Hawaiians - History and Cultural Relations

The date of first colonization is constantly being revised, but Polynesians are believed to have reached Hawai'i by about A . D . 300. There may have been multiple settlement voyages, but two-way travel between Hawai'i and other island groups was never extensive. By the time of Captain James Cook's arrival late in 1778, the Hawaiian chieftainship had evolved a high order of political complexity and stratification, with the Maui and Hawai'i Island dynasties vying to control the Eastern portion of the archipelago. In their first encounters with the Hawaiians Cook's men introduced venereal disease. At Kealakekua, on the leeward side of Hawai'i Island, Cook was greeted as the returning god Lono, but he was later killed in a skirmish over a stolen longboat. Europeans nevertheless began to use the islands as a provisions stop, for Hawai'i was uniquely well situated to supply the fur trade and, later, North Pacific whalers. The Hawaiian chiefs became avidly involved in foreign trade, seeking to accumulate weapons, ammunition, and luxury goods. In 1795 Kamehameha, a junior chief of Hawai'i Island, defeated the Maui chiefs in a decisive Battle on O'ahu Island, thereby unifying the windward isles. This date is taken to mark the beginning of the Hawaiian kingdom and Hawai'i's transition from chiefdom to state. An astute and strong-willed ruler, Kamehameha consolidated his rule and established a bureaucratic government. His successors were weaker and were continually pressured by foreign residents and bullied by colonial governments. High-ranking chiefly women and their supporters convinced Kamehameha II to abolish the indigenous religion shortly after his father's death in 1819. Congregationalist missionaries arrived a few months later and came to exert tremendous influence on the kingdom's laws and policies. In the 1840s resident foreigners persuaded Kamehameha III to replace the traditional system of land tenure with Western-style private landed property. The resulting land division, the "Great Máhele," was a disaster for the Hawaiian people. The king, the government, and major chiefs received most of the land, with only 29,000 acres going to 80,000 commoners. At the same time foreigners were given the right to buy and own property. Within a few decades most Hawaiians were landless as foreign residents accumulated large tracts for plantations and ranches. The 1875 Reciprocity Treaty with the United States ensured the profitability of sugar. Planters imported waves of laborers from Asia and Europe, and Hawaiians became a numerical minority. A clique of white businessmen overthrew the last monarch, Queen Lili'uokalani, in 1893. Although President Grover Cleveland urged that the monarchy be restored, Congress took no action and annexation followed in 1898. While descendants of the Asian sugar workers have lived the American dream in Hawai'i, native Hawaiians suffered increasing poverty and alienation during the territorial period. Hawaiian radicalism and cultural awareness have been on the upsurge since the mid-1970s. Citing the precedent of American Indian tribal nations, activists now demand similar status for Hawaiians, and the movement for Hawaiian sovereignty has gained increasing credibility among the state's political leaders.

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