People and History of Hawaii

The Polynesians:

The spread of Austronesian languages from Wikipedia
The Hawaiian Language: Belongs to the Austronesian group, which seems to have dispersed from Taiwan ~3000 years ago. Polynesians languages, a subgroup of very closely related languages, originated in the area of Samoa as speakers of Austronesian languages spread into the islands of the south Pacific. From a point near Tahiti, in roughly ~70 CE, they spread out to occupy the "Polynesian Triangle, whose apices are: This makes them the most geographically widespread peoples on Earth, prior to the modern era. Indeed, controversial archeological evidence suggest that the Polynesians reached and traded with mainland South America resulting in:

Genetically, the Polynesians stem from peoples of Taiwan, the northern Philipines, Papua New Guinea and Melanesia.

Polynesian success was based on two technologies:

Taro root from Maangchi
Polynesian staples: Supplemented by: These were either available in the Pacific islands, or easy to export.

Polynesian voyages from Native Voices
Polynesian navigation: Polynesian sailing technology was based on dugout canoes that formed the primary hulls of large ocean-going catamarans. Compared to contemporary vessels in the west, these were:

Polynesian training device from Wikipedia
The real genius of Polynesian seamanship was in their effective low-tech navigation techniques. When the Polynesians got their start, no one had compasses, astrolabes, or useable maps. In most of the world, navigation was between line-of-sight waypoints. Instead, the Polynesians relied on:

The good news: The islands of the western Pacific occur in arcs. For ancient mariners, it was sufficient to intercept the arc in which your destination was located, then fine tune your search.

The Discovery of Hawaii by Herb Kane

Discovery and Traditional Society:

Discovery: Surprising controversy prevails among archaeologists arising from difficulties with the carbon dating of early sites. What is definite: Hawaii was first colonized between 124 and 1120 CE. (Thanks.)

Linguistic evidence suggests colonization from:

These are not mutually exclusive hypotheses. Note: Most Polynesian languages retain the letters "R" and "T". These were among the consonants heaved overboard by the Polynesians en route to Hawaii and are missing from classic "book" Hawaiian. But in the dialect of the one island where Hawaiian remains the vernacular - Niihau - Ts and Rs are present!

Hawaiian oral history maintains that the islands were colonized from Tahiti. One classic chant begins, "Behold Hawaii, an island, a people. The people of Hawaii are the children of Tahiti." Thus, Tahitian background seems certain. Did the Tahitian settlers have company? Tahitians maintained contact with Hawaii for a while. Legend maintains that around 1200, the Tahitian priest Pa'ao introduced a new order of laws that stratified society into classes. Eventually, contact between Tahiti and Hawaii ceased.

Kamehameha I - Ali'i nui by Herb Kane
The society that evolved then, in isolation, was Polynesian, but with differences:

Casts: Hawaiian society had four levels:

The Kapu System: (Kapu = Tongan "taboo") The laws governing all aspects of conduct. This governed, among other things:

Violations of Kapu were typically punished by death, although a person might claim sanctuary in a puuhonua - city of refuge.

Ku from Wikipedia
Religion: Law and religion were synonymous. Traditional Hawaiian religion was (is) polytheistic and animistic in that it regards physical objects as endowed with mana - spiritual power. Supernatural beings range from primary gods to "guardians" - family gods who may be deified ancestors. The four primary gods are:

Numerous lesser deities were also worshipped. We will be in the stomping grounds of three notable ones:

Religion was not distinct from regular life, and routine daily activities were accompanied by prayers. (Hula, performed at religious ceremonies, was a special case of this.) Despite this religiosity, Hawaiians handled practical matters practically.

Moku and ahupua'a of Hawaii Aha Moku
Administration: Ancient Hawaii was broken down into: This went on for several centuries, punctuated by frequent war between ali'i nui. At the end of the 18th century, things changed.

Hawaiians first encounter with the HMS Resolution by Herb Kane from Ea o ka Aina

First Contact and Unification

The first documented contact with outsiders came in January 1778 when Capt. James Cook's HMS Resolution and HMS Discovery anchored off Kauai and traded for provisions. (One hypothesis maintains that the Spanish contacted Hawaii during the 16th century.) In February 1779, he returned, anchoring in Kealakekua Bay in Kona. Things went cordially until one of Cooks longboats was stolen. In retaliation, Cook attempted to kidnap Kalaniopuu, the ali'i nui of Hawai'i. In the resulting brawl, Cook was killed. Despite this setback, ships of several nations began to call at the islands.

Possibly present at the event was Kalaniopuu's nephew Kamehameha (1736-1819), destined to be the unifier of the Hawaiian Islands. In 1782, Kamehameha became the ruler of Kona, Kohala, and Hamakua. In the following years, a small group British traders entered his service, providing him with guns and gunpowder and the formula for gunpowder, and training his troops in their use. Between 1790 and 1795, Kamehameha waged a war of conquest that led to his conquest of all of the islands except for Kauai and Niihau. In 1810, the ali'i nui of Kauai swore allegiance to Kamehameha, unifying the islands. Kamehameha's personality was marked by:

An interesting synergy emerged at this time:

From its beginning, the fates of the Kingdom of Hawaii and the foreigners who settled there were linked.

