The Hawaiian Flag

The Hawaiian Flag

[Illustration or Photographs: Hawaiian Flag; British Flag (comparison)]


In 1794, Kamehameha I received a gift of a British flag (a Union Jack) from British Captain George Vancouver.  Kamehameha and Vancouver were friends, and Kamehameha sought assurance that the Hawaiian Islands would be under British protection.

Though King Kamehameha I flew his British flag for the next 22 years at various places where he lived, it is uncertain what meaning he attributed to it, since the apparent cession agreement he had with Vancouver was never ratified by British Parliament. 

At this time, the British ensign included the cross of St. Andrew and St. George, but not the diagonal cross of St. Patrick, which was added in 1801 (see below).

By 1816, a uniquely Hawaiian flag was created, though there is still much uncertainty regarding its exact origins and the intent of its designers, which included King Kamehameha I. 

One account states that it was designed around 1808 by an English captain named George Beckley for King Kamehameha I.  In any case, it is known that King Kamehameha I had help from one or several people collaborating on the creation of this uniquely Hawaiian flag. 

The upper left corner of the Hawaiian flag is a British Union Jack, but it is uncertain if this was intended to represent King Kamehameha’s belief that the Hawaiian Islands were under British protection, or instead simply a sign of Kamehameha’s respect for Vancouver. 

Alexander Adams (1780-1870) is believed to be the one who placed the Union Jack at the upper left corner of the flag, inspiring today’s Hawaiian flag.  Adams first arrived in the Hawaiian Islands aboard the Albatross in 1810.  With the support of John Young (I) [‘Olohana], Alexander was placed in charge of several ships owned by King Kamehameha I.

Before the Hawaiian flag was originated, the Hawaiian people had not used flags in the manner of other nations.  The Hawaiians did have the kāhili (royal feather standard), and the puela (triangular kapa strip), which was often carried on canoes.  They also had the pūlo‘ulo‘u (kapa-covered stick) which was carried in front of the chiefs to signal kapu (sacredness). 

A letter to the editor of the Hawaiian newspaper Ka Nupepa Kū‘oko‘a on January 1, 1862 states: “The Hawaiian flag was designed for King Kamehameha I in the year 1816.  As the King desired to send a vessel to China, to sell a cargo of sandal wood, he in company of John Young, Isaac Davis (the younger, known as Aikake [‘Aikake]) and Captain Alexander Adams, (the latter now living at Kalihi, near Honolulu, and aged about eight years), made this flag for the ship, which was a war vessel called the Forester, carrying 16 guns, and was owned by King Kamehameha I.  The flag having been made, the vessel sailed for Macao, China where the flag was not credited nor recognized as a government flag...[i]

As commander of the sandalwood trading fleet of King Kamehameha I, Adams sailed to China in 1817 with a load of sandalwood (Santalum species; Hawaiian name: ‘Iliahi) but was refused entry into the harbor at Macao because the flag flown by the ship was not recognized.  This was the first time Hawai‘i’s flag was flown on a ship sailing to a foreign port. (For more information about Alexander Adams, see Chapter 11, Timeline: 1810; 1817.) 

It remains uncertain whether the flag flown on the Forester (Ka‘ahumanu) contained the diagonal cross of St. Patrick, which was not part of the British flag until 1801, and so likely was not on the original flag given to Kamehameha by Vancouver, but was added later, after it was put on the British flag. 

It was a complaint by the Scotch (whose diagonal St. Andrew’s cross was overtaken by the addition of the cross of St. Patrick), that led to the compound saltire on the British flag, but this soon came to be Hawai‘i’s official flag.

Hawai‘i’s flag was flown at half mast in 1824 upon the arrival at Honolulu Harbor of the British frigate Blonde, which had come from England with the bodies of King Kamehameha II (Kalaninui ‘Iolani Liholiho) and Queen Kamāmalu [Kamāmalunuiomano], who had died there of measles. (See Chapter 11, Timeline: 1824.)

