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On November 26, 1778, explorer James Cook became the first European to see Maui. Cook never set foot on the island because he was unable to find a suitable landing. The first European to visit Maui was the French admiral Jean-François de Galaup, comte de Lapérouse, who landed on the shores of what is now known as La Perouse Bay on May 29, 1786. More Europeans followed: traders, whalers, loggers (e.g., of sandalwood) and missionaries. The latter began to arrive from New England in 1823, settling in Lahaina, which at that time was the capital. They clothed the natives, banned them from dancing hula, and greatly altered the culture. The missionaries taught reading and writing, created the 12-letter Hawaiian alphabet, started a printing press in Lahaina, and began writing the islands' history, which until then was transmitted orally. Ironically, the missionaries both altered and preserved the native culture. The religious work altered the culture while the literacy efforts preserved native history and language. Missionaries started the first school in Lahaina, which still exists today: Lahainaluna Mission School, which opened in 1831.
Polynesians from Tahiti were the original people to populate Maui. The Tahitians introduced the kapu system, a strict social order that affected all aspects of life and became the core of Hawaiʻian culture. Modern Hawaiʻian history began in the mid-18th century. Kamehameha I, king of the island of Hawaiʻi, invaded Maui in 1790 and fought the inconclusive Battle of Kepaniwai, but returned to Hawaiʻi to battle a rival, finally subduing Maui a few years later.
Kamehameha's descendants reigned until 1872. They were followed by rulers from another ancient family of chiefs, including Queen Liliʻuokalani, deposed in the 1893 overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii by American business interests. One year later, the Republic of Hawaii was founded. The island was annexed by the United States in 1898 and made a territory in 1900. Hawaiʻi became the 50th U.S. state in 1959.
In 1937, Vibora Luviminda trade union conducted the last strike action of an ethnic nature in the Hawaiʻian Islands against four Maui sugarcane plantations, demanding higher wages and the dismissal of five foremen. Manuel Fagel and nine other strike leaders were arrested, and charged with kidnapping a worker. Fagel spent four months in jail while the strike continued. Eventually, Vibora Luviminda made its point and the workers won a 15% increase in wages after 85 days on strike, but there was no written contract signed.
In 1974, Emil Tedeschi of the Napa Valley winegrower family of Calistoga, California, established the first Hawaiian commercial winery, the Tedeschi Winery at Ulupalakua Ranch.
In the 2000s, controversies over whether to continue rapid real-estate development, vacation rentals in which homeowners rent their homes to visitors, and Hawaii Superferry preoccupied local residents. In 2003, Corey Ryder of the Earth Foundation gave a presentation regarding the unique situation on Maui, "Hazard mitigation, safety & security", before the Maui County Council. In 2009, the county approved a 1,000-unit development in South Maui in the teeth of the financial crisis. Vacation rentals are now strictly limited, with greater enforcement than previously. Hawaii Superferry, which offered transport between Maui and Oahu, ceased operations in May 2009, ended by a court decision that required environmental studies from which Governor Linda Lingle had exempted the operator.
Maui County welcomed 2,207,826 tourists in 2004 rising to 2,639,929 in 2007 with total tourist expenditures north of US$3.5 billion for the Island of Maui alone. While the island of Oʻahu is most popular with Japanese tourists, the Island of Maui appeals to visitors mostly from the U.S. mainland and Canada: in 2005, there were 2,003,492 domestic arrivals on the island, compared to 260,184 international arrivals.
Water for sugar cultivation comes mostly from the streams of East Maui, routed through a network of tunnels and ditches hand dug by Chinese labor in the 19th century. In 2006, the town of Paia successfully petitioned the county against mixing in treated water from wells known to be contaminated with both 1,2-dibromoethane and 1,2-dibromo-3-chloropropane from former pineapple cultivation in the area (Environment Hawaii, 1996). Agricultural companies have been released from all future liability for these chemicals (County of Maui, 1999). In 2009, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and others successfully argued in court that sugar companies should reduce the amount of water they take from four streams.
The unemployment rate reached a low of 1.7% in December 2006, rising to 9% in March 2009 before falling back to 4.6% by the end of 2013 and to 2.1% in January, 2018.
Throughout 2008 Maui suffered a major loss in tourism compounded by the spring bankruptcies of Aloha Airlines and ATA Airlines. The pullout in May of the second of three Norwegian Cruise Line ships also hurt. Pacific Business News reported a $166 million loss in revenue for Maui tourism businesses.
In November 2014, a Maui County referendum enacted a moratorium on genetically engineered crops. Shortly thereafter Monsanto and other agribusinesses obtained a court injunction suspending the moratorium.
In 2016, Maui residents convinced officials to switch to organic pesticides for highway applications after they found out that label requirements for glyphosate formulations were not being followed.
Maui's primary agriculture products are corn and other seeds, fruits, cattle and vegetables. Specific products include coffee, macadamia nuts, papaya, flowers and fresh pineapple. Historically, Maui's primary products were sugar and pineapple. Maui Land & Pineapple Company and Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar Company (HC&S, a subsidiary of Alexander and Baldwin Company) dominated agricultural activity. In 2016, sugar production ended. Haliimaile Pineapple Co. grows pineapple on former Maui Land & Pineapple Co. land.