Liholiho - Kamehameha II from Wikipedia

The End of the Kapu System and Conversion

For centuries, Hawaiians had regarded the Kapu System as divine commandment, and assumed that the gods would visit their displeasure on Kapu violators and those who allowed them to go unpunished. Suddenly at the end of the 18th century, foreigners with impressive technologies who clearly lived well showed up in Hawaii, violating Kapu at every turn, and the gods didn't seem to care. The suspicion arose that Kapu might actually be meaningless.

Kamehameha's faith was unshakable, but after his death in 1819, he was succeeded by his son Liholiho (who reigned as Kamehameha II, alongside Ka'ahumanu, formidable widow of Kamehameha I and regent.) In 1819 he invited guests to a feast in which women and men dined together and women ate forbidden foods. No divine retribution was manifested. The Kapu System was effectively abolished, and with it, the justification for the special status of the ali'i. In effect, it was as if the nation had decided to abandon its religion without having a ready substitute.

In 1820, a group of Protestant missionaries arrived from America, providing a new faith to fill the spiritual hole. Hawaii became Protestant, and under the influence of the Congregationalist Church, hostile to Roman Catholicism. Many traditional practices, including hula, were banned.


Soon, a second foreign influence became apparent. Hawaiians lacked resistance to many crowd diseases of the outside world. Kamehameha II and his wife perished of measles during a state visit to Britain in 1824. This was to be a regular occurrence for Hawaiians abroad and, as foreign immigration picked up, for Hawaiians at home. In 1796, there were roughly 270,000 native Hawaiians. In 1896, there were 39,504 - 36.2% of the population of their homeland.

Foreign affairs and the Kamehamehas

In an increasingly globalized 19th century economy, Hawaii's great advantage of isolation slowly evaporated. Then as now, the islands were:

However their rulers played their poor hand extremely well for a century:

But a series of near-disasters showed that the kingdom lived on the knife's edge.

David Kalakaua from Wikipedia

The Merrie Monarch

Kalakaua's reign was a cultural high point in the kingdom, marked by:

Kalakaua was an affable people-person with considerable political skill.

Political successes included:

1887 - Year of Political Perils:

Kalkaua died in 1891 while visiting California. His successor was his sister Lydia Liliuokalani.

Lydia Liliuokalani from Pintarest

Liliuokalani and the Overthrow

Liliuokalani, Hawaii's last monarch, was a polymath: a politician, author, and song-writer. Like other Hawaiian royalists, she had chaffed against "bayonet constitution" of 1887. As queen, she:

1893: The U. S. expat dominated entrepreneurial class led by Lorrin Thurston formed a Committee of Safety whose aim was to depose the monarchy and petition for U. S. annexation. Hawaiian authorities attempted to respond but were intimidated by the deployment of U. S. Marines for the USS Boston. These were ostensibly on hand to prevent any fighting from harming the U. S. Consulate, but had the effect of intimidating royalists from mounting an effective defense. The queen was captured and a provisional government was formed by the coup plotters.

Under duress, Liliuokalani ceded authority to the U. S. directly, not to the provisional government. In the U. S., President Cleveland regarded the coup as illegal and proposed the queen be restored in exchange for amnesty for the plotters. Liliuokalani allegedly threatened to execute them, instead, with the result that the matter was referred to a committee of the U. S. Senate, which supported the coup plotters. A provisional Republic of Hawaii was established and maintained until the election of the expansionist William McKinley, who supported Hawaii's annexation in 1898. Annexation was never a straightforward issue in the U. S., but the outbreak of war with Spain and the need for a forward base to use against the Philipines tipped the balance.

1930s tourist poster from Pintarest

The Territory of Hawaii

As a U. S. territory, Hawaii was governed by an appointed governor and an elected tricameral legislature. It had a single non-voting representative in congress (sound familiar?) This interval was more important for the economic and demographic changes it saw than for political events.

Agriculture: Annexation was the ultimate free-trade pact, and the sugar cane industry flourished and received heavy investment. In 1899, James Dole commenced pineapple cultivation. Five large firms from the Kingdom era - the "Big Five" dominated commerce.

Tourism: People were already visiting the islands, but in 1909, organized tourism commenced with the purchase of the liner SS Wilhelmina by Matson Navigation Company. In 1927, the Royal Hawaiian Hotel opened in Waikiki. One cultural outgrowth:

Hula: Hula is unlike other Polynesian dance forms in that its gestures have specific meaning and are used to act out stories in songs or chants. Originally used in religious ceremonies, banned by missionaries, and revived by Kalakaua, underwent a transformation:

Demographics: By the turn of the 20th century, most residents of Hawaii were agricultural workers from:

or their descendants. Despite incidents, the absence of a clear racial majority group meant that American-style racism simply couldn't be imported to Hawaii. Instead, this interesting mix gave us:

Military: The importance of Hawaii as a forward military asset was evident from the beginning. Under the Theodore Roosevelt administration, the fortification of Oahu and establishment of military bases was a major priority. From 1941 to 1945, Hawaii was under martial law.

Hawaii State Capitol (1969) from Wikipedia

The State of Hawaii

Unsuccessful statehood petitions had been attempted in 1935 and 1937. Failure reflected, in part, lack of enthusiasm by major business interests and the Republican Party. By the 1950s, however, the children of the massive wave of immigrant agricultural workers were able to turn elections toward the Democratic Party. With enthusiastic support in the U. S. Congress, a new statehood petition made headway, passing with the approval of 94% of Hawaii voters. Hawaii became a state along with Alaska in 1959.

At this point, roughly 9% of Hawaiians are of Polynesian ancestry.