It is impossible to capture the essence of Oahu with a single snapshot. Sparkling beaches, winding forest trails, thundering waterfalls, and of course, the people, all contribute to the island's allure and mystique. But none of these traits formed overnight, and Oahu is a work of art that has taken five million years to create.
Oahu is just one of eight islands that make up the state of Hawaii, which itself is a part of the Hawaiian Archipelago covering over 1,500 miles of the Pacific Ocean with 132 islands.
Geologists believe the islands in the archipelago were formed by massive columns of lava called "plumes" that lie beneath the ocean floor. These stationary "hot spots" shoot out lava that eventually cools and hardens to form islands. Then, due to plate tectonics and the movement of the Pacific shelf, the newly created islands move northwest at a rate of about five inches a year. Occasionally, two or more volcanoes will merge together to create a single island. Oahu is one example of this phenomenon, as the Waianae and Koolau volcanoes fused approximately five million years ago.
One way to understand the Hawaiian Archipelago is to imagine it as a giant conveyor belt that is constantly moving and creating new islands. In fact, a new island named Loihi is being formed right now off the Big Island, although real estate moguls will have to wait about a million years before it breaks the ocean surface. Meanwhile, the oldest island in the chain, Midway, is estimated to be somewhere between 15 and 25 million years old.
Although new islands are constantly being created, there is a reason why the Hawaiian Archipelago does not stretch across the globe. After being exposed to tens of millions of years of heavy rains, buffeting wind, and pounding waves, islands like Midway are eroded away to a fraction of their original glory until they simply fade back into the ocean floor. Even Oahu is destined to disappear in approximately 30 million years, so be sure to plan your visit before then.
During the next few million years after Oahu's formation, the land became a Darwinian dream of new plant and animal species. Because the Hawaiian Islands are isolated thousands of miles from the nearest land mass, it is extremely difficult for any living thing to reach the islands. Plant seeds must travel weeks at a time on air currents or ocean waves, and the only animals able to make the long voyage were birds. The plants that did manage to find their way onto the islands, however, quickly took root in the fertile volcanic soil and temperate climate and were able to thrive.
Such geographic isolation also meant plant and animal species were able to grow and adapt to their new sanctuary without fear of predators or competition. This is one of the reasons scientists estimate that Hawai'i is home to as many as 10,000 species found nowhere else in the world.
Eventually of course, humans managed to find their way to Hawaii. Archeologists believe that Polynesian voyagers managed to settle the Hawaiian Islands within the last two thousand years. Unfortunately, exactly how and when the Polynesians arrived is a matter of debate and uncertainty.
Two thousand years ago, Polynesian voyagers did not have access to GPS systems, ocean maps, or even compasses, so it would have taken an enormous amount of skill, luck, or a combination of both to find Hawaii. One school of thought suggests that early Polynesian explorers simply drifted along the ocean currents, hoping to hit land. Meanwhile, the other side of the debate believes that the Polynesians were able to cross the Pacific using the stars and the sun to navigate.
Whenever and however Hawai'i was settled, a thriving society with its own unique set of customs and traditions was in place without disturbance for at least a millennium.
At that point, it was a culture that had quietly managed to carve out its own niche on the planet without being discovered by the outside world.
In 1776, Captain James Cook and his crew set sail on a fateful voyage that would forever alter Hawaiian history. The main purpose of Cook's voyage was to search for the fabled Northwest Passage in North America. After making stops in places such as Australia, New Zealand, and Tahiti, Cook stumbled upon the Hawaiian Islands. As any good citizen would, Cook decided to name his new discovery the "Sandwich Islands" after the Earl of Sandwich.
During the first encounter between the two civilizations, the Hawaiian people were fascinated by Cook's pale skin and believed he was a deity or a messenger from the god Lono. As a result, Cook was lavished with gifts, and ceremonies were held in his honor.
While many people would have chosen to settle down to such a glamorous life in Hawaii, Cook was an insatiable explorer and decided to depart the islands for his next adventurer. However, soon after he left, a storm damaged his ship the Resolution, forcing Cook and his crew to return to shore.
