I was born, raised, and went to school in Hawai’i. It is a place that is important to who I am, especially since I am a colonizer and not a Native Hawaiian on their land. It is the place where I learned to deeply respect people of color, Indigenous relations, our diverse histories, and wisdom. Growing up I learned Hawaiian history. It is taught in fourth and seventh grade, and being in Hawai’i we learn it from simply being part of the community and listening to our kapunas (elders).
It occurred to me many people outside of Hawai’i don’t know Hawaiian history – understandable since it is a small island state/nation in the middle of the Pacific. However, you should know this important history since it is American history too, and for those who choose to travel to Hawaii for vacation or business, it is important to learn and respect the land, its people, and histories.
Below is a greatly abridged version of Hawaiian history to give you a small taste of how complex and rich the full history of Hawaii is. I hope you will read it and then take it upon yourself to learn more from credible sources, especially from Native Hawaiian scholars, activists, and historians.
History of Hawai’i
Hawai’i, sitting in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, is made up of over 100 islands, but most people only know of the eight main islands — Niʻihau, Kauaʻi, Oʻahu, Molokaʻi, Lānaʻi, Kahoʻolawe, Maui, and Hawaiʻi. King Kamehameha, originally named Paiea and hidden at birth in 1758 to protect his life from warring clans, unified the islands. In several great battles including the battles of ‘Iao Valley in Maui and Nuuanu Pali on O’ahu, Kamehameha, assisted by Captain James Cook’s western machinery, unified the previously independently ruled islands. Captain Cook was the first white person/European to contact Hawai’i in 1778. He was killed the following year at Kealakekua Bay on the Island of Hawai’i.
King Kamehameha unified the islands in 1810. This was important because it created a more unified front for Hawai’i to withstand Western pressures. The Kamehameha dynasty reigns from 1795-1874. There was a succession of rulers during this time, but I will skip over this part of Hawaiian history.
In 1874 King Lunalilo, the grandnephew of King Kamehameha I, died of tuberculosis without an heir – he was 39 and had ruled for 1 year and 25 days. He was the first ruler of Hawai’i elected and was known as “The People’s King” because he was well-liked.
In 1820 Protestant missionaries arrived in Hawai’i. These and subsequent missionaries heavily influenced Hawai’i. The missionaries’ primary purpose in Hawai’i was to spread Christianity. Along with the spread of their religion(s) they also brought written language (prior Hawaiian language was oral, it is easier to spread Bible teachings when people can read the Bible), cultural beliefs, built churches, and illnesses and endemics.
In 1874 after King Lunalilo died, King Kalakaua is elected ruler starting the Kalakaua dynasty. Queen dowager Emma (married to King Kamehameha IV), a part of the Kamehameha dynasty, attempted to retain the ruling line but was not successful. She acknowledged the defeat and calmed her supporters; American and British troops were in Honolulu as well and quelled dissent.
King Kalakaua traveled the world establishing diplomatic relations with many rulers. Hawai’i was a strategic trade point in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Ships would need to stop in the islands to refuel and take on new supplies. Only countries that had diplomatic relations with the sovereign nation of Hawai’i could dock. As a Hawaiian historian told me “Other countries needed Hawai’i more than Hawai’i needed them at this point.”
In 1882 construction on ‘Iolani Palace, the only royal palace in the United States, began. King Kalakaua had traveled the world extensively and wanted ‘Iolani Palace to be as grand as other palaces he had visited. ‘Iolani Palace had electricity and telephones before the US White House. While the palace was never the primary residence of any of the monarchs, they choosing to live in other cottages or residences close by, the Palace played an important role in Hawaiian history.
In 1887 King Kalakaua was held at gunpoint by a militia of mostly American citizens/white settlers known as the Honolulu Rifles and forced to sign a new constitution for the Kingdom of Hawai’i. The Honolulu Rifles were aligned with the Hawaiian League (the Committee of Thirteen) which sought to overthrow the monarchy and succeed several years later. [Side-note — there is a whole sordid history involving the Hawaiian League/Committee of Thirteen and their actions. Too long for this post, but I hope some of you go down that rabbit hole of history.]
The Bayonet Constitution stripped the monarchy and his cabinet of power giving it to the legislature which was more aligned with white business and white settler interest. The document was signed by Kalakaua under duress and brought upon the end of the monarchy. Many believe the King would have been killed if he hadn’t signed.
In 1891 King Kalakaua dies in San Francisco. His body was brought back to Hawai’i on the USS Charleston escorted by the US Navy and Army at the direction of US President Harrison. After his death, Queen Liliuokalani assumed the throne. Her reign was short-lived.
Queen Lili’uokalani was placed under house arrest and imprisoned in a room at ‘Iolani Palace in 1893. The sovereign Kingdom of Hawai’i was illegally overthrown. In 1898 the United States annexes Hawai’i. Queen Lili’uokalani protest this move, as seen in this letter to Congress. In 1900 Hawaii becomes the Territory of Hawai’i under United States control. The monarchy never returned to power. Queen Lili’uokalani dies in 1917. In 1959 Hawai’i becomes the 50th state in the United States.
Why this History Matters
I just glossed over Hawaiian history in about 750 words. I know I did a disservice to the deeply intricate, important, and moving history of this once thriving and important nation-state. This is also modern American history. A Hawaiian story keeper mentioned that if you talk to people in Hawaii and reach back about two to four generations you can find a connection to someone who was alive during the monarchy. This could be a great-grandparent or great-great-grandparent — that is how recent some of these events are. Please take time to learn more and do your part to be in solidarity with Native Hawaiians.
Suggested sites to continue learning about Hawaiian history:
- ‘Iolani Palace tour – If you are in Honolulu, sign up for the docent-led tour at ‘Iolani Palace. You’ll hear about the history of the monarchy from a seasoned storyteller and historian.
- Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen – Lili’uokalani (book)
- Merrie Monarch Festival – This is a celebration and preservation of hula and Hawaiian language. Last year I was able to watch it streamed online which was wonderful. I hope they continue to stream it online for those of us outside of Hawaii. The analogy I use to describe the importance of Merrie Monarch to people is it is like the Olympics of hula. The best hula dancers compete in this festival and it is a joy to watch.
- Preserve Hawaiian language. I just learned about Ni’ihau Hawaiian, which is closer to the original language thanks to the island of Ni’ihau being more of a closed community. About 200 people still speak Ni’ihau Hawaiian. Make sure to learn about Ni’ihau and how it was bought and sold.
- In the 2.00 a.m. haze of writing I forgot to add one of the best new books I’ve read about visiting Hawai’i — Detours. This book is the only travel guide you should read when visiting Hawai’i. Written by kanaka maoli (Native Hawaiians) it covers what Hawai’i means to them and what they want non-Natives to know. (Added 7/8/22)
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I am writing from the lands of the 29 federally recognized and non-federally recognized tribes in now Washington State, including the Coast Salish people — Duwamish, Muckleshoot, Suquamish, Snoqualmie, Snohomish, and Native American organizations that have treaty rights and have been here since time immemorial. I give my thanks to the elders, Native and Indigenous colleagues and relations, and the land itself. Fakequity pays “rent” to Native organizations in Washington and Hawaii; a small act to repair and work to be in more justice-based relations.