The history of Hawaii begins with the story of the skilled seafarers who braved the raging seas on their canoes to settle in distant lands some 2000 miles away from their native lands.
From the arrival of the Polynesians to its annexation to the United States, its history reflects man's struggle to get space for his settlement to his relentless efforts for economic gains. Once the islands were discovered by Captain James Cook, Hawaii experienced waves of immigration from nations like Spain, Portugal, China and Japan.
The state includes hundreds of islands spread over 1500 miles in the central Pacific Ocean. However, the eight main islands are Ni'ihau, Kaua', Lāna'i, Moloka'i, O'ahu, Kaho'olawe, Maui, and Hawai'i. Hawai'i is the largest island of the archipelago and is also known as the Big Island.
Hawaii: History of the Aloha State
The First Settlers
The earliest settlers to have come to Hawaii were the Polynesians from the Marquesas Islands, about as early as 300 AD. The Polynesians were skilled navigators. At a time when boats of the Western world hardly went out of sight, the Polynesians would travel long distances.
These people inhabited the Hawaiian islands and were called the menehune. The menehune were followed by settlers from Tahiti who reached Hawaii sometime around 1300 AD. The Tahitian conquered most of the lands occupied by the menehune and pushed them back to the interiors of the islands.
The conquerors brought along with them beliefs in gods and demigods, and introduced the kapu (taboo) system. It was under their rule that the Hawaiian culture flourished for centuries to come, till the whole of Hawaii was united into a single kingdom by Kamehameha in 1791.
Life of the Ancient Hawaiians
According to archaeologists, these settlers initially inhabited the southern parts of the Big Island of Hawaii. They then moved northwards. As soon as they set foot on the new islands, they built houses and temples. They planted trees like bananas, coconut and breadfruit. They brought along with them clothing and livestock.
Under them, Hawaii was divided into small kingdoms, each of which was ruled by a king. The ancient Hawaiian society had a strict social hierarchy with the king at the apex of the social pyramid. The kingdom was further divided into smaller areas that were ruled by the chiefs.
Below the chiefs were the priest craftsmen who were specialized in spells and crafts like canoe making. Majority of the population were commoners. At the lowest rung of the societal ladder were thekauwas or the out-castes who were believed to have been the slaves.
Besides the caste system, the other hallmarks of the ancient Hawaiian society was the kapu system, the land tenure system and subsistence economy.
The kapu or taboo system highlights the importance of religion in the lives of the ancient Hawaiians. Every aspect of their lives was governed by a set of taboos that included prohibition on men and women eating together.
Discovery by the West
On January 8, 1778, Captain James Cook, the famed British explorer on his expedition to discover the Northwest Passage between Asia and Alaska, landed on the Hawaiian Islands.
He named the archipelago Sandwich Islands in honor of the Earl of Sandwich. This discovery by Captain James Cook opened the gates of the Hawaiian Islands to the European and American explorers and colonists.
The Unified Kingdom
Till the late 18th century, the political set up of Hawaii consisted of a large number of kingdoms ruled by chiefs who were constantly at war with each other. The history took a significant turn, when in 1791, Kahala born Kamehameha united the warring factions of the Big Island.
With the Big Island of Hawaii under his rule, Kamehameha moved on to conquer the leeward islands. By 1810, he united all the Hawaii islands into one royal kingdom. Kamehameha was succeeded by his son Liholiho (Kamehameha II).
It was under the rule of Liholiho, that on the insistence of Queen Kaahumanu, the favorite wife of King Kamehameha, the age-old kapu system was abolished.
During the rule of Liholiho, missionaries from a New England Congregationalist missionary group arrived in Hawaii in 1890. It was a time when the Hawaiians had discarded the kapu system and rejected most of their religious beliefs. The religious void that was created was filled by the new faith of Christianity that gained a solid foundation in Hawaii.
The highest ranking chiefs who embraced the new faith were soon followed by the commoners. The missionaries brought with them western concepts and western medicine. In 1840, Kamehameha III promulgated the constitution for the Hawaiian Islands that transformed the governance of Hawaii from absolute monarchy to legislative monarchy.
This led to the formation of an elected legislative branch, a judicial branch, and the executive branch which shared the responsibility of governance.
The US Annexation and Statehood
With the arrival of the missionaries, western influence became stronger in Hawaii. Immigrations and economic relations continued to be drafted between Hawaii and other nations of the western world. By the beginning of the 19th century, businessmen from western countries had gained considerable hold over the economy of Hawaii.
They wanted Hawaii to be annexed to the United States. By this time, the royal family had also lost much of its power. In 1893, Queen Liliuokalani of the royal family wanted to promulgate a new constitution which would restore the power of the monarchy.
However, the Committee of Safety that was formed by a group of Euro-American businessmen whose aim was to annex Hawaii to the United States, thwarted the Queen's efforts. Finally, in a peaceful yet controversial coup, the monarchy of Hawaii was overthrown and it became a territory of the United States in 1898.
After years of having been under the sovereignty of the United States, Hawaii finally got its statehood as the 50th state of the United States on August 21, 1959.
Hawaii reflects the fact that there is a lot more to it than the beautiful sand and surf to this state. Steeped deep in culture, this island state has a proud history of triumphs and struggles, despite the fact that it was revealed to the modern world just a couple of centuries ago.