Hawaii (Hawaiian: Hawai‘i) is a group of volcanic islands in the central Pacific Ocean. The islands lie 2,397 miles from San Francisco, California, to the east and 5,293 miles from Manila, in the Philippines, to the west. The capital is Honolulu, located on the island of Oahu.
In the 19th century, the Hawaiian Islands saw population expansion and the establishment of a plantation system for growing sugar cane, coffee and pineapples. The United States annexed the territory in 1898. On the morning of December 7, 1941, hundreds of Japanese fighter planes attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbor near Honolulu, propelling the United States into World War II. Hawaii became the 50th U.S. state on August 21, 1959.
Native Hawaiian History
Hawaii joins Easter Island (Rapa Nui) and New Zealand (Aotearoa) to make up the three island groups of the Polynesian Triangle—an area that shares similar language, culture and traditions. At around the 7th century, Polynesians from Tahiti and the Marquesas became the first people to settle in Hawaii. They formed a unique culture to survive on these isolated islands.
The original Native Hawaiian society developed around a caste system. People were born into and remained in specific classes, with royal and priestly castes and a slave caste. The islands also developed a land tenure system that resembled European feudalism. The people were governed by kapu, or religious taboos derived from the Hawaiian worship of gods. Each island developed its own specific trade—for example, Oahu became a cloth manufacturer, while Maui artisans specialized in canoes. Four distinct chiefdoms eventually emerged: Hawaiʻi, Maui, Oʻahu, Kaua’i.
In 1810, King Kamehameha I united these chiefdoms into a single kingdom under a monarchy, which he ruled until his death in 1819. He was succeeded by his son, King Kamehameha II, who ruled until his death in 1824, followed by King Kamehameha I’s second son, King Kamehameha III.
In 1840, King Kamehameha III voluntarily gave up his absolute power in order to create a constitution. It established the rights of citizens and split the government into executive, legislative and judiciary branches. Although King Kamehameha III remained in control of these branches, he worked with a House of Nobles and a House of Tenants who represented citizens’ rights. To protect Hawaii from foreign incursions, King Kamehameha III sent delegations to the United States and Europe in 1842, resulting in recognition of Hawaiian independence in treaties signed by many of the world’s foreign powers the following year.
Hawaii’s Colonial History and Immigration
In 1778, British navigator Captain James Cook landed on Kauai and explored the surrounding islands, which he dubbed the “Sandwich Islands,” a name later used by colonists. Native Hawaiians believed Cook was the god Lono, as his boat’s mast resembled Lono’s symbol in religious rituals. Cook was killed in a skirmish between Native Hawaiians and his crew, who had accused locals of stealing a boat. His remains were cremated and buried in a sacred place.
In 1819, Queen Ka‘ahumanu accepted the first Protestant missionaries. The Reverend Hiram Bingham and his fellow missionaries arrived in Kailua in 1820. Over the next 40 years, they established churches and congregations throughout the Hawaiian Islands. European and American whalers also arrived in the 1820s, transforming Hawaii from a trading to a cash-based economy. The decade additionally marked the beginning of a switch to an agricultural economy based on crops, notably sugar and coffee, run by a wealthy white American planter class.
These fruit and sugar plantations required workers. Plantation owners brought in an influx of immigrant contract plantation workers looking for better economic opportunities from Japan, China, the Philippines, Korea and Portugal, many of who stayed in Hawaii. In 1853, Native Hawaiians made up 97 percent of the islands' population—which dropped to 16 percent by 1923.
Overthrow of the Monarchy and Statehood
The monarchy was stripped of most of its authority in 1877, when a group of Hawaiian Natives and foreign nationals, including American citizens, forced King Kalakaua to sign a new constitution dubbed the Bayonet Constitution and instilled themselves in the government. When King Kalakaua died in 1891, he was succeeded by Queen Liliuokalani, who attempted but failed to revise Hawaii’s constitution.
