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Hawaii’s history is filled with pivotal events that have shaped the islands into the tropical paradise and vibrant melting pot of cultures we know today. From the Polynesian settlers who arrived over 1,500 years ago to Captain Cook’s fateful visit in 1778 to the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy to statehood, Hawaii has a unique and captivating story.

If you’re looking for a quick answer, here is a brief summary of some of the major events: the islands were settled by Polynesians sailing from the Marquesas Islands around 400-500 AD, British explorer Captain James Cook arrived in 1778 opening the door to Western contact and influence, Christian missionaries arrived in 1820 and converted many native Hawaiians, the monarchy was overthrown in 1893 with U.S. support, Hawaii was annexed as a U.S. territory in 1898, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought the U.S. into World War II, and Hawaii became the 50th state in 1959 after a referendum.

In this approximately 3,000 word article, we will explore Hawaii’s history in greater depth, from the original settlers to modern times, including the key events, people, and forces that shaped the Hawaii we know today.

Early Hawaiian Settlement

The First Hawaiians

The first settlers of Hawaii were highly skilled Polynesian voyagers who navigated their canoes across thousands of miles of open ocean to reach the Hawaiian islands around 300-500 AD. Archaeological evidence suggests they came from the Marquesas Islands.

These early Hawaiians brought with them their language, cultural practices, beliefs, and cultivated plants and animals.

When the Polynesians first arrived, the Hawaiian islands were pristine and abundant with natural resources. The islands had rich volcanic soil, a year-round warm tropical climate, and plenty of fresh water. The surrounding ocean teemed with fish and marine life.

Over time, early Hawaiian society became highly organized around subsistence agriculture and aquaculture in the form of fish ponds. They grew taro, sweet potatoes, breadfruit, and raised pigs and chickens.

With no threat of invasion from outsiders, Hawaiians developed a peaceful, cooperative community based on oral history, art, dance, and spirituality.

Emergence of a Unified Kingdom

After several centuries, Hawaiian civilization evolved from small chiefdoms into a unified kingdom. According to oral legends, around 1500 AD a great chief named Pa’ao introduced a new system of laws and religion that centralized political power around a supreme ruler or monarch.

By the 1700s, the Hawaiian Kingdom became centered on the islands of Hawaii, Maui and O’ahu, with chiefdoms on other islands conquered through war or alliance.

The most well-known monarch was Kamehameha I, who through a series of battles eventually united all the Hawaiian islands under his rule in 1810. He established his royal residence in Honolulu on O’ahu and designated Hawaii’s fatal system of land division known as the ahupua’a.

When Kamehameha died in 1819, the kingdom was passed down to his sons and eventually his grandson Kamehameha III who ruled during a period of increased Western contact and written laws. Under Kamehameha line of rulers, the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi became increasingly centralized and expanded its international trade and diplomacy.

Arrival of Captain Cook

Cook’s Initial Contact

In January 1778, the famous British explorer Captain James Cook arrived in Hawaii on his third voyage of exploration. Cook and his crew on the ships Resolution and Discovery were the first Europeans to make contact with the Hawaiian Islands.

When Cook arrived at the island of Kauai, he was welcomed by thousands of Native Hawaiians, who believed Cook was an incarnation of the god Lono. Hawaiian oral traditions described Lono as a light-skinned god who would arrive on floating islands.

Cook matched this description with his pale skin and huge sailing ships.

Cook and his men were treated very well by the Hawaiians, who gave them food, water, and other provisions. Cook spent a couple weeks mapping the islands before continuing his journey northward. He returned to Hawaii about a year later, in February 1779.

The Death of Cook

Unfortunately, Cook’s second visit to Hawaii, and his life, ended tragically. Shortly after arriving back to Kealakekua Bay on the island of Hawaii, one of Cook’s small boats was stolen by some Native Hawaiians.

Cook attempted to take the local chief hostage until the boat was returned. A skirmish broke out on the beach, and Cook was struck on the head and stabbed to death as he tried to make it back to his ship. Four other sailors were also killed.

Cook’s death stunned his crew and the Native Hawaiians, who held funeral rites for the captain. Before leaving Hawaii for good a few weeks later, Cook’s crew retaliated by firing cannons and muskets at villages, killing dozens of Hawaiians.

