History of the Harbor
December 13, 2016
History of the Harbor
Do an online search for Pearl Harbor and you’ll find countless search results pointing towards one devastating day in the harbor’s history. On December 7th, 1941, with the rest of the world already locked in battle, the United States was forced into the fray when Japanese bombers flew in and killed well over two thousand American sailors and soldiers. But that can’t be the only story that the harbor has to tell, can it? There’s much more to Pearl Harbor than the 1941 tragedy, and it has a rich past that deserves retelling, one that we aim to summarize so you can be well-informed during your Oahu vacation.
Before the War, Before America
For many years leading up to the events of World War II and the attack on Pearl Harbor, the lagoon harbor on Oahu just west of Honolulu was home to a United States naval base. The military presence there made an ideal striking point for Japanese bombers, but it wasn’t always occupied by the United States. Before government intervention, Pearl Harbor didn’t even belong to the United States.
Until its annexation by the United States in 1898, Hawaii was an independent kingdom throughout the nineteenth century. Prior to that, it was a melting pot of Polynesian cultures since the first human settlements as early as the year 800. During Hawaii’s years as an independent nation, Pearl Harbor was a major site for trade and whaling vessels, which is what first drew the attention of the US.
The harbor was successful and had always been played an integral part in Hawaiian commerce. American involvement there began as early as 1820. Shortly after, missionaries under the auspices of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions had integrated themselves into Hawaiian affairs both religious and commercial, solidifying a small hold by the United States government.
Before long, the Kingdom of Hawaii was subject to heavy American influence, leading to a momentous decision that would change the fate of the harbor.
Welcoming the Americans
Though Hawaii—and Pearl Harbor—remained independent from the United States, American warships frequented the region, bringing with them advisories from the United States government on how to govern and conduct relations with foreign traders. The United States may not have had official control over Hawaii or Pearl Harbor, but its influence was greatly persuasive.
Despite decades of peaceful business dealings, conflict entered the picture. In 1893, Euro-American business leaders formed the Committee of Safety and staged a coup d’etat against Queen Liliuokalani in hopes of forcing annexation by the United States. Outnumbered by US Marines, the monarchy was defenseless and the coup succeeded, putting in place a provisional government headed by members of the Committee.
The United States Navy established a base at Pearl Harbor in 1899. A period of peace followed for the next 42 years, until forces of Imperial Japan swooped in and tried to lay waste to the troops and vessels stationed there.
Pearl Harbor’s rich history can be best experienced not just through reading about it, but by visiting the myriad of exhibits at the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center and tours of the USS Arizona Memorial, Battleship Missouri, and the Bowfin submarine.