In 1843, all of the existing Hawaiian flags were apparently destroyed by Lord George Paulet of Britain after he arrived in the Hawaiian Islands on the frigate Carysfort and used the threat of military might to demand a formal “provisional cession” of the Hawaiian Islands to Britain.  King Kamehameha III (Kauikeaouli) acquiesced and the British flag was raised in Honolulu. (See Chapter 11, Timeline: 1843, Feb. 10.)  

Appeals to London and Washington resulted in the arrival of Paulet’s superior, Admiral Richard Thomas, on July 26, 1843 on the H.M.S. flagship Dublin.  Thomas rescinded the provisional cession and restored the powers of King Kamehameha III (Kauikeaouli). (See 1843, July 31.)  On July 31, the British flag was lowered and the Hawaiian flag was again raised at the place now known as Thomas Square in honor of Admiral Richard Thomas.

Later that day, King Kamehameha III gave a speech at a Kawaiaha‘o Church service, and is said to have spoken the words which later became Hawai‘i’s official state motto: “Ua mau ke ea o ka ‘āina o ka pono” (“The life of the land is perpetuated [preserved] in righteousness”).  The date of July 31 was later proclaimed Restoration Day.

In 1881, King Kalākaua [David La‘amea Kalākaua] became the first ruler of any country to sail around the world, calling on 11 heads of state, including the leaders of the United States, Japan and Great Britain. 

When King Kalākaua visited Japan during this nine-month world tour, 13 warships representing four different nations greeted him.  Aboard each ship, cheering crews unfurled flags from many different nations, and atop the mainmast of each ship was a Hawaiian flag.

The statutes of 1896, chapter 10, describe the flag as follows: “The national ensign shall consist of eight horizontal stripes, alternating white, red, blue, etc., beginning at the top, having a jack cantoned in the dexter chief angle next to the point of suspension.  The jack shall consist of a blue field charge with a compound saltire of alternate tinctures white and red, the white having precedence; a narrow edge of white borders each red side of the saltire.  A red cross bordered with white is charged over all.  The jack is half the hoist and 7/16 the fly in length.  The arms of the red cross with border shall be equal in width to one of the horizontal stripes; the white border shall be one third the width of the red cross.”[ii]

The eight horizontal stripes of the Hawaiian flag represent the eight main Hawaiian Islands.  The colors of the stripes are alternating red, white and blue, with red said to symbolize Hawaiian gods, white symbolizing truth, and blue for the ocean.

The Hawaiian flag was first used to represent the Kingdom of Hawai‘i, and then continued to be used after the overthrow of the monarchy in 1893.  The flag was retained by the Republic, the Territory, and finally by the State of Hawai‘i.  There was originally a ninth stripe (bar), apparently representing the archipelago, but the number of stripes was reduced to eight after statehood.

More recently, another Hawaiian flag design has emerged from research done by Honolulu’s Gene Simeona who claims the original flags destroyed by British Navy Captain Lord George Paulet in 1843 were not of the same design of today’s Hawaiian flag. 

Based on research at the Hawai‘i State Archives, Simeona claims that the original flag had stripes of green, red, and yellow, with a shield at the center composed of a kahili (royal feather standard) and canoe paddles crossed over one another, forming the “...coat of arms of the kanaka maoli.”[iii]

According to Simeona, “the green in the flag represents the maka‘āinana (commoner) caste, the land and goodness; the red represents the landed konohiki who served the ali‘i, genealogy and strength; and the yellow represents the ali‘i, spirituality and alertness to danger.”[iv] 

Many questions remain to be answered about the original design of the Hawaiian flag, and perhaps further research will unravel the complete story.

[Photograph: Hawaiian flag]


[i]Translation by J.C. Lane, as cited in: Houston, Victor S. K.  The Hawaiian Flag.  Friends of ‘Iolani Palace, 6/1988.

[ii]Houston, Victor S. K.  The Hawaiian Flag.  Friends of ‘Iolani Palace, 6/1988.

[iii]Anwar, Yasmin.  ‘Original’ flag raises debate: Honolulu man promotes design.  The Honolulu Advertiser, 2/12/2001.

[iv]Anwar, Yasmin.  ‘Original’ flag raises debate: Honolulu man promotes design.  The Honolulu Advertiser, 2/12/2001.