16 children and 5 teachers at the school in nearby Laupahoehoe)
  • May 23, 1960, 35' (11m) tsunami (from 8.5R Chilean earthquake) destroyed 540 downtown homes and businesses in Hilo, Hawaii and killed 61
  • Nov. 29, 1975, 7.2R earthquake and the resulting 48' (15) tsunami killed 2 people and injured 19 at Halepe, Hawaii
  • Oct. 15, 2006, 6.7R earthquake (near Kona, Hawaii) knocked out electricity and TV stations in Honolulu, Oahu and resulted in rock slides, and minor damage to building on the Big Island, but no deaths or injuries were reported

Modern day technology keeps watch over tsunamis and the local volcanos.

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