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The tropical paradise of Hawaii evokes images of surfing, beaches, and a laid-back island lifestyle. But Hawaii’s history is marked by periods of colonization that shaped the islands into what they are today.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: The Hawaiian Islands were formally colonized in 1893 when American businessmen overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy and established a provisional government.

In this comprehensive guide, we will trace the history of outside influences in Hawaii, from early Western contact, to growing U.S. economic ties, to the overthrow of the monarchy that led to formal colonization and eventually statehood.

Earliest Western Contact and Influence in Hawaii

The earliest documented contact between Native Hawaiians and Europeans began in the late 18th century when British explorer Captain James Cook first sighted the Hawaiian Islands in 1778. Over the next few decades, Hawaii became an important stop for whaling ships and merchant vessels crossing the Pacific, leading to increasing Western contact and influence.

Captain James Cook’s Arrival

Captain James Cook was the first European to make contact with Hawaii during his third voyage of exploration in 1778. Cook named the archipelago the “Sandwich Islands” after one of his patrons, John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich.

While Cook’s initial contacts with the Native Hawaiians were peaceful, relations deteriorated after some of Cook’s crew were killed in a skirmish with the Hawaiians. Cook himself was killed in 1779 during an altercation with Native Hawaiians on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Growth of the Sandalwood Trade

In the 1790s, trade in Hawaiian sandalwood began to thrive as demand for this fragrant wood increased in China. Merchant ships like the Eleanora and the Hope were among the first to engage in the sandalwood trade between Hawaii and China.

This new commerce led to further Western contact and influence as more foreign ships visited Hawaii to trade with the islanders.

According to research, by 1810, over 100 foreign ships were trading with Hawaii each year. The sandalwood trade connected Hawaii to a global market for the first time. However, overharvesting of sandalwood trees on the islands led to the depletion of the valuable resource by the 1830s.

The Arrival of Protestant Missionaries

In 1820, the first party of American Protestant missionaries arrived in Hawaii from New England. These missionaries, who were sponsored by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, sought to convert the Native Hawaiians to Christianity and educate them in Western ideas and practices.

Over the next few decades, the missionaries established churches and schools across Hawaii, essentially replacing the traditional Hawaiian religion with Christianity. The missionaries developed the Hawaiian written language and introduced literacy, private property rights, and Western medicine.

This marked a tremendous shift in Native Hawaiian society and culture.

The Growing Economic Power of American Business Interests

In the second half of the 19th century, American business interests grew increasingly powerful in Hawaii. As the Hawaiian economy became more tied to the export of sugar and pineapples to the United States, American plantation owners and merchants accumulated great wealth and influence.

A few key factors drove the rising economic dominance of American companies in Hawaii:

  • The Reciprocity Treaty of 1875 allowed Hawaiian sugar and other goods to enter the US duty-free, greatly expanding the market for Hawaiian agricultural exports. Within a decade, over 80% of Hawaii’s exports went to the US.
  • American investors poured capital into setting up large-scale sugar and pineapple plantations in Hawaii. By 1890, American-run plantations controlled around 75% of the total acreage devoted to sugarcane and pineapple cultivation.
  • Plantation agriculture was extremely profitable, with sugar exports reaching $10 million by 1890. A small group of American plantation owners and merchants, known as the “Big Five,” accumulated tremendous wealth and became the most politically powerful faction in the Kingdom of Hawaii.

Relying so heavily on the American market and investment capital put Hawaii in a subordinate economic relationship with the United States. It also concentrated economic power in the hands of a small American business elite who held great sway over Hawaiian politics.

As one historian put it, Hawaii became akin to an “economic colony” of the United States well before it was formally annexed in 1898.

The pineapple industry underwent similar development at the hands of American businessmen. Canned pineapple exports expanded from nothing in 1903 to over $2 million by 1914, with nearly all the output going to the US market.

Three American-owned companies – Dole, Del Monte, and Libby – came to dominate the new industry.

Overthrow of the Monarchy and Formal Colonization

In the late 19th century, American business interests in Hawaii were growing and wanted political influence. They supported anti-monarchy groups seeking to limit the power of King Kalākaua. In 1887, these groups forced King Kalākaua to accept the “Bayonet Constitution”, severely restricting his powers.

When King Kalākaua died in 1891, his sister Queen Liliʻuokalani ascended to the throne. She sought to restore power to the monarchy and drafted a new constitution. However, in 1893, pro-American elements in Hawaii overthrew Queen Liliʻuokalani with support from the U.S. military.

They established a provisional government under Sanford B. Dole.

Overthrow of Queen Liliʻuokalani

In 1893, a coup led by pro-American business leaders and residents, with support from the U.S. military, overthrew Queen Liliʻuokalani. They forced her to abdicate after she drafted a new constitution seeking to restore monarchal powers.

A provisional government was formed by the Committee of Safety, led by Sanford B. Dole, who was born in Hawaii but of American parents. They sought annexation by the United States.

Hawaii Republic and Annexation

In 1894, the provisional government established the Republic of Hawaii with Sanford B. Dole as president. They immediately pursued Hawaii’s annexation to the U.S. and signed a treaty in 1897.

However, there was opposition to annexation in Congress and the treaty was not ratified. After the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898, Hawaii’s strategic location became important and Congress approved the Newlands Resolution, formally annexing Hawaii to the U.S. in 1898.

Native Hawaiians launched an extended campaign of non-violent resistance to annexation, rallying under their motto: “Ku’u Hae Aloha” (My Beloved Flag). While unsuccessful in reversing annexation, the movement brought greater awareness of Native Hawaiian views.

Territorial Status and Statehood

After the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893, Hawaii was governed by a provisional government and then briefly as the Republic of Hawaii before it was annexed as a U.S. territory in 1898. For over 60 years, Hawaii existed in an unusual status as a U.S. territory but not a U.S. state.

Territorial Governance

As a territory, Hawaii was governed by appointed territorial governors and judges. The territorial legislature was elected, but had limited authority. Residents of Hawaii could not vote in U.S. presidential elections or elect voting members of Congress during this time.

There were efforts early on to make Hawaii a state, but political leaders disagreed on granting full citizenship rights to the islands’ large Asian population. Hawaii’s racial demographics at the time, with significant numbers of Japanese and Filipino immigrants, fueled fears that it would elect non-white representatives and senators if granted statehood.

The Statehood Movement

After World War II, the movement for Hawaiian statehood gained momentum with the election of the first Hawaiian-born territorial governor, John A. Burns, in 1962. Burns was a strong advocate for statehood.

In 1959, after years of negotiation, Congress passed the Hawaii Admissions Act, granting the territory statehood. On August 21, 1959, Hawaii officially became the 50th state with the adoption of the state constitution.

Year Event
1898 Hawaii annexed by the U.S. as a territory
1959 Hawaii Admission Act passed by Congress
1959 Hawaii becomes 50th State

Statehood ended Hawaii’s second-class status as a territory and granted full U.S. citizenship rights to its residents. Hawaii’s unique history and culture have continued to shape its identity as part of the United States today.


As we have seen, while initial Western contact with Hawaii was mostly sporadic and centered around provisioning ships, growing U.S. economic ties eventually led influential American businessmen to orchestrate the overthrow of Queen Liliuokalani.

This marked the colonization point, after which Hawaii was governed by rulers appointed from the mainland.

The territory would remain under firm American control until 1959 when Hawaii officially became the 50th state of the United States. Understanding this complex history helps appreciate how Hawaii came to be part of America despite its distance of over 2,000 miles from the continental West Coast.

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