Hawaii History: Building The Hawaiian Kingdom
King Kamehameha Rule Impacts Hawaii To This Day
As Kamehameha battled for control of all the islands foreigners began to play a key role in his plans for a kingdom. Throughout Hawaiian history, the Mo’i or King of an island was the absolute ruler. The man and the government were one and the same. Ali’i gained their land and title through conquest except on Oahu where the King was chosen by a council of chiefs. Still, unification was not an ambition of the other island’s Mo’i except for King Kahekili of Maui.
Though Kamehameha acquired an advantage with western weaponry many historians believe the timing could not have better for the unification of the islands. His incredible feat of conquest was significant because if each island had remained under separate rule, many scholars believe competing western interests would have torn them apart.
After Captain Cook’s voyages to Hawaii foreign ships began to arrive more and more frequently beginning in 1786. Three years later numerous whaling and trading ships were wintering in the islands.
Kamehameha had good relations with most western traders and negotiated for modern goods to win battles and establish his new kingdom. Many sailors jumped ship to live among the Hawaiians and some eventually served the Hawaiian Ali’i as interpreters of foreign language and western culture while helping to manage the new technologies and trading.
Kamehameha bartered whatever resources the islands had to gain as much protection and technology as he could for his kingdom. Traders stopping in Hawai’i, many heading to Asia, noticed the towering sandalwood trees covering the upper slopes of all the islands. By 1801 they began trading for the wood with Kamehameha to sell in China. With this income Kamehameha acquired more western weaponry and even had his own western style ships constructed. His chiefs would also make their own separate deals for sandalwood, amassing small fortunes.
Early Pearl Harbor and Western Influences
The Chinese demand for sandalwood changed Hawaii from a subsistence economy to a materials and products society. Iron tools, furniture, fabrics as well as new plants and animals were all exchanged for Hawaii’s sandalwood forests. Between 1800 and 1830 the sandalwood trade would dominate the Hawaiian economy.
At Pearl Harbor the lower slopes of Oahu’s Ewa district were laid bare by the sandalwood trade, much like most of the other islands. Chiefs made fortunes as their people harvested and carried bundles of wood down the mountain. Hundreds of tons of these bundles of wood, called piculs (units of measuring the wood averaging 133 pounds) were brought down the mountains on the backs of native Hawaiian commoners. Kamehameha put a kapu on harvesting young trees, but after his death the forests were burned to find the last remaining trees by smell. Over 13 million pounds of sandalwood were harvested and shipped to China.
Along with the introduced livestock of cattle, goats and sheep grazing on the pristine native landscape the environment was drastically altered. Silt began to fill the streams, washed down from the bare hillsides, and began to choke off the fresh water flowing into Pearl Harbor. The silt began to cover the aquatic life in harbor, smothering more and more of the coral reef and the oysters beds.
By 1830 not only was the environment being destroyed but so were the native Hawaiians. Hundreds of thousands died from introduced diseases. As the villages emptied so did the forests. By 1840 the sandalwood trade had collapsed with only a scant few trees left in remote areas. Today those trees are being propagated and replanted throughout the islands. For the first time in over 180 years these trees are beginning to returning to the mountain slopes of the Hawaiian Islands.
By the early 1800’s trade with the west was in full swing. In those early days Pearl Harbor was not considered a suitable port for ships due to a coral bar blocking the entrance, so most trading was done at Honolulu Harbor.
The Hawaiians valued Pearl Harbor for its natural resources. Birds, fish and invertebrates were all gathered here. The oysters were called “i’a hamau leo” meaning “sea creature that silences the voice”. The name came from a tradition that forbade people from talking while gathering oysters. Hawaiians ate the oysters and used the mother of pearl shells as scrapers for making rope and cloth as well as for bowl decorations and eyes for their religious sculptures.
By 1788 European’s lust for pearls spread to the Hawaiian chiefs. One historian wrote, “When King Kamehameha learned of the value placed by visiting Europeans on the luminous ovals obtained by his deep-diving oyster-gathering islanders, the mission of the River of Pearls began to change.” Soon Pearl Harbor activities quickly went from food gathering to pearl hunting.
By 1812 pearls were a fast growing commodity for Kamehameha along with sandalwood. In 1818, a European explorer wrote, “There are many divers employed here diving for the pearl oysters, which are found in great plenty, and we saved them much trouble and labor by presenting the king with an oyster dredge.” It was around this time people began referring to the lagoon as “Pearl Harbor”.
As the surrounding area fell to deforestation and overgrazing of livestock the harbor became choked with runoff. By the 1840’s oysters were hard to find. The bay had become filled with silt with the harbors oysters covered in mud, offering little hope they would recover. By 1901 Pearl Harbor oysters were almost entirely gone.
