Honolulu History

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Some scholars estimate Polynesian migrants arrived in Hawaii as early as 400 A.D., archaeologists believe it was centuries before the voyagers made their way up the island chain to Oahu. Oral history and archaeology date the earliest settlement on Oahu to 1100 A.D. In 1794, Capt. William Brown became the first foreigner to sail to Honolulu, guiding the English ship Butterworth into a well-protected natural harbor. He named it Fair Haven, but his contemporaries more commonly referred to as Brown’s Harbor. In the 1800s it took on the name Honolulu (“sheltered harbor”) while the city of Honolulu developed nearby.

Honolulu didn’t become part of the Hawaiian Kingdom until 1804. King Kamehameha I, on his way to unifying the major Hawaiian Islands, conquered Oahu in a decisive battle in Nuuanu Valley. He forced his opponents up a 1,000 foot cliff, or pali in Hawaii, where many leapt or fell to their deaths rather than surrender. After taking control of Oahu, Kamahemeha I moved his court from the Big Island of Hawaii to Waikiki. He relocated it again to downtown Honolulu five years later to be closer to the harbor, where fragrant sandalwood — used for perfumes, cosmetics, incense and wood carvings — could be exported at a premium, particularly to China. Within a couple OF decades, however, the Hawaiians had harvested the slow-growing sandalwood trees to near extinction. But even without the precious export, Honolulu Harbor remained the center of commerce for Oahu, welcoming whalers and traders who needed a place to restock, refuel and find some rest and relaxation.

But other Westerners saw Honolulu as more than just a way-station in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. In the 1820s, Christian missionaries from New England arrived in Hawaii and began exerting a Western influence through religion, education, economics and politics. In 1835, the first large commercial sugar plantation opened. As the industry took hold, more plantations opened and waves of laborers from China, Japan, Portugal, Puerto Rico and the Philippines arrived to work in the cane fields and factories.

The sugar industry thrived, helped in part by the American Reciprocity Act of 1874, which let the United States use Pearl Harbor as a naval base in exchange for duty-free importation of Hawaiian sugar. The tourism industry, on the other hand, would be slow to take hold, largely because it took weeks to travel by boat. The first attempt, a “HOTEL AT WAITITI” was advertised in the July 1, 1837, edition of the Sandwich Island Gazette. It closed after just a few years. The second wouldn’t open until 1888 and was also short lived, although it was leased and reopened as Sans Souci in 1893, becoming Waikiki’s first popular beach resort. Author Robert Louis Stevenson was one of the hotel’s first guests. Decades later, the introduction of trans-oceanic/trans-pacific commercial jet service in 1959 finally helped Honolulu’s tourism industry take off.

The influx of foreigners helped shape modern Honolulu’s local culture, but the ethnic mix wasn’t always a perfect blend:

  • In December 1899, five people died of the bubonic plague in an epidemic that would take 61 lives. Several races were affected, but 33 of the dead were Chinese. On Jan. 20, 1900, the Department of Health evacuated Chinatown to torch the infected houses and corpses and prevent further spread of the disease. It was intended to be a controlled blaze, but shifting winds fueled the flames and Chinatown burned to the ground.
  • On Sept. 12, 1931, Thalia Massie, a young navy wife, left a party after a night of drinking. A couple hours later, she was found bruised and bloodied, with a broken jaw. Police had picked up five men in an unrelated traffic incident that same night and repeatedly brought them to Massie’s hospital room until she identified them as the men who abducted and raped her. The case made national headlines about the safety of white women around the “natives,” but the jury wasn’t as easily convinced as the media. The jury ended up deadlocked because Massie’s clothing had been intact after the attack and it was unclear who assaulted her. One of the defendants ended up severely beaten and another, Joseph Kahalawai, was shot and killed by Massie’s mother, husband and two sailors. The four, defended by Clarence Darrow, were found guilty and sentenced to four to 10 years of hard labor. Gov. Lawrence Judd commuted their sentences to one hour each in his chambers. The case shocked the public and led to the hiring of a new police chief and a reorganization of the criminal justice system.
  • On Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor, leading to 3,435 casualties, severe damage to eight battleships and 10 other ships and the destruction of 188 planes. Martial law was enacted and remained in effect for the duration of the war. Immediately following the attack, all Hawaii residents of Japanese descent were suspect. In January 1942, some 1,800 first generation Japanese in Hawaii were sent to internment camps on the Mainland, all U.S. soldiers of Japanese ancestry were released from duty and Japanese civilians employed by the Army were suspended. Five months later, however, second-generation Japanese were put into a “provisional” battalion and trained for combat. Eventually designated the 100th Infantry Battalion, they would become part of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the most decorated unit for its size and length of service in U.S. military history. Following the war, the labor unions, in particular the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU) encouraged the veterans to attend college on the G.I. Bill. One of those veterans was U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye. The WWII veterans and labor unions helped the Democratic Party seize control of the territorial legislature in 1954, a move that continues to resonate in Hawaii politics today.
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