Honolulu: History

Native Hawaiians Meet Westerners, Begin Trading Goods

Historians estimate that the first settlers, Polynesians, came to the Hawaiian Islands fifteen hundred years ago, with the last migration occurring around 750 A.D. By the time Westerners came to the islands, the Hawaiian people had developed a highly structured society composed of chiefs, who claimed the right of divine rule, and commoners, who worked the land and the sea.

British Captain James Cook first sighted Oahu in 1778, when he named the islands the Sandwich Islands after the Earl of Sandwich. William Brown was the first to enter Honolulu's harbor, in 1794. In 1795, King Kamehameha I unified the Hawaiian Islands, conquering the king of Oahu. Kamehameha settled at Waikiki, turning the harbor at Honolulu into a center of trade with the West for such goods as fur, sandalwood, and whale products. While bringing the islands into the modern world, such trade also threatened the native Hawaiian culture.

Rise of Sugar Industry Erodes Traditional Way of Life

Honolulu was such a convenient center of trade between the Orient and the West that it became the seat of a series of European occupations: Russia in 1816, England in 1843, and France in 1849. New England missionaries began arriving in 1820; some of their buildings, preserved by the Mission Houses Museum, can be seen today. The missionaries established schools and also functioned as government advisors to the royal Hawaiians. During the mid-nineteenth century the whaling industry began to decline and the sugar industry grew. The cultivation of sugar cane brought in a great influx of immigrant labor from throughout the Pacific basin; the descendants of these peoples are partially responsible for modern Honolulu's cosmopolitanism. A 1876 treaty that admitted sugar duty-free into the United States strengthened the power of this industry.

King Kamehameha III proclaimed Honolulu as the capitol city in 1850. The territorial legislature created county level governments in 1905. Incorporated that year, the County of Oahu included that island plus all the small islands beyond Niihau to but not including Midway Island 2,000 miles away. In 1907 the county was renamed the City and County of Honolulu.

At the time Honolulu was named the capitol city, traditional Hawaiian life was breaking down. The islands were basically ruled by the sugar interests consisting of an oligarchy of plantation owners. Native customs were declining both through the breakdown of taboos and the introduction of guns and liquor. Furthermore, the Hawaiian people were not immune to diseases brought to them by the Westerners; within a hundred years of the islands' discovery by the West, 80 percent of the native population was dead. The language and history of the Hawaiians is nevertheless preserved, partly through native dance and folklore.

In 1893 Queen Liliuokalani, the last Hawaiian monarch, was deposed by a group of American businessmen and U.S. Marines, and in 1898 the islands were annexed by the United States. In 1907 Honolulu was incorporated as a city and county. Through the efforts of Prince Jonah Kuhio Kalanianaole, a member of Congress from 1902 to 1922, Pearl Harbor was dredged, extending the sea power of the United States. On December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese, but it survived to become the most important staging area for the United States in the Pacific during World War II. The area around Honolulu is still an important constellation of military bases.

Hawaii achieved statehood in 1959 and joined the Union as the 50th state with Honolulu as its capital. Today Honolulu is the Aloha state's center of business, culture, and politics. In recent years, Hawaiian sovereignty has become a contested political issue. In 1993 President Clinton signed an official apology acknowledging the U.S. role in the overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom. A 2003 U.S. Supreme Court decision addressed the issue of sovereignty and the elections of government officials in Hawaii. In 2005, the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act was reintroduced in the House and Senate. The legislation calls for the U.S. government to recognize Native Hawaiians as it does American Indians and Native Alaskans. The legislation would also provide a process by which the U.S. recognizes the Native Hawaiian governing entity.

Historical Information: Bernice P. Bishop Museum Library, 1525 Bernice Street, Honolulu, HI 96817; telephone (808)847-3511; fax (808)841-8968