The tropical archipelago of Hawaii is the most recent state to be admitted to the United States of America, acquiring its statehood just over six decades ago. The history of the volcanic islands goes back much, much further, however, and can rival the story of any of America’s 50 states. Hawaiian history covers millennia of human settlement, jaw-dropping feats of navigation, and a proud kingdom toppled by a fruit company.
Hawaii—spelled Hawai’i in the Hawaiian language—was first settled by humans in waves between 300 and 800 CE. While the settlers certainly came from other Polynesian islands, scholars debate over the exact timeline and islands involved, with Tahiti, French Polynesia, and Bora Bora being the main theories. In any case, Hawaii steadily grew its chiefdom and culture over the years, with a caste system and complex mythology and folklore.
The first confirmed contact that Hawaii had with Europeans was initiated by Captain James Cook in 1778. Cook’s second visit was not well-received, his men having raided a burial ground for wood. Local Hawaiians responded by stealing a small boat from the expedition. Cook kidnapped the king of Hawaii Island in hopes of ransoming the boat back, but instead the famous explorer was killed by the king’s subjects. Cook’s exploits brought Europeans and Americans to the archipelago, and subsequent disease, famine, and war halved Hawaii’s population by 1820.
The Europeans also brought Christianity with them, and by 1840 the islands had become a Christian monarchy. A string of heirless kings meant monarchs could be chosen by a committee; said committee was mostly comprised of wealthy white businessmen looking out for their own interests. In 1887 a group of politicians and sugar plantation owners, backed by a militia, forced King Kalākaua to sign a new constitution that largely stripped the monarchy of power, dubbed the “Bayonet Constitution”. His authority limited, Kalākaua reigned until his death in 1891, when he was succeeded by his sister Lili’uokalani.
Two years later, Queen Lili’uokalani announced plans for a new constitution that would restore power to the throne; instead, she was to be Hawaii’s last monarch. A largely nonviolent coup d’etat was launched, abolishing the monarchy and creating the Provisional Government of Hawaii. In 1894, the Provisional Government of Hawaii became the Republic of Hawaii, led by president Sanford B. Dole—cousin of future pineapple magnate James Dole. Lili’uokalani was kept under house arrest until she was forced to abdicate in 1895.
One man who was not happy about the insurrection was newly inaugurated American president Grover Cleveland. Cleveland wished to “undo the wrong that had been done by those representing [the United States]” by reinstating the monarchy, but the Queen did not wish to compromise by giving the traitors amnesty, and Dole did not consider any requests to return the throne.
In 1897, Cleveland was succeeded by William McKinley, who was in favor of annexing the Republic of Hawaii. After some initial difficulty in getting the Senate to ratify, the decision was approved and the archipelago officially became the Territory of Hawaii, at least according to the U.S. A formal ceremony was held in August 1898, and was largely shunned by Native Hawaiians.
The islands were granted self-governance in 1900. Over the next few decades, Hawaiians began to desire statehood in order to gain full representation in Congress and presidential elections. This was opposed by powerful sugarcane processors who preferred the archipelago to remain a territory, as it allowed them to import cheap foreign labor. Hawaii received waves of immigrants from Japan, Puerto Rico, Korea, and other nations to work in the sugar and fruit industries, the interests of which which essentially governed the archipelago, particularly as the Dole company flourished and worldwide demand for pineapple spread.
Hawaii’s Pacific location made it strategically valuable, and the United States built military bases on the islands, including a naval base at Pearl Harbor. On December 7th, 1941, Imperial Japan launched a surprise attack on the base, drawing America into World War II and placing the archipelago firmly into the world’s consciousness.
By the 1950s, the cultural landscape of Hawaii had visibly changed. The sons and daughters of immigrant workers were now adults and, crucially, American citizens. Along with Native Hawaiians, they campaigned for statehood, with unions organizing strikes in the sugar and pineapple industries. Strikes had been carried out since the late 1930s, organized by different unions and the local Communist Party. The strikers backed the Democratic Party and John A. Burns, a local politician who supported the working class and the push for statehood. Burns was elected delegate to Congress, and helped his cause by coordinating with Alaska, which was also pushing for statehood. This was appealing to politicians in Washington, since Hawaii was viewed as a potential Republican stronghold, and Alaska a Democratic one; ironically, the opposite became true.
The Hawaii Admission Act was enacted by Congress in March 1959, and in June, a vote for statehood was put to the Hawaiian populace. With extraordinarily high turnout, over 90% of voters were in favor of statehood. Hawaii became a state on August 12, 1959. Burns was later elected the state’s second governor in 1962.
Hawaii’s statehood allowed the islands to modernize and prosper from tourism, as mainland Americans could now travel to the state’s famously beautiful mountains and beaches without a visa. Committees were set up in the 1970s to preserve the archipelago’s unique culture, traditions, and language.
No new states have been admitted to the U.S. since that late summer day in 1959, although it’s possible that will change in the near future. Movements to grant Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. statehood have gained political and popular traction in recent years. Supporters don’t have to look far to find inspiration in Hawaii, a chain of islands as rich in resources and natural beauty as they are in history.