Visiting hunting grounds in the Sea of Japan, the South Pacific and the Arctic, whaling ships began stopping in Hawaii twice a year to restock provisions, replenish crews, transship whale oil cargo and wait out the winter weather of the north Pacific. By 1824 more than 100 ships were in ports in Honolulu and Lahaina Maui. By 1846 that number quadrupled to 736 – a record year.
This became the main economic engine for Hawaii for the next 20 years. Whaling also changed the ancient Hawaiian agricultural system of growing taro and sweet potatoes to the cultivation of white potatoes and yams loved by the sailors and captains.
The golden age of whaling lasted from about 1820 to the early 1860’s when the trade collapsed with the start of the American Civil War. Much of the US whaling fleet (which was the majority of whaling ships in the Pacific) were destroyed by raiding Confederates during the war. The increased use of coal oil and linseed oil were the final straw in ending the whaling industry along with the reduced population of whales and the rising cost associated with hunting the now hard to find animals. As of the early 1820’s ship captains had begun settling in the islands and would soon be joined by New England missionaries from the American east coast.
In 1820 missionaries began to play a major role in the development of the young island nation. They came from New England inspired by a young Hawaiian who came to New England in the early 1800’s with a ship captain as an orphan of the Kamehameha wars.
One of the missionaries main contributions was to develop a written Hawaiian language and schools to teach reading and writing. This led to a literacy rate of over 95% among Hawaiians – one of the highest in the world at that time. Writing also aided the kingdom in consolidating the government and the development of treaties and eventually the Hawaiian constitution.
Missionaries also clashed with Hawaiian cultural practices and foreign sailors. They continued to arrive in increasing numbers and ship captains and crews came into direct confrontation with the missionaries. Honolulu and especially in Lahaina Maui, which was the capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom from 1802 to 1845, saw major confrontations. Nevertheless they were able to influence the ruling class with new ways of dressing, farming, construction and commerce.
By the mid 1840’s over 700 whaling ships a year were wintering in Hawai’i. The kingdom’s capital was moved from Lahaina to Honolulu, which means “calm port” in Hawaiian, for its larger and deeper harbor. The missionaries became advisors to the monarchy and firmly established churches, businesses and schools including the Chiefs Children’s School. This Honolulu boarding school was founded by Kamehameha III with the goal of educating the next generation of Hawaiian royalty. Run by the Amos and Juliette Cooke from the New England Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, they taught the royal children how to act and speak like Americans. Students learned multiple languages as well as reading and writing in Hawaiian and many of the royal children went on to travel the world. Missionary descendants would eventually overthrow the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1893 installing a Hawaiian Supreme Court judge, who was born in Honolulu to Protestant Christian Missionaries from Maine, as President of the Republic of Hawaii.
Missionary Sons Develop an Industry
After the decline of the whaling industry business interests turned towards agriculture. After experimenting with several crops it was determined that the climate and soil were ideal for sugar cane production.
Soon sugarcane, originally a crop brought by early Polynesians, would begin its rise into an economic powerhouse. The American Civil War of 1861 to 1865 made Hawaiian sugar very profitable as sugar production, sales and shipment from the southern US was blockaded during the war. By the 1870’s missionary descendants turned sugar plantation owners had become a powerful economic and political force.
This also made the Hawaiian Monarchy quite rich through taxes and tariffs. Hawaiian coins were in circulation starting in 1847 and by 1879 large denomination dollar bills, or dala, were printed. By the 1870’s sugar planters had bought out much of the land while the second industrial revolution (1870 to 1914) in the US brought expansion of railroads, telegraph lines and electrical power to Hawai’i. New movements of people and ideas culminated in wave of globalization which influenced Hawai’i and its sugar industry.
Mills and machinery enabled expanded sugar production and a new treaty was signed between Hawai’i and the US in 1875. Called the “Reciprocity Treaty” it enabled sugar to enter the US duty free. The treaty also granted the US exclusive rights to Pearl Harbor. Maui’s largest sugar mill and Iolani Palace on Oahu had electrical lighting installed several years before the White House in Washington DC.
From 1875 to 1890 Hawaii’s sugar exports would see an increase of just over 720% from 24.5 million pounds to 330.8 million pounds!
The sugar industry required laborers and there were few to choose from as the Hawaiian population was decimated by disease. This necessitated bringing in immigrant workers and Hawaii’s King Kalakaua went on an around the world voyage to recruit immigrants and establish international relations the world’s monarchies. Soon immigrants began arriving first from China then Japan, Korea, Portugal, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. Tens of thousands continued arriving for decades after Kalakaua’s voyage in 1881 creating what is today Hawaii’s diverse cultural flavors and languages. The blending of these cultures culminated in things like plate lunches and Hawaiian Pidgin English used today throughout the islands.