Britain and Hawaii: An Overview


Kamehameha I in Honolulu – photo credit: L. Flewelling

It is possible that Captain James Cook was not the first European to land in Hawaii, but his voyage in 1778 was the first to spark sustained contact between Hawaii and Europeans.  Cook set sail on his third voyage, leaving from Plymouth, on 12 July 1776 on the Resolution and the Discovery.  He sailed around Africa, to Tasmania, the Cook Islands, and then to Tahiti.  On 18 January 1778 he sighted O’ahu and Kaua’i. Cook named the islands after the Fourth Earl of Sandwich, then the First Lord of the Admiralty.

His first stop was Waimea, Kaua’i, where the British traded nails and iron for pigs, yams, sweet potatoes, bananas and taro.  From there, the ships sailed for nearby Ni’ihau, before continuing on to explore the northwest coast of North America.  Late in the fall, Cook returned to Hawaii, charting the coasts of Maui and the big island of Hawaii.  Resolution and Discovery anchored at Kealakekua Bay on the Kona Coast of Hawaii, where Cook was eventually killed in a skirmish with the Hawaiians on 14 February 1779.

When Europeans first landed, around 300,000 Hawaiians lived under competing political units.  From 1782 to 1810, Kamehameha I rose to power and consolidated his control over each of the islands.  Kamehameha utilized western firearms and the presence of Europeans to help strengthen his position.  Captain George Vancouver, who was a lieutenant under Cook during his third voyage, was sent back to the Pacific in 1791, visiting Hawaii three times between 1792 and 1794.  He made a survey of the Hawaiian Islands and wintered in O’ahu, bringing cattle, sheep, goats, and geese as gifts.  He fitted out Kamehameha’s canoes with sails and gifted him a Union Jack, and he spoke out against the trade in firearms that he observed.  Trade had been quickly initiated, with British, French, and Spanish fur traders and adventurers increasingly adopting Hawaii as a place to winter.  Gradually sandalwood became the primary trade commodity, the economy increasingly relied on trade, and disease killed large numbers of Hawaiians.

With the growing importance of trade, Britain, the United States, and Russia each established strong presence in Hawaii.  The first missionaries arrived from Boston in 1819, which would eventually have an enormous impact on the course of future events.  For the moment, Britain was looked upon as a favorable foreign influence, and Kamehameha II set off from Honolulu on a British whaler in November 1823 to visit London.  He arrived in Britain in May 1824, was introduced to British high society, and was set to meet King George IV in June when he and most of the members of his party were struck with the measles.  Kamehameha II died in London on 14 July 1824.

Due to the importance of trade with Hawaii and the booming business community, both the British and Americans established consulates.  In 1842, the outgoing British consul, Richard Charlton, claimed that British subjects in Hawaii were being denied their legal rights.  Lord George Paulet, captain of the Carysfort, was sent to Honolulu to investigate.  An American, Dr. Gerrit P. Judd, had been appointed as an emissary by Kamehameha III, which apparently enraged Paulet.  After several days of deliberations, Kamehameha yielded to Paulet, the Hawaiian flag was lowered on 25 February 1843, and Paulet declared himself in charge of a new government of Hawaii.  The Union Jack was raised over Honolulu.

Foreshadowing future dealings between Hawaii and the Americans, the British government did not support Paulet’s move.  Rear Admiral Richard Thomas arrived on the Dublin five months later, and reassured Kamehameha III that independence would be restored.  Britain and France formally recognized Hawaiian independence with a joint declaration on 28 November 1843, with the United States officially recognizing Hawaii as a nation later on.

The close relationship between Britain and Hawaii in this period is reflected in the Hawaiian flag, which features the Union Jack in the upper left corner along with red, white, and blue stripes symbolizing Hawaii’s eight main islands.


Maui – photo credit: L. Flewelling