In 1893, a group of sugar and pineapple businesspeople supported by the U.S. government overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy and Queen Liliuokalani. They instilled the coup’s leader, Stanford Ballard Dole—a member of the family who started the Hawaiian Pineapple Company, now known as the Dole Food Company—as the president of the Republic of Hawaii.
Hawaii was formally annexed into the United States in 1898 to use as a military base to fight the Spanish in Guam and the Philippines during the Spanish-American War. More than 50 years later, after a long road to statehood, Hawaii was admitted to the Union in 1959 as the 50th state. To this day, some Native Hawaiian groups contest the annexation and contend that Hawaii remains an independent kingdom.
READ MORE: Hawaii’s Long Road to Becoming America’s 50th State
Attack on Pearl Harbor
With its strategic position between the mainland of the United States and Asia, Hawaii has long been an important military ground. On December 7, 1941, the Japanese launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, a naval base near Honolulu, Hawaii. The attack destroyed nearly 20 vessels and killed more than 2,300 American soldiers, including more than 1,100 alone on the USS Arizona.
With the rest of the world engaged in World War II, the United States had so far avoided battle while supplying the British and pressuring Japan to end its military expansion in Asia. The day after the attack, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared war on Japan. On December 11, Japan’s allies Germany and Italy declared war on the United States, officially engaging the country in war.
Almost immediately after the attack, martial law was declared on Hawaii until October 24, 1944—the longest period in United States history. More than 2,000 people of Japanese descent suspected of disloyalty to the United States were rounded up, sent to the mainland and forced to live in Japanese internment camps until the war’s end.
Tourism and the Economy
By the start of the 21st century, agricultural giants such as Del Monte’s pineapple division moved out of Hawaii to find cheaper farmland. Tourism and the U.S. military are major drivers of the Hawaiian economy today.
Given its stunning location and balmy weather, the state remains a desirable destination for wealthy homeowners. In fact, Hawaii has the highest median home price of any state in the United States. A number of prominent businesspeople have bought homes on the islands, including Oprah Winfrey, Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg. In 2012, Oracle Corp. CEO Larry Ellison—one of the world’s richest people—bought 98 percent of the land on the Hawaiian island Lanai and nearly all of its commercial properties.
Date of Statehood: August 21, 1959
Population: 1,455,271 (2020)
Size: 10,926 square miles
Nickname(s): Aloha State
Motto: Ua Mau ke Ea o ka ʻĀina i ka Pono (“The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness”)
Tree: Kukui (Candlenut)
Flower: Pua Aloalo (Yellow Hibiscus)
- Before the arrival of British Captain James Cook in 1778, the Hawaiian language was strictly oral. Natives were taught by missionaries to read their language so that they could communicate the scriptures of the Bible. Banned in 1898 when Hawaii became a U.S. Territory and then resurrected as the official language in 1978, Hawaiian contains only 13 letters: five vowels and eight consonants.
- In 1866, after leprosy had begun to swiftly spread among the Hawaiian population without a cure, more than 100 victims were forcefully shipped to Kalaupapa on the island of Molokai to live in complete isolation. At its peak in 1890, more than 1,000 people resided in the colony.
- Mount Waialeale on Kauai is one of the wettest places on earth. Some areas receive an average of around 500 inches of rain each year.
- With rich volcanic soil and ideal farming conditions, Hawaii was for a while the only U.S. state that grows coffee (California recently began its own coffee venture). Handpicked in the Hualalai and Mauna Loa mountains on the Big Island, Kona coffee is one of the world’s most expensive brews at around $62 per pound for some brews as of 2022.
- Standing 13,796 feet above sea level, Mauna Kea is Hawaii’s tallest volcano. But it stretches about an additional 19,700 feet below the surface of the water, making Mauna Kea the tallest mountain in the world at around 33,500 feet. Mount Everest’s elevation, measured from sea level, is 29,029 feet.
- Hawaii’s population center is the most isolated on Earth—more than 2,300 miles from the United States, 3,850 miles from Japan, 4,900 miles from China and 5,280 miles from the Philippines.
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