Natural Hawai'i

Colonial History

Colonial History

Kamehameha the Great

Kamehameha2At the time of Cook’s arrival in Hawaii in 1778, the islands were divided into separate warring chiefdoms. Kamehameha the Great, who by 1791 became sole chief of the Big Island, was to become the first to unite all the Hawaiian Islands after conquering Maui, Molokai and Oahu. Kauai was never conquered after several unsuccessful attempts due to the fierce seas surrounding it, but Kauai did agree to a treaty in 1810.

By the mid-1780s Hawaii was becoming a popular port of call for Yankee traders plying the seas between North America and China. Sandalwood was worth a premium in China and Hawaiian chiefs began bargaining it in exchange for weapons.

Hawaii history Even though Hawaii’s forests of sandalwood were vast at this time, Kamehameha put a kapu on all sandalwood forests, giving himself total control over the trade. Yet, even under Kamehameha’s relatively shrewd management, the bulk of the profits ended up in the sea captains’ pockets.

While Kamehameha was careful not to use up all his forests or overburden his subjects, his successor, Liholiho, partially lifted the royal kapu, allowing island chiefs to get in on the action. The chiefs began purchasing foreign luxuries by signing promissory notes to be paid in future shipments of sandalwood.

To pay off the rising debts, commoners were forced into virtual servitude. Missionaries recorded seeing caravans of as many as 3,000 men carting wood during the height of the trade. Sandalwood trees were cut down regardless of their size or age. No one thought of leaving small trees to grow and replenish the forest. In a few short years after Kamehameha’s death, Hawaii’s sandalwood forests were exhausted.

Hawaii historyEnd of An Era

With the death of King Kamehameha in 1819, the crown was passed to Kamehameha II, Liholiho. In reality, the power was passed to Kaahumanu, who had been the favorite of Kamehameha’s 21 wives.

Kaahumanu was determined to break down the ancient kapu system of taboos. Shortly after Kamehameha’s death, she threw a party in Kamakahonu, a most sacred compound. While it had been taboo for men and women to eat together, Kaahumanu convinced Liholiho to eat with her. When no wrath from the gods occurred, the beliefs in taboos and the fear of breaking them were discredited, thus ending a religious era.

Queen KaahumanuThe Missionaries

On April 19, 1820, the Thaddeus which had sailed from Boston landed at Kailua Bay with Christian missionaries for Hawaii. This was the first of 12 groups to be sent in the next three decades by the New England-based American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions. The leader of this initial group of missionaries was Hiram Bingham.

Sybil Bingham nursed the Queen when Kaahumanu became seriously ill. Kaahumanu, in gratitude, passed a law forbidding work and travel on the Sabbath. Changes in Hawaiian culture occurred rapidly once the missionaries befriended Hawaiian royalty.

With encouragement from the missionaries, the Hawaiians quickly took on Western ways. The missionaries established the written Hawaiian language and translated the Bible. They taught the Hawaiians to read and write and established schools.

Liholiho and Kaahumanu visited London where  they came down with measles. They died in July 1824, within a few weeks of each other, in England .

The Whalers

The first whalers in Hawaii were mostly New England Yankees but this soon changed to many other nationalities.

Towns Hawaii historybegan to spring up throughout Hawaii as it became the whaling center of the Pacific. Whaling brought money and commerce to Hawaii along with its brothels, saloons, and shopkeepers. Many farms and ranches were established to support the whaling money bonanza which continued for some fifty years.

Sugar Plantations

As whaling declined, sugar cane production increased. Sugar cane had come to Hawaii with the early Polynesians, but they never had refined the sugar.

The Chinese Sugar Cane Fieldswere the first  to produce sugar in Hawaii in 1802 and they set up small sugar mills. In 1835, William Hooper, a young Bostonian, established Hawaii’s first sugar plantation of 980 acres on Kauai with Hawaiian laborers.

Prior to the mid-1800s Hawaii was mainly feudalistic with the common people working for the royalty.This began to change as Hawaiians became whalers and the new plantation system was established.

Sugar cane needs lots of water for cultivation. Thus, in 1856 when the Lihue cane fields were suffering from drought, an 11-mile irrigation ditch was dug to bring mountain water to the fields. This rescue procedure established the viability of using dryer land for cane production and massive production was on. For over 100 years, sugar cane production was the mainstay of the Hawaiian economy.

