Captain James Cook is credited with discovering the Hawaiian Islands in 