Downtown Honolulu used to be known as Kou, a district roughly encompassing the area from Nuʻuanu Avenue to Alakea Street and from Hotel Street to Queen Street (which, then, was the edge of the waterfront) – essentially the heart of the present downtown.
Honolulu Harbor, known as Kuloloia, was entered by the first foreigner, Captain William Brown of the English ship Jackall, in 1794. He named the harbor Fair Haven (some other foreign captains referred to it as Brown’s Harbor.)
The name Honolulu (with numerous variations in spelling) soon came into use. In the 1800s, the City of Honolulu was the area near the harbor which is now referred to as downtown Honolulu.
Today, some of us simply call it “Town.”
OK, so what really makes up the present day City & County of Honolulu … and how big is it?
In expanse, Honolulu is the “largest” city in the world. We know it includes the island of Oʻahu; but that’s not all. Let’s take a look at how and what makes up Honolulu – to get there, though, we first need to wade through some political and legal mumbo jumbo.
The State Constitution states that the area of the State includes the land, reefs and archipelagic waters:
“Hawaiʻi Constitution; Article XV – State Boundaries; Section 1. The State of Hawaiʻi shall consist of all the islands, together with their appurtenant reefs and territorial and archipelagic waters, included in the Territory of Hawaiʻi on the date of enactment of the Admission Act, except the atoll known as Palmyra Island, together with its appurtenant reefs and territorial waters; but this State shall not be deemed to include the Midway Islands, Johnston Island, Sand Island (offshore from Johnston Island) or Kingman Reef, together with their appurtenant reefs and territorial waters.”
The Constitution also gives the legislature the authority to create Counties and other political subdivisions: “Article VIII – Local Government Creation; Section 1. The legislature shall create counties, and may create other political subdivisions within the State, and provide for the government thereof. Each political subdivision shall have and exercise such powers as shall be conferred under general laws.”
State law (Hawaiʻi Revised Statutes) says the archipelagic waters and smaller islands are included when describing districts: Hawaiʻi Revised Statutes – §4-3 Districts include archipelagic waters, etc. Each of the districts includes archipelagic waters and smaller islands adjacent thereto. (Archipelagic means an expanse of water with many scattered islands. (Lee))
So, before we see what “Honolulu” really is, let’s look at the make-up of the State.
Hawaiʻi is geographically an archipelago. It consists of eight main islands, plus a chain of islands extending 1,100-miles to the northwest. Johnston Atoll (Kalama), Palmyra Island and Kingman Reef to the south of Hawaiʻi were part of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi, but the Admission Act excluded these from the geographical boundaries of the State of Hawaiʻi. (Van Dyke)
The Main Hawaiian Island group consists of the following islands: Hawaiʻi, Maui, Oʻahu, Kauaʻi, Molokai, Lānaʻi, Niʻihau, Kahoʻolawe, Molokini, Lehua and, Kaʻula.
Papahānaumokuākea (Northwestern Hawaiian Islands) consists of all islands, atolls, reefs and shoals in the Hawaiian Archipelago northwest of Kauaʻi and Niʻihau. All islands, atolls, reefs and shoals in the Hawaiian Archipelago, except for the Midway Islands, are included in the State of Hawaiʻi under the Admission Act, the State Constitution and the Hawaiʻi Revised Statutes.
Nine larger islands, or island groups, in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are: Nihoa, Necker Island, French Frigate Shoals, Gardner Pinnacles, Maro Reef, Laysan Island, Lisianski Island, Pearl and Hermes Atoll, and Kure Atoll (southeast to northwest.)
Many of these islands, or groups of islands, actually consist of many islets; for example, French Frigate Shoals contains 13 specific islets. The nine major islands, or groups of islands, range in size from Maro Reef with less than one acre to Laysan Island with 913 acres.
OK, some more political and legal mumbo jumbo. The origin of county government within the American context is found in the Organic Act (June 14, 1900) which created the Territory of Hawaiʻi and which gave it the authority to establish municipalities.
The Territorial Legislature made a first attempt at creation of the four counties in 1903 (Act 31;) however, in 1904, the Territorial Supreme Court voided that effort on procedural grounds. The Legislature’s second attempt in 1905, “The County Act” (Act 39,) was successful, though it required an override of a veto by the Territorial Governor. (Konishi)
The City and County of Honolulu consists of the island of Oʻahu, all other islands not included in any other county and adjacent waters thereto. (Legislative Reference Bureau) Essentially, this means the City and County of Honolulu (“Honolulu”) covers all of Oʻahu (and its surrounding islets) plus the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (except Midway.)
As an example of the expansive size of the archipelago, if you put the Big Island on Washington DC, Kure Atoll would be in Bismarck North Dakota. San Francisco to New York is 2,800 to 2,900 miles; the entire Hawaiʻi chain stretches over 1,500 miles – more than halfway across the continent. (Much of that is “Honolulu.”)
While Hawaiʻi is the world’s most-isolated, populated-place, we are about: 2,500-miles from the US mainland, Samoa & Alaska; 4,000-miles from Tokyo, New Zealand & Guam, and 5,000-miles from Australia, the Philippines & Korea. We sometimes overlook the size of our largest City, Honolulu.
There are some things that get in the way of determining the actual “area” of Honolulu. In part, there is disagreement on the status of the archipelagic waters (and whether it is appropriate to include these in the “area” of Honolulu) – especially in the marine expanse between Kure and Kauaʻi.
The international community has recognized the special links between coastal peoples and their adjacent waters repeatedly, and the 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone and the expanded 12-nautical-mile territorial sea are premised upon these links. (Van Dyke)
Some have suggested the linkage of “historic waters” (in and around the islands, including the connecting channels in between.) The linkages are clearer within the Main Hawaiian Islands, maybe not so much to the northwest. If not in overall area (land and connecting water,) Honolulu is clearly the largest city in expanse from Kure to Oʻahu.