Hawaii’s Immigrants

Hawaii’s native population was decimated by the introduction of diseases from foreigners. Plantation owners began to look overseas for a labor supply, and began recruiting laborers from China, Japan and Portugal. After Hawaii’s annexation to the United States in 1898, Chinese immigration was restricted and plantation owners turned to Puerto Rico, Korea, and the Philippines. Mixed with Pacific islanders and Europeans, the population and culture diversity of Hawaii was set. Each group brought its own culture and language, and out of necessity a unique pidgin English developed so the varied people could communicate.

350,000  laborers came to Hawaii to work on the sugar plantations. Some of these immigrants worked off their contracts and left, but many stayed and moved off the plantations to farms and businesses of their own. They came to outnumber Hawaiians and created the unique blend of cultures which is found in Hawaii today.

Kamehameha III

Kamehameha III, the last son of Kamehameha the Great, ruled for 30 years from 1825 to 1854. In 1840, he introduced Hawaii’s first constitution. It established Hawaii’s first national legislature and a Supreme Court. He passed the Great Mahele land act, established religious freedom, and gave all male citizens the right to vote.

In 1843, George Paulet, an upstart British commander upset about a petty land deal involving a British subject seized Oahu for six months. In that short period, he anglicized street names, seized property, and began to collect taxes.

Queen Victoria upset by the incident, dispatched Admiral Richard Thomas to restore Hawaiian independence. As the Hawaiian flag was raised once again, Kamehameha III uttered the words  ‘The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness’, which remains Hawaii’s motto.

The Great Mahele

The Great Mahele of 1848 changed Hawaiian concepts of land ownership, for the first time allowing land to become a commodity that could be bought and sold.

Few Hawaiians carried through with the paperwork and in 1850 land purchases were opened to foreigners. The Westerners jumped at the opportunity and before the native islanders could clearly grasp the concept of private land ownership there was little land left to own.

KHawaii historyamehameha IV

 Kamehameha IV had a short and rather confusing reign that lasted from 1855 to 1863. He tried to give his rule an element of European regality, a la Queen Victoria, and he and his consort, Queen Emma, established a Hawaiian branch of the Anglican Church of England. He also passed a law mandating that all children be given a Christian name along with their Hawaiian name. The law stayed on the books until 1967.

Struggles between those wanting to strengthen the monarchy and those wishing to limit it marked Kamehameha IV’s reign.

Kamehameha V

Kamehameha V’s (1863-1872) major accomplishment was the establishment of a controversial constitution that gave greater power to the king at the expense of elected officials. It also restricted the right to vote.

Kamehameha V, who suffered a severe bout of unrequited love, never married, yet he also never gave up on the princess. Even on his death bed he offered Princess Bernice his kingdom, which she declined.

As the bachelor king left no heirs, his death in December 1872 brought an end to the Kamehameha dynasty. Future kings would be elected.


King Lunalilo (1873-1874) had a short reign. His cabinet, made up largely of Americans, was instrumental in paving the way for a treaty of reciprocity with the United States.

Although the United States was the biggest market for Hawaiian sugar, US sugar tariffs ate heavily into profit margins. As a means of eliminating the tariffs, most plantation owners favored the annexation of Hawaii to the US.

In 1872, General John Schofield was sent to assess Pearl Harbor’s strategic value. Although native Hawaiians protested, eventually there was a reciprocity agreement that ceded Pearl Harbor to the US in exchange for duty-free access for Hawaiian sugar.

Hawaii historyKing Kalakaua

King David Kalakaua (1874-1891) was Hawaii’s last king.  He was a great Hawaiian revivalist. He brought back the hula, turning around decades of missionary repression against the ‘heathen dance’, and composed the national anthem Hawaii Ponoi, which is now the state song. He also tried to ensure some self-rule for native Hawaiians, now a minority in their own land.

The king became a world traveler, visiting India, Egypt, Europe, and South-East Asia. Through his travels, he became aware that Hawaii’s days of independence were numbered. He made what became futile attempts to strengthen his control and even proposed a royal marriage between his niece Princess Kaiulani and a Japanese prince but the Japanese declined.

Hawaii historyKalakaua built lolani Palace for the “extravagant” sum of $360,000. As he incurred big debts he became increasingly less popular with the sugar barons. They formed the Hawaiian League in 1887, developed their own armies, and forced him to accept a new constitution which strictly limited his powers, as well as the right to vote for the majority of Hawaiians. Kalakaua died in San Francisco in 1891.

Hawaii history
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