Archaeological evidence suggests that the first settlers to the Hawaiian Islands arrived from the Marquesas sometime between 500 and 750. Settlers from Tahiti arrived sometime in 1000 and may have enslaved the Marquesans, forcing them to build temples and work in the fields.
The British explorer Captain James Cook (1728–79) was the first known Westerner to sight the island of Oahu, on January 18, 1778. He was killed in a fight with Hawaiians when he returned to the islands a year later. Many Westerners would soon come to the islands, some with the idea of conquest in mind. By the late eighteenth century, powerful Hawaiian rulers battled for control of the archipelago. In 1795, King Kamehameha the Great (c. 1758–1819; r. 1792–1819), who controlled the Big Island of Hawaii, captured Maui and Molokai and set his eyes on Oahu. Kamehameha's large fleet of battle canoes landed in present-day Waikiki. His soldiers moved across the valley and into the mountains pursuing Kalanikupule, the king of Oahu.
Kamehameha had quite an advantage. Among his troops were several Western sharpshooters with firearms. With superior firepower, they forced Kalanikupule's troops high into the valley. In the final battle, hundreds of Oahuans were forced to jump to their deaths from the Nuuanu Pali (cliffs). After his victory, Kamehameha united the islands under one kingdom.
During the time of the Kamehameha's invasion, Honolulu was little more than a village of small huts near the water. In 1793, Captain William Brown directed his English frigate Butterworth into what is now known as Honolulu Harbor. He named it Fair Heaven, but it came to be known as Brown's Harbor. It is not clear how the harbor came to be known as Honolulu, which means protected bay. But it was clear to sailors that the bay offered a perfect place to set anchor. As more ships came, Honolulu began to grow. By 1809, King Kamehameha moved his residence from Waikiki to Honolulu to tighten his control on the valuable sandalwood trade. By the 1820s, whaling ships began to stop in Honolulu. Their crews were a rough crowd. Taverns and brothels soon followed to serve their needs. Not far behind were Christian missionaries who traveled to the islands to convert the Hawaiians.
The missionaries exerted enormous influence. By the mid-1800s, they managed to convince the Hawaiian royalty to prosecute drunken sailors and curb the growing prostitution trade. Most whaling boats abandoned Honolulu for the safer confines of Lahaina on Maui. The sons of these original missionaries would in time become businessmen who wielded enormous power in the islands. They came to control most of the land, and operated large and profitable sugar plantations. Westerners also brought many diseases that decimated the native Hawaiian population. Faced with a worker shortage, the plantation owners brought thousands of Japanese, Chinese, Portuguese, Filipinos, and Koreans to work the land.
Hawaii had become a desirable place to outsiders. In 1843, the British held the island for five months before leaving. The French followed in 1849. The Hawaiians got their kingdom back but could not stop the steady flow of foreigners coming to the islands. By 1893, the Hawaiian kingdom was once again under siege by outsiders. White
Cleveland ordered the lowering of the U.S. flag, but the provisional government refused. Hawaiians, greatly outnumbered and without weapons to defend themselves, were no longer in control of their own destiny. The provisional government in Honolulu systematically tightened its control of the islands, even imprisoning Queen Lili'uokalani for several months. By 1898, Hawaiians could only watch as the United States finally annexed the islands.
"Because of the overthrow and annexation, Hawaiian control and Hawaiian citizenship were replaced with American control and American citizenship. We suffered a unilateral redefinition of our homeland and our people, a displacement and a dispossession in our own country," wrote Haunani-Kay Trask, professor of Hawaiian Studies at the University of Hawaii. Today, many of the remaining Hawaiians are among the poorest residents on the islands.
For the United States, the Territory of Hawaii—especially Honolulu—became a key military post. Large installations were built, including bases inside Diamond Head, an extinct volcano and important Honolulu landmark. Massive guns pointed out to sea. Through the early 1900s, the military presence grew steadily.
