Hawaii History

The history of Hawaii includes phases of early Polynesian settlement, British arrival, Euro-American and Asian immigration, the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy, a brief period of existing as a Republic, and admission to the United States as a territory and then a state.

Discovery and settlement

The earliest settlements were made by Polynesians who traveled to Hawaii using large double-hulled canoes. They brought with them pigs, dogs, chickens, taro, sweet potatoes, coconut, banana, and sugarcane.

There are several theories regarding migration to Hawaii. One such theory is the “one-migration” theory, which suggests that a single settlement of the islands occurred. A variation on the one-migration theory instead suggests a single, continuous settlement period.

A “multiple migration” theory supported by some early scholars suggests that there was a first settlement of Hawai’i by the Menehune (settlers from the Marquesas Islands), and then a second settlement by the Tahitians. Under this multiple migration theory, the later migration of taller and physically stronger people from Tahiti displaced (or otherwise overthrew) the earlier Menehune people, who fled to the mountains. Evidence of this earlier migration by the Menehune exists in various forms around the islands, such as the Menehune Fish Pond on Kauai. Proponents of this theory also point to an 1820 census of Kauaʻi by Kamualiʻi, the then-ruling chief of the island, which listed 65 people as “Menehune” (Schmitt 1981).

On January 18, 1778 Captain James Cook and his crew, while attempting to discover the fabled Northwest Passage between Alaska and Asia, were surprised to find the Hawaiian islands so far north in the Pacific. He named them the Sandwich Islands. After the discovery by Cook, other Europeans and Americans came to the Sandwich Islands. An entry was found in James Cook’s log describing the natives as “riding the ocean’s waves on wooden boards”, which became the first written account of surfing.

Formation of the Hawaiian Kingdom

Hawaii was united under a single ruler, Kamehameha I, for the first time in 1810 with the help of foreign weapons. Until 1816, the chiefs of the various islands considered themselves under British protection and flew the Union Flag. The monarchy then adopted a flag similar to the one used today by the State of Hawaii present flag, with the Union Flag in the canton (top quarter next to the flagpole) and eight horizontal stripes (alternating white, red and blue from the top), representing the eight major islands of Hawaiʻi.

In May 1819, Kamehameha II (Liholiho) ascended the throne. Under intense pressure from his co-regent and stepmother, Kaʻahumanu, he abolished the kapu system that had ruled life in the islands. He signaled this revolutionary change by sitting down to eat with Kaʻahumanu and other women of chiefly rank, thus violating kapu by eating with a woman, an act forbidden under the old religious system—see ʻAi Noa. Kekuaokalani, a cousin who was originally designated to share power with Liholiho by Kamehameha, organized dissidents in favor of preserving the kapu system, but his forces were defeated by Ka’ahumanu and LihoLiho in December 1819.

The French Incident (1839)

Under the rule of Ka’ahumanu, the notorious newly-converted Protestant widow of Kamehameha the Great, Catholicism was illegal in Hawaii and chiefs loyal to her forcibly deported French priests onto the Artemise. Native Hawaiian Catholic converts were imprisoned and Protestant ministers ordered them to be tortured. The prejudice against the French Catholics missionaries remained the same under the reign of her successor, the Kuhina Nui Ka’ahumanu II.

In 1839 Captain Laplace of the French frigate Artémise sailed to Hawaii under orders to:

Destroy the malevolent impression which you find established to the detriment of the French name; to rectify the erroneous opinion which has been created as to the power of France; and to make it well understood that it would be to the advantage of the chiefs of those islands of the Ocean to conduct themselves in such a manner as not to incur the wrath of France. You will exact, if necessary with all the force that is yours to use, complete reparation for the wrongs which have been committed, and you will not quit those places until you have left in all minds a solid and lasting impression.

Under the threat of war, King Kamehameha III signed the Edict of Toleration on July 17, 1839 and paid $20,000 in compensation for the deportation of the priests and the incarceration and torture of converts, agreeing to Laplace’s demands. The kingdom proclaimed:

That the Catholic worship be declared free, throughout all the dominions subject to the king of the Sandwich Islands; the members of this religious faith shall enjoy in them the privileges granted to Protestants.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Honolulu returned unpersecuted and Kamehameha III donated land for them to build a church on, as reparation.

The Paulet Affair (1843)

The most serious incident occurred on February 10, 1843. Lord George Paulet of the Royal Navy warship HMS Carysfort entered Honolulu Harbor and captured the Honolulu fort, effectively gaining control of the town. Paulet demanded that 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 lodged 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 ʻâina i ka pono” (The sovereignty of the land is perpetuated in righteousness), the motto of the future State of Hawaiʻi when it was then translated as “The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness.”

