Tides of Change: Hawaii’s History Ebbs and Flows throughout the Centuries

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Tides of Change: Hawaii’s History Ebbs and Flows throughout the Centuries

By Simplicio Paragas

The currents have ebbed and flowed since the Hawaiian Islands rose from the depths of the ocean more than 27 million years ago. Veiled in mystery and filled with hope, Hawaii’s past has defined its future, moving with the tides of time in a rhythmic lull that can be described as “Aia no I ke ko a ke au,” whichever way the current flows. From the first encounters of Polynesian voyagers to the waves of immigrants that followed, Hawaii’s history is rich indeed.


Centuries preceding the advent of Captain James Cook, Polynesian seafarers had already migrated to Hawaii, whose name is hypothesized to derive from either Hawai`iloa, the eminent Polynesian navigator who first discovered it, or from the legendary realm of Hawaiki, aplace from which the Polynesians originated and where they go in the afterlife. Like medieval Europe and other Pacific nations of the era, society was based on a stratified system with strictly maintained castes, resulting in a hierarchical pyramid with the king at the top, assisted by a chief minister and a high priest, followed by “ali`i” (chiefs), “kahuna,” (priests, craftsmen), “maka`ainana” (commoners) and “kauwa” (low-level laborers).

Bringing with them crops of taro, coconut, breadfruit and banana, early inhabitants developed a stable land tenure that was able to support a population of 300,000 to 1,000,000 people. Extraordinary advances—even by today’s standards—were made in the fields of agriculture, aquaculture, engineering, and the arts. Over generations, early Polynesians adapted their beliefs and ways of living to accommodate their new island home, adding new gods and goddesses, of which Pele is perhaps the most well-known, to their pantheon and honing such new skills as surfing.


Captain Cook’s arrival at Waimea Bay in 1778 ended the Hawaiians’ isolation from the Western hemisphere. His visit would open the floodgate for other European and American ships docking in what he referred to at the time as the “Sandwich Islands,” named after his friend, John Montague, the Earl of Sandwich. The influx of visitors gradually led to the transformation of native way of life as homes, clothing, jewelry and customs steadily penetrated island fashion and consciousness. The British explorer would die a year later in Kealakekua Bay form what some historians say was a musket wound, although others have maintained that Cook was bludgeoned to death by natives who rebelled against his inhumane rule.

Meanwhile, warring factions among kinds across the Islands ceased in 1810 with the reign of King Kamehameha the Great, whose strength, intelligence and military prowess unified the islands as one nation, officially giving Hawaii international recognition as a Kingdom. Nine years later, his death would cast a pallor of mourning and uncertainty across the isolated archipelago.

In the decades following his death, Kamehameha’s successors would institute key changes, beginning with the abolition of the traditional “kapu” system (rules of conduct) by Kamehameha II (1819 – 1824). Kamehameha III (1825 – 1854) did much to codify Hawaii’s traditions and laws along a Western model, adopting a two-body legislative council comprised of a House of Nobles and House of Representatives, as well as a judicial system with a Supreme Court. In 1848, a seminal act called the “Mahele” (separation) allowed private ownership of land for the first time, giving maka`ainana an opportunity to claim their traditional family’s “kuleana” (lands), which were once controlled by the king and other ali`i. However, due in part to different cultural perceptions of property and inability to raise capital necessary for required surveys, claims among the commoners were never established, thereby leading the permanent loss of control of their ancestral lands.


In 1820, the first Hawaii-bound whaling ship would embark from Boston Harbor. According to author Scott C.S. Stone, by 1822 there were 60 whaling ships in the Islands; by 1846, there were nearly 600. “The impact of the whaling men was deep and lasting,” he writes in an essay about the legacy of monarchs and missionaries. “Whaling meant money and industry, and in the boom-town atmosphere of the ports, the native villagers were bewildered and confused.”

Changes abound with the arrival of the first American Protestant missionaries, who were eager to save the natives, clothe them and teach them to read the Bible. Western education and commerce began to prevail across the Islands while old Hawaiian culture quickly faded, leading to new ways and peoples. Native Hawaiian population, too, dwindled, as non-immune Hawaiian succumbed to alien viruses and bacteria in staggering numbers, a trend of sickness and death that would persist throughout the 19th century.


With the consolidation of owned land and entrepreneurs looking for alternatives to the waning whaling industry, sugar cane entered the economic picture with the first commercial production of sugar taking root in 1835. Cane fields were planted and, with the building of harvest mills, a new industry was born—one that would have far-reaching consequences for Hawaii’s future.

