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The flag of Hawaii features the Union Jack of the United Kingdom in the top left corner. This has led many to wonder why the flag of a Polynesian archipelago over 6,000 miles from Britain includes the British flag.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer: Hawaii has the Union Jack on its flag because Hawaii was a British protectorate for nearly 5 months in 1843 before becoming a U.S. territory in 1898.

In this article, we will explore the fascinating history behind Hawaii’s flag design. We’ll cover topics like:

The origins of the Hawaiian kingdom and King Kamehameha I’s conquests to unite the islands

Western contact with Hawaii and the islands’ ties to Britain in the 19th century

King Kamehameha III’s declaration of Hawaii as a British protectorate in 1843

The short period of British influence in Hawaii and the islands’ transition to U.S. territorial status

The Unification of the Hawaiian Islands Under King Kamehameha I

The unification of the Hawaiian Islands under King Kamehameha I is a significant chapter in the history of Hawaii. It marked the end of centuries of warring factions and the establishment of a unified kingdom.

This unification not only brought peace and stability to the islands but also had a lasting impact on the culture, traditions, and governance of Hawaii.

The Ancient Hawaiian Monarchy and Origins of the Islands’ Unification

Before the arrival of Europeans, the Hawaiian Islands were divided into several independent chiefdoms, each ruled by a different ali’i (chief). These chiefdoms often engaged in conflicts and power struggles, leading to a fragmented society.

However, it was King Kamehameha I who had the vision and determination to unite the islands under one rule.

Kamehameha I was born into a noble family and possessed exceptional leadership qualities. He was known for his physical strength, strategic thinking, and ability to inspire his warriors.

With the support of his advisors and loyal followers, Kamehameha embarked on a mission to unify the islands and establish a monarchy that would endure for generations.

Kamehameha’s Conquests Across the Islands in the Late 18th Century

Kamehameha’s conquests began in the late 18th century and spanned over several decades.

His first major victory came in 1795 when he conquered the island of Maui, defeating its chief and bringing it under his rule. This success was followed by the conquest of Molokai and Lanai, further expanding his domain.

One of the most famous battles in Hawaiian history occurred in 1795 at the Battle of Nu’uanu.

Kamehameha’s forces clashed with those of the island of Oahu, led by Chief Kalanikupule. Despite the difficult terrain and fierce resistance, Kamehameha emerged victorious, bringing the island of Oahu under his rule.

By 1810, Kamehameha had successfully unified all the major islands of Hawaii, creating the Kingdom of Hawaii.

His reign brought stability and prosperity to the islands, as he implemented various reforms and encouraged trade with foreign nations. The unification of Hawaii under King Kamehameha I laid the foundation for the modern state of Hawaii we know today.

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Increasing Western Contact and British Ties in 19th Century Hawaii

Hawaii, with its stunning natural beauty and strategic location in the Pacific Ocean, has long been a destination for explorers, traders, and missionaries.

As Western contact increased in the 19th century, so did the influence of various nations, including Britain.

The presence of the British flag in Hawaii can be traced back to this period of history.

Early Western Explorers and the Sandalwood Trade in Hawaii

In the late 18th century, Western explorers began arriving in Hawaii, drawn by the islands’ abundant resources. British explorer Captain James Cook was one of the first to visit Hawaii in 1778.

Cook’s voyages marked the beginning of a new era for Hawaii, as it opened up opportunities for trade and cultural exchange.

During this time, sandalwood, a valuable resource highly sought after in China, became a major commodity in Hawaii.

British merchants, along with traders from other countries, established a lucrative sandalwood trade with the Hawaiian Kingdom.

The trade brought British ships to the islands, further solidifying their presence in Hawaii.

The Arrival of American Missionaries and Whalers

In the early 19th century, American missionaries and whalers began arriving in Hawaii in significant numbers. These groups played a crucial role in shaping the future of the islands.

Many of the American missionaries were supported by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, which had strong ties to Britain.

The whaling industry also brought numerous American and British sailors to Hawaii.

These sailors often stayed for extended periods, establishing relationships with the local population. Their presence further cemented the connection between Hawaii and Western powers, including Britain.

Hawaii’s Strategic Importance for Britain’s Pacific Interests

Strategic location of Hawaii

Britain recognized the strategic importance of Hawaii in the Pacific region. With its central location, Hawaii served as a convenient stopover for British ships traveling between North America and Asia.

The islands also provided a base for British naval operations in the Pacific.

Additionally, Hawaii’s sugar industry became a significant interest for British investors. British companies established plantations and mills, contributing to the economic development of the islands.

The British flag flying in Hawaii symbolized their involvement in these endeavors.

While the British flag may seem out of place in Hawaii, its presence can be attributed to the increasing Western contact and British ties during the 19th century.

The explorers, traders, missionaries, and sailors from Britain all played a role in shaping Hawaii’s history and its connection to the British Empire.

The Paulet Affair and Hawaii’s Brief Status as a British Protectorate

Have you ever wondered why Hawaii has a British flag? This intriguing historical fact can be traced back to an event known as the Paulet Affair, which resulted in Hawaii briefly becoming a British protectorate.

