Situated roughly smack dab in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the Hawaiian Islands are the most isolated major island group in the world. Rich with history and culture. Yet along with birds, bats, and other critters that flew or drifted across vast tracts of sea, this removed volcanic chain came to be colonized by human beings. That remains a remarkable feat and a testament to the almost unbelievable navigational abilities of the Polynesian people.
What follows is a sweeping overview of the early history of Hawaii, from Polynesian colonization to the islands’ takeover by the United States:
Polynesian Colonization of Hawaii
Hawaii belongs to the cultural sphere of Polynesia, which encompasses better than 1,000 islands in the central and southern Pacific. The so-called “Polynesian Triangle,” often used to define this cultural geography, comes marked by Hawaii in the north, Easter Island/Rapa Nui in the southeast, and New Zealand/Aotearoa in the southwest.
Hawaii includes the largest islands in Polynesia outside of New Zealand. Native Hawaiians—Kanaka Maoli—share many cultural traits and traditions with other Polynesian peoples.
Ancient Polynesians were renowned as superb seafarers, navigating across thousands of miles of trackless ocean in outrigger canoes. They did so using sophisticated wayfinding methods based on stars, currents, cloud formations, bird flights, and other natural references.
Such navigational feats allowed ancestral Austronesian peoples, likely from Taiwan, to colonize the far-flung islands of the Polynesian Triangle. This transpired over perhaps a thousand years or so.
A leading theory holds that Hawaii’s colonization came about in two waves of Polynesian wayfaring. This thinking suggests that Polynesian navigators from the Marquesas Islands—some 2,000 miles away, mind you—were the first to occupy the Hawaiian archipelago.
A later stage, the theory goes, came with the arrival of colonizers from Tahiti (which occupies just about the center of the Polynesian Triangle). But not all authorities accept this two-wave hypothesis, suggesting it was more of a continuous phase of colonization.
Regardless, recent charcoal analysis suggests the initial—perhaps Marquesan—Polynesian discovery of the Hawaiian Islands likely occurred between A.D. 940 and 1130.
Hawaiian and Polynesian mythology, meanwhile, includes various stories about how Hawaii came to be discovered. One legend suggests the fisherman Hawaiiloa and his navigator Makalii found the archipelago on an ocean voyage. Hawaiiloa later returned to Hawaii with his family to settle, with all Native Hawaiians, by this storyline, thereby descended from him.
Another legend suggests the Polynesian demigod Kahai (or Tafai) created Hawaii by pulling the islands up from under the sea. And other tales tell of Hawaii’s creation by the great fire/volcano goddess Pele, or the leading of Polynesian ancestors here by the shark god Kamohoalii.
Polynesian “Canoe Foods”
The long-ago settlement of Hawaii by Polynesians introduced a variety of cultivated plants and domestic animals to the islands. Polynesians journeyed with such “canoe foods,” as they’re sometimes called, and spread them throughout the remote islands, including Hawaii.
Prominent examples of canoe foods brought to Hawaii by Polynesian colonizers include breadfruit, taro, wild ginger, coconut, pigs, and chickens.
Ancient Hawaiian Culture, Society, and Land Use
Part of the foundation of Ancient Hawaiian culture was the kapu system, a religious code that helped structure society through taboo-based laws.
Hawaiians established sophisticated land-use arrangements on the main islands that helped not only tap their rich terrestrial and marine resources but also share them. Most famously, pie-slice-shaped divisions known as ahupuaa ran from mountain ridgetops to seacoasts. Overseen by local chiefs and headmen, ahupuaa gave their residents access to the full spectrum of watershed foods and other products: from timber and bird feathers in the highlands to fish and other marine resources.
We don’t have anywhere near the space to do justice to the richness of Hawaiian mythology. Unsurprisingly, it overlaps extensively with the legends and worldviews of other Polynesian cultures, while also exhibiting distinctly Hawaiian beliefs.
A striking pantheon of gods, goddesses, and demigods/heroes populate Hawaiian mythology. These include perhaps the native deity that is most widely known to non-Hawaiians: the aforementioned Pele, goddess of fire and volcanoes. That she remains widely worshiped and referenced is little surprise in this volcanic archipelago, built on lava and still eruptive on Maui and the Big Island.
Other notable Hawaiian deities include the important quartet of Ku, Kane, Lono, and Kanaloa as well as the trickster hero Maui, said to have snared the sun to slow its course (and thereby lengthen the day) from the summit of Haleakala.
Kamehameha the Great & the Unification of the Islands‘
The islands of Hawaii were originally ruled by separate chiefs. They were unified—through both diplomatic negotiation and outright force—by Kamehameha I, also known as Kamehameha the Great. Born around 1758 in the northwest of the Island of Hawaii, he came to control that island in the 1780s. From about 1790 to 1810, he struck deals and waged warfare against chiefs of the other main Hawaiian Islands to ultimately unite them.
The sites of many great battles of this war for unification can still be visited today, including the Battle of Kepaniwai, fought on Maui, and the Battle of Nuuanu on Oahu, both clashes against Chief Kalanikupule.
Kamehameha the Great’s efforts resulted in the establishment of the Kingdom of Hawaii, over which he served as its first king until his death in 1819. This monarchy lasted until the end of that century. In 1820, the royal capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii was Lahaina on Maui. It moved to Honolulu in 1845.
European & American History of Hawaii
The first European to come upon Hawaii was Captain James Cook of the British Royal Navy, who reached Waimea, Kauai on January 20, 1778. That initial visit was peaceable enough. The next year, however, Cook returned to the archipelago and was ultimately killed by Hawaiians at Kealakekua Bay on the Big Island.
There was some low-level interchange between European powers and Hawaii following Cook’s death. Indeed, King Kamehameha I, was able to employ European weaponry in his war upon rival Hawaiian chiefs.
American whalers began visiting the Hawaiian Islands in the early 1800s. The first Christian missionaries came to Hawaii in 1820, the year after Kamehameha I’s death. This also roughly corresponded with the dismantlement of the ancient kapu system by Kamehamela’s son, Lilohilo.
European and American planters began establishing sugar plantations in Hawaii beginning in the 1830s. This wealthy white planting minority began attempting to influence Native Hawaiian royalty for their economic gain. That included encouraging King Kamehameha III’s institution of the Great Mahele land-division system, which introduced a new concept of private property.
While European powers such as France and Britain tried to gain a foothold in Hawaii, the United States received exclusive economic benefits in 1875 through an arrangement with the Kingdom of Hawaii called the Reciprocity Treaty. A subsequent update of that treaty gave the U.S. permission to establish its naval base at Pearl Harbor.
The days of the Kingdom of Hawaii were numbered. In 1887, a white militia called the Honolulu Rifles forced the so-called “Bayonet Constitution” upon King Kalakaua, which removed much of his power and expanded that of American businessmen. The last monarch of Hawaii, Queen Liliuokalani, attempted to reform the government to restore Hawaiian sovereignty. American elites responded by forcing her out of power in 1893.
Initially, the U.S. government decried that act and refused to annex Hawaii. For a brief period, it became the oligarchic Republic of Hawaii.
Not long after, however, in 1900, President William McKinley oversaw the annexation of Hawaii, making it a U.S. territory. Statehood came decades later, in 1859.