Hawaii's discovery and colonization is one of humanity's great epic tales, starting with ancient Polynesians who found their way to these tiny islands – the world's most isolated – in the midst of Earth's largest ocean. Almost a millennium passed before Western explorers, whalers, missionaries and entrepreneurs arrived on ships. During the tumultuous 19th century, global immigrants came to work on Hawaii's plantations. In 1893 the kingdom founded by Kamehameha the Great was overthrown, making way for US annexation.
To ancient Polynesians, the Pacific Ocean was a passageway, not a barrier, and the islands it contained were connected, not isolated. Between AD 300 and 600, they made their longest journey yet and discovered the Hawaiian Islands. This would mark the northern reach of their migrations, which were so astounding that Captain Cook – the first Western explorer to take their full measure – could not conceive of how the Polynesians did it, settling 'in every quarter of the Pacific Ocean' and becoming one of the most widespread nations on earth.
Although the discovery of Hawaii may have been accidental, subsequent journeys were not. Polynesians were highly skilled seafarers, navigating over thousands of miles of open ocean without maps, and with only the sun, stars, wind and waves to guide them. In double-hulled wooden canoes, they imported to the islands over two dozen food plants and domestic animals, along with their religious beliefs and social structures. What they didn't possess is equally remarkable: no metals, no wheels, no alphabet or written language, and no clay to make pottery.
Almost nothing is known about the first wave of Polynesians (likely from the Marquesas Islands) who settled Hawaiʻi, except that the archaeological record shows they were here. A second wave of Polynesians from the Tahitian Islands began arriving around AD 1000, and they conquered the first peoples and obliterated nearly all traces of their history and culture. Later Hawaiian legends of the menehune – an ancient race of little people who mysteriously built temples and great stoneworks overnight – may refer to the islands' original human inhabitants.
Feature: A Place of Refuge
In ancient Hawaiʻi, a very strict code – called the kapu (taboo) system – governed daily life. If a commoner dared to eat moi, a type of fish reserved for aliʻi (royalty), for example, it was a violation of kapu. Penalties for such transgressions could be harsh, including death. Furthermore, in a society based on mutual respect, slights to honor – whether of one's chief or extended family – could not be abided.
Although ancient Hawaiʻi could be a fiercely uncompromising place, it was also forgiving at times. Anyone who had broken kapu or been defeated in battle could avoid the death penalty by fleeing to a puʻuhona (place of refuge). At the heiau (temple), a kahuna (priest) would perform purification rituals, lasting a few hours up to several days. Absolved of their transgressions, kapu breakers were free to return home in safety.
Feature: Voyaging by the Stars
In 1976, a double-hulled wooden canoe and her crew set off from Oʻahu's Windward Coast, aiming to re-create the journey of Hawaii's first human settlers and to do what no one had done in over 600 years – sail 2400 miles to Tahiti without benefit of radar, compass, satellites or sextant. Launched by the Polynesian Voyaging Society, this modern reproduction of an ancient Hawaiian long-distance seafaring canoe was named Hōkūleʻa ('Star of Gladness').
The canoe's Micronesian navigator, Mau Piailug, still knew the art of traditional Polynesian wayfaring at a time when such knowledge had been lost to Hawaiian culture. He knew how to use horizon or zenith stars – those that always rose over known islands – as a guide, then evaluate currents, winds, landmarks and time in a complex system of dead reckoning to stay on course. In the mind's eye, the trick is to hold the canoe still in relation to the stars while the island sails toward you.
Academic skeptics had long questioned whether Hawaii's early settlers really were capable of journeying back and forth across such vast, empty ocean. After 33 days at sea, the crew of the Hokuleʻa proved those so-called experts wrong by reaching their destination, where they were greeted by more than 17,000 Tahitians. This historic achievement helped spark a revival of interest in Hawaii's Polynesian cultural heritage.
Since its 1976 voyage, the Hōkūleʻa has served as a floating living-history classroom. The canoe has made 10 more trans-oceanic voyages, sailing throughout Polynesia and to the US mainland, Canada, Micronesia and Japan. Its current voyage, which began in 2014, will circumnavigate the globe, visiting 27 countries and traveling 60000 nautical miles before returning to Hawaii in 2017. Learn more at www.hokulea.com.
