Hands Off Hawai’i, Part 1: From Creation to the Kingdom

Featured Image: Photo by Jasperdo on Flickr, shared under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. Cropped in Affinity Designer.


4 for Now

While the Hawaiian archipelago (137 islands, atolls, reefs, shallow banks, shoals, and seamounts stretching over 1,500 miles in the Pacific) is tens of millions of years old, the eight main islands began forming around five million years ago.

The First Inhabitants of Hawai’i

Traditionally, it’s believed Polynesians from Samoa, Marquesas, and Tahiti settled these islands between 400 and 1100 CE, but a meta-analysis of radiocarbon dating from the Hawaiian islands suggests the time frame was between 1219 and 1266 CE.

They brought with them clothing, plants, and livestock, and established settlements along the coasts and larger valleys. They grew kalo (taro), maiʻa (banana), niu (coconut), and ulu (breadfruit) and raised puaʻa (pork), moa (chicken), and ʻīlio (poi dog).

The four largest islands—Hawai’i proper, Maui, Kauaʻi, and Oʻahu—were each ruled by their own aliʻi nui (supreme chief), chosen from a hereditary line of noho aliʻi (ruling chiefs). They had subordinate chiefs called aliʻi ʻaimoku ruling over districts of the islands.

The Kingdom of Hawai’i

In 1795, Kamehameha I, the chief of Hawai’i Island, conquered Oʻahu, Maui, Molokaʻi, and Lānaʻi, unifying the islands under one government, an absolute monarchy. In 1810, Kaua’i and Ni’ihau voluntarily joined the Kingdom of Hawai’i.

Contrary to colonizer propaganda that non-Catholics are uncivilized, Hawaiians had some of the most advanced aquaculture, built hale (homes) and heiau (temples), and had a caste system guided by kanawei, laws based on what was kapu (sacred or forbidden).

There were two dynasties, Kamehameha and Kalākaua:

  • Pai’ea, Kamehameha I, ruled from the establishment of the kingdom until 1819.
  • Liholiho, Kamehameha II, held mainly a ceremonial role. His father’s wife, Ka’ahumanu, held administrative power. He is best known for breaking the kapu system.
  • Kauikeaouli, Kamehameha III, established the constitutional monarchy and sought to adopt western ways, using a former missionary as a political advisor.
  • Alexander Liholiho, Kamehameha IV, halted the negotiations Kauikeaouli began with the United States over annexing Hawai’i. He and his wife, Queen Emma, left a legacy of healthcare and education.
  • Lot Kapuaiwa, Kamehameha V, became king via an amendment to the 1852 Constitution after the death of Alexander’s only child. He encouraged the revival of traditional practices and sought to restore the absolute monarchy.
  • William Charles Lunalilo (Kamehameha through his mother) was elected to the throne in 1873 and ruled until his death the following year. He tried to make the government more democratic. After a mutiny in the army, he disbanded the army.
  • David La’amea Kalākaua’s election to the throne in 1874 provoked a riot. He helped negotiate the Reciprocity Treaty of 1875, which allowed free trade between Hawai’i and the United States without ceding any land. (The 1884 extension negotiation granted the US exclusive use of Pearl Harbor.) He was coerced into signing the “Bayonet Constitution.”
  • Lili’uokalani (sister of King Kalākaua) was the first queen regnant of the Kingdom of Hawai’i. She attempted to restore the power and freedoms the Bayonet Constitution took. Foreign residents overthrew her in a coup d’état in 1893. The Republic of Hawai’i was established, and the queen was forced to abdicate the throne.

Part two will look at Hawai’i’s relationships with Britain, France, and the United States and the state of the nation today.


4 for Later

  1. Learn more about Hawai’i, Hawaiian culture, and other Pacific Island cultures while supporting a Native Hawaiian business at NativeBooksHawaii.org.
  2. Listen to Native Hawaiians. Follow folks on Twitter, read books (see #1), watch videos [YouTube] … diversify what you consume. (Make sure it’s not just white folks like me!)
  3. Support Hawaiian sovereignty. Ideally, I’d have a link to a current movement or landing page of actions, but in the 4 days I spent on this post, I did not find a current movement page. (If you know of one, send it my way!) But supporting Hawai’i in general helps, too. The search results for “take action Hawaii” include a bunch of different causes you can support. And if you’re listening to Hawaiian folks (see #2), you can support the causes they talk about or support them directly if applicable.
  4. Greenpeace has some general tips on how to be a better ally to Indigenous peoples.