The Hawaiian flag can look distinctly un-American for many people, thanks to the inclusion of a small copy of the British flag in the corner. Since Hawaii is the 50th state and was incorporated into the union almost two centuries after the American Revolutionary War, it might be challenging to imagine how that Union Jack got there — but that Union Jack sure has a story to tell.
Hawaii has a British flag on its canton because of Hawaii’s early relations with England. After Hawaii unified under King Kamehameha the Great, Hawaii commissioned a flag incorporating the Union Jack to denote Kamehameha’s positive relationship with England.
Let’s get to the bottom of this together and explore the fascinating history of the Hawaiian state flag. I’ll also tell you more about why Hawaii has incorporated a new flag into their canon, which you might see just as often as their state flag.
Was Hawaii a British Colony?
Hawaii was never a British colony, but they were a protectorate of England. English explorer James Cook was the first European to stop in Hawaii during his quest for the Northwest Passage.
After years of conflict, the English supported king Kamehameha’s successful effort to unify and rule Hawaii.
The story of the Hawaiian flag is rooted in 38 years of discord, peace, and historical drama. So, buckle up, and let’s take a trip back in time to the day that Englishmen first discovered Hawaii.
Early Hawaiian-British Relations
Hawaii did not lose its independence until the United States annexed it in 1898. However, Hawaii has had a complicated relationship with England since James Cook, the first recorded European to set foot on the Hawaiian islands, ported at the mouth of the Waimea River in Kauai in January 1778.
Cook landed in Hawaii for trading purposes and expressed in his journal for that day that the local people were very hospitable. He offered them nails and other tools in exchange for fruit, boar, and vegetables, and no conflict occurred.
Cook returned the following year in January 1779, landing at Kealakekua Bay on The Big Island.
However, Cook did not know that he had landed near a site sacred to Lono, a fertility god, while the Hawaiians were observing Makahiki, a wintertime period of peace, rest, and prosperity dedicated to Lono. During this period, war is not permitted, and the Hawaiian people celebrate with games, dining, and dancing.
Cook and his crew remained in Hawaii for a blissful 16 days, giving influential locals such as Kamehameha, a member of the Hawaiian royalty, tours of his ship and information about Europe.
However, after one of Cook’s crewmates died, and much of the locals’ resources had been depleted, it seemed that he had worn out his welcome. Soon after his departure, his mast suffered damage, and he had to return.
As he approached the island, the locals reportedly threw stones at him and stole one of his smaller vessels. After landing, disputes broke out. Cook and his men attempted to hold one of the local Ali’i, or royals, hostage to get back his stolen boat. The locals promptly killed Cook and the men with him in retaliation for disrespecting Hawaiian royalty.
Soon after Cook’s death, many locals fell ill with fatal diseases carried by their English visitors, narrowing their population significantly. This disharmony was the first connection between England and the Hawaiian isles.
King Kamehameha the Great and the English Protectorate
In 1782, before Cook landed in Hawaii, the Ruler of the Hawaiian island died, leaving his son, Kīwalaʻō, and nephew, Kamehameha, in charge.
He left most of the territory to Kīwalaʻō but made Kamehameha the ruler of a tiny district and the guardian of a war god, Kūkā’ilimoku. The king’s youngest son received nothing. Kamehameha was not satisfied with his station, nor were the two sons of the late ruler satisfied with sharing titles with Kamehameha.
As a result, a civil war ensued on The Big Island throughout the late 1700s. One of the events during this period was the Olowalu massacre, in which The Eleanora, a British trading vessel, opened fire on the local Hawaiians, killing approximately 100 locals. During the prolonged conflict in the aftermath of this massacre, the Hawaiians captured two Englishmen: John Young and Isaac Davis.
The locals took these men to Kamehameha, who gave them an ultimatum. Kamehameha told them they could die, or they could serve as his military advisors and facilitate the importation of cannons to help Kamehameha win his war for the rulership of Hawaii. They chose to help, and he spared their lives.
The Unification of the Hawaiian Islands and the New Hawaiian Flag
With the innovations of European warfare on his side — and one volcanic eruption that blasted his opponents — Kamehameha quickly defeated and unified what we now know to be the Hawaiian islands by April 1810.
After his experience with the English, Kamehameha knew that Great Britain could be a valuable ally and dangerous enemy. As part of his preparations to defend the Hawaiian isles from any future threats, he was quick to ally himself with the English royals.
Part of these efforts included drafting a flag in 1816 with the Union Jack in the upper corner, or canton. Kamehameha and his advisors hoped that this design would appease the English and make him seem less of a threat.
These efforts did not go unnoticed. In 1843, the English government formally recognized Hawaii as an independent nation and ally, thus ensuring that Britain would not attempt to colonize the islands and that they would protect Hawaii’s independence.
However, later, as tensions between the burgeoning United States and the UK rose, Americans became offended by the Union Jack on the Hawaiian flag. When Kamehameha attempted to fly an American flag instead, England became offended in response.
So, to compromise and satisfy England and the USA, the Hawaiian government added nine red, white, and blue stripes to the flag to represent the eight major Hawaiian islands in an American fashion.
Why Are There Two Hawaiian Flags?
There are two Hawaiian flags, the Hawaiian state flag and the native Hawaiian flag, because some native Hawaiians have resisted flying the state flag. The native Hawaiian flag, or Kanaka Maoli flag, reflects traditional Hawaiian culture.
While the state flag of Hawaii is a common sight on any of the islands, you might also notice another popular flag design in Hawaii.
This second flag, distinct in its red, green, and yellow stripes, is called the Kanaka Maoli flag, which means “the flag of the indigenous Hawaiian people.” This design was introduced by a man named Gene Simoena in 2001.
Although Simoena claims that this flag was once the Hawaiian national flag before 1843, we have no evidence of its existence before the 21st century. However, the flag still has meaning to local Hawaiians due to its symbolism.
Unlike the state flag, made to appease the UK and USA, the Kanaka Maoli flag says something about Hawaiian culture. The red, yellow, and green stripes on the flag represent the three classes of the traditional Hawaiian caste system, while the yellow canoe paddles in the central crest stand for Hawaii’s history of travel and seafaring.
Because this flag speaks to the unique culture of Hawaii and represents more than the state’s allies, it has remained popular in the islands.
If you find yourself in Honolulu and want to learn more about the Hawaiian flag, you can see original quilted Hawaiian flags from the 1800s at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu.
There are also tons of other historical artifacts in the Bishop Museum that relate to Kamehameha, James Cook, and the various Englishmen involved in Hawaiian history, so I recommend taking a trip there.
The Hawaiian state flag is rooted in indigenous Hawaiians’ relationships with English explorers and traders in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Although relations between Hawaii and England began poorly, Britain’s support of King Kamehameha the Great made the island nation an ally and protectorate of England, causing Kamehameha to incorporate the Union Jack into the Hawaiian flag.