This violent first encounter set the stage for major changes to come in Hawaii as Western powers increasingly intervened in the islands over the next century.

The Missionaries and Cultural Change

Christianization Efforts

In the early 1800s, American Protestant missionaries arrived in Hawaii, aiming to convert the native population to Christianity. They were associated with powerful American business interests, like sugar plantations owners, giving them substantial influence over the Hawaiian economy and governance.

The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions sent its first group – which included missionaries like Hiram Bingham – to establish schools and churches in 1820.

The missionaries preached concepts of sin and salvation, backed by a strict moral code. Over time, many Native Hawaiians adopted Christianity and were baptized, with the conversion efforts reaching their peak in the 1830s and 1840s.

By 1860, it’s estimated over 90% of the native population identified as Christian. The missionaries developed a written form of the native Hawaiian language in order to translate the Bible and religious texts.

They also opened schools across the islands, with compulsory education policies aimed at instilling Christian beliefs and practices.

However, the missionary efforts to ban native cultural practices like hula dancing, traditional chants, sports, gambling, etc were deeply disruptive for the Native Hawaiians. Prayer and regular church attendance were stringently enforced.

Violations of strict rules led to public censure and humiliation. Over decades, declining population and cultural erosion caused long-term damage to the social fabric.

Decline of Native Culture and Population

From a population of nearly 300,000 in 1778 when British explorer Captain James Cook became the first European to visit Hawaii, the number of Native Hawaiians had declined to just 40,000 by 1890. Besides the cultural erosion due to Christianization, the primary factors for drastic population decline were the introduced infectious diseases like smallpox, measles and whooping cough in the early 19th century.

Having no natural immunity against these illnesses, thousands of Native Hawaiians perished in catastrophic epidemics. For instance, a smallpox outbreak in 1853 took over 10,000 lives, wiping out around a third of the remaining population. The social disruption also led to declines in birth rates.

Additionally, the Western lifestyle changes encouraged by missionaries – especially clothing covering most of the body – were not suitable for the tropical climate. This likely worsened the spread of respiratory illnesses amongst the natives.

The native health system based around prayer and herbal medicines also came under attack, being discouraged in favor of western medicine.

A key milestone was the “Great Mahele” land reforms of 1848, introduced under missionary influence. Nearly 2 million acres or over 90% of Hawaiian lands were privatized and taken over by foreign residents within decades, leaving natives landless and homeless in their own country.

Native Hawaiians went from controlling the entire island chain to owning less than 1% of all land.

Therefore, within an astonishingly short 70 years since first European contact, Native Hawaiian society underwent a tragic transformation under the combined effects of “guns, germs, steel…and religion”.

From a vibrant indigenous culture synchronized with the island ecosystem and geography, it turned into a remnants struggling for existence under the heels of colonial forces.

Year Est. Native Hawaiian Population
1778 300,000 (approx)
1850s 80,000–140,000
1890 40,000


Overthrow of the Monarchy

Tensions with American Business Interests

In the late 1800s, American business interests in Hawaii were growing and becoming increasingly influential politically. Sugar plantations and pineapple farms owned by Americans operated on the islands and depended on cheap labor from imported Chinese and Japanese workers.

These business leaders wanted the Hawaiian government to be more favorable to their interests. For example, they wanted lower import tariffs and less power for the monarchy. They began pushing for a U.S. controlled government in Hawaii to support their business interests.

Tensions escalated in the early 1890s when King Kalakaua died and his sister Queen Liliʻuokalani ascended to the throne. The new Queen was less willing to allow the erosion of Hawaiian sovereignty to continue.

Alarmed by some of her attempts to strengthen the monarchy’s powers and limit American influence, a group of American and European businessmen developed a plan to overthrow the Queen and seek annexation by the United States.

The 1893 Coup and Annexation

In January 1893, backed by a militia consisting of Americans, Europeans, and Hawaiian nationals, the business leaders staged an armed coup d’etat against Queen Liliʻuokalani, essentially taking over the government for their own interests.

They established a provisional government under the leadership of Sanford B. Dole, an American lawyer and jurist in Hawaii. The U.S. minister in Hawaii, John L. Stevens, ordered military forces to protect the new government installation ceremonies rather than the legitimate government under the Queen.

After the coup, the provisional government operated as a republic for several years while negotiating annexation by the United States. They imprisoned Queen Liliʻuokalani and forced her to abdicate under threat of violence in 1895.