When for unknown reasons trans-Pacific voyages from Polynesia stopped around AD 1300, ancient Hawaiian culture kept evolving in isolation, but retained a family resemblance to cultures found throughout Polynesia. Hawaiian society was highly stratified, ruled by a chiefly class called aliʻi whose power derived from their ancestry: they were believed to be descended from the gods. In ancient Hawaiʻi, clan loyalty trumped individuality, elaborate traditions of gifting and feasting conferred prestige, and a pantheon of shape-shifting gods animated the natural world.
Several ranks of aliʻi ruled each island, and life was marked by frequent warfare as they jockeyed for power. The largest geopolitical division was the mokupuni (island), presided over by a member of the aliʻi nui (kingly class). Each island was further divided into moku (districts), wedge-shaped areas of land running from the ridge of the mountains to the sea. Smaller, similarly wedge-shaped ahupuaʻa comprised each moku; they were mostly self-sustaining and had local chiefs.
Ranking just below aliʻi, kahuna (experts or masters) included priests, healers and skilled craftspeople such as canoe makers and navigators. Also beneath the chiefs were the konohiki, who supervised natural resource management on land and sea within an ahupuaʻa; they collected taxes from the makaʻainana (commoners), who did most of the physical labor. Occupying the lowest tier was a small class of outcasts or untouchables called kauā, some of whom were forced to serve as puaʻa wāwae loloa – 'long-legged pigs,' a euphemism for human sacrificial victims.
A culture of mutuality and reciprocity infused what was essentially a feudal agricultural society. Chiefs were custodians of their people, and humans custodians of nature, all of which was sacred – the living expression of mana (spiritual essence). Everyone played a part through work and ritual to maintain the health of the community and its comity with the gods. Ancient Hawaiians also developed rich traditions in art, music, dance and competitive sports.
Captain Cook & First Western Contact
Starting in 1778, everything changed. It was the archetypal clash of civilizations: the British Empire, the most technologically advanced culture on the planet, sent an explorer on a mission. The Hawaiʻi he stumbled upon was, to his eyes, a place inhabited by heathens stuck in prehistoric times; their worship of pagan gods and human sacrifice seemed anathema to the Christian world view. But Hawaiʻi's strategic geographic position and wealth of natural resources ensured these islands would quickly become a target of the West's civilizing impulse.
Captain James Cook had spent a decade traversing the Pacific over the course of three voyages. He sought the fabled 'Northwest Passage' linking the Pacific and Atlantic, but his were also voyages of discovery. He sailed with a complement of scientists and artists to document what they found. On the third voyage in 1778, and quite by accident, Cook sailed into the main Hawaiian Island chain. Ending nearly half a millennium of isolation, his arrival irrevocably altered the course of Hawaiian history.
Cook dropped anchor off Oʻahu and, as he had elsewhere in the Pacific, bartered with the indigenous people for fresh water and food. While Cook was already familiar with Polynesians, Hawaiians knew nothing of Europeans, nor of the metal, guns and diseases their ships carried. Hawaiians thought of the natural world as inseparable from the spiritual realm, while Cook embodied Enlightenment philosophy, in which God ruled in heaven and only humans walked the earth.
When Cook returned to the islands the following year, he sailed around before eventually anchoring at Kealakekua Bay on the Big Island. Cook's ships were greeted by as many as a thousand canoes, and Hawaiian chiefs and priests honored him with rituals and deference. Cook had landed at an auspicious time during the makahiki, a time of festival and celebration in honor of the god Lono. The Hawaiians were so unrelentingly gracious, in fact, that Cook and his men felt safe to move about unarmed.
Cook set sail some weeks later, but storms forced him to turn back. The mood in Kealakekua had changed, however. The makahiki had ended: no canoes met the Europeans, and suspicion replaced welcome. A small series of minor conflicts, including the theft of a boat by some Hawaiians, provoked Cook into leading an armed party ashore to capture local chief Kalaniʻōpuʻu. When the Englishmen disembarked, they were surrounded by angry Hawaiians. In an uncharacteristic fit of pique, Cook shot and killed a Hawaiian man. Hawaiians immediately mobbed Cook, killing him on February 14, 1779.
Kamehameha the Great
In the years following Cook's death, a steady number of exploring and trading ships sought out the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi as a resupply spot. When Westerners learned about a deepwater anchorage in Honolulu ('sheltered bay') in 1794, Hawaiʻi became the new darling of trans-Pacific commerce, first in the fur trade involving China, New England and the Pacific Northwest. The main commodity in the islands – salt – happened to be useful for curing hides. For Hawaiian chiefs, the main items of interest were firearms, which the Europeans willingly traded.