On Monday, February 13, 1843, Lord George Paulet, of HMS Carysfort, attempted to annex the islands for alleged insults and malpractices against British subjects. Kamehameha III surrendered to Paulet on February 25, writing:

Where are you, chiefs, people, and commons from my ancestors, and people         from foreign lands?’

 Hear ye! I make known to you that I am in perplexity by reason of difficulties into which I have been brought without cause, therefore I have given away the life of our land. Hear ye! but my rule over you, my people, and your privileges will continue, for I have hope that the life of the land will be restored when my conduct is justified.

Done at Honolulu, Oahu, this 25th day of February, 1843.

Kamehameha III.


Dr. Gerrit P. Judd, a missionary who had become the Minister of Finance for the Kingdom of Hawaii, secretly arranged for General J.F.B. Marshall to be the King’s envoy to the United States, France and Britain, to protest Paulet’s actions. Marshall was able to secretly convey the Kingdom’s complaint to the Vice Consul of Britain in Tepec, posing as a commercial agent of Ladd & Co., a company with friendly relations with the Kingdom.

Marshall’s complaint was forwarded to Rear Admiral Thomas, Paulet’s commanding officer, who arrived at Honolulu harbor on July 26, 1843 on H.B.M.S. Dublin from Valparaiso, Chile. Admiral Thomas apologized to Kamehameha III for Paulet’s actions, and restored Hawaiian sovereignty on July 31, 1843.

The French Invasion (1849)

In August 1849, French admiral Louis Tromelin arrived in Honolulu Harbor with the La Poursuivante and Gassendi. De Tromelin made ten demands to King Kamehameha III on August 22, mainly demanding that full religious rights be given to Catholics, (a decade earlier, during the so-called ‘French Incident’ the ban on Catholicism had been lifted, but Catholics still enjoyed only partial religious rights). On August 25 the demands had not been met. After a second warning was made to the civilians, French troops overwhelmed the skeleton force and captured Honolulu Fort, spiked the coastal guns and destroyed all other weapons they found (mainly muskets and ammunition). They raided government buildings and general property in Honolulu, causing $100,000 in damages. After the raids the invasion force withdrew to the fort. De Tromelin eventually recalled his men and left Hawaii on September 5.

Elected Monarchy

Dynastic rule by the Kamehameha family tragically ended in 1872 with the death of Lot (Kamehameha V). Upon his deathbed, he summoned Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop to declare his intentions of making her heir to the throne. She was the last direct Kamehameha family member surviving. She refused the crown and throne in favor of a private life with her husband, Charles Reed Bishop. Lot died before naming an alternative heir.

US-Hawaiian trade

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

The Reciprocity Treaty of 1875 between the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi and the United States allowed for duty-free importation of Hawaiian sugar (from cane) into the United States beginning in 1876. 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 loʻi 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 Hawaiʻi. Thus the Treaty had several far reaching impacts on Hawaiʻi:

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.

Taro, the traditional Hawaiian staple, was replaced by rice, to satisfy an expanding local market for the latter.

Hawaiian Revolutions

The Hawaiian Rebellions and Revolutions took place in Hawaii between 1887 and 1895. Until annexation in 1898, Hawaii was an independent sovereign state, recognized by the United States, United Kingdom, France and Germany with exchange of ambassadors. However, there were several challenges to the reigning governments of the Kingdom and Republic of Hawaii during the eight and a half year (1887-1895) period.

Rebellion of 1887

In 1887, a group of cabinet officials and advisors to King David Kalâkaua and an armed militia forced the king to promulgate what is known by its critics as the “Bayonet Constitution”. The impetus behind the imposition of the 1887 constitution was the frustration amongst members of the Reform Party (also known as the Missionary Party) with the growing debt of the Kingdom, the spending habits of the King, and general governance of the Kingdom. It was specifically triggered by an ill-fated attempt by Kalakaua to create a Polynesian Federation under his rule, and a bribery scandal Kalakaua was involved in regarding opium licenses. The 1887 constitution stripped the monarchy of much of its authority, imposed significant income and property requirements for voting, and completely disenfranchised all Asians from voting. Only well-to-do Europeans, Americans and native Hawaiians were given full voting rights. When Kalâkaua died in 1891 during a visit to San Francisco, his sister Liliʻuokalani assumed the throne.

