In the midst of unwritten traditions the earliest inhabitants among the Hawaiian archipelago were said to be the diversified aquatic organisms and thriving forests. Before the arrival of the mystical Menehune or the seafaring Polynesians of the Pacific. Birds, dozens of honeycreepers, at least 20 species of flightless birds, from tiny rails to ibises to goose-sized ducks filled the ecosystems of these islands. The Menehune, without archaeological evidence were said to have lived among these forests in protection of these precious birds while supporting constant reforestation. Yet, a more plausible historical explanation would be that the Menehune were part of the first wave of Polynesians from the islands of Marquesas.
Radiocarbon dating suggests that Polynesians arrived from the island of Hiva in Marquesas sometime between 300 BC to 1200 AD. A second wave of Polynesians came from Tahiti after 1100 AD and immigration from the South Pacific subsided by the late 1700’s. Hawaii’s isolation was great enough that Hawaiian culture developed its own distinctive characteristics. There are still rather close resemblances in language and culture between the Hawaiians and their Polynesian origins. The first Hawaiʻi censuses was sometime around A.D. 1500. Umi-aliloa, king of Hawaii Island, supposedly conducted a census during his reign. Collecting all his people on a plain near Hualalai, he instructed each person to deposit a stone on a pile representing his district.
The first full-scale censuses, covering all the Islands, were made under missionary support in 1831, 1832, 1835 and 1836. The first of these counts reported a total population of 130,313; the second found only 108,579. The earliest census conducted by the Hawaiian government to achieve reasonably complete coverage was undertaken in January 1850, when enumerators found only 84,165 persons living in the Kingdom. Depopulation continued until 1876, when the total reached 53,900. Since 1900, the U.S. Bureau of the Census has made decennial counts. The population numbered 154,001 in 1900, 422,770 in 1940, 964,691 in 1980 and 1,108,229 in 1990.
The Pot Melts
Composition of the population among the islands after the arrival of foreigners from the West in the late 1700’s. Followed by four decades of European and American explorers, adventurers, trappers, and whalers stopping for fresh supplies. Contact that would have a profound effect on the Polynesian inhabitants. Not the least of these effects was the introduction of diseases from both the East and the West against which the islanders, then virtually disease-free, had no natural immunities. Venereal disease, cholera, measles, and tuberculosis all contributed to the decimation of the native peoples, whose population fell from approximately 300,000 to fewer than 40,000 by the 1890s, little more than a century later.
The collapse of the population, joined with the impact of outside cultures, most likely caused crisis in society among the Kingdom. Following the unification of the all the islands by the king of Hawaii island, the people among the island chain were then termed, Hawaiians. This sparked social and political change, most notably, the Kingdom abolishing the complex kapu (taboo) system of laws and punishments in 1819. Loss of faith in the old gods, intense curiosity about the ways of people of the America and Europe, and avid interest in learning to read and write brought about a rapid adoption of Christianity on the part of many Hawaiians. The first group of Christian missionaries arrived from America in 1820, and by the mid-19th century the islands of Hawaii were largely a Christian kingdom, with a small but significant European and American population.
Since that time, the ethnic and religious makeup of Hawaii has undergone a dramatic change. As the number of Hawaiians declined, other ethnic groups arrived, mainly to work on the plantations. Contract laborers came first from China, then from Japan, the Azores, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Korea. Over the course of two centuries, people from all over the world had settled among the Hawaiian islands, creating a multiethnic society. Each group brought its own customs, languages, and religions into the modern Hawaiian way of life, broadening it far beyond its Polynesian cultural origins. The descendants of these later settlers now far outnumber the descendants of the original Hawaiians. Today, there are only around 5,000 original Hawaiians where the rest of the Hawaiians are of two or more ethnic races.