Bolstered with muskets and cannons, Kamehameha, a chief from the Big Island, began a campaign in 1790 to conquer all of the Hawaiian Islands. Other chiefs had tried and failed, but Kamehameha had Western guns; not only that, he was prophesied to succeed and possessed an unyielding determination and exceptional personal charisma. Within five years he united – albeit bloodily – the main islands, except for Kauaʻi (which eventually joined peacefully in 1810). The dramatic final skirmish in Kamehameha's major campaign, the Battle of Nuʻuanu, took place on Oʻahu in 1795.
Kamehameha was a singular figure who reigned over the most peaceful era in Hawaiian history. A shrewd politician, he configured multi-island governance to mute competition among aliʻi. A savvy businessman, he created a profitable monopoly on the sandalwood trade in 1810 while protecting the trees from overharvesting. He personally worked taro patches as an example to his people, and his most famous decree – Kanawai Mamalahoe, or 'Law of the Splintered Paddle' – established a kapu to protect travelers from harm. Today it is interpreted more broadly for the protection of human rights – you'll even see the symbolic crossed paddles on the badges worn by Honolulu's police officers.
Most importantly, Kamehameha I absorbed growing foreign influences while fastidiously honoring Hawaiʻi's indigenous customs. He did the latter even despite widespread doubts among his people about the justice of Hawaii's kapu system and traditional Hawaiian ideas about a divine social hierarchy. When Kamehameha died in 1819, he left the question of how to resolve these troubling issues to his son and heir, 22-year-old Liholiho. Within the year, Liholiho had broken with the traditional religion in one sweeping, stunning act of repudiation.
Feature: Destruction of the Temples
One purpose of the kapu system Kamehameha I upheld was to preserve mana (spiritual essence). Mana could be strong or weak, won or lost; it expressed itself in one's talents and the success of a harvest or battle. The kapu system kept aliʻi from mingling with commoners and men from eating with women; it also kept women from eating pork or entering luakini (temples where human sacrifices were performed). Chiefs could declare temporary kapu to preserve their mana, and thus enhance their power.
However, foreigners arriving in Hawaiʻi weren't accountable to the kapu system, and lesser aliʻi saw they could possess power without following its dictates. Women saw that breaking kapu – for example, by dining with sailors – didn't incur the gods' wrath. Kamehameha the Great's most powerful wife, Kaʻahumanu, chafed under the kapu, as it kept women from becoming leaders equal to men. Eventually even Hawaiʻi's highest-ranking kahuna (priest), Hewahewa, couldn't defend the system.
Soon after Kamehameha's death, Hewahewa conspired with Kamehameha's favorite wife Kaʻahumanu, who ruled as kahuna nui (co-regent) with her stepson Liholiho, and Keōpūolani, who possessed more mana than any of Kamehameha's other royal wives. The trio arranged a feast where Liholiho would eat with women, thereby breaking the kapu. This act – effectively ending Hawaiʻi's religion – was nearly beyond the young king. He delayed for months, and drank himself into a stupor the day before.
Then to the shock of the gathered aliʻi at the feast, Liholiho helped himself to food at the women's table. Hewahewa, signaling his approval, noted that the gods could not survive without kapu. 'Then let them perish with it!' Liholiho is said to have cried. For months afterward, Kaʻahumanu and others set fire to the temples and destroyed kiʻi (deity images). Many Hawaiians were relieved to be free from kapu, but some continued to venerate the old gods and secretly preserved kiʻi.
Missionaries & Whalers
After Cook’s expedition sailed back to Britain, news of his 'discovery' of Hawaiʻi soon spread throughout Europe and the Americas, opening the floodgates to seafaring explorers and traders. By the 1820s, whaling ships began pulling into Hawaiʻi's harbors for fresh water and food, supplies, liquor and women. To meet their needs, ever more shops, taverns and brothels sprang up around busy ports, especially in Honolulu on Oʻahu and Lahaina on Maui. By the 1840s, the islands had become the unofficial whaling capital of the Pacific.
To the ire of 'dirty-devil' whalers, Hawaiʻi's first Christian missionary ship sailed into Honolulu’s harbor on April 14, 1820, carrying staunch Protestants who were set on saving the Hawaiians from their 'heathen ways.' Their timing could not have been more opportune, as Hawaiʻi’s traditional religion had been abolished the year before, leaving Hawaiians in a spiritual vacuum. Both missionaries and the whalers hailed from New England, but soon were at odds: missionaries were intent on saving souls, while to many sailors there was 'no God west of the Horn.' Sailors repeatedly clashed, sometimes violently, with the missionaries, because they craved all the pleasures that the Protestants censured.