Native Hawaiians on the other hand, according to Queen Lili’uokalani in her autobiography, called her brother’s reign “a golden age materially for Hawaii” and felt that the new constitution was imposed by a minority of the foreign population because of the king’s refusal to renew the Reciprocity Treaty, which now included an amendment that would have allowed the US Navy to have a permanent naval base at Pearl Harbor in O’ahu, and the king’s foreign policy. According to bills submitted by the King to the Hawaiian parliament, the King’s foreign policy included an alliance with Japan and supporting other Malay countries suffering from colonialism. Native Hawaiians were deeply opposed to a permanent US military presence in their country.

Rebellion of 1888

A plot by Princess Lili’uokalani was exposed to overthrow King David Kalâkaua in a military coup.

Rebellion of 1889

In 1889, a rebellion of Native Hawaiians led by Colonel Robert Wilcox attempted to replace the hated Bayonet Constitution and stormed ‘Iolani Palace. The rebellion was later crushed.

Revolution of 1893

According the Queen Lili’uokalani in her autobiography, Hawai’i’s Story by Hawai’i’s Queen, immediately upon ascending the throne, she received petitions from 2/3 of her subjects and the major Native Hawaiian political party in parliament, Hui Kalai’aina, asking her to proclaim a new constitution. Believing her actions were supported by both her cabinet and her Native Hawaiian subjects, Liliʻuokalani drafted a new constitution that would restore the monarchy’s authority and strip American and European residents of the suffrage they had obtained in 1887 by threat of force against King Kalakaua.

In response to Liliʻuokalani’s attempt to promulgate a new constitution, a group of European and American residents formed a “Committee of Safety” on January 14, 1893 in opposition to the Queen and her plans. After a mass meeting of supporters, the Committee committed itself to the removal of the Queen, and seeking annexation to the United States.

United States Government Minister John L. Stevens 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 at the U.S. Legation, Consulate, and Arion Hall on the afternoon of January 16, 1893. This deployment was at the request of the Committee of Safety, which claimed an “imminent threat to American lives and property”. Historian William Russ states, “the injunction to prevent fighting of any kind made it impossible for the monarchy to protect itself.” A provisional government was set up with the strong support of the Honolulu Rifles, a militia group which had defended the against the Wilcox rebellion in 1889. The Wilcox rebellion were defending the Kingdom and wanted to re-instate the executive power back to the Hawaiian monarch. Under this pressure, Liliʻuokalani abdicated her throne. The Queen’s statement yielding authority, on January 17, 1893, also pleaded for justice:

I Liliʻuokalani, 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 immediate investigation into the events of the overthrow was commissioned by President Cleveland was conducted by former Congressman James Henderson Blount. The Blount Report was completed on July 17, 1893 and concluded that “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 Hawaiʻi 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 and 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.” Submitting the matter to Congress on December 18, 1893, after provisional President Sanford Dole refused to reinstate the Queen on Cleveland’s command, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee under chairman John Morgan, continued investigation into the matter.

On February 26, 1894, the Morgan Report was submitted, contradicting the Blount Report and finding Stevens and the U.S. troops “not guilty” of any involvement in the overthrow. The report asserted that, “The complaint by Liliʻuokalani in the protest that she sent to the President of the United States and dated the 18th day of January, is not, in the opinion of the committee, well founded in fact or in justice.” After submission of the Morgan Report, Cleveland ended any efforts to reinstate the monarchy, and conducted normal diplomatic relations with the Provisional Government and later, the Republic of Hawaiʻi. He rebuffed further entreaties from the Queen to intervene further in the matter.

The Republic of Hawaiʻi was established July 4, 1894 under the presidency of Sanford Dole.

Rebellion of 1895

In 1895, a counter-rebellion led by Colonel Robert Nowlein, Minister Joseph Nawahi, members of the Royal Household Guards, and later Robert Wilcox attempted to overthrow the Republic of Hawaii, and led to the conviction and imprisonment of the former Queen Liliuokalani. According to A History of Hawai’i by Professor Ralph Kuykendall, the 1895 counter-rebellion was also heavily financed by Chinese and Japanese immigrants, who had felt some loyalty to Queen Lili’uokalani.

Provisional Government of Hawaii

The Provisional Government of Hawaii was a short-term government intended to manage the Hawaiian Island between the time of the overthrow and annexation. The annexation was to take place under the Benjamin Harrison administration, but the matter of annexation landed on the newly reelected Grover Cleveland, a friend of Liliuokalani and anti-expansionist. He delayed annexation and demanded the return of the queen. Annexation began to stagger and fears grew of a US intervention to restore the kingdom. A Constitutional Convention began on May 30, 1894 and the Republic of Hawaii was declared on 4 July 1894 and was no coincidence it was on American Independence Day.