Let’s delve into the details of this fascinating chapter in Hawaiian history.

Lord George Paulet’s Threat of British Annexation of Hawaii

In 1843, tensions were running high between the Hawaiian Kingdom and several foreign powers, including Britain.

Lord George Paulet, a British naval officer, arrived in Honolulu and demanded that King Kamehameha III cede the islands to Britain. Faced with the threat of military action, the king reluctantly agreed to temporarily cede Hawaii to British control.

During the five months of British rule, Lord Paulet implemented several changes, including raising the British flag over Hawaii. This is why the British flag is seen alongside the Hawaiian flag in certain historical representations.

However, this period of British control over Hawaii was short-lived.

The Temporary Cession of Hawaii to Britain Under King Kamehameha III

The temporary cession of Hawaii to Britain under King Kamehameha III was met with widespread opposition from both the Hawaiian people and foreign residents.

The British consul in Honolulu, Richard Charlton, played a key role in bringing the issue to the attention of the British government. As a result, Admiral Richard Thomas was dispatched to investigate the situation and restore Hawaiian independence.

Admiral Thomas arrived in Hawaii in July 1843 and quickly recognized that the cession of Hawaii to Britain was illegitimate. After careful deliberation, he decided to restore Hawaiian independence and remove the British flag.

On July 31, 1843, the Hawaiian flag was once again hoisted, symbolizing the return of Hawaiian sovereignty.

Admiral Richard Thomas’ Restoration of Hawaiian Independence

Admiral Richard Thomas’ role in restoring Hawaiian independence was met with great relief and celebration by the Hawaiian people. The event is commemorated annually on July 31st as “Lā Hoʻihoʻi Ea,” which translates to “Sovereignty Restoration Day.”

This significant event in Hawaiian history reminds us of the resilience and determination of the Hawaiian people to maintain their independence.

The Paulet Affair and the temporary status of Hawaii as a British protectorate serve as important reminders of the complex and often tumultuous history of the Hawaiian Islands.

While the British flag may still be seen in certain historical representations, it is a symbol of a brief period of foreign control that was ultimately overcome by the indomitable spirit of the Hawaiian people.

Hawaii’s Eventual Transition to an American Territory

The history of Hawaii is a fascinating tale of cultural exchange and political maneuvering. One aspect that often surprises people is the presence of the British flag in Hawaii’s official state flag.

To understand why Hawaii displays the British flag, we need to explore the events that led to its eventual transition into an American territory.

Growing U.S. Business Interests and the Reciprocity Treaty of 1875

Reciprocity Treaty

In the late 19th century, the United States began to take a keen interest in Hawaii due to its strategic location in the Pacific Ocean. American businessmen saw great potential in the islands’ sugar industry and sought to establish closer ties with the Hawaiian Kingdom.

In 1875, the Reciprocity Treaty was signed between the United States and Hawaii, allowing duty-free access for Hawaiian sugar to the American market.

This treaty marked the beginning of a significant shift in Hawaii’s relationship with the United States.

The 1887 Hawaiian Constitution and Calls for Annexation

As American business interests in Hawaii continued to grow, so did the desire for greater control over the islands.

In 1887, a group of American and European businessmen, known as the Hawaiian League, forced King Kalakaua to sign a new constitution that limited the monarchy’s power and granted greater influence to foreign residents.

This move sparked calls for annexation by both American and European settlers, who saw Hawaii as a valuable addition to their respective empires.

Hawaii Becomes a U.S. Territory and State

The seeds of Hawaii’s eventual transition to becoming an American territory were sown in the late 19th century. In 1893, a group of American businessmen and sugar planters, supported by U.S. Marines, overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy and established the Republic of Hawaii.

Five years later, in 1898, Hawaii was officially annexed by the United States and became a U.S. territory. Finally, on August 21, 1959, Hawaii became the 50th state of the United States.

The Legacy of British Ties on the Flag of Hawaii

Now, let’s address the question of the British flag on Hawaii’s state flag. The inclusion of the Union Jack, the flag of the United Kingdom, is a nod to Hawaii’s historical ties with Britain.

In 1793, British Captain George Vancouver presented a British flag to the Hawaiian King Kamehameha I as a sign of friendship and goodwill.

This early connection between the two nations has left a lasting mark on Hawaii’s identity, symbolized by the presence of the British flag on its state flag.

While Hawaii’s eventual transition to an American territory may seem complex, it is a testament to the intertwined histories and influences that have shaped the islands over the centuries.

The British flag on Hawaii’s state flag serves as a reminder of the diverse cultural and historical connections that have contributed to the unique identity of the Aloha State.


While Hawaii was only a British protectorate for less than 5 months in 1843, this brief period of British influence left an indelible mark on Hawaii’s flag.

The Union Jack serves as an important reminder of Hawaii’s complex history as an independent kingdom that navigated relations with multiple foreign powers before eventual annexation by the United States.

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