Annexation of Hawaii: A Cultural Transition


Dean Parsons, December 2016

Citizens in modern, twenty-first century Hawaii enjoy living their lives in prosperity as American citizens. The proud state of Hawaii has become a tourist attraction of paradise and bliss in recent years for people all over the world, enjoying the breathtaking scenery and rich culture. While under jurisdiction of the United States as the fiftieth state, the proud Hawaiian heritage has gone through a cultural, societal, and governmental reboot. The term “reboot”, is referring to producing a new version of an established media or franchise. While the cultural core is intact, western influence has brought impactful changes to the Hawaiian people. This extends to the impact on American citizenship. Typically, individuals of assimilated countries are granted full citizenship as an American citizen for better or worse. While the people of Hawaii still enjoy the pleasures of their culture, the United States influence has brought about change to their industry, government, and society. Western dominion has been both a blessing and a curse for the native Hawaiian.

Discovery and Annexation
Hawaii’s culturally rich, diverse people’s introduction to the Western World can be pinpointed to January 18,1778. [1] James Cook, an English sea captain, had set sail for the Arctic from Society Islands. As with other accidental historical discoveries, Cook’s two ships, ironically named the Resolution and the Discovery, would make a surprising revelation that would change Captain Cook and his crew’s lives forever. The crew would soon spot tropicbirds, the pearls of the Hawaiian Archipelago, and browned skinned men in loincloths. The natives quickly sought trade for a substance previously never seen in their lands: iron. The natives hungered for iron in order to better their fishing equipment through an effective innovation to the fish hook. Captain Charles Clerk of the Discovery wrote with astonishment, “ A moderate sized nail will supply my ship’s company very plentifully with excellent pork for the day, and as to the potatoes and taro, they are attained upon still easier terms, such is theses people’s avidity for iron.”

The reason for this empirical expansion was a variety of territorial factors and materialistic resources. [2] American interest in Hawaii began in the early 1820s. The primary resource of interest in Hawaii was sugar. Missionaries from the states of New England were sent to inject Christian religion and principles to the Hawaiian commoner. Ironically, in the 1840s, the goal of the United States was to keep European influence out of the Hawaiian Islands. The government of the United States granted generous terms to the Hawaiian Islands, and sought to bring this Pacific jewel into the fold.

The true cash crop of the United States government at this time was the sugar trade, following the collapse of the tobacco market resulting from the devastation of the Civil War. As the country began to rebuild, the financial profits began to swell. There was a drastic turn in the year 1890. The United States Congress passed the McKinley Tariff, a bill which raised import trades on foreign sugar. Hawaiian sugars were now undersold on the American market, causing a depression to sweep the land. Queen Liliuokalani, ruler of Hawaii at the time, determined that the cause of the troubles in her land was foreign interference. In opposition to this belief was the American planters, who felt by annexing the islands the tariff would go away. The opposition between these two volatile elements would soon lead to bloody confrontation.

In January of 1893, planters staged a coup to overthrow the Queen. These conspirators simultaneously appealed to the United States Marines Corps for military aid. Marines stormed the island and soon the American flag flew over Honolulu. The Queen was forced to abdicate her throne and the fate of Hawaii would be left in the hands of Washington D.C. A short time later however, President Grover Cleveland would enter the office of President. Cleveland was an anti-imperialist and opposed the exploitive treatment of the civilians of Hawaii. Cleveland withdrew the annexation treaty from the Senate and looked to restore Queen Liliuokalani to her throne.
This sentiment was opposed by the American people, who generally favored annexation. In 1898, these events would take an unfortunate turn of events. With the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, the significance of an American Naval base uniquely positioned in the Pacific Ocean appealed to United States war planners. The Presidential replacement of Cleveland, William McKinley, would annex the islands in a similar fashion to the annexation of Texas. Hawaii would remain a territory of the United States until the year 1959, when Hawaii would officially become the fiftieth state of the United States.

Ethnic Beginnings and Melting Pot Effect
The earliest inhabitants of Hawaii were of Polynesian descent. Polynesian settlers congregated on every habitable island in the Pacific around 300 to 600 A.D. [3] One of these Pacific paradises was Hawai’i. Traveling in canoes, these settlers brought with them their culture and traditions. Polynesians also brought with them an assortment of new animals and plants. These plants and animals would include sweet potato, chickens, dogs and pigs. Polynesians over time, began to develop own traditions. The most well-known of these is surfing. After 1300, long distance migration ceased and Polynesian settlers began to develop their own unique culture that would evolve into Hawaiian traditions.

Modern Hawaiians mimic the melting pot of American society. While there are still native Hawaiians with pure ancestral blood, the migration of foreigners to the islands have taken a drastic effect on the blood lines in the pure, native people. Marriages between native, pure-born Hawaiians and “mainlanders” result in children of mixed ethnic backgrounds. This mirrors the assimilation of other peoples brought under American dominion.

