Why does Hawaii’s flag include the Union Flag?

Each of the states of the United States of America has its own flag. Many are nothing more than drab depictions of the state seal against a navy blue background. Some are a little more adventurous, such as Maryland’s heraldry-inspired riot of colour and shapes. But one sticks out more than any of the others; Hawaii is the only flag to depict the Union Flag of the United Kingdom in its design.

It is one of the more vibrant state flags, with three red stripes, three white stripes and two blue stripes. The choice of red, white and blue stripes makes it a recognisably American design. One prominent feature, however, is arrestingly un-American – the unmistakable Union Flag of the United Kingdom is displayed in the canton.

Flag of the state of Hawaii flying at Haleakalā National Park on Maui, Hawaiʻi By The uploader (Own work; taken by the uploader) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The story of Hawaii’s state flag tells the story of competing claims for the Pacific island group. As Hawaii, they became the most recent of the 50 states of the United States in 1959. They had, however, been annexed as the Territory of Hawaii in 1898. But as the Sandwich Islands, the territory had been eyed by Britain for their naval significance.

One of the legends surrounding the adoption of the current flag is that the British had given King Kamehameha I a Union Flag. The Hawaiian king had flown it out of respect for King George III and as a sign of friendship with Britain. During the War of 1812, Americans on the islands were unhappy with such a partisan act. The current design, combining elements from both nation’s flags, was the Hawaiian compromise.

Hawaiian Islands Johnson's new chart of national emblems, 1868 2

As with many good historical legends, there is no solid evidence that this happened. What seems more likely is that in an age of national symbols and maritime power, Hawaii needed a flag to denote its own vessels. The website of the Pu’ukohola Heiau National Historic Site suggests that the design arose in 1816 – well after the end of hostilities between Britain and the USA.

“During the late 1700’s, Kamehameha developed a good relationship with the various British sea captains and explorers that came to Hawaii during that time. When Kamehameha commissioned a flag for the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1816, the designer incorporated the “Union Jack”.”

King Kamehameha I of Hawaii

Although it is the only state flag to depict the Union Flag, it is not the only state symbol to carry the British flag. Alabama’s coat of arms also features the Union Flag – quartered with symbols portraying other powers that have, at some point in history, been sovereign over Alabaman territory.