The missionaries arrived expecting the worst of Hawaiʻi's indigenous 'pagans,' and in their eyes, that's what they found: public nudity, 'lewd' hula dancing, polygamy, gambling, drunkenness and fornication with sailors. To them, kahuna were witch doctors and Hawaiians hopelessly lazy. Because the missionaries' god seemed powerful, Christianity attracted Hawaiian converts, notably Queen Kaʻahumanu. But many of these conversions were not deeply felt; Hawaiians often quickly abandoned the church's teachings, reverting to their traditional lifestyles.
The missionaries found one thing that attracted avid, widespread interest: literacy. The missionaries formulated an alphabet for the Hawaiian language, and with this tool, Hawaiians learned to read with astonishing speed. In their oral culture, Hawaiians were used to prodigious feats of memory, and aliʻi understood that literacy was a key to accessing Western culture and power. By the mid-1850s, Hawaiʻi had a higher literacy rate than the USA and supported dozens of Hawaiian-language newspapers.
Feature: Kapiʻolani versus Pele
One of Christianity's early champions in Hawaiʻi was a chief from the Kona side of the Big Island. Her name was Kapiʻolani (not to be confused with Queen Kapʻiolani). People living near Kilauea volcano, many of whom had experienced its deadly 1790 eruption, were less enthusiastic about worshiping the Christian god, however. They feared that if they failed to propitiate Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes and fire, the consequences might be dire.
When missionaries toured Kilauea in 1823, Hawaiians were astonished to see them flagrantly violate kapu by exploring the crater and eating ʻohelo berries (a food reserved for Pele) with impunity. This primed the ground for chief Kapiʻolani to challenge Pele directly and to prove that the Christian god was more powerful.
In 1824, the story goes, she walked about 60 miles from her home to the brink of the steaming crater and, dismissing pleas from her people and defying curses from the priests of Pele, descended into the vent at Halemaʻumaʻu. Surrounded by roiling lava, Kapiʻolani ate consecrated ʻohelo berries, read passages from the Bible and threw stones into the volcano without retribution, demonstrating Pele's impotence before the missionaries' Christian god.
The epic scene has become legendary, and it has been the subject of artwork such as Herb Kane's painting Kapiʻolani Defying Pele. While the story is likely to have been embellished over the years, you can still appreciate how profound Kapiʻolani’s confidence in the new religion must have been to test the power of a goddess who was all too real to most ancient Hawaiians.
The Great Mahele
Amid often conflicting foreign influences, some 19th-century Hawaiian leaders decided that the only way to survive in a world of more powerful nations was to adopt Western ways and styles of government. Hawaiʻi's absolute monarchy had previously denied citizens a voice in their government. Traditionally, no Hawaiian ever owned land, but the aliʻi managed it in stewardship for all. None of this sat well with resident US expatriates living in the Hawaiian kingdom, many whose grandparents had fought a revolution for the right to vote and to own private property.
Born and raised in Hawaiʻi after Western contact, King Kamehameha III (Kauikeaouli) struggled to retain traditional Hawaiian society while developing a political system better suited to foreign, frequently American tastes. In 1840 Kauikeaouli promulgated Hawaiʻi's first constitution, which established a constitutional monarchy with limited citizen representation. Given an inch, foreigners pressed for a mile, so Kauikeaouli followed up with a series of revolutionary land reform acts beginning with the Great Mahele ('Great Division') of 1848.
It was hoped the Great Mahele would create a nation of small freeholder farmers, but instead it was a disaster – for Hawaiians, at least. Confusion reigned over boundaries and surveys. Unused to the concept of private land and sometimes unable to pay the necessary tax, many Hawaiians simply failed to follow through on the paperwork to claim titles to the land they had lived on for generations. Many of those who did – perhaps feeling that a taro farmer's life wasn't quite the attraction it once was – immediately cashed out, selling their land to eager and acquisitive foreigners.
Many missionaries ended up with sizable tracts of land, and more than a few left the church to devote themselves to their new estates. Within 30 to 40 years, despite supposed limits, foreigners owned fully three-quarters of the kingdom, and Hawaiians – who had already relinquished so much of their traditional culture so quickly during the 19th century – lost their sacred connection to the land. As historian Gavan Daws wrote, 'the great division became the great dispossession.'
