Early settlers from the South Pacific created their own societies in the Hawaiian islands, which went undisturbed by Westerners until the late 1700s. The arrival of Americans and Europeans indelibly changed the Hawaiian lifestyle. Other immigrant groups, such as the Japanese, Chinese, Filipinos, and Portuguese added their own influence to Hawaii's culture and politics.
Although this article summarizes key points in Hawaii's history, readers who would like more in-depth information should see the detailed articles listed below. To find a specific event, check the timeline.
The first people to make Hawaii their home came from Polynesia. As experienced travelers, they brought everything they needed to establish their lives in a new place. Not much is known about them, but it has been established that they subsisted on farming and fishing.
After several centuries, Tahitians came to the islands and quickly overpowered the existing people. From Tahitian culture, early Hawaiian culture evolved over about eight hundred years. Firmly established social systems and religious beliefs kept order among the people. However, chiefs often led wars against each other to gain more power and territory.
In 1777, British explorer Captain James Cook found the Hawaiian islands during a voyage to the South Pacific. The Hawaiians initially welcomed Cook and his crew. But, later, tensions between the two groups developed. When Cook attempted to kidnap the ruling chief, Kalaniopu'u, the Hawaiians clubbed him to death.
In spite of Cook's murder, more British explorers followed. American merchants and whalers also began to use Hawaii as a port to replenish supplies.
After Kalaniopu'u's death, his nephew Kamehameha rose to power. For the first time, chiefs used Western weapons such as cannons to fight each other. Unlike others who had tried to unite the Hawaiian islands, Kamehameha conquered all the other ruling chiefs, creating a unified kingdom. While he embraced certain aspects of Western culture and had several white advisers, he also enforced traditional Hawaiian values. During his reign, the islands prospered and peace flourished.
Shortly after Kamehameha died in 1819, his favorite wife, Ka'ahumanu, shook up Hawaiian society by deliberately breaking one of their most sacred traditions. When the gods didn't punish her, many lost faith in the ancient beliefs and systems which structured their lives.
The arrival of missionaries six months later supplied those in a spiritual crisis with a new belief system, Christianity. As more Westerners flocked to Hawaii, they exerted pressure on native Hawaiians to change other things. Both within the royalty and between Hawaiians and Westerners, there were tug-of-wars over instituting Western systems or reestablishing native Hawaiian traditions. Because most of Hawaii's kings and queens after Kamehameha were short-lived, their reigns were less effective.
Beginning in the mid-1800s, sugar plantations became the most powerful force in Hawaii. Immigrant workers from many different countries were brought in to work on the plantations. The largest immigrant groups came from China, Japan, and Portugal. Differences in pay and job status between various ethnic groups led to labor disputes, but since the workers had no power they gained little.
Five companies which owned the plantations, known as the "Big Five," also controlled banking and shipping throughout the islands. Members on their Boards of Directors advised the monarchs, and many white businessmen held seats in the Hawaiian legislature. With all their political influence, they succeeded in pushing some agendas which were good for them, but bad for Hawaiians. Chief among these was the opening of land for sale to whites; over about thirty years, whites acquired 80 percent of Hawaii's land, forcing native Hawaiians off their farms.
In the 1870s, David Kalakaua became king. He understood the threat posed by the Big Five and sought to increase the monarchy's power, as well as bring back Hawaiian arts which had been repressed. As a cultured, sophisticated man, he easily fit in with royals and political dignitaries around the world. However, his expensive tastes also meant that he had to keep the Big Five satisfied to a certain degree.
Unfortunately for King Kalakaua, the Big Five wanted the monarchy to have no real power whatsoever. In 1887, a group of its businessmen drafted a new constitution which reduced him to a figurehead, then marched into his palace and forced him to sign it. Known as the "Bayonet Consitution," it increased the mounting tension between native Hawaiians and foreigners.
Upon Kalakaua's death several years later, his sister Lilioukalani inherited the throne. Her actions to revoke the Bayonet Constitution, and replace all her white ministers with Hawaiians prompted American businessmen to arrange annexation to the United States. With the help of the U.S. Minister to Hawaii and the Marine Corps, they deposed Queen Lilioukalani.
But annexation didn't happen immediately, because Grover Cleveland had just won the next term of Presidency. President Cleveland felt that Queen Lilioukalani had been illegally overthrown and that the Hawaiian people supported her rule. However, his attempts to restore her monarchy failed because those in charge of the new Republic of Hawaii refused to relinquish power and the U.S. Congress wouldn't review the matter.
The next President, William McKinley, supported annexation. Hawaii officially became a U.S. territory in 1898.
At the turn of the century, the Big Five added pineapple plantations to their operations. Now that workers had some protection under U.S. labor laws, strikes became more common. However, they proved mostly ineffective until the 1920s. By the late 1930s, Filipino immigrants had become the majority of the work force. The rise of labor unions in the 1930s helped strikes become more effective, with workers earning some significant advances.
With the bombing of Pearl Harbor by Japanese forces in 1941, the United States joined World War II. Martial law was imposed on Hawaii, ending all labor disputes. The military controlled everything from curfews to rent prices. However, while people of Japanese ancestry living on the mainland were sent to internment camps, few of those in Hawaii were interned. Since they made up about 30 percent of Hawaii's population, doing so would have brought its economy crashing down.
Eventually, second generation Japanese men were allowed to enlist in the military. These patriotic young men had been born in Hawaii and considered themselves thoroughly American. Many eagerly signed up, and their units earned the most honors in Army history.
After the war, these returning G.I.s went to college and became influential in Hawaiian politics. Labor unions increased in power, forcing the Big Five to make deals with striking workers. By the time Hawaii became the 50 th state in 1959, the power of the Big Five, both economically and politically, was waning.
Tourism overtook the sugar and pineapple plantations as Hawaii's top industry. After the majority of plantations closed in the 1990s, a wider variety of crops replaced them, including Kona coffee, macadamia nuts, and flowers.
Meanwhile, movements to restore land to native Hawaiians strengthened. Senator Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) introduced a sovereignty bill in Congress in 2000, which he's currently still fighting to get approved.
Hawaii's rich culture formed from the various people who came to call this lush paradise home. For travelers, this unique melting pot offers a beautiful destination unlike any other.