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Oahu - History

Oahu History

Though other parts of the sprawling Pacific group called Polynesia were settled as far back as 1000 BC, it wasn't until 500 AD that anyone bothered to beach themselves permanently in Hawaii. Early colonizers included the Tahitians, who repeatedly sailed a mere 2700mi (4350km) to dump more people and supplies on their new rocks. Animism, already a big hit in Hawaii, became even more significant in the 12th century when a powerful kahuna (priest) introduced human sacrifices and a kapu system of taboos which helped deify local royalty. The first European to officially encounter the islands was James Cook in 1778, who was favorably mistaken for the god of harvests. A year later his favoritism had run out and he was killed in a dispute with tribespeople on the main island of Hawaii.

Around the time of Cook's ill-fated visit, a number of rival chiefs - including the immodestly titled Kamehameha the Great - were fighting for control of Hawaii. Kamehameha eventually won out and quickly claimed all the islands in the group, creating the first united Hawaiian kingdom - Oahu, vanquished in 1795, was the last independent island to fall. Hawaii's new king moved house to a flourishing village called Honolulu in 1809 in order to control and develop the vigorous trade taking place in the harbor with visiting merchant ships. By the time Kamehameha the Great (but not Immortal) died 10 years later, Honolulu was the booming center of Hawaiian commerce.

Honolulu's first bars and brothels opened in the 1820s to patronize the crews of whaling ships, but were soon confronted by the theological ire of newly arrived missionaries. A modern echo of the ensuing moral struggle is the proximity of the Protestant mission to the red-light district in contemporary Honolulu. Many arrivals from missionary ships soon disavowed non-secular affairs and concentrated on commercial matters. Sugar plantations were established in the 1830s and soon asserted themselves as Hawaii's major industry, in the process sparking off a robust pattern of immigration exemplified by today's ethnic diversity.

Honolulu took over from Maui as capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1845. This was decreed by Kamehameha III, who then outdid himself by creating a national legislature, establishing religious freedom, and weathering a six-month 'invasion' by a petulant British commander prompted by an errant land deal. Kamehameha III's kingly successors faced (and in some cases encouraged) the growing domination of Hawaiian affairs by Western expatriates. The islands' last male monarch was King Kalakaua, who composed a national anthem and revived traditional pursuits like hula dancing, but mired himself in extravagance and relinquished much of his power to the sugar barons.

Two years after Kalakaua's death in 1891, a group of American businessmen seized control of Hawaii from Queen Liliuokalani and declared it their own 'republic'. US President Grover Cleveland at first voiced his disapproval of the coup, but ultimately did nothing to restore power to native Hawaiians. In 1898, Hawaii was formally annexed by the USA as its newest state.

By the beginning of the 20th century, the native population had been decimated by foreign diseases and numbered barely 50,000. Around this time, an extra 70,000 Japanese immigrants were brought into the state to work the sugar plantations (and later on pineapple plantations), which accounts for the high proportion of Japanese in the current population.

Socioeconomic issues took a backseat to military concerns during WWI, and again after Japanese warplanes bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, an attack in which over 2300 US soldiers were killed. For the duration of WWII, Oahu served as the USA's Pacific command post, and was also the site of a cultural clampdown on the resident Japanese population by suspicious Americans. Soon after the war, a new crisis developed on Oahu's waterfront, which was the subject of a crippling six-month strike by unionists lobbying for a much fairer deal for Hawaiian labor - the successful union action subsequently launched effective political opposition to the non-native landowners. The 1950s closed with a plebiscite on statehood in which 90% of islanders voted 'yes', and Hawaii became the 50th state of the USA on 21 August 1959.

Hawaiian sovereignty has become a significant political issue in the intervening decades since statehood, spurred in particular by the near-fraudulent failure of a scheme to lease land cheaply to native islanders, and the 1993 centenary of the overthrow of Queen Liliuokalani (later that year, then-US Prez Clinton signed a formal apology to Hawaii's first inhabitants). There are consistent calls for some form of self-determination - some native Hawaiian groups are calling for the reinstitution of the monarchy and others for financial reparations, but all appear to agree that the model they're after is that of a nation within a nation.

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