In 1778 Captain James Cook, a British explorer traversing the Pacific to chart the ocean and make a record of the South Sea Islands and their cultures, landed at Kealakekua Bay on the western coast of the Big Island (Kona). Almost immediately, Hawaii became connected with a world that introduced commerce, immigrants, and sweeping change. By 1820 American Baptist missionaries arrived to educate, “civilize,” and convert the Hawaiian people. King Kamehameha the Great died in 1819, and his son Kamehameha II (Liholiho) became a Christian, setting a precedent that was widely followed in the Islands, and abolished the kapu system. This resulted in dramatic cultural shifts for a population already devastated by foreign disease and depleted natural resources, as traditional farming and trade gave way to colonialist plantations, just as Polynesian traditions gave way to Western ones.
The missionaries stayed through the 1840s and many of their descendants turned from religion to capitalism, trading influence into income as they became wealthy from sugar, railroads, transportation, and banking. It was also during this period that Lahaina, Maui and Honolulu Harbor became popular berths for American whalers stopping in to trade or re-provision before setting out deeper into the Pacific whaling grounds. For a time it was an exceptionally lucrative business, enriching many who were only indirectly involved in the trade, yet it was not sustainable: by 1860 the stocks were depleted and most of the whalers moved on.