Up until 1940, the Hawaiian islands were distinguished by a rapid growth in population. The development of a plantation economy based on the production of sugar and pineapples for consumption in America. Movements for statehood, based in part on Hawaii’s obligation to pay U.S. taxes without having corresponding legislative representation, began to emerge. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, on December 7, 1941, brought not only Hawaii but the United States as a whole into World War II, and the islands were beset by an upsurge of military activity and a sometimes-controversial curtailment of civil liberties. The post-1945 period was marked by further economic consolidation and a long constitutional path to statehood, a status finally achieved in 1959.
The Modern Hawaiians
The heading of the Pacific Commercial Advertiser on May 4, 1867, read “But the laborers are few.” Without people, the Hawaiian Kingdom could not exist, without laborers the promising agricultural industries of the country could not develop. Laborers are people, but the population needs of the nation could not be supplied by laborers alone. Families were needed, and women to maintain the ratio of sexes in providing a normal growth in population. The Polynesian stock during the reign of Kamehameha III were first recognized as a problem. It became more noticeable during the reign of Kamehameha IV; and in the reign of Kamehameha V, especially in the last half of it. Questions related to the population and labor supply needed for the management of labor were the leading topics of discussion publicly and privately.
The two main reasons for the low labor problem stemmed from the growth of agricultural enterprises and the continuous decrease of the Hawaiian population at the time. During the reigns of the last two Kamehameha’s there were three censuses: 1860, 1866, and 1872. Hawaiians did work on the sugar plantations in large numbers. In the decades when the sugar industry was getting its start, they performed nearly all of the labor on the plantations up until after the Reciprocity Treaty. As late as 1869 some plantations only employed Hawaiian labor exclusively. The Hawaiian Immigration Society in 1873 showed around 2,627 of the 3,786 male and 364 female laborers were employed Hawaiians.
The population in 1950 on the island of Kauai was 29,683, according to the United States Bureau of the Census. The average density of the population is about 50 people per square mile, but most of the people live in towns and villages along the coastal areas. With a few permanent habitations found more than five miles from the shore. The largest town on the island is Lihue, with a population of 3,879 in 1950. Kapaa had a population around 3,170, Waimea had around 1,640, and Hanapepe had around 1,250 people.
People of Hawaii Today
The 2020 decennial census from the U.S. Census Bureau shows a population in Hawaii of 1,455,271 people. The racial demographics in 2020 estimated to 1,087,142 of people of a single race and 368,129 were of people with two or more races. There are 333,261 of Caucasian alone, 23,417 Black alone, Asian alone 541, 902. A 157, 445 modern Hawaiians with more than one race and Pacific Islanders were grouped together as a single race according to the 2020 U.S. Census Bureau.
Since statehood both the population and the economy boomed throughout the Hawaiian Islands, with ever-increasing numbers of visitors. Outside investments, notably from the U.S. mainland and Japan, along with rising real estate values, made the islands seem especially bountiful. However, wages have not kept up with the cost of living, and many modern Hawaiians of mixed races work multiple jobs to survive. Also, much of the land that had been occupied by the early Polynesians was cleared for new developments and state parks. Beginning in the 1980s, a sovereignty movement emerged on the islands in which Native Hawaiians demanded legal restoration of sovereignty or reparations for the U.S. takeover of their kingdom. Some groups have pressed for the state of Hawaii to become its own nation, while others have advocated for federal recognition of today’s Native Hawaiians equivalent to that of Native Americans. In 1993 U.S. Pres. Bill Clinton apologized for America’s role in the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy.
After decades of growth, the islands underwent a prolonged recession in the early 1990s. By the end of that decade, however, the economy had recovered, and much development took place on Maui and the Kona side of Hawaii Island. Tourism remained the dominant industry in the early 21st century. Visitors are lured not only by the warm climate and exotic beauty of the islands but also by a growing number of world-class resorts, built on such a grand scale that they are destinations in themselves.
Despite the magnet of Hawaii for tourists, foreigners, and researchers, modern Hawaiians of a single race as well as those of mixed races continue to demand land rights, more autonomy in their internal affairs, and the right to self-governance. The establishment of a Native Hawaiian governing entity continues to be debated between modern Hawaiians and those who oppose ancestry-based sovereignty.