This Hawaiian Encyclopedia covers the major events of Hawaiian history from ancient times through the pre-contact era and up to the present day, including a rich tapestry of stories and events woven by many different cultures from around the globe.

The history of the Hawaiian Islands began many millions of years ago nearly 20,000 feet beneath the ocean’s surface as magma from deep in the Earth erupted onto the Pacific seafloor to form an undersea volcano. For thousands of centuries the volcano grew until finally, amidst the steam and ash and molten rock, it rose above the sea and an island was born.

Even as the island grew it was being slowly pulled northwest by the movement of a giant piece of the Earth’s crust known as a tectonic plate, the great Pacific Plate.

The stationary plume of lava continued to erupt as the Pacific Plate moved northwest, making way for a new volcanic island to form, and then another and another, each in turn emerging from the sea to form the chain known as the Hawaiian Islands.

Weathered by wind and rain for thousands of centuries, the rocky surfaces of the isolated volcanic islands gradually turned to soil and allowed plant species to take hold. Eventually the islands supported a great variety of life from the shores to the mountain peaks.

The human side of Hawai‘i’s story began with the Polynesians, a race whose roots extend back to some 6,000 years ago when ambitious sailors in voyaging canoes ventured farther and farther out from the Southeast Asian continent to inhabit hundreds of Pacific islands. More than 1,000 years ago the seafaring voyagers discovered the Hawaiian Islands, the most remote archipelago on Earth.

Ua lehulehu a manomano ka ‘ikena a ka Hawai‘i.

Great and numerous is the knowledge of the Hawaiians.[i]

By the time British Captain James Cook established Western contact in 1778, the Hawaiians had developed an amazingly rich and complex Pacific island culture unlike any other, with a population of more than a quarter of a million people, possible more than three times that number (Captain Cook’s crew estimated the population at about 400,000).

Western weapons soon played a key role in conflicts between island chiefs, including the rising warrior Kamehameha, who visited Captain Cook’s ship when it was anchored off Maui in November of 1778. Kamehameha fought his last major battle in 1795 at O‘ahu’s Nu‘uanu Valley where he conquered O‘ahu and gained control of all the Hawaiian Islands except Kaua‘i and Ni‘ihau.

Kaua‘i’s King Kaumuali‘i avoided imminent defeat in 1810 by ceding Kaua‘i and Ni‘ihau to Kamehameha, thus allowing Kamehameha to declare a united Hawaiian Kingdom.

After the death of King Kamehameha I on May 8, 1819, changes in the Hawaiian Islands occurred rapidly, beginning with the breaking of the eating kapu that prohibited men and women from eating together.

This occurred when King Kamehameha II (Kalaninui ‘Iolani Liholiho) ate with the dowager queens Keōpūolani [Keōpūolanikauhiakama; Kalanikauika‘alaneokeōpūolani] and Ka‘ahumanu, beginning a process that eroded away traditional Hawaiian religious beliefs and led to the complete overturning of the kapu system.

The post-contact era saw the arrival of explorers, traders, whalers, military ships, and missionaries. The sandalwood trade began in 1791 and lasted until 1840, bringing a steady influx of foreigners who brought many foreign goods to trade for the valuable wood. The arduous labor involved in sandalwood harvesting caused a sharp decline in traditional Hawaiian food production.

The whaling era began in 1819 and peaked in 1846 with the arrival of nearly 600 whaling ships, mostly at Lahaina and Honolulu. Whaling supported a bustling trade at port towns, and the boisterous and sometimes unruly whaling crews had far-reaching influences throughout the Islands. Many Hawaiians were hired to work aboard the whaling vessels, and many whalers stayed behind and became Hawaiian residents.

The First Company of American missionaries arrived in 1820 and began to convert native Hawaiians to Christianity. By 1840, a total of twelve missionary companies had established at least 17 mission stations along with many churches and schools.

Missionary influences were extensive, and included the development of a written Hawaiian language as well as the production and distribution of millions of pages of printed documents.

In 1848, King Kamehameha III (Kauikeaouli) instituted a system of private property ownership known as the Great Māhele, eventually leading to non-Hawaiians owning much of Hawai‘i’s land. The new availability of land helped commercial sugar production, which began on Kaua‘i in 1835, to become the driving force of Hawai‘i’s economy.

The Reciprocity Treaty went into effect in 1876, allowing sugar to be sold in the United States without customs or duties. In return the United States was allowed to use Pearl Harbor as a naval base. The treaty resulted in a rapid expansion of Hawai‘i’s sugar industry, which increased ten-fold in just 15 years and then continued to double each decade.

