The Hawiian Islands have an extensive human history dating back to over a thousand years ago when Polynesians arrived by canoes. With them they brought livestock and seedlings, helping them to establish their new home.1 Throughout the centuries following their arrival, a rich Hawaiian way of life developed.7 Their culture was subsistent, meaning they grew and used what they needed without markets and commerce, allowing them to both utilize and protect their natural resources. The various islands were ruled by different chiefdoms, though they had no concept of private property and instead operated under a feudal system. Rules called kapu were used to protect resources, and in turn everyone was entitled to their share. There was a social hierarchy in place, as well as various customs and rituals.2 

James Cook was the first European to reach Hawai’i in 1778, and colonization soon followed.3 In response, King Kamehameha I united the chiefdoms in the late eighteenth century.4 Christian missionaries arrived in the 1820s, and by 1853 the number of Native Hawaiians had decreased from 300,000 to only 70,000 due to disease.5 On Jan. 16, 1893, U.S. Marines and sailors carried out an illegal, bloodless coup to take control of the Hawaiian monarchy. During this time, the last Hawaiian ruler, Queen Lili’uokalani, was imprisoned and forced to give up the throne, which she did to avoid further violence on her people. The coup was masterminded by John L. Stevens, a U.S. minister to Hawaiʻi, who was a proponent of manifest destiny. He strongly believed that Hawaiʻi should be annexed and wrote that “the Hawaiian pear is now fully ripe, and this is the golden hour for the United States to pluck it.” This was also a strategic move, as Western powers were angling for control of the South Pacific through harbors and trade. Through these events American colonizers were able to gain control of Hawaiʻi’s sugar trade, and Hawaiʻi was annexed as an American territory in 1898. Sanford Dole, who was starting his pineapple business at the time, declared himself the first president of the Republic of Hawaiʻi in 1898 without a vote.6 Hawaiʻi was a territory until 1959 when it officially became a U.S. state. 

The American colonization of Hawaiʻi caused an unconscionable loss of culture and self-determination for Native Hawaiians and a complete transformation of their economy. It was not until contact with the West that any conception of private property existed on the islands. In 1848, the Great Mahele abolished their previously feudal system and designated all the land in Hawaiʻi into three categories, establishing private property for the first time in their history. The arrival of missionaries pressured Native Hawaiians to convert to Christianity and forgo the worship of their akua (gods).2  

In 1896, their native language was banned, leading to generations of Hawaiians not knowing how to speak the Hawaiian language, ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi. The language is still considered critically endangered today.5 Today, many Hawaiians speak Hawaiian Pidgin, an English-based creole language that developed on sugarcane plantations in the 1830s as a form of communication between Native Hawaiians, English speakers and other immigrants. It contains elements of a variety of languages, including English, Hawaiian, and Japanese, a linguistic representation of the way that the introduction of Western capitalism impacted Hawaiian culture.8 

Over time, Hawaiʻi became an American military outpost and has over 14 military bases today.5 Western imperial and capitalist interests saw value in the land and resources of Hawaiʻi and established a variety of economic ventures, from the sugar plantations of the 1830s and the resorts and tourist attractions of today. The U.S. government saw opportunities in Hawaiʻi as well, especially during World War II. A small, uninhabited island called Kaho‘olawe was used as a bombing range during the Cold War, and the oceans surrounding the island are still littered with bullets, shells, and bombs. 25% of the island is still inaccessible due to explosives despite extensive restoration efforts.9 

As an extremely popular tourist destination, the depletion of Hawaiʻi’s resources has been exacerbated by the roughly 6 million tourists that visit every year.10 To meet this demand, Hawaiʻi has experienced rapid urbanization. Hawaiian culture has become part of the draw for tourists to visit Hawaiʻi, and this has led to extensive cultural exploitation which is an effect of colonization. The hula, for example, has become ornamental as opposed to spiritual; its origin is religious worship, but it has become performative cultural event to appease tourists eager to engage with Hawaiian culture.5 

Climate change is also an increasing threat to the livelihood of native Hawaiians. In 2023, wildfires devastated Maui, displacing 14,000 residents and killing over 100.12 Average temperatures are up, and the islands have lost 1.5 million acres of native forests. Warmer ocean temperatures mean increasing coral reef bleaching, a devastating blow to natural ecosystems.11 Western capitalism has played a large role in the increase of carbon emissions, demonstrating yet another way that Western colonialism has harmed Hawai‘i. 

The colonization of Hawai‘i has been a violent process that is still ongoing today. This AAPI Heritage Month, we recognize the beauty and resiliency of the Hawaiian people and their culture. Hawaiians, as well as indigenous peoples everywhere, deserve self-determination and freedom. 

 

  1. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/hawaii-history-and-heritage-4164590/#:~:text=In%201893%2C%20American%20colonists%20controlled,as%20a%20territory%20in%201898. 
  2. https://files.hawaii.gov/dcca/reb/real_ed/re_ed/ce_prelic/land_in_hawaii.pdf 
  3. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/captain-cook-killed-in-hawaii 
  4. https://www.nps.gov/puhe/learn/historyculture/kamehameha.htm 
  5. https://www.culturalsurvival.org/publications/cultural-survival-quarterly/struggle-hawaiian-sovereignty-introduction 
  6. https://coffeeordie.com/marines-sailors-take-hawaii 
  7. https://www.nps.gov/hale/learn/historyculture/early-hawaiians.htm 
  8. https://www.hawaii.edu/satocenter/langnet/definitions/hce.html 
  9. https://www.civilbeat.org/2023/12/kahoolawe-holds-lessons-for-mauis-environmental-recovery-from-the-wildfires/ 
  10. https://www.hawaiianbeachrentals.com/hawaiitravelblog/how-many-people-visit-hawaii-each-year-tourism-statistics/#:~:text=Annually%2C%20Hawaii%20welcomes%20varying%20numbers,notably%20reached%20this%20considerable%20figure. 
  11. https://climate.hawaii.gov/hi-facts/temperature/ 
  12. https://convoyofhope.org/disaster-services/2023-maui-wildfire/