King Sugar & the Plantation Era
Kō (sugarcane) arrived in Hawaiʻi with the early Polynesian settlers. But it wasn't until 1835 that Bostonian William Hooper saw a business opportunity to establish Hawaii's first sugar plantation. Hooper persuaded Honolulu investors to put up the money for his venture and then worked out a deal with Kamehameha III to lease agricultural land at Koloa on Kauaʻi. The next order of business was finding an abundant supply of low-cost labor, which was needed to make sugar plantations profitable.
The natural first choice for plantation workers was Hawaiians, but even when willing, they were not enough. Due to introduced diseases like typhoid, influenza, smallpox and syphilis, the Hawaiian population had steadily and precipitously declined. By some estimates around 800,000 indigenous people lived on the islands before Western contact, but by 1800 that had dropped by two-thirds, to around 250,000. By 1860 Hawaiians numbered fewer than 70,000.
Wealthy plantation owners began to look overseas for a labor supply of immigrants accustomed to working long days in hot weather, and for whom the low wages would seem like an opportunity. In the 1850s wealthy sugar-plantation owners began recruiting laborers from China, then Japan and Portugal. After annexing Hawaii in 1898, US restrictions on Chinese and Japanese immigration made Oʻahu’s plantation owners turn to Puerto Rico, Korea and the Philippines for laborers. Different immigrant groups, along with the shared pidgin language they developed, created a unique plantation community that ultimately transformed Hawaii into the multicultural, multiethnic society it is today.
During California's Gold Rush and later the US Civil War, sugar exports to the mainland soared, making plantation owners wealthier and more powerful. Five sugar-related holding companies, known as the Big Five, came to dominate all aspects of the industry: Castle & Cooke, Alexander & Baldwin, C Brewer & Co, American Factors (today Amfac, Inc), and Theo H Davies & Co. All were run by haole (Caucasian) businessmen, many the sons and grandsons of missionaries, who eventually reached the same prejudicial conclusion as their forebears: Hawaiians could not be trusted to govern themselves. So, behind closed doors, the Big Five developed plans to relieve Hawaiians of the job.
The Merrie Monarch
King Kalakaua, who reigned from 1874 to 1891, fought to restore Hawaiian culture and indigenous pride. He resurrected hula and its attendant arts from near extinction. Along with his fondness for drinking, gambling and partying, this earned him the nickname 'the Merrie Monarch' – much to the dismay of Christian missionaries. Foreign businessmen considered his pastimes to be follies, but worse, Kalakaua was a mercurial decision-maker given to replacing his entire cabinet on a whim.
Kalakaua spent money lavishly, piling up massive debts. Wanting Hawaiʻi's monarchy to equal any in the world, he commissioned ʻIolani Palace, holding an extravagant coronation there in 1883. He also saw Hawaiʻi playing a role on the global stage, and in 1881 embarked on a trip to meet foreign heads of state and develop stronger ties with Japan especially. When he returned to Hawaiʻi later that year, he became the first king to have traveled around the world.
Even so the days of the Hawaiian monarchy were numbered. The Reciprocity Treaty of 1875, which had made Hawaiʻi-grown sugar profitable, had expired. Kalakaua refused to renew, as the treaty now contained a provision giving the US a permanent naval base at Pearl Harbor – a provision that Native Hawaiians regarded as a threat to the sovereignty of the kingdom. A secret anti-monarchy group called the Hawaiian League, led by a committee of mostly American lawyers and businessmen, 'presented' Kalakaua with a new constitution in 1887.
This new constitution stripped the monarchy of most of its powers, reducing Kalakaua to a figurehead, and it changed the voting laws to exclude Asians and allow only those who met income and property requirements to vote – effectively disenfranchising all but wealthy, mostly white business owners. Kalakaua signed under threat of violence, earning the document the moniker the 'Bayonet Constitution.' Soon the US got its base at Pearl Harbor, and the foreign businessmen consolidated their power.
Hawaiʻi's Last Queen
When King Kalakaua died while visiting San Francisco, CA, in 1891, his sister and heir, Liliʻuokalani, ascended the throne. The queen fought against foreign intervention and control, and she secretly drafted a new constitution to restore Hawaiian voting rights and the monarchy's powers. However, in 1893, before Liliʻuokalani could present this, a hastily formed 'Committee of Safety' put in motion the Hawaiian League's long-brewing plans to overthrow the Hawaiian government.
