So how did a mild-mannered group of volcanic islands isolated way far out in the Pacific end up becoming the 50th state of the decidedly non-volcanic, non-isolated U.S.?

About 1,500 years ago–not long at all in the annals of human habitation–Polynesians from the Marquesas Islands are thought to have first set foot on the islands we now know as Hawaii. Somehow they followed the stars and landed their canoes on a little speck of land almost two thousand miles from their home. About five hundred years later more Polynesian settlers came, this time from Tahiti. These immigrants brought with them their complicated system of deities as well as their social hierarchy and system of kapu (taboos) that helped regulate that society by separating positive actions from bad. Hawaiian culture developed on its own over the next several centuries, giving rise to the sacred dance known as hula and the sacred, to some, sport of surfing.

In 1778 the seemingly ubiquitous British navigator James Cook landed in Hawaii. He called the islands the Sandwich Islands in honor of England’s Earl of Sandwich. While in general Hawaiians treated him, and other Westerners, with a respect bestowed only on high chiefs or even gods, Cook lost his life in a flare-up of violence. Apparently Hawaiians, whose culture de-emphasized private property, had “borrowed” one of Cook’s boats. To inspire the returning of his boat Cook tried to kidnap King of Hawaii, Kalani’Åpu’u, to hold him for ransom–a tactic that had worked for Cook in the past. This time there was a physical altercation and, when Cook got involved, his thousands upon thousands of miles of harrowing Pacific exploration came to an abrupt, though perhaps not so unexpected, end.

In 1810 a Hawaiian chief named Kamehameha united the oft-warring Hawaiians into one big kingdom. (Here’s a picture of the king.) When he died in 1819 the strict rules of kapu were relaxed as people mourned–for example, women were allowed to eat forbidden food like pork and bananas and were also allowed to eat food with men. When Kamehameha’s
son Liholiho was anointed the next leader he tried to reimpose the kapu, as was the custom after mourning. His mother and the other wives of Kamehameha opposed the
reinstatement of kapu. Liholiho eventually relented and word spread among the islands that the old religion had fallen. This brief period of religious and social upheaval came to be known as ‘Ai Noa, Hawaiian for “free eating.” Coincidentally, and perhaps fortuitously for them, Protestant missionaries arrived just month later and offered Christianity as a way the fill the islanders’ spiritual void. (Read a description of ‘Ai Noa provided by PacificWorlds.com.)

During the mid-1800s a succession of international powers tried to exert influence on Hawaii:

— There were RUSSIANS who in 1817 established a fort on the island of Kaua’i and signed a treaty with chief Kaumuali’i making the island a Russian protectorate.
— There were the FRENCH, who in 1839 opposed an islands-wide ban on Catholicism imposed by Protestant missionaries, threatening King Kamehameha III with war until he signed the Edict of Toleration, and then came back in 1849 to destroy Honolulu to express their disapproval with the Hawaiian kingdom’s perceived lack of enthusiasm for the edict.
— There were BRITISH, including Lord George Paulet who landed in Honolulu harbor in 1843 with a Royal Naval warship and “claimed” Hawaii for the British Crown, forcing the king Kamehameha III to surrender. After the French protested to the British and Americans, Paulet’s commanding officer arrived a few months later and restored the monarchy.
— There were AMERICANS, whose new-fangled approach to colonization included the signing of an economy treaty with Hawaii in 1875 (led by then by nobles from the House of KalÄkaua, who replaced the Kamehamehas) that allowed for the duty-free importation of Hawaiian sugar cane into the United States in exchange for U.S. control of Pearl Harbor, on which it eventually planted a naval base. The treaty confirmed Hawaii’s sovereignty. This promise lasted less than 20 years.

During the years a multiplicity of immigrants from other nations flocked to Hawaii to work on its sugar cane plantations and play other vital roles in its economy. People came from China, Japan, the Philippines, Portugal, Korea and even Puerto Rico. Today Hawaii remains a proudly multicultural society.


In 1887 a group of King KalÄkuna’s advisors and an armed militia, claiming they wanted to reign in the King’s outrageous spending, forced him to sign “The Bayonet Constitution” which stripped the monarchy of authority, imposed income and land-ownership requirements for voting and took the vote away from Asian immigrants. When the king died in 1891 his sister, Lili’uokolani, took the throne. She immediately moved to rescind the Bayonet Constitution. A group of lawyers and pineapple and sugar-growing businessmen, members of the Hawaiian League, formed the “Citizen’s Committee of Safety” (also known as the Annexation Club), in order to rescind the queen. Committee of Safety members portrayed themselves as crusaders for democracy aiming to overthrow a corrupt monarchist regime. They also happened to have just a bit of personal interest in the matter, being that most of them were pineapple and sugar-growing businessmen.