The plantation era brought major political and economic changes, with virtually all aspects of Island life controlled by Hawai‘i’s “Big Five” sugar companies: Theo H. Davies; American Factors (Amfac); C. Brewer & Co.; Alexander & Baldwin; and Castle & Cooke. With their interlocking directorates, the “Big Five” companies cooperated to control every aspect of their trade, from the workers in the fields to the laws and politics of the Hawaiian Kingdom.

In 1893, Hawai‘i’s prominent sugar merchants were directly linked to the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy, with the backing of the U.S. Minister to Hawai‘i, John Leavitt Stevens, who ordered troops from the U.S.S. Boston ashore in Honolulu and supported the formation of a Provisional Government.

To avoid bloodshed, Queen Lili‘uokalani yielded not to the Provisional Government but to the United States government, “...until such time as the Government of the United States shall, upon facts being presented to it, undo the action of its representatives and reinstate me in the authority which I claim as the Constitutional Sovereign of the Hawaiian Islands.”

U.S. President Cleveland denounced the overthrow as lawless because it was achieved under “false pretexts.” Cleveland sent regrets about the “unauthorized intervention” and ordered the queen’s power restored, but the Provisional Government refused. In 1897, President Cleveland was succeeded by President McKinley, who favored annexation.

When the Spanish-American War moved to the Philippines in 1898, the Hawaiian Islands became strategically important as a coaling base for the United States fleet, and the Hawaiian Islands were annexed to the United States.

The rise of the sugar industry led to the mass immigration of foreign laborers, and by the 1930s hundreds of thousands of sugarcane plantation workers had arrived from China, Japan, the Philippines, Portugal, Korea, Spain, Puerto Rico, and other countries. These ethnic groups supplied a ready labor force for the plantations, and became the basis of today’s “melting pot” of cultures in the Islands.

With the early foreigners came foreign diseases, however, including epidemics of mumps, measles, smallpox, whooping cough, tuberculosis, diphtheria, Asiatic cholera, and bubonic plague along with other diseases that together decimated the population of native Hawaiians, who were particularly vulnerable due to their lack of immunity to these foreign diseases.

Less than 100 years after Captain Cook arrived in the Hawaiian Islands, fewer than 40,000 native Hawaiians remained down from an estimated population of more than 300,000 at the time of Western contact in 1778.

The sugar industry continued its dominance of Hawai‘i’s economy through the first half of the 1900s with lesser contributions from pineapple exports, military spending, and tourism. Everything changed on December 7, 1941 when 350 Japanese bomber planes attacked Pearl Harbor, entering the United States into World War II.

Hundreds of thousands of Army, Navy, and Marine Corps troops were stationed in the Hawaiian Islands and millions of servicemen passed through on their way to combat areas in the Pacific.

After World War II ended, a new political movement was led by returning veterans, including Hawai‘i’s Nisei soldiers, the second generation Japanese-Americans who served as distinguished members of the renowned 442nd Regimental Combat Team and 100th Infantry Battalion.

Forming alliances with other ethnic groups, these returning veterans won important election victories in what became known as the Democratic Revolution of 1954. The Democrats gained a majority in the Territorial House of Representatives and then won both Houses two years later to end the Republican domination.

Democrats favored statehood, liberal labor benefits, land reform, and equality in education. Business leaders and large landowners supported the Democrats and encouraged a construction boom that included new airports, hotels, golf courses, and roads. Labor unrest that had come from more than a half century of control by the large sugar companies led to the rise of unions and increased workers’ rights.

In 1959, Hawai‘i was officially admitted as the 50th state and a 50th star was added to the flag of the United States. Commercial jet service also began in 1959, leading to an increase in travel to the Hawaiian Islands and fueling the rapidly growing tourism industry. At the time of Statehood about 240,000 tourists were arriving each year, a number that would quadruple in the next decade and then keep growing.

U.S. Representative John Burns was elected governor of the State of Hawai‘i in 1962, and Democrats for the first time controlled both the executive and legislative branches. Burns served until 1974 and was considered the founder of a Democratic political dynasty in Hawai‘i that lasted nearly three decades.

The rise of the Democrats paralleled the rise of unions, which peaked in the 1970s when government employees earned the right to join unions and bargain for better contracts. Major strikes by dock workers and transit workers further increased power among labor groups. Meanwhile, tourism numbers continued to rise, exceeding two million annual visitors by 1972 and more than five million annually by 1986.

Recent decades have seen a resurgence in traditional Hawaiian cultural knowledge and practices, infusing the native population with a renewed spirit and pride in ancient traditions. The essay On Being Hawaiian by John Dominis Holt is said to have been a seminal work inspiring a “Hawaiian Renaissance,” which some say began with the launching of the Hōkūle‘a voyaging canoe in 1975.