First, the Committee of Safety requested support from US Minister John Stevens, who allowed American marines and sailors to come ashore in Honolulu Harbor 'only to protect American citizens in case of resistance.' The Committee's own militia then surrounded ʻIolani Palace and ordered Liliʻuokalani to step down. With no standing army and wanting to avoid bloodshed, the last Hawaiian monarch acquiesced under protest.
Immediately after the coup, the Committee of Safety formed a provisional government and requested annexation by the US. Much to the committee's surprise, US President Grover Cleveland refused: he condemned the coup as illegal, conducted under false pretext and against the will of the Hawaiian people, and he requested Liliʻuokalani be reinstated. Miffed but unbowed, the Committee instead established their own government, the short-lived Republic of Hawaiʻi.
For the next five years, Queen Liliʻuokalani pressed her case (for a time while under house arrest at ʻIolani Palace), but to no avail. In 1898, spurred by a new US president, William McKinley, Congress annexed the republic as a US territory. In part, the US justified this act of imperialism because the ongoing Spanish-American War had showed the strategic importance of the islands as a Pacific military base. Indeed, some feared that if America didn't take Hawaii, another Pacific Rim power – say, Japan – just might.
White Ships & Waikiki Beachboys
In 1901, WC Peacock built Waikiki Beach's first resort hotel, the Moana. The following year, Honolulu businessmen bankrolled a one-man promotional tour for Hawaii tourism on the US mainland, complete with a stereopticon and daguerreotypes of palm-fringed beaches and smiling 'natives.' By 1903, 2000 visitors a year were making the nearly five-day journey to Honolulu by sea. Passengers departed San Francisco aboard the Matson Navigation Company's white-painted steamships, inaugurating a romantic era of travel to Hawaii that continued until the mid-1930s, when flying made arriving by ship passé. At the beginning of WWII, more than 30,000 visitors were landing in the islands each year.
The Hawaii of popular imagination – lei-draped visitors mangling the hula at a beach luau, tanned beachboys plying the surf in front of Diamond Head, the sounds of hapa haole (Hawaiian music with predominantly English lyrics) – was relentlessly commodified. More hotels sprouted along the strand at Waikiki, which had until the late 19th century been a wetland where the ali'i retreated for relaxation. The 1927 opening of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, nicknamed the 'Pink Palace,' transformed Waikiki into a jet-setting tropical destination for the rich and famous, including celebrities of the day – Groucho Marx, Bing Crosby, Bette Davis, Clark Gable and even Shirley Temple.
This was also the era of Duke Kahanamoku, Olympic gold-medal swimmer, master waterman, movie star and Hawaii's unofficial 'ambassador of aloha.' He introduced the world beyond Hawaii's shores to the ancient sport of heʻe nalu ('wave sliding'), more familiarly called surfing. Duke was named after his father, who had been christened by Hawaiian princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop in honor of a Scottish lord. Duke Jr grew up swimming and surfing on Waikiki Beach, where he and his 'beachboys' taught tourists to surf, including heiress Doris Duke, who became the first woman to surf competitively.
Pearl Harbor & the 'Japanese Problem'
In the years leading up to WWII, the US government became obsessed with the Territory of Hawaii's 'Japanese problem.' What, they wondered, were the true loyalties of 40% of Hawaii's population, the issei (first-generation Japanese immigrants) who had been born in Japan? During a war, would they fight for Japan or defend the US? Neither fully Japanese nor American, their children, island-born nisei (second-generation Japanese immigrants), also had their identity questioned.
On December 7, 1941, a surprise Japanese force of ships, submarines and aircraft bombed and attacked military installations across Oʻahu. The main target was Pearl Harbor, the USA's most important Pacific naval base. This devastating attack, in which dozens of ships were damaged or lost and more than 3000 military and civilians were killed or injured, instantly propelled the US into WWII. In Hawaii, the US Army took control, martial law was declared and civil rights were suspended.
A coalition of forces in Hawaii resisted immense federal government pressure, including from President Roosevelt, to carry out a mass internment of Japanese on the islands, similar to what was being done on the US West Coast. Although around 1250 people were unjustly detained in internment camps on Oʻahu, the majority of Hawaii's 160,000 Japanese citizens were spared incarceration – although they did suffer racial discrimination and deep suspicions about their loyalties. Hawaii's multiethnic society emerged from WWII severely strained, but not broken.