When Queen Liliuokalani proposed a new constitution, meant to to replace the Bayonet Constitution, that would restrict the voting rights of European and American settlers in Hawai’i, the Committee of Safety decided to act. On January 17, 1893, the Committee of Safety mobilized its 1,500 person strong militia, called the Honolulu Rifles. With the Rifles at the ready, U.S. Marines landed in Honolulu harbor. The Marines’ public orders were to remain neutral, but their presence made the royalists wary of opposing the militia. The Queen saw how dire the situation had become and, sparing her people from substantial bloodshed, relinquished the monarchy. She called upon the U.S. government to help her regain her throne.

It didn’t.

Actually, it came close. The president at the time, Benjamin Harrison, supported annexation, but the next president, Grover Cleveland, ordered a study of the revolution that concluded that it wouldn’t have succeed if the American minister to Hawii hadn’t worked with the Committee of Safety to make it happen. or if American troops hadn’t landed. President Cleveland eventually wrote, “The provisional government owes its existence to an armed invasion by the United States. By an act of war…a substantial wrong has been done.”

Cleveland recommended the monarchy be restored but Congress only agreed to censure the U.S. minister to Hawaii. In 1894, aspiring pineapple magnate Sanford Dole declared himself president of the Republic of Hawaii. His government found the queen guilty of treason and placed her under house arrest. The next U.S. president, Republican William McKinley, supported a joint resolution in Congress that made Hawai’i a U.S. territory in 1900. Though annexation was popular at the time–the Spanish-American War had just ended and the U.S. was in territory-gathering mode, there was a fear the Japanese would annex instead, etc.–almost a century later, in 1993, President Bill Clinton signed a Congressional resolution officially apologizing to Hawai’i for the U.S. role in the overthrow.

In 1899 James Drummond Dole, governor Sanford Dole’s cousin, arrived in Hawai’i eager to use his Harvard business and agriculture degrees to transform Hawai’i into a farming powerhouse. The pineapple was not a native fruit in Hawaii; in fact, James Cook had introduced it as recently as 1790 and was first cultivated there in 1813. At the turn of the 20th century the pineapple was hardly known in the continental United States. Dole’s company applied modern science to find the best variety of pineapple to process and can–the Smooth Cayenne–perfected methods of canning to enable mass production and transport and aggressively marketed the pineapple to middle America. In 1922 Dole and his company bought the entire Hawaiian island of Lanai and transformed it into a gigantic pineapple plantation. Over the next several decades the Dole corporation and its rival pineapple producer Del Monte exported millions upon millions of tons of pineapples. They also joined the “Big Five” sugarcane producing companies in dominating Hawaii’s economy and political culture.

More about Hawaiian pineapples:
The Dole company’s own history of their forefather James | Read this engaging history of the pineapple: “Fruit Cocktail Colonialism: The Globalization of Pineapples” (how often do you hear the phrase “engaging history of the pineapple?” But it really is great.) | How Dole plants its pineapples

The formal push for Hawai’i to become one of the United States began in 1903 when Hawaii’s territorial legislature passed a resolution commissioning a delegate to request
Congress consider statehood. Various statehood initiatives worked their way through Congress without stunning success, even after the matter came to a vote in Hawaii 1940, when Hawaiian citizens voted in favor of statehood by a margin of 2 to 1. On December 7, 1941, the Japanese blasted the U.S. Naval base on Oahu’s Pearl Harbor with a massive surprise attack. (Or was it really a surprise? If you like conspiracy theories, you’ll love this one.)

After World War II the United Nations put Hawaii on its list of non self-governing territories. A non self-governing territory may change its status through a “plebiscite,” which is a vote held on its status by the inhabitants of the territory. According to the U.N. three options must be the table:

1) to become part of the trustee nation, i.e. for Hawaii
to become one of the United States
2) to remain a territory
3) independence

In 1959 the U.S. Congress agreed to welcome Hawaii as a state. The final step was for Hawaiians to hold a plebiscite to confirm or deny the change in status…or, according to the rules set by the U.N., to choose independence. Hawaii’s 1959 plebiscite presented only two choices: to become a state or to remain a territory. There was no way to choose independence. From their two choices, Hawaiian voters overwhelmingly chose to become the 50th American state.

Today Hawaii’s politics and economy have integrated almost entirely into the politics and economy of the U.S. While some Hawaiians advocate for increased autonomy from the United States, others for complete independence, others still for complete independence accompanied by the U.S. paying reparations for its overthrow of the Queen’s sovereign government, Hawaii–the most multicultural and modern of all the groups of Polynesian islands–seems like it will be part of the increasingly multicultural, modern U.S. for a long time to come.

More about Hawaii:
Learn about Hawaiian volcanoes through the eyes of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory | Watch the Kilauea volcano erupt in March 2011 | Learn more about Hawai’i’s last queen, Lili’uokalaniWhat about the idea of restoring an independent Hawaiian monarchy? | Read PearlHarbor.org’s history of the December 7, 1941 attack | An eyewitness account of the attack on Pearl Harbor | Is Hawaii really a legal U.S. state? Not everyone thinks so: 1/2/3

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