August 21, 1959 – Hawaii Joins the Union as the 50th State

Evidence indicates that around 1,500 years ago, Polynesians coming from the Marquesas Islands, some 2300 miles away, first set foot on then-unoccupied Hawaii. (The Marquesas Islands are a group of volcanic islands in French Polynesia, an overseas collectivity of France in the southern Pacific Ocean.) Five hundred years later, settlers from Tahiti arrived, bringing their beliefs in gods and demi-gods and instituting a strict social hierarchy based on a kapu (taboo) system.

In 1778, British explorer James Cook and his party in the ships Resolution and Discovery landed on Kauai at Waimea Bay, and named the archipelago the “Sandwich Islands” in honor of the Earl of Sandwich. (Because of course, no one already living there mattered.) The Native Hawaiians were quite welcoming at first, but as NPR observed:

Things got really ugly, really fast: Not too long after their first encounter, Cook died in a skirmish with the Native Hawaiian population in which dozens of Natives were killed.”

This official portrait of Captain James Cook was painted in 1775.

Then there were the diseases the Europeans brought to the islands. Sara Goo of the Pew Research Center wrote:

Captain Cook and his crew wrote in well-documented accounts about concerns that they had infected the population with venereal diseases (Cook said he unsuccessfully tried to prevent his men from mingling with the native women). Over the years, many other infectious diseases and illnesses such as measles, chicken pox, polio and tuberculosis killed thousands of Hawaiians. …

Historical accounts by missionaries and other Westerners who first arrived in the 1820s frequently predicted the complete eradication of the Hawaiian race from the planet by the early 20th century. Indeed, by 1920, the Native Hawaiian population had dwindled to just under 24,000, according to the U.S. Census.”

Dr. Jonathan Kay Kamakawiwoʻole Osorio, Hawaiian Professor of History, contends that it was the introduction of venereal diseases that wreaked the most damage:

‘While there would be other diseases brought by other visits that would wipe out tens of thousands of people in epidemics, the real foundational reason for the collapse of the population was fertility and the inability to generate new generations. . . . There is some pretty important evidence of the inability of Hawaiians to conceive, have children, during the 100-year period after Cook.”

Alas, that wasn’t the end of damage by the European influence. “The ideas of work, wages and surviving that came with the Europeans were different from the system we had created,” Dr. Osorio observed. Native Hawaiians had been self-sufficient until their economy, which was based on water and agriculture, was disrupted. American immigration started almost immediately after European contact, and Americans began cultivating sugar, using methods of plantation farming that required substantial labor. Waves of permanent immigrants came from Japan, China and the Philippines to work in the fields.

Thus the demographic and economic landscape of Hawaii shifted radically.

Political leadership was altered as well. There were a number of chiefs in Hawaii at that time. But European military technology helped Kamehameha I conquer and unify the islands for the first time in 1810, establishing the Kingdom of Hawaii. After his death in 1819, Queen Ka‘ahumanu, the favorite wife of Kamehameha I, ended the system of kapu, or taboos, that regulated Hawaiian life. Christian values were promoted instead, and many Hawaiian temples were destroyed.

In 1820, the Queen also accepted the arrival of Protestant missionaries from New England to teach Christianity.

Epidemics of diseases such as leprosy and measles from outsiders continued to devastate the population. Other life forms in Hawaii suffered as well. In 1826, the first mosquitoes came to Hawaii via European and American ships. They carried avian malaria, decimating birds native to the Hawaiian Islands.

In 1843, Great Britain and France signed a reciprocal agreement in which both nations formally recognized the independence and sovereignty of the Hawaiian Kingdom.

But the Anglo-American invasion, driven by the lucrative sugar industry, continued. Sugar had become a major export from Hawaii soon after Cook’s arrival. The first permanent plantation began in Kauai in 1835. Within thirty years plantations operated on the four main islands.

Chinese contract laborers on a sugar plantation in 19th Century Hawaii.

U.S. plantation owners began demanding a say in Kingdom politics. Kamehameha III capitulated to the demands of Americans in 1848, instituting a system of land division requiring that claims be made and fees paid for land titles. Many Native Hawaiians were unaware of the change, which opened up Hawaiian land to foreign private ownership.