Sugar quickly became the dominant industry among the major islands. The demand for labor soon outpaced the local supply, and workers were eventually recruited from China and Japan, then from Portugal, Korea and the Philippines in the late 19ths and early 20th centuries. Although many workers returned to their home countries at the end of their contracts, enough remained to establish the multi-ethnic society that still prevails in Hawaii today.


Throughout the 19th century, Hawaii continued as a fledgling kingdom, maintaining its sovereignty despite designs by the British, Russians, French and Americans to win control of the Islands. Hawaii’s monarchs were especially successful in pitting American and British interests against each other, relying on one, then the other, for military support.

Built by King David Kalakaua in 1882, `Iolani Palace became the first royal residence in the world to have electricity and modern plumbing. Today, the palace remains the only royal palace ever to stand on American soil.

As the 20th century loomed, sugar growers and others with commercial interest in Hawaii were increasingly disgruntled with the local government because of its resistance to become a part of the United States. A group of American businessmen, frustrated by Queen Lili`uokalani’s refusal to adopt a new, American-designed constitution, organized a “Committee of Safety” and staged a coup on January 17, 1893. Pressured by the U.S. Minister to Hawaii, John L. Stevens, and the intimidating presence of American marines, Lili`uokalani made the mournful decision to abdicate her throne, primarily to avoid bloodshed among her supporters.

Though then-President Grover Cleveland and his special commissioner, James Blount, supported the return of the Queen’s sovereignty, the Provisional Government refused to step down and quickly proclaimed itself the Republic of Hawaii. In 1898, President William McKinley signed the Joint Resolution of Annexation, effectively making Hawaii a U.S. Territory. During the next 60 years, Congress would pass several acts that would acknowledge the special trust relationship between the United States and Native Hawaiians, whose population had steeply declined to 22,600 in 1919 from an estimated 1,000,000 in 1778.


In 1959, Hawaii became the 50th state. Known as the Admission Act, the United States ceded to the State of Hawaii lands formerly held by the U.S. and mandated that such land be held “in public trust.” More than 40 federal legislative acts would be introduced in coming years to acknowledge the relationship between the U.S. and Native Hawaiians, who would establish the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA).

While adventurers of privilege had been travelling to the Islands via steamship for decades, the arrival of jet travel in the early 1960s would forever change the landscape of Hawaii. Hundreds of weekly visitors flocked to Waikiki and tourism quickly eclipsed the agricultural industry as a mainstay of the economy. Sugar and pineapple industries, both suffering from overseas competition, withered and died in the 1970s and ‘80s. During the 1990s, the last large sugar plantations would shut down forever. Today, only a few smaller operations remain.

During this period of profound change, a Hawaiian cultural renaissance blossomed. This massive reawakening was sparked—and symbolized—by the building of the Hokule`a, a replica of the Polynesian voyaging canoe built to test ancient methods of navigation. A rebirth of resources and energy devoted to Hawaiian language, hula, music, kapa making and other traditional practices led to heightened awareness and pride among Hawaiians. It also took political form, as Hawaiians sought greater autonomy, fought to preserve traditional gathering rights and shoreline access, and protested the bombing of Kaho`olawe by the U.S. military for training purposes.


In the ‘90s, native Hawaiians could point to several significant political victories, starting with George Bush’s presidential order to stop the bombing of Kaho`olawe in 1990. Three years later, President Bill Clinton would sign the Apology Bill, formally recognizing the injustice of the U.S.-aided overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy.

In 2000, Hawaii Senators Daniel Akaka and Daniel Inouye introduced the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act. While Congress has traditionally treated Native Hawaiians in a manner similar to First People (American Indians and Alaska Natives), the federal policy of self-governance and self-determination has not yet been formally extended to Native Hawaiians. The same day Senator Akaka reintroduced S. 675, the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act of 2011, Congresswoman Mazie Hirono introduced H.R. 1250 as companion legislation in the House of Representatives. On April 7, 2011, S. 675 was ordered to be reported out of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, favorably and without amendment. “This measure begins a process of establishing a government-to-government relationship between the U.S. and the native people of Hawaii,” said Senator Inouye (D-Hawaii). “Federal Recognition for the Native Hawaiian people is long overdue.”

Throughout the years, historians and anthropologists have described Hawaii’s post-contact history as a saga both tragic and triumphant, encompassing a confluence of events taking place over two incredibly complex centuries of unrest, struggle and renewal. From the rise of the Hawaiian Kingdom to its overthrow, to American colonization, the Industrial Revolution, to ethnic diversification, World War II and statehood, Hawaii has moved with the currents in an ebb and flow of tides. Its modern population, a true melting pot, continues to intrigue and welcome visitors from all around the world.

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