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Oahu's Past Shaping the Future

How Oahu's history influenced the Oahu of today.

The Pacific Ocean has long played a valuable role in the history of the Hawaiian islands, welcoming many people and cultures to its shores. Influences of the diverse cultures and people found throughout Oahu create a path of aloha, rich with reminders of a colorful past. Whether in Waikiki or downtown Honolulu, on the Windward or Leeward side, glimpses of Hawaii’s past continue to mold its present and future.

Ancient Hawaii

The first people to settle in the Hawaiian Islands were highly skilled sea navigators from the South Pacific. There were two periods of Polynesian migration from different parts of the Pacific. The first Polynesians migrated around 600-750 A.D. from Marquesas, and the second migration occurred around 1100 A.D. from the Society Islands. These ancient sea-faring people brought with them food provisions, plants and domestic animals, as well as knowledge of ocean navigation based on the stars. They traveled with the intent to settle, which they did, but they also made many return voyages to their homelands.

Polynesians adapted to their new island home, developing their own culture while maintaining the social and political structure of their homeland. Small kingdoms divided the islands and each kingdom was ruled by its own high chief. While the high chief was the highest political entity, he received guidance from a council of chiefs and a high priest. Under the king’s protection were the chiefs of the smaller districts of land. The chiefs, also known as alii, were ranked in society based on their ancestral lineage. The next group with social power was the kahuna, priests and craftsmen. While kahuna were skilled with a profession, such as canoe building or medicine, they were attributed with knowledge of the supernatural and were to be revered and feared as well.

The distinction between those with power and the makaainana (commoners) was maintained and reinforced with a system of restriction called “kapu.” The kapu system permeated everyday life and imposed punishments, which were often severe, upon offenders. An example of kapu is the rule that men and women could not eat together nor partake of the same foods. Women ate separately from men and were forbidden to eat coconut, pork or most varieties of banana.

Up until the late 1700s, the people of Hawaii only knew of people from other neighboring Pacific kingdoms. With the arrival of England’s Captain James Cook in 1778, the lives of the Hawaiian people were altered forever. Captain James Cook happened upon the Hawaiian Islands during an expedition in search of the Northwest Passage. Captain Cook was familiar with the Pacific and had made contact with other peoples and Polynesian islands. His ships returned the following year and arrived in Kealakekua Bay, which means The Pathway of the God, and were mistaken by the people of the Big Island as the returning god, Lono. The Hawaiians welcomed Captain Cook and his crew into their village, showing them great hospitality. As time passed, tensions between the Hawaiians and Captain Cook and his crew grew, erupting into a violent confrontation at Kealakekua Bay in 1779. Upon his return, Captain Cook was one of the many mortally wounded as a result of the battle. Cook was concerned over articles taken from one of his ships and he decided to take the high chief Kalaniopuu as a hostage. A skirmish ensued in which Cook was killed.

While Captain Cook’s remaining crew left the Hawaiian Islands, contact with Europeans irrevocably touched the lives of the Hawaiians. New diseases were introduced to the Hawaiian people, who had no immunity against the often-deadly diseases. Such diseases as small pox, measles and whopping cough killed many Hawaiians. In addition, the Hawaiians were introduced to and shown the power of firearms and metal.

The Great Hawaiian Rulers

King Kamehameha I (Kamehameha The Great): 1782-1819
In 1780, King Kalaniopuu, ruler of the Big Island, named Kiwalao, his son, as his heir and successor and Kamehameha, his nephew, as custodian of Kukailimoku (the god of war). Kamehameha, who had great ambitions, fought Kiwalao for control of the land and people. Kiwalao was slain, making Kamehameha king of the Big Island. Kamehameha then conquered the islands of Maui, Lanai, Molokai and then Oahu, another center of power. His last and greatest battle on the island of Oahu occurred in 1795. With Oahu under his domain, the king of the islands of Kauai and Niihau acquiesced to King Kamehameha’s sovereignty. As king of the Hawaiian Islands, King Kamehameha ruled his kingdom from Oahu, the gathering place until several years before his death, when he moved his court back to Kailua, Kona on the island of Hawaii.

Kamehameha II (Liholiho): 1819-1824
Kamehameha II was the first Hawaiian king to test the power of the ancient gods by violating the kapu of men and women eating together. His rule over the islands was short. In 1824 during a visit to England, Kamehameha II and Queen Kamamalu contracted a fatal case of the measles. No expense was spared by the British Crown to return them to their island home in a manner befitting royalty.