In 1943 the federal government was persuaded to reverse itself and approve the formation of an all-Japanese combat unit, the 100th Infantry Battalion. Thousands of nisei volunteers were sent, along with the all-Japanese 442nd Regimental Combat Team, to fight in Europe, where they became two of the most decorated units in US military history. By the war's end, Roosevelt proclaimed these soldiers were proof that 'Americanism is a matter of mind and heart; Americanism is not, and never was, a matter of race or ancestry.' But the coming decades would test this sweeping sentiment.
The end of WWII brought Hawaii closer to the center stage of American culture and politics. Three decades had passed since Prince Jonah Kuhio Kalanianaʻole, Hawaii's first delegate to the US Congress, introduced a Hawaii statehood bill in 1919, which received a cool reception in Washington DC. Despite its key role in WWII, Hawaii was viewed as too much of a racial melting pot for many US politicians to support statehood.
After WWII and during the Cold War, Southern Democrats in particular raised the specter that Hawaiian statehood would leave the US open not just to the 'Yellow Peril' (embodied, as they saw it, by imperialist Japan), but also to Chinese and Russian communist infiltration through Hawaii's labor unions. Further, they feared that Hawaii would elect Asian politicians who would seek to end racial segregation, then legal on the US mainland. Conversely, proponents of statehood for Hawaii increasingly saw it as a necessary civil rights step to prove that the US actually practiced 'equality for all.'
In the late 1950s Alaska narrowly beat out Hawaii to be admitted as the 49th state. With more than 90% of island residents voting for statehood, Hawaii finally became the USA’s 50th state on August 21, 1959. A few years later, surveying Hawaii's relative ethnic harmony, President John F Kennedy pronounced, 'Hawaii is what the rest of the world is striving to become.' In the 1960s, Hawaii's two Asian American senators – WWII veteran and nisei Daniel Inouye and Honolulu-born Hiram Fong – helped secure the passage of America's landmark civil rights legislation.
Statehood had an immediate economic impact and Hawaii's timing was remarkably fortuitous. The decline of sugar and pineapple plantations in the 1960s – due in part to the labor concessions won by Hawaii's unions – left the state scrambling economically. But the advent of the jet airplane meant tourists could become Hawaii's next staple crop. Tourism exploded, which led to a decades-long cycle of building booms. By 1970 over one million tourists each year were generating $1 billion annually for the state, surpassing both agriculture and federal military spending.
Hawaiian Renaissance & Sovereignty
By the 1970s Hawaii's rapid growth meant new residents (mostly mainland 'transplants') and tourists were crowding island beaches and roads, and runaway construction was rapidly transforming resorts such as Waikiki almost beyond recognition. The relentless peddling of 'aloha' got some island-born and -raised kamaʻaina wondering: what did it mean to be Hawaiian? Some Native Hawaiians turned to kupuna (elders) to recover their heritage, and in doing so became more politically assertive.
In 1976 a group of activists illegally occupied Kahoʻolawe, aka 'Target Island,' which the US government had taken during WWII and used for bombing practice ever since. During another protest occupation attempt in 1977, two activist members of the Protect Kahoʻolawe ʻOhana (PKO) – George Helm and Kimo Mitchell – disappeared at sea, instantly becoming martyrs. Saving Kahoʻolawe became a rallying cry, and it radicalized a nascent Native Hawaiian rights movement that continues today.
When the state held its landmark Constitutional Convention in 1978, it passed several amendments of special importance to Native Hawaiians. For example, it made Hawaiian the official state language (along with English) and mandated that Hawaiian culture be taught in public schools. At the grassroots level, the islands were simultaneously experiencing a revival of Hawaiian culture, with a surge in residents – of all ethnicities – joining hula halau (schools), learning to play Hawaiian music and rediscovering traditional island crafts such as feather lei-making.
Today, asking the US federal government to recognize Native Hawaiians as an indigenous people, which would give them similar legal status as Native American tribes, has demonstrable support in Hawaii. But there is great controversy over what shape Hawaiian sovereignty should take and who exactly qualifies as Native Hawaiian. Opponents of the sovereignty process argue that electing a Native Hawaiian self-governing body is racially exclusionary, while proponents say it is a vitally necessary step for the islands' indigenous people, to help them heal from the violence and injustices of the last two centuries.