Many Native Hawaiians strongly opposed annexation, arguing it violated international law and was an illegal seizure of their nation. Nevertheless, in 1898 the United States government officially annexed Hawaii despite these protests.

It then remained a U.S. territory for over 60 years until becoming the 50th state in 1959.

Pearl Harbor and World War II

The Pearl Harbor Attack

On December 7, 1941, the Empire of Japan launched a surprise military attack on the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor in Honolulu, Hawaii. This attack came without any formal declaration of war and would thrust the United States fully into World War II.

In the early morning hours, 353 Japanese fighter planes, bombers, and torpedo planes launched from six aircraft carriers located north of Oahu began bombarding the naval base. The attack lasted just two hours, but was devastatingly effective. The US Pacific Fleet was largely destroyed in the attack.

8 battleships, 3 cruisers, 3 destroyers and 188 aircraft were either sunk or heavily damaged. 2,403 Americans were killed and 1,178 were wounded.

The day after the bombardment, President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered his famous “Infamy Speech” to a joint session of Congress, calling December 7, 1941 “a date which will live in infamy.” This speech galvanized American support for entering World War II to fight against the Axis powers of Japan, Germany and Italy.

Impact on Hawaii

The Pearl Harbor attack had an enormous impact on Hawaii. Martial law was immediately declared, putting the territory under full military control. Civilian courts were suspended and civilians could be tried in military courts for any misdeeds. This state of martial law would continue until 1944.

There was great concern that the Pearl Harbor attack might be just the first wave of a full-scale invasion of Hawaii. Residents prepared for potential land attacks by constructing air raid shelters and training to fight invaders. Fortunately, no invasion ever materialized.

The most profound impact was how the attack unified the very diverse population of Hawaii against a common enemy. People of Japanese, European, Native Hawaiian and Asian descent had their differences, but after Pearl Harbor they were united as Americans.

Many Japanese-Americans and those of Japanese descent would go on to serve with distinction in the 100th Infantry Battalion and 442nd Regimental Combat Team of the US Army during WWII.

Statehood and the Modern Era

The Statehood Movement

The statehood movement began gathering momentum in Hawaii in the early 20th century. Supporters like Prince Jonah Kūhiō believed statehood would provide full self-governance and help native Hawaiians. In 1950, the Hawaii Democratic Party passed a resolution supporting statehood.

The movement really took off when Republican Joseph Farrington was elected as Hawaii’s delegate to Congress in 1954. He introduced the first Hawaii statehood bill in 1955.

Farrington worked tirelessly promoting Hawaii, extolling economic progress and advances in transport and education. Hawaii had a strong case: a diverse population of 500,000+, tax contributions exceeding the norm, and strategic Pacific location.

But some in Congress were concerned its racial mix was “un-American. “ Farrington debunked myths about communism and Asian majorities. After intense lobbying, Hawaiians voted 17-1 for statehood in 1959.

Hawaii as the 50th State

On August 21, 1959, Hawaii officially became the 50th state after Eisenhower signed the Hawaii Admission Act. Native Hawaiian activist Alice Kamokila Campbell lowered the territorial flag for the last time. It was an emotional moment after 60 years of waiting.

Senator Daniel Inouye later said Hawaii “had been made inherently whole.” America’s melting pot ideology now encompassed the “aloha spirit.”

Statehood brought empowerment, tourism, and investment. Hawaiians campaigned successfully for reparations and cultural revitalization programs. By showcasing local talent, the Hawaiian Renaissance restored pride in the islands’ arts, dance, language. Asian immigration continued in the 60s and 70s.

Tourism became a $17 billion industry, though some warn Hawaii depends too heavily on it. After 200 years of oppression, statehood marked a new era of self-determination.


As we have seen, Hawaii has a long and storied history spanning over a millennia, from the original Polynesian pioneers to the multicultural society that inhabits the islands today.

Key events have included the unification of the islands under King Kamehameha I, the arrival of Westerners like Captain Cook, the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy, the Pearl Harbor attack during World War II, and ultimately statehood in 1959.

While Hawaii retains much of its native culture and natural splendor, its history has been shaped by both internal and external forces that have made it the unique and vibrant place it is today, drawing visitors and new residents from around the world.

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