Kamehameha III (Kauikeaouli): 1825-1854
Kamehameha III was crowned king at the age of 10. He successfully ruled in a time of change, when the traditional laws governing Hawaii were replaced by more complex laws governing trade, credit, etc. It was during his reign that chiefs and commoners alike were first given a chance to own land in fee simple title.

Kamehameha IV (Alexander Liholiho): 1854-1863
King Kamehameha IV and his wife, Emma Rooke, are best remembered for their elegance and style. The pair founded The Queen’s Medical Center in Honolulu in 1859 to help stop the rapid decline of the native Hawaiian population from disease. They also established the Episcopal Church in Hawaii, which later sponsored a school for boys (Iolani) and one for girls (St. Andrew’s). The Queen Emma Summer Palace, an Oahu landmark in Nuuanu Valley, was their summer retreat in the mid-1800s.

Kamehameha V (Lot Kapuaiwa): 1863-1872
Like Kamehameha IV, Kamehameha V was a grandson of King Kamehameha the Great. He also was the last king directly from this bloodline to rule over the Hawaiian Islands.

Lunalilo: 1873-1874
King William Lunalilo was crowned king by the Legislature of Hawaii in 1873. His reign was short as he died 13 months after he assumed the throne.

Kalakaua: 1874-1891
After the death of Lunalilo, the Legislature of Hawaii selected David Kalakaua as the next monarch. King Kalakaua ruled in a time of change and unrest. He was known for his love of parties and fine things, and was referred to as the “Merry Monarch.” It was during his reign that the beautiful and majestic Iolani Palace on Oahu was constructed.

Liliuokalani: 1891-1893
Kalakaua’s sister became Hawaii’s last reigning monarch. During her rule, much strife resulted in the Queen’s abdication of the throne to prevent bloodshed.

During the reign of Hawaii’s sovereigns, the influence of the missionaries grew. The American missionaries became a strong social group, influencing and reshaping social mores and behaviors of the time. Christianity was increasingly becoming an influential religion in the Hawaiian Islands. Many of the historic churches on Oahu are reminders of Christianity’s influence, such as Kawaihao Church, which was the place of worship for Hawaiian kings and alii. Also during this time, another powerful, driving force was growing and exerting increasing influence over the future of Oahu and the neighbor islands. As early as 1835 with the first sugar plantation, the Hawaiian Islands were recognized for their prime agricultural land for growing a variety of crops such as sugar cane and pineapple. As agriculture became a dominant economic force, it impacted the political and social structure of its time, changing the ethnic and cultural mix of the islands.

As agriculture boomed on Oahu and the neighboring islands in the late 19th century, plantation owners found themselves in the midst of a labor shortage. The first foreign workers recruited were from China. Workers from Japan, Russia, Korea, Puerto Rico, Portugal and the Philippines in 1852 also were brought to the islands to work and live on the plantations. While plantation owners recruited primarily from Asia, they also solicited workers from Europe.

For the migrant workers, this was an opportunity to start a new life, earning high wages by their country’s standards. Most Asian workers came to Oahu as contract laborers. The contract labor system eventually ended in the early 1900s, when Hawaii became a U.S. territory. With the abolishment of the contract labor system, many laborers, especially the Chinese and Japanese, left the plantations after their contract was completed to pursue a livelihood in the islands. Some of the laborers became shopkeepers and farmers.

On the plantation, housing was provided by the plantation and grouped by ethnic group. Housing camps were provided for the workers and their families. Although there was division and sometimes friction among the different nationalities, the different races eventually put their differences aside to strike as the labor class, not just as separate nationalities. A new kinship, based upon recognition of their strength as a united labor class, brought the diverse racial groups together to demand better wages from the plantation owner.

Slowly, Oahu’s stronghold on the U.S. sugar and pineapple market dwindled. Today, only skeletons of Oahu’s glorious plantation days can be observed around the island. Visitors can step backward in time to see the camp life at Waipahu’s Plantation Village. Also, remnants of the original mills with towering smoke stacks, which were the center of the plantation, can be seen in Kahuku, Wahiawa and Waialua. The smoke stack of the old Waialua Sugar Mill can be seen as one drives toward Historic Haleiwa town.

Today many of the agricultural lands reserved for pineapple and sugar, primary agricultural products, have been reclaimed for diversified agriculture. Some of the diversified agricultural products now successfully being grown on Oahu include Waialua Coffee, tropical flowers, papayas, asparagus, as well as alfalfa hay for farm animals.

Article provided courtesy of the Oahu Visitor's Bureau

See also:
- History of Oahu
- The Hawaiian Monarchy
- Regions of Oahu
- More Articles about Hawaii



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