As Julia Flynn Siler observed in an interview about her 2012 book Lost Kingdom: Hawaii’s Last Queen, the Sugar Kings and America’s First Imperial Adventure:

By the end of the 19th century, ‘the sons and grandsons of the missionaries controlled the vast majority of arable land, as well as the banks, the steamship lines and most other businesses.’ Those missionary descendents had snapped up vast tracts of land from the cash-poor, land-rich Hawaiian aristocracy; the Hawaii of . . . small-scale taro farms and fish ponds had been plowed under and converted into sugar plantations.”

In 1850, the Hawaiian-American Treaty of Friendship, Commerce, and Navigation was ratified. Both nations pledged to engage peacefully in political and economic interactions. But alas, the U.S. wanted more. U.S. control of Hawaii was considered vital for the defense of its west coast. The military was especially interested in Pearl Harbor.

On January 20, 1887, the United States began leasing Pearl Harbor. Shortly thereafter, local businessmen, sugar planters and politicians backed by the Honolulu Rifles (volunteer military companies composed solely of Caucasian citizens of Hawaii) forced the adoption of the 1887 Constitution of the Kingdom of Hawaii. The new government disenfranchised two thirds of native Hawaiians and other ethnic groups who had previously been eligible to vote. It effectively consolidated power among only the elite residents of the island and minimized the power of the monarch in favor of more influential governance by the cabinet. Sanford B. Dole (the cousin once removed of James Dole who came to Hawaii in 1899 and founded the Hawaiian Pineapple Company on Oahu) and other lawyers of American descent drafted this document, which became known as the “Bayonet Constitution.”

Queen Lili’uokalani attempted to restore royal powers in 1893, but was placed under house arrest by businessmen with help from the US military. Against the Queen’s wishes, the Republic of Hawaii was formed for a short time. Although the overthrow violated existing treaties and established procedures for annexation, Hawaii was proclaimed a U.S. territory by a joint resolution of Congress via the Newlands Resolution in 1898.

Queen Liliuokalani. Photographed around 1891

It was approved on July 4, 1898 and signed on July 7 by President William McKinley. On August 12 of the same year, a ceremony was held on the steps of ʻIolani Palace to signify the official transfer of Hawaiian sovereignty to the United States.

This allowed duty-free trade between the islands and the mainland, and made the existing American military presence permanent. In any event, the substance of a coup had already been effected.

President McKinley appointed Sanford Dole as territorial governor. The territorial legislature convened for the first time on February 20, 1901.

Siler averred that the annexation of Hawaii marked a turning point for the United States:

This was the first time in America’s history that we reached beyond our mainland shores and took a nation that had been independent, sovereign, recognized by the other great powers. And we grabbed it for America.”

On December 7, 1941, the Japanese launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on Oahu. Four years later, on September 2, 1945, Japan signed its unconditional surrender on the USS Battleship Missouri, which still rests in Pearl Harbor today.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Hawaii Admission Act on March 18, 1959 which allowed for Hawaiian statehood, and after a popular referendum in which over 93% voted in favor of statehood, Hawaii was admitted as the 50th state on this day in history.

But for many Native Hawaiians, the manner in which Hawaii became a U.S. territory was illegal. Beginning in the 1960s, there was a renewal of native interest in the Hawaiian language, culture and identity.

With the support of Hawaii Senators Daniel Inouye and Daniel Akaka, Congress passed a joint resolution called the “Apology Resolution” (US Public Law 103-150). It was signed by President Bill Clinton on November 23, 1993. This resolution apologized “to Native Hawaiians on behalf of the people of the United States for the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii on January 17, 1893… and the deprivation of the rights of Native Hawaiians to self-determination.”

In September, 2016, The U.S. Department of the Interior announced an administrative change that would allow a unified Native Hawaiian government — if one is established in the future — to enter into a formal government-to-government relationship with the United States.

This would give Native Hawaiians a status similar to more than 560 Native American tribes that currently hold nation-to-nation status, which could allow federal considerations on issues ranging from land management to social services.

As NPR notes:

It would be the first time the Native Hawaiian community had their own government since their Kingdom was overthrown in 1893 by merchants and sugar planters.”

Today, Native Hawaiians comprise about one-fifth of the state population. The Native Hawaiian population lags behind other ethnicities in wealth and assets. Native Hawaiian families in 2013 had a median income of $72,762, the lowest of all major ethnic groups in the state, according to data by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

You can find a discussion of legal developments in pursuit of native sovereignty here.


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