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Hawaiian History

AD 300–600 – Theoretical suggestions based on the Hawaiian archaeological record suggest that the first human migration to the Hawaiian Islands occurred around 300 CE, though radiocarbon dating and Hawaiian mythology relates to peoples who populated the islands long before Marquesan settlement, possibly as early as 124 CE. However, in 2010, new data was presented indicating a much later Marquesan arrival that occurred in two waves – the initial settlement migration between AD 1025 and 1120, and a major transitional migration between 1219 and 1226. Polynesian settlers from the Marquesas voyaged over 2,000 miles in massive wooden outrigger canoes, carrying with them everything that was needed to establish settlement in a new homeland. Over time a unique Hawaiian culture and belief system evolved, yet the culture, hierarchal stratification of society, and cosmology remained remarkably similar to that of the ancestral Marquesan homeland.

1753 – Kamehameha I, the great Hawaiian chief who unified the Islands, is born at Mo‘okini Heiau in Kohala on the Big Island. Kamehameha first unified all of the districts of the Big Island then proceeded to conquer all of the Hawaiian Islands except Kaua‘i, whose monarch ceded Kaua‘i’s sovereignty to Kamehameha I in 1810.

1778 – In January of 1778, Captain James Cook, commander of the HMS Resolution and the consort vessel HMS Discovery, makes anchor in Waimea Harbor on Kaua‘i. Cook hailed his “discovery” of “new” islands to the Western world, which he coined the “Sandwich Islands” in honor of his patron, the Earl of Sandwich. The first European to make contact with the native population of the Islands, Cook had arrived in during a four-month period called Makahiki, an annual period of harvest, peace, and tribute to the Hawaiian god, Lono. Fighting and war were prohibited during the Makahiki. Hawaiian legends spoke of Lono’s return to the islands in a large ocean-going vessel, and with Cook’s arrival coinciding with the Makahiki, the explorer was believed to be the incarnation of Lono.

1779 – Cook returns to the Hawaiian Islands in February of 1779, making anchor south of Kona in Kealakekua Bay. Departing after a month-long stay, the Resolution’s foremast broke, forcing Cook’s return to Kealakekua. While repairs were being made on the Resolution, a group of Hawaiians took Cook’s small cutter vessel, inflaming the captain. Tensions rose between Hawaiians and the European strangers; Cook attempted to kidnap and ransom Kalani’ōpuʻu, then king of Hawai‘i Island. The altercation and kidnapping attempt led the villagers to slaughter Cook and four of his men.

1782 – Kamehameha, raised in the royal court of his uncle, King Kalani’ōpuʻu, begins his rise to power upon Kalani’ōpuʻu’s death. Kalani’ōpuʻu’s son, Kīwalaʻō, inherited his father’s position. Kamehameha was given a prominent religious position, as well as being named guardian of the Hawaiian war god Kūkāʻilimoku and control over the sacred Waipiʻo Valley district. The relationship between Kamehameha and his cousin Kīwalaʻō, became strained, and Kamehameha gained the allegiance of the Kona District chiefs. Defeating Kīwalaʻō in the Battle of Mokuʻōhai, Kamehameha assumed the responsibilities of the districts of Kona, Kohala, and Hāmākua on the Big Island.


1790 – Kamehameha deposes Puna District chief Keawemaʻuhili, acquiring power over the district. Kaʻū chief Keōua Kūʻahuʻula led an uprising against Kamehameha; Kamehamehaʻs army quickly subdued Keōua and forced the lesser chief and his men to flee towards Kīlauea Volcano. A surprise eruption killed almost a third of Keōua’s men.

1791 – Kamehameha builds Pu‘ukoholā Heiau (temple), a luakini (human sacrificial temple) honoring the war god Kū. Inviting Keōua to meet with him at the heiau, Kamehameha ordered his chief to throw a spear at Keōua as he stepped upon the shore. Keōua, his bodyguards, and his supporters were slain, and Kamehameha became king of Hawai‘i Island.

1795 –Kamehameha moves against the islands of Maui and Molokaʻi with an armada of 10,000 men and 960 war canoes. After rapidly triumphing over the two islands at the Battle of Kawela, Kamehameha moved on to Oahu to challenge the forces of King Kalanikūpule. After a fierce battle, Kamehamehaʻs troops claimed victory over the Island of O‘ahu.


1802 – King Kamehameha names Lahaina, Maui the capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom.

1810 – Kaumuʻaliʻi, the king of Kauaʻi, acknowledges Kamehameha’s rule, giving him suzerainty over Kauaʻi and Niʻihau. Kamehameha becomes known as King Kamehameha I, ruler of the unified Kingdom of Hawaiʻi. Kamehameha I unified Hawai‘i’s legal system, and established trade agreements with the United States and numerous European nations. With a drop in Canton fur prices, Hawaiian sandalwood became a sought after commodity by trans-Pacific merchants.

1814 – Kamehameha I agrees to a monopolizing sandalwood agreement with Boston ship captains, with the King receiving 25-percent of the profits.

