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The tropical paradise of Hawaii conjures images of sandy beaches, azure waters, and swaying palm trees. But when and how did this island state come to be? If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer: The Hawaiian Islands were formed by undersea volcanic eruptions over millions of years.
The islands were first settled by Polynesians around 400-500 AD. The Kingdom of Hawaii was originally established in 1795 before eventually becoming the 50th state of the United States in 1959.
In this comprehensive guide, we will explore the fascinating history of the Hawaiian islands in detail—from their volcanic origins, to the arrival of early Polynesian settlers, to Hawaii’s time as an independent kingdom, to ultimately joining the United States.
The Volcanic Origins of the Hawaiian Islands
Undersea Eruptions Lead to Island Formation
The breathtaking Hawaiian Islands were born from raging undersea volcanoes. These underwater mountains of magma began spewing lava over 70 million years ago. As eruption after powerful eruption piled lava high over the ocean surface, volcanic islands took shape.
The Hawaiian hotspot – an unusually hot plume of magma rising from the Earth’s mantle – continuously pours molten rock up through the Pacific seafloor. This perpetual fountain of fiery lava created the long chain of islands we now call Hawaii.
Continued Volcanic Growth Over Millions of Years
The Hawaiian Islands didn’t stop growing after their initial formation. Ongoing eruptions expanded them over millions of years. For example, the island of Hawaii (also called the Big Island), currently experiences regular lava flows adding land area.
In 2018, its Kīlauea volcano erupted for months, creating over 700 acres of new coastline before it finally simmered down. From fiery fountains gushing 1,000 feet high to rivers of molten rock, Hawaii’s volcanoes show no signs of retiring.
Their eruptions will likely continue constructing tropical isles for ages to come.
Initial Settlement by Polynesian Voyagers
The First Wave of Settlers
Archaeological evidence indicates the first Polynesians arrived in Hawaii between 300 and 600 A.D., sailing 2,000 miles or more across the open Pacific in outrigger canoes. These initial settlers, believed to have come from the Marquesas Islands, established small fishing and farming communities along Hawaii’s coastlines.
They brought with them staple plants like taro, breadfruit trees, coconut palms, and sugarcane that became key parts of Hawaiian agriculture and cuisine for centuries to follow.
Development of a Distinct Hawaiian Culture
Over the next several hundred years, a distinctly Hawaiian society and culture emerged. Hawaiian legends say the islands were divided into kingdoms, often warring over territory and resources. A complex class system with aliʻi (chiefs) ruling over common people developed, along with sophisticated agriculture, aquaculture systems, navigational skills, unique art and architecture, and the Hawaiian language.
This period also saw the rise of major Hawaiian gods like Lono and Kū as part of the early Hawaiian religion. By the 11th century, the population had expanded significantly, as new waves of settlers arrived from other Polynesian islands.
The Rise and Fall of the Kingdom of Hawaii
Unification Under King Kamehameha
In the late 18th century, the Hawaiian Islands were divided into four kingdoms – Hawaii, Maui, Oahu, and Kauai. An ambitious chief named Kamehameha from the Big Island of Hawaii embarked on a series of campaigns to conquer and unify the islands.
After years of warfare, Kamehameha succeeded in uniting all the major islands under his rule by 1810, establishing the Kingdom of Hawaii with him as monarch.
Kamehameha was an effective and judicious ruler. He reformed land division policies and allowed foreigners to trade with Hawaii. This brought economic prosperity and put Hawaii on the world map. When Kamehameha died in 1819, he left a stable, united kingdom to his successor Liholiho.
Increased Foreign Interference in Hawaii
Over the 19th century, foreign powers like Britain, France and the United States intensified their economic and political interference in Hawaii. They were attracted by Hawaii’s resources and strategic location.
As Hawaiian monarchs lacked sufficient leverage, they were progressively forced to make concessions that undermined Hawaii’s independence.
For instance, under military threat, King Kamehameha III had to cede Hawaiian land to Britain in the 1840s. Later, due to domestic crises, Hawaii signed the Reciprocity Treaty in 1875 that granted the U.S. special economic privileges and naval base rights.
Over time, Hawaii relied increasingly on American trade and investment.
Eventually, American businessmen and Protestant missionaries actively colluded with Hawaiian elites to orchestrate a coup against Queen Liliuokalani – Hawaii’s first and only queen regnant – in 1893.
Overthrow of the Hawaiian Monarchy
On January 17, 1893, a group of American conspirators toppled the Hawaiian monarchy and declared Hawaii a U.S. protectorate. They were aided by the U.S. minister in Hawaii and Marines from American naval ships in Honolulu harbor.
Despite Queen Liliuokalani’s repeated pleas for restoration, then U.S. President Grover Cleveland refused to intervene. His successor, President William McKinley signed the Newlands Resolution in 1898 which officially annexed Hawaii to the United States.
The unlawful overthrow ended the Hawaiian Kingdom after 90 years. Thereafter, the indigenous culture was systematically suppressed as Hawaii was Americanized. In 1959, Hawaii became the 50th state of the United States after a referendum.
However, the legality of its acquisition and the loss of Hawaiian sovereignty remains disputed till today.
Hawaii’s Eventual Statehood in the USA
Earlier Attempts at Statehood
Hawaii’s path to becoming the 50th state was a long and winding one. As far back as 1903, attempts had been made to grant Hawaii statehood, but these early efforts did not gain much traction. It was not until the post-World War II era that statehood became a real possibility.
Pearl Harbor Paves the Way to Statehood
The attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 was a pivotal moment that strengthened the rationale for granting Hawaii statehood. Though horrific and tragic, the attack demonstrated Hawaii’s strategic importance for national security.
It also spotlighted that Hawaii’s distance from the mainland left it vulnerable without the protection and integration that statehood could provide.
In the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii came to be seen as the “gateway to the Pacific” – a critical outpost deserving of the representation and rights given to other states. Its people had also shown their loyalty and valor through wartime volunteerism and heroism.
All of this bolstered public and political support for Hawaiian statehood in the 1950s.
Hawaii Becomes the 50th State in 1959
With momentum growing, Hawaii adopted a new constitution and elected its first senators in 1950. Congress passed the Hawaii Admissions Act in 1959, and on August 21, 1959, Hawaii officially became the 50th state following a referendum where 94% of Hawaiian voters supported statehood.
The islands marked their historic admission with a statewide celebration called Statehood Day. Since then, Hawaii has benefited from the tourism and business opportunities that being part of the United States brings. Native Hawaiians have also retained rights to their land and cultural heritage.
Now, over 60 years later, Hawaii is viewed as one of the nation’s most beautiful and exotic states. Its culture, landscapes, and FIlipino, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and native Polynesian heritage make it a true melting pot that enriches the diversity of the United States.
As we’ve explored, the history of Hawaii stretches back millions of years to the undersea volcanic formations that created these spectacular islands. Over centuries of growth, the islands were eventually settled by adventurous Polynesians who developed a vibrant native Hawaiian culture.
After Western contact, the fate of the islands was dramatically altered. The independent Kingdom of Hawaii was overthrown, later leading to incorporation as a US territory and eventually the 50th American state in 1959.
Understanding this complex history helps appreciate everything that went into creating the Hawaii we know today.