Early Hawaii

Photography World published this article.  Polynesian voyagers discovered the islands between approximately 200 AD and 1000 AD.  They were likely from Marquesas, traveling thousands of miles in canoes, using the stars to navigate, and bringing with them food, animals and plant life to populate their new home.(1)  The first island populated was likely the Big Island.  There are two primary theories that explain the settlement of the Hawaiian Islands.

Settlement theories

The “one-migration” theory states the islands were populated through a single settlement.  Perhaps this happened as James Michener envisioned in his book Hawai’i: a group of outcast Polynesians fled an oppressive island ruler who coerced them into worshiping a god they didn’t believe in.

The “multiple-migration” theory states that the islands were first inhabited by the Menehune from the Marquesas Islands.  This theory says that by about 1200 AD bigger and stronger Polynesians from Tahiti overran the Menehune.  Evidence of the Menehune has been found across the islands so this seems to be the more plausible explanation.  Each of the islands soon had a ruling Tahitian king and they frequently fought each other to expand and protect their territory.(2)

Warring tribes and foreign influence

English voyager Captain James Cook found the Hawaiian Islands in 1778.  King Kamehameha I, one of the ruling chiefs of the Big Island at the time, was a smart man.  He allied himself with Cook and the English’s more advanced weaponry.  In 1782 Kamehameha fought and defeated his cousin, Chief Kiwala’o, on the west coast of the Big Island.  This gave Kamehameha control of the island.

Other great and violent battles occurred in places like the ‘Iao Valley in Maui (‘Iao is pronounced “ee-ow”).  It is here where the Battle of Kepaniwai was fought in 1790.  King Kamehameha I traveled here from the Big Island, bringing with him approximately 1200 warriors.  His ultimate objective was to take control of all of the Hawaiian islands.  Kepaniwai is one of the bloodiest battles in Hawaiian history.  Legend says there were so many corpses floating in the ‘Iao stream that the water’s flow was blocked (Kepaniwai means the “damning of the waters”).

While Kamehameha won the battle of Kepaniwai, he didn’t officially conquer Maui until a few years later – along with Oahu, Molokai and Lanai.  In 1810 the final piece fell into place.  The ruling chief of Kauai saw the writing on the wall and negotiated peace.  Kamehameha simply had overwhelming strength.  The islands were officially unified under the rule of King Kamehameha I.

'Iao Valley and The Needle on Maui, where the great battle of Kepaniwai was fought in 1790 (Doug Oglesby)

Maui’s ‘Iao Valle, location of the battle of Kepaniwai in 1790 (the Needle is on the left).

Foreigners continued to arrive over the years, including Americans and British. In 1840 Hawaii created its first written constitution, establishing it as a monarchy.  The constitution included various American freedoms such as the freedom of religion and the right to a fair trial.  Clearly the British and Americans heavily influenced the Hawaiian constitution.

Birth of an Island

Volcanic eruptions formed the Hawaiian Islands over millions of years.  These eruptions began around 30 million years ago.  The Pacific tectonic plate continues to slowly moves northward.  Each island moves with it, providing room for a new island to form.  As each island moves further north and away from the volcanic hot spot that gave it life, the island stops growing and erosion takes control.  As these volcanic islands erode they sink back into the ocean and disappear.

The Hawaiian Islands are part of the larger Sandwich Islands that run northwest from the main Hawaiian Islands (Captain Cook coined the term “Sandwich Islands” in honor of the Earl of Sandwich, who sponsored Cook’s voyages).  If you follow the chain of these islands you will see the life cycle in action. Those islands furthest from the Big Island are in the final stages of their life cycle.

The Big Island is the youngest of the inhabited Hawaiian Islands and is currently on the hot spot, but a new island is believed to be forming about 20 miles off its southeastern coast – Lo’ihi. Lo’ihi is about 10,100 feet above the ocean’s floor and 3,100 feet from the ocean’s surface. If it’s like the other islands, it will take tens of thousands of years to break the surface.

Plant and animal life

Some Hawaiian plant and animal species are unique only to Hawaii.  For example, the Silversword grows only on the cinder slopes of Maui’s Haleakala National Park.  Haleakala is now dormant, last erupting in 1790.  The Silversword is a very fragile plant that lives up to 90 years.  It blooms only once, scattering its seeds to reproduce, then dies.

The Hawaiian state bird is the Nene, a type of goose endemic to Hawaii.  Other animal and plant species are quite unique but can be seen elsewhere in the world, such as the Rainbow Eucalyptus tree.

Sky reflecting in the sands of Koki Beach in Hana, Mau'i (Doug Oglesby)

Sky reflecting in the sands of Koki Beach in Hana, Maui.

Silversword plant in Haleakala National Park, Mau'i - the only place in the world where this plant grows (Doug Oglesby)

The Silversword plant in Haleakala National Park, Maui – the only place in the world where this plant grows.

See more of my Hawaiian Islands photographs here.


End notes:

(1) Hawaiian Division of State Parks, Archaeology and History; and Lost Kingdom, Hawaii’s Last Queen, the Sugar Kings and America’s First Imperial Adventure, Julia Flynn Siler

(2) Aloha Magazine, History of Hawaii and a History of Hawaii, Student Book by Linda K. Menton and Eileen Tamur


Further reading:

History of Hawaii, Student Book by Linda K. Menton and Eileen Tamura

‘Iao Valley State Park, a History and Culture of Hawaii

Smithsonian Magazine, What We’re Still Learning About Hawaii by Erin Wayman

National Geographic, an encyclopedic entry on atolls; and Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atoll)

Geology.com, Loihi Seamount: The Next Volcanic Island in the Hawaiian Chain (republished from a USGS publication); and Hawai’i Center for Volcanology, General Information About Loihi

National Park Service, Haleakala Silverswords

Leave a Comment

error: Alert: All content is copyright protected. If you are interested in reproducing any content or purchasing images, please contact Doug Oglesby. Thank you.