1819 – Kamehameha I dies. His oldest son, Liholiho, rules briefly as Kamehameha II along with Queen Regent Ka‘ahumanu, Kamehameha I’s favorite wife. Liholiho supported Ka‘ahumanu in abandoning the old kapu system (religious taboos), including those that forbade women to eat with men. The first whaling ships land at Lahaina on Maui. The pillaging of Hawai‘i’s sandalwood forests moves into high gear.

1820 – By the time the first Christian missionaries arrive from Boston, Hawaii ‘s social order is beginning to break down. First, Queen Ka‘ahumanu and then Kamehameha II defied kapu (taboo) without attracting divine retribution. Ka‘ahumanu ordered all idols destroyed, in essence leaving Hawaiians without a religious foundation. Such a state of affairs caused the Hawaiian populace, royalty included, to be receptive to the concepts Christianity offered. The influx of Westerners to Hawai‘i introduces liquor, moral decay, and Western diseases such as smallpox, leprosy, measles, gonorrhea, and syphilis.

1824 – King Kamehameha II and his favorite wife Queen Kamāmalu die of measles during a visit to England. A funeral was held at the home of Kalanimōkū, the king’s advisor, and the bodies were interred at ‘Iolani Palace. They were later moved to Mauna ‘Ala Royal Mausoleum. Kauikeaouli, Kamehameha II’s younger brother, ascends as King Kamehameha III, who reigns for 30 years with Ka‘ahumanu as Queen Regent. Ka‘ahumanu encourages her subjects to be baptized, and introduces the first codified body of laws based on Christian ethics.


1826 – King Kamehameha III and Ka‘ahumanu negotiate first free trade treaty with the United States. The treaty ensured Americans had the right to enter Hawaiian ports to do business, assumed responsibility for debts to America (these were settled in payment with sandalwood), and afforded Americans protection under Hawaiian law.


1827 – A large portion of the populace is forced into harvesting sandalwood to settle Hawai‘iʻs debt to American traders. No one was exempt from labor except the very elderly and infirm. Countless people died from exposure, exhaustion, malnutrition, and disease. By 1830, Hawai‘i’s sandalwood forests were gone.

1832 – Ka‘ahumanu dies.

1835 – The first successful sugar plantation in the Hawaiian Islands is established at Kōloa, Kaua‘i. The sugar industry rapidly spreads to the rest of the Islands.

1840 – The Wilkes Expedition, sponsored by the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, pinpoints Pearl Harbor as a potential Naval Base. Kamehameha III moves Hawai‘i’s royal seat from Lahaina, Maui to Honolulu, Oahu. He declares Hawai‘i a democratic constitutional monarchy; the country’s first constitution was granted and a legislative body and Supreme Court emplaced. The United States, France, and Great Britain recognize Hawai‘i as a sovereign nation.

1848 – The Māhele, a land division based on the 1840 Constitution of the Kingdom of Hawai‘i, reapportioned Hawaiian Island land to the crown, the government, chiefs, and commoners, introducing for the first time the Western principle of private ownership. Commoners are now able to buy and sell land, but this great division becomes the great dispossession: By the end of the 19th century, white men owned four acres for every one acre owned by a Hawaiian family. As many Hawaiians did not understand the concept of private property or the need to make a formal claim to land title; being many could not read, write, or understand English, thousands of families lost their land to foreigners taking advantage of their ignorance through quiet title actions. Numerous cases of illegal quiet title actions dating back to the Māhele continue to be disputed to this day.

1852 – As Western diseases depopulate the Islands, a labor shortage occurs in the booming sugarcane industry. For the next nine decades, a steady stream of foreign labor pours into Hawai‘i, beginning with the Chinese. The Japanese begin arriving in 1868, followed by Filipinos, Koreans, Portuguese, and Puerto Ricans.

1854 – King Kamehameha III dies; his nephew Alexander took reign as King Kamehameha IV. He and his wife Queen Emma resisted United States pressure towards an annexation treaty, wanting a reciprocity treaty instead.

1863 – Kamehameha IV dies at the age of 29. He is succeeded by his brother, Lot Kapuāiwa, who reigns as Kamehameha V.

1872 – Kamehameha V, the last direct descendent of the Kamehameha line, dies without heirs.

1873 – Kamehameha V’s cousin, Lunalilo, is elected Hawai‘i’s sixth king. He ruled along with Queen Emma for only thirteen months before dying of tuberculosis.

1874 – David Kalākaua vies for the throne with the Dowager Queen Emma, the half-Caucasian widow of Kamehameha IV. Despite protests by supporters of Queen Emma, the Hawai‘i Legislature elects Kalākaua as King.

1875 – The United States and Hawaii sign a treaty of reciprocity, assuring Hawai‘i a duty-free market for sugar in the United States.

1882 – King Kalākaua has the original ‘Iolani Palace razed and constructs an Italian Renaissance-style palace on the royal grounds.