American Territory

Annexation to the United States

In 1896, William McKinley succeeded Cleveland as president. He agreed to a treaty of annexation but it failed in the Senate with the submission of the Ku’e petitions. A joint resolution was written by Congressman Francis G. Newlands to annex Hawaii. McKinley signed the Newlands Resolution which provided for the official annexation of Hawaiʻi on July 7, 1898 and the islands officially became Hawaiʻi Territory, a United States territory, on February 22, 1900. The territorial legislature convened for the first time on February 20, 1901.

The overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi and the subsequent annexation of Hawaiʻi has recently been cited as the first major instance of American imperialism.

In 1993, the US Congress passed Public Law 103-150 (“The Apology Bill”) which corrects misinformation regarding the overthrow of the monarchy and apologizes on behalf of the United States for the “suppression of the inherent sovereignty of the Native Hawaiian people”.

Attack on Pearl Harbor

An attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 by the Empire of Japan was a trigger for the United States’ entry into World War II. Up until that time, most Americans had never heard of Pearl Harbor, even though it had great importance to the US Navy. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii was put under martial law until the end of the war.

Democratic Revolution of 1954

The Democratic Revolution of 1954 was a nonviolent revolution consisting of Industry-wide strikes, protests, and other acts of civil disobedience. The Revolution culminated in the territorial elections of 1954 where the reign of the Hawaii Republican Party in the legislature came to an abrupt end, as they were voted out of office to be replaced by members of the Democratic Party of Hawaii. The Democrats successfully lobbied for statehood and gained the governorship for 40 years, from 1962 to 2002. The Revolution also unionized the labor force and was largely responsible for the decline of the plantation industry.


President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a bill on March 18, 1959 which allowed for Hawaiian statehood. Hawaiʻi formally became the 50th state of the Union on August 21, 1959 after a vote of over 94% in favor of statehood.

Modern Sovereignty Movements

For many Native Hawaiians, the manner in which Hawaiʻi became a U.S. possession has been a bitter part of its history. Immediately after 1898, Native Hawaiians created the Home Rule Party of Hawaiʻi and had adopted statehood as a path towards more self-government since Hawai’i governors and judges were direct political appointees of the US president. After years of cultural and societal repression and with the self-determination movements worldwide, the 1960s saw the rebirth of Hawaiian culture and identity. It also saw the rebirth of Hawaiian nationalism and the quest for some form of Hawaiian nationhood. There is a wide continuum of political positions within the sovereignty movement, ranging from supporters of the Akaka Bill (which has the support of many Democratic and Republican Party politicians in Hawaii) to advocates of secession from the United States.

With the support of U.S. Senators Daniel Inouye and Daniel Akaka of Hawaiʻi, Congress passed the “Apology Resolution” (US Public Law 103-150), a joint resolution of the United States Congress. It was signed by President Bill Clinton on November 23, 1993. This resolution explicitly apologized “to Native Hawaiians on behalf of the people of the United States for the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii on January 17, 1893… and the deprivation of the rights of Native Hawaiians to self-determination.” The historical and factual basis of the apology has been criticized by constitutional lawyer and scholar Bruce Fein and others, including activist Ken Conklin. Other historians and U.S. and international law experts have supported the conclusions of both the Blount Report and the Public Law 103-150, and some argue that the issue of Hawaiian sovereignty is a legitimate international subject that should be taken to the UN Committee on Decolonization.

Senator Akaka is also author of a bill with the stated purpose “to provide a process for the reorganization of the single Native Hawaiian governing entity and the reaffirmation of the special political and legal relationship between the United States and that Native Hawaiian governing entity for purposes of continuing a government-to-government relationship”. The bill would extend federal recognition to those of native Hawaiian ancestry as a sovereign group similar to Native American tribes, by providing a process for the creation of a single governing entity and beginning a government-to-government relationship with that entity. Supporters assert that this would simply reaffirm an existing special political and legal relationship between the United States and Native Hawaiians, as evidenced by past Congressional legislation and existing state and federal programs. Critics suggest such actions are unprecedented and note that the provisions of the Akaka Bill would grant recognition to Native Hawaiians without any of the same qualifications necessary for tribal recognition. The “Akaka Bill” was recently brought up in the Senate, however, a movement to vote on the measure failed by 56 to 41 votes – four votes short of the necessary 60 votes to invoke cloture.