Religious Effects
The religious beliefs of the early Hawaiians are not entirely clear. [4] The one clear fact is ancient Hawaiians performed religious ceremonies dedicated to the conception of the “Supreme Being”. Little is known about the ideas of the worshippers of the Supreme Being however, as the priests were subject to an oath of secrecy under pain of death. Next to the Supreme Being was his representative. The name of this god was “Kane” and was known on other islands as “Tane”. The creative force mythology practiced by the native Hawaiians was soon integrated into New Zealand culture. The sky-father, Rangi, married the Flat Earth, Papa. The children of this relationship was Tane, Rongo, and Tu.

In a similar fashion to the cultural rebooting of the Native American’s religious beliefs, Western influence sought to interject Christianity into the lives the non-Christian Hawaiians. [5] This would cause a ripple effect that continues to the modern era. Modern Hawaii respects the early traditions yet have grown to welcome religions from all over the world to enjoy the beautiful climate and ancient traditions.

Modern education in Hawaii operates within the jurisdiction of local school boards. [6] The system accommodates the age groups of pre-k through Grade Twelve. As of 2013, Hawaii had 184,760 students enrolled in the two hundred and eighty-six schools. This is mathematically equivalent to one teacher for every sixteen students. The graduation rate in Hawaii is eighty-two percent roughly. The average cost a student in Hawaii is $11,823 per year. This is the seventeenth highest in the nation. Hawaiian students are taught basic American education.

Religious and educational teachings were intertwined in ancient Hawaiian culture. [7] Children were taught the ritual prayers and their belonging to the Supreme Being. Education would begin as young as infancy. Young children were educated through discipline, play, and imitation of other members of the family. Communication is a process that would occur over time through imitation and patience. Children were educated in their homes. Family life and customs were governed by kapus. The discipline for these children were extremely strict. Skills to better the community were typically passed along through apprenticeships. This is the cycle of how ancient Hawaiians would pass on their traditions and culture. Children imitated the dances by their elders and eventually grew into elders themselves, passing on these traditions to the younger generation.

Ancient Hawaiian civilizations have no organized system of government. [8] The king was the central monarch and ruled over the people. Under the king, the people fell into three main classes. The makaainana or “common people”, the laboring masses. These people included fishermen, hunters, and craftsmen. Compensation for their work was gifts and food. There was also the Kauwa, the lower class of people in the social hierarchy. These individuals are typically without land or rights in the community. The third group of people were the Alii. The head of the alii were the alii nui, who served as chiefs in communities. Their ranks were determined by geneology.

The Alii Nui owned all the land. Each time an Alii Nui died or was overthrown, the new chief had the right to divide the land among all his followers. There was a constant state of death and war under this system. This dispute was mostly territorial between people who wanted to take the land and the people who wanted to keep their territory.

Law and order during this time was maintained by the tax collectors. The Konohiki saw that the land was cultivated and order was maintained. These men would have constables under their authority called Liamuku. These men maintained the peace and local laws throughout the country. The Alii and priests maintained discipline over death. Discipline in ancient Hawaii was severe and rigid, a system maintained by the kapu. A man was believed to be dead when he broke the rules of the kapu.

Modern Hawaii has evolved from these early tribalistic tendencies into the modern liberal democracy practiced in America. Citizens of modern Hawaii fall under law and jurisdiction of the United States government, no longer free to rule themselves as one. Modern citizens enjoy modern culture and modern amenities, concepts and technologies unthought of during the height of the Hawaiian nation. However, modern Hawaii is still subject to modern economic hardships and upsets. [9] At the end of 2016, after one hundred and eighty years the sugar industry is shutting down. After 180 years of business, the last remaining Hawaiian sugar plantation shut down providing a serious blow to the Hawaiian economy resulting in massive job loss.

Hawaii, as a culture and a people, has undergone seismic changes over the course of a few hundred years, and now enjoys life and society under the direction of the United States government. American citizenship has evolved the culture and the proud people of the Hawaii in numerous positive and negative aspects. These aspects such as freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and voting rights are genuine, good change for the citizens of Hawaii. While native Hawaiians have seen their culture diminished and set aside from modern life, this vibrant and colorful history is celebrated and preserved by those it means most to. Hawaii may never be its own nation again, but the spirit of Hawaii lives on eternally in its people and traditions.


[1] A. Grove Day, Hawaii and Its People (New York: Sloan and Pierce, 1955)
[2 ]“ Independence Hall Association. “” Accessed October 31, 2016
[3] Hukilau Network.” “ &CategoryID=311.” accessed November 10,2016
[4] E.S. Craighill Handy, Ancient Hawaiian Civilization (Japan: Flesch), 47 to 56.
[5] Ibid
[6] Public Education in Hawaii” “” Accessed October 31, 2016
[7] Ibid 35 to 40
[8] Ibid 47 to 56
[9] Brenton Awa, “The end of the Sugar Cane era in Hawaii”accessed October 31,2016. “”.

Further Reading
Francine du Plessix Gray, Hawaii: The Sugar-Coated Fortress ( New York 1972)
Ralph S. Kuykendall, Hawaii A History (New Jersey 1967)
Harold Whitman Bradley, The American Frontier in Hawaii: The Pioneers 1789-1843 (Massachusetts 1968)

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