By this time, relations between the islanders and the crew had quickly soured. Doubts about Cook's stature led to conflicts between the two sides, culminating in a battle that ended with Cook's death. Even though Cook was killed, however, Hawai'i had already been opened to the world, and great changes were coming to the islands.
Although there have been countless Hawaiian rulers throughout the history of the islands, two of the most notable leaders are King Kamehameha and Queen Liliuokalani.
Before Hawai'i truly westernized and opened its door to outsiders, the Hawaiian people largely maintained their own ways and traditions. While people from all the islands shared many of the same beliefs and customs, Hawaiians had never been united under a single ruler. Due to the inherent logistical difficulties of traveling from island to island, it is fairly easy to see why this task had never been accomplished.
However, in 1804, the renowned warrior Kamehameha I finally managed to gain control over the state, thanks to a decisive battle fought in Nuuanu Valley. In the battle, Kamehameha strategically forced his enemies up onto the steep mountain side of the Pali where they could either fall to their death off the steep cliffs or attempt to fight through Kamehameha's waiting army.
Another significant Hawaiian ruler is Queen Liliuokalani. Born in 1838, she was the first Queen of Hawai'i and the state's last monarch.
After inheriting the throne from her brother, Kalakaua, in 1891, Liliuokalani quickly ran into a powerful opposition group that wanted Hawai'i to be annexed by the United States, thus ending traditional Hawaiian governance.
Over the ensuing years, Liliuokalani found it increasingly difficult to maintain her position until eventually, after being arrested in 1895, she abdicated her throne to the U.S. Government.
To this day, Liliuokalani's abdication is a matter of great debate because it is unclear whether she gave up power willingly or because she feared U.S. troops would attack the Hawaiian people.
However it happened, Liliuokalani's decision was the final act of the Hawaiian monarchy, and Hawai'i was annexed by the United States in 1898, becoming a part of the U.S. Hawai'i later became the 50th state in 1959, which is also the same year the first jet plane arrived in Hawai'i to begin the age of tourism.
Sugar Cane Plantation:
One of the largest influences on Hawaii's current cultural and ethnic makeup can be directly traced to sugar cane.
During the late 1800s, sugar cane became the big business of Hawaii. Wealthy, white landowners controlled enormous amounts of land and brought immigrants from across Asia and the Pacific to work the fields. The low wages, long days of backbreaking labor, and bleak living quarters made for a brutal life on the plantation. Immigrants still continued to travel to Hawai'i though, in search of the fabled American dream and the hopes of a better life.
After the workers reached Hawaii, most settled down and raised families, drastically changing the face and culture of Hawaii. In 1853, 97% of the people in Hawai'i were indigenous Hawaiians, but by 1923, that number had dropped to 16%.
While the plantation workers brought their own traditions with them to Hawaii, they also blended and adopted practices from other cultures to create something uniquely Hawaiian. The islands essentially became a melting pot of ideas and customs. Or, as the people of Hawai'i might put it, the state became a "mixed plate".
As the world evolved technologically and socially in the 20th century, Hawai'i became a pivotal military outpost for the U.S. government. With its location in the Pacific Ocean, Hawai'i could be used as a launching point for excursions throughout Asia and the Pacific, allowing ships to refuel and recoup after a long voyage from the west coast.
The military significance of Hawai'i was made painfully clear on December 7th, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Over 2000 people were killed that day, and the attack finally moved the U.S. to join World War II.
Today, the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor lies as a reminder to visitors of the day "that will live in infamy".
Travelers to Oahu today find a dichotomy of past and present, as traditional Hawaiian practices coexist with American ways. The streets and highways were all built by the U.S. government, but most have Hawaiian names. A people previously closed to the outside world have learned to embrace tourism as an economic tool.
Still, many visitors to Oahu leave with the impression that the island is just Waikiki Beach and Diamond Head which, as remarkable as they are, represent a small slice of what Oahu is. The true people of Oahu, the Kama'aina, are off the well-traveled roads. To find out more about the people and discover the real value of the islands requires a little more work, but the work will be paid off many times over.