"A day that will live in infamy," President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945; president 1933–45) told Americans on December 7, 1941, after 360 Japanese aircraft dropped bombs on Pearl Harbor, just west of Honolulu, and other military bases throughout the island of Oahu. A 798-kilogram (1,760-pound) armor-piercing bomb slammed through the deck of the USS Arizona and ignited its forward ammunition magazine. The massive explosion at about 8:10 AM was heard in Honolulu. In less than nine minutes, the ship sank with its crew. The loss of the Arizona symbolized the beginning of World War II (1939–45) for Americans; the explo sion that instantly galvanized public opinion in favor of the war effort. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who planned the attack on Pearl Harbor even though he opposed going to war against the United States, said he feared that Japan "had awakened a sleeping giant and filled him with a terrible resolve."
In all, 2,341 military personnel and 54 civilians were killed. More than 50 of the bombs that fell on Honolulu were American Navy anti-aircraft shells that missed their targets. The Japanese destroyed eight battleships, three destroyers, and 188 planes, bombing several military targets throughout the island. The Japanese lost 64 men, 29 aircraft, and five midget submarines.
In the middle of the Pacific, Honolulu played a crucial role in the war against Japan. More than one million soldiers passed through the city on their way to battles in the Pacific. Thousands who died in the war were buried in a cemetery in Honolulu. Its residents lived under martial law for more than three years, the only place in the United States subjected to such measures.
In many ways, the World War II effort demanded more from civilians living in the territory of Hawaii than anywhere else in the United States. In Honolulu, military authorities declared martial law and suspended civil liberties the day of the attack. Civilian authorities expected martial law to last only a few months, but for the next three years, Honolulu and the islands became virtual armed military camps. During the war, as much as one-third of the island of Oahu was occupied by military forces.
The lives of regular citizens were drastically altered by the war. Japanese immigrants and their American-born second generation in Hawaii immediately came under suspicion, and their loyalties were questioned. They exceeded 40 percent of the population, with 124,000 American citizens and 45,000 immigrants. The military forced Americans of Japanese ancestry who worked at military bases to wear a black-bordered badge to indicate their ethic origin. Their banks, Shinto shrines, department stores, and language schools were confiscated and 1,875 Japanese Americans were arrested and sent to relocation or internment camps on the mainland.
"Speak American" posters could be seen throughout Honolulu, one of the most ethnically diverse areas of the United States. While Japanese Americans were singled out, the war and martial law affected the entire population. Everyone was required to carry a gas mask at all times. The beautiful beaches of Waikiki were covered with barbed wire. Curfews and blackouts forced everyone indoors by 6:00 PM. Every citizen in the islands was fingerprinted, the first mass fingerprinting of civilians in U.S. history. Phone calls and mail were censored, and the military issued dollar bills—with a Hawaii imprint—that could only be used on the islands. Hawaii residents didn't complain much about their plight and were often eager to prove their loyalty.
More than 40,000 volunteered to serve in the armed forces. Among them were Americans of Japanese Ancestry (AJA) who joined the all-AJA 100th Infantry Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, one of the most highly decorated units in the war. The years 1941 through 1945 would forever alter the character of Honolulu and the Hawaiian Islands.
On August 21, 1959, Hawaii became the fiftieth state of the United States. Most people celebrated, but for many native Hawaiians, becoming a state was just another blow against dreams of sovereignty. In 1993, in a joint resolution, Congress formally apologized to the Hawaiian people for the illegal overthrow of Queen Lili'uokalani. Many native Hawaiians continue to press for some type of sovereignty.
Status as a new state, the tourism hype, romantic and often inaccurate Hollywood movies about Hawaii, and the selling of the Hawaiian culture soon turned the islands into a major travel destination for Americans. Honolulu's Waikiki District, which in the early twentieth century was mostly wetlands and fertile agricultural land, came to host more than 30,000 hotel rooms by the 1990s. On a typical day, Waikiki, which has a population of about 25,000 people, hosts thousands of visitors. Honolulu felt the growing pressures. Uncontrolled growth littered the city with ugly buildings. Rents went up, and many Honolulu residents soon were unable to afford to buy their own homes. Tourism brought jobs, but mostly low-paying jobs. By the 1990s, Hawaii, and Honolulu became heavily dependent on tourism, especially Japanese tourism. By 1999, the Asian economic downturn affected Honolulu, due to the steady erosion of Asian visitors in the previous two years.