What is the History of the Hawaiian Islands?

Michael Anissimov

The Hawaiian islands were first settled in the 4th century by Polynesians, likely from the Marquesas islands located about 2000 miles to the southeast. They introduced pigs, dogs, chickens, taro, sweet potatoes, banana, sugarcane, and many other crops to the islands. Further settlements occurred from Raiatea and/or Bora Bora (today part of the Society Islands) and/or Tahiti, in the 11th century. Like Easter Island in the southeast Pacific, the Hawaiian islands are one of the most isolated island chains in the Pacific, a fact reinforced by the high level of endemic flora and fauna on the island, which has evolved in relative isolation for millions of years.

The Hawaiian islands are famous for their beaches.
The Hawaiian islands are famous for their beaches.

Early in their history, the Hawaiian islands were ruled by Kapu chiefdoms, which eventually became so large as to encompass whole islands. There are eight primary islands that were occupied by these chiefdoms – in order of decreasing size, they are Hawaii (also known as the Big Island), Maui, Oahu, Kauai, Molokai, Lanai, Niihau, and Kahoolawe. Local cheiefs, called Ali’is, fought each other for land and resources.

The Polynesians introduced bananas to the Hawaiian islands.
The Polynesians introduced bananas to the Hawaiian islands.

In 1778, the British explorer James Cook was the first European arrival to the Hawaiian islands. He named the islands the Sandwich Islands after the 4th Earl of Sandwich, one of his sponsors. The name never stuck. In 1779, Cook visited the islands a second time, attempting to abduct a Hawaiian chief for ransom to get back a small boat that had been stolen by another minor chief. Instead of succeeding in his attempt, Cook was killed by the chief’s supporters. After numerous books were published about Cook’s voyages, the Hawaiian islands became a destination for European, especially British, sailors looking for a stopover in journeys through the Pacific.

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The USS Arizona memorial at Pearl Harbor.
The USS Arizona memorial at Pearl Harbor.

Around the same time, in the 1780s and 1790s, the battling of rival chiefs reached a fever pitch, until the islands were unified under the banner of one chief, who became known as King Kamehameha the Great. From 1795 until 1872 the Hawaiian islands were ruled by his royal house, the House of Kamehameha. In 1820, European missionaries converted most of the islands to Protestant Christianity, and Kamehameha II banned the practice of human sacrifice. After the death of King Kamehameha V, a bachelor, a succession crisis ensued, and the islands were claimed by a new king governing under the House of Kalakaua.

In 1887, Europeans began to attempt taking control of the islands. A group of American and European businessmen led by Englishman Walter M. Gibson forced King Kalakaua to sign the 1887 Constitution of the Kingdom of Hawaii, which stripped the king of administrative authority and set property and minimum income requirements for voting, limiting suffrage to wealthy Americans, Europeans, and native Hawaiians. Asians, such as Japanese and Chinese, could not vote. As native Hawaiians were the largest group, they actually controlled the country. This was the first introduction of democracy to Hawaii.

In 1893, Queen Liliuokalani attempted to introduce a new constitution that would have ended democracy and restored the island to a monarchy, concentrating power in her own hands. The new constitution was to be imposed under threat of violence. In response, a group of mostly European and American business leaders and citizens formed a Committee of Safety to preserve the democracy. This Committee of Safety was backed up by US Marines, which landed at their request to protect American citizens from possible violence. The Committee successfully overthrew the Queen and established a Provisional Government in her place, which became the first incarnation of the future American territory and state. After a series of contradicting reports on the legality of the US overthrow of Hawaii’s monarchy, Hawaii was ultimately made a US territory in 1898. In March 1959, the territory was made into the 50th US state, which it remains today. There still is great controversy over whether the American overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy was a just act.

Sugarcane, which is grown in the Hawaiian islands.
Sugarcane, which is grown in the Hawaiian islands.

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Discussion Comments


Hawaiian is a fairly isolated Polynesian language which has omitted certain sounds which are common to many other Polynesian languages. Words in Hawaiian may seem long to English speakers, and they always end in vowels. This probably made it difficult for the original inhabitants to learn to pronounce English, with all of its awkward consonant formations.


The Hawaiian Islands were formed by volcanoes and still have many active volcanoes which are revered as gods. The Hawaiians traditionally worshiped the goddess Pele, who had power over fire, magma, and volcanoes. It is understandable that considerable fear and respect should be directed toward this deity, since lives could be threatened at any moment by a volcanic eruption.


The island of Niihau is nicknamed the "Forbidden Isle" because it is generally off limits to people who are not related to the owners of the isle. US Military personnel and government officials are also allowed on the Island, and it has considerable appeal and mystery due to its limits.

Glen Godfrey

The French Polynesia is a group of the volcanic islands and atolls spread hundreds of miles of tropical waters of the South Pacific. The Marquesas Island is one of them and a amazing place to visit in Australia.

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