The Hōkūle‘a was built with the goal of demonstrating that migrating Polynesians could have sailed east against the prevailing winds. Voyagers have now sailed the 62-foot-long canoe more than 110,000 nautical miles, including six major continental and Pan-Pacific voyages.

The 57-foot-long Hawai‘iloa voyaging canoe, built almost entirely out of traditional materials, made its first voyage in 1995. Several more voyaging canoes have now been builtthe Makali‘i, Nāmāhoe, and Hōkūalaka‘i—and the growing fleet is helping Hawaiians to continue their quest for traditional knowledge.

The number of speakers of the Hawaiian language also has grown from less than 4,000 in 1983, mostly elders who spoke Hawaiian to each other, to more than 7,000 today, most of whom are younger than thirty years old.

Poho pono na pe‘a heke a ku ana.

A well-filled topsail helped him to arrive.

Said of a fast traveler.[ii]

Dedicated Hawaiian scholars, such as the prolific Mary Kawena Pūku‘i (1895-1986), have been integral to restoring ancestral values. Pūku‘i coauthored the Hawaiian Dictionary,[iii]and Place Names of Hawaii[iv] with Samuel H. Elbert, and published ‘Ōlelo No‘eau: Hawaiian Proverbs & Poetical Sayings,[v] and other important works now utilized by Hawaiian cultural practitioners and historians.

In recent decades, Hawaiian scholars have shed new light on ancient times by translating many old documents and stories originally written in the Hawaiian language. One of these scholars is Pūku‘i’s former assistant, Frances Frazier, whose translations include such important works as Kamehameha and His Warrior Kekuhaupi‘o (2000), [vi] and The True Story of Kaluaikoolau as Told by his Wife, Piilani (2001).[vii]

Just as Hawaiian scholars continue to bring forward new information through translations of Hawaiian language works that provide a clearer picture of Hawai‘i’s past, increasing cultural awareness has brought renewed efforts toward resolution of Hawaiian sovereignty issues.

The sovereignty movement was given impetus on January 4, 1976 when the first protest occupation of the island of Kaho‘olawe took place to stop the island’s use as a military bombing target. President George Bush ended the use of Kaho‘olawe for bombing practice in 1990, and four years later the island was returned to the State of Hawai‘i.

In 1993, President Clinton signed a Joint Resolution of Congress (Public Law 103-150), which “...apologizes to the Native Hawaiians on behalf of the people of the United States for the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii on January 17, 1893,” and supports “...reconciliation efforts between the United States and the Native Hawaiian people.”[viii]

The continuing “Hawaiian Renaissance” has been enlivened by political activists, musicians, composers, and writers, and is celebrated in many annual festivals and competitions such as the Merrie Monarch Hula Festival on Hawai‘i Island, the King Kamehameha Hula Competition on O‘ahu, and the Prince Lot Hula Festival at Moanalua Gardens.

Performances of ancient as well as modern hula dances and oli (chants) are performed by hālau (hula groups) from throughout the Hawaiian Islands and beyond, and these well-attended events are a testament to the living Hawaiian culture.

Japanese investment capital and tourism were the driving forces of Hawai‘i’s economy in the mid-1980s, but economic downturns in the 1990s in the United States and Japan caused a decrease in Hawai‘i’s rapid tourism growth and slowed the pace of new construction.

Hawai‘i’s sugar industry also continued its long decline from more than 100 sugar mills operating in the Hawaiian Islands in the early 1900s to just two today. Lāna‘i’s last major commercial pineapple harvest took place in 1992.

The state’s economy has thrived during the last decade due primarily to tourism. Nearly seven million visitors arrived in the Hawaiian Islands in the year 2000, coming to enjoy the ideal climate, stunning natural beauty, and genuine aloha spirit of Hawai‘i’s people.

Visitor arrivals fell sharply in the years after the September 11, 2002 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Virginia. By 2004, tourism numbers had returned to previous levels, and then a new record was set in 2005 when about 7.4 million visitors arrived in the Hawaiian Islands.

Home prices in the Hawaiian Islands have skyrocketed in recent years. These price increases have been due in large part to low interest rates that have spurred a general real estate boom nationwide, with many United States Mainland investors purchasing second (vacation) homes in the Hawaiian Islands.

The sharp rise in real estate values has generally brought windfall profits to investors and homeowners, although it has made it harder for local residents to buy homes and has also caused large increases in property tax assessments, creating significant financial difficulties for some homeowners on fixed incomes.

Many homeowners have converted their long-term rentals to more profitable short-term vacation rentals, displacing local residents and changing the character of local neighborhoods, while also worsening the already severe shortage of affordable housing.

The state’s changing demographics have also brought new influences to local and state governments. In 2002, Linda Lingle became the first Republican governor in 40 years.

Local leaders seek to diversify Hawai‘i’s economy by encouraging high tech companies, specialty agriculture, and other quality career options for residents. Despite these efforts, however, the state’s economy remains driven by the seemingly endless growth of the visitor industry and the state’s work force is increasingly comprised of lower paying, service-oriented jobs.

Authentic cultural experiences and “eco-tourism” are promoted as ways to develop a sustainable economy that values the perpetuation of Hawaiian culture and the preservation of Hawai‘i’s environment while continuing to share these aspects of the Islands with visitors.

Many employers honor local traditions, and the tourist industry in general has increased its efforts to share correct cultural knowledge in a way that is respectful to native Hawaiians, many of whom continue their ancient traditions and native culture—fishing, hunting, gathering plants from the land and limu from the ocean, stringing beautiful flower lei, and spending time with their ‘ohana (extended families).

Hawai‘i’s tropical landscapes are filled with rare and extraordinary plants, animals, and birds while the coral reefs offshore support a multitude of colorful fish and fascinating marine life, an amazing array of unique life forms that evolved in isolation over millions of years.

Scientists consider the Hawaiian Islands a natural laboratory of evolutionary processes like nowhere else on Earth, and researchers from around the world come to study Hawai‘i’s unique flora and fauna.

Hawai‘i is also the capital of endangered and extinct species—about half of Hawai‘i’s endemic (unique) birds are already extinct, and Hawai‘i accounts for nearly 70% of the United States’ plant and animal extinctions. In recent decades, however, many endangered species populations have been protected and restored. The nēnē goose (Hawai‘i’s state bird) and the humpback whale (Hawai‘i’s state marine mammal) were both close to extinction, but are now growing in numbers.

Hawai‘i is a beautiful and enchanted land, a place of pristine, white-sand beaches, luminous rainbows, waterfall-laced mountains, and lush valleys, but there are also dangers. Hawai‘i can be a rugged and unforgiving place—volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, landslides, tsunamis—and the daily news often tells of rescues on the rough seas and in the treacherous mountains.

Several major tsunamis have brought destruction to the Hawaiian Islands in the last century, including the 1946 and 1960 tsunamis that together killed more than 200 people. Hurricanes have also brought devastationHurricane ‘Iniki in 1992 caused more than $3 billion in property damage.

Recently the Native Hawaiian Reorganization Act (the Akaka Bill), sought to provide federal recognition to native Hawaiians and protect Hawaiian entitlements jeopardized by the United States Supreme Court decision in the Rice vs. Cayetano case in February of 2000, which prohibited Hawaiians-only voting in Office of Hawaiian Affairs elections.

The Akaka Bill failed to be approved by the United States Congress in 2006, and the future of many Hawaiian programs as well as the Hawaiian sovereignty movement remains uncertain with numerous different groups seeking different goals, including federal recognition of Hawaiians as an indigenous group, and reinstatement of a sovereign Hawaiian nation.

As Hawai‘i moves into the future there will be challenges but also great promise, with the continuing revival of traditional native cultural practices, an improving natural environment as species and ecosystems are protected, and a robust economy fueled by Hawai‘i’s worldwide appeal as a visitor destination.

Residents of the Hawaiian Islands, feeling lucky to live in one of the most beautiful places on Earth, continue to look to the future even as they cherish the rich history of their land and people.

[i] p. 309, Pukui, Mary Kawena. ‘Ōlelo No‘eau: Hawaiian Proverbs & Poetical Sayings. Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press, 1983. Proverb 2814.

[ii] p. 293, Pukui, Mary Kawena. ‘Ōlelo No‘eau: Hawaiian Proverbs & Poetical Sayings. Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press, 1983. Proverb 2681.

[iii] Pukui, Mary Kawena, and Elbert, Samuel H. Hawaiian Dictionary: Revised and Enlarged Edition. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1986.

[iv] Pukui, Mary Kawena, Elbert, Samuel H., and Mookini, Esther T. Mookini. Place Names of Hawaii: Revised & Expanded Edition. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1974.

[v] Pukui, Mary Kawena. ‘Ōlelo No‘eau: Hawaiian Proverbs & Poetical Sayings. Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press, 1983.

[vi] p. 449, Desha, Stephen L., translated by Frazier, Frances N. Kamehameha and his Warrior Kekūhaupi‘o. Honolulu: Kamehameha Schools Press, 2000; originally published in Ka Hoku o Hawaii (The Star of Hawai‘i) between December 16, 1920 and September 11, 1924.

[vii] Frazier, Frances N. The True Story of Kaluaikoolau as Told by his Wife, Piilani. Kaua‘i Historical Society, 2001.

[viii] The Apology to Native Hawaiians on behalf of the United States for the Overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii. Kapolei, Hawai‘i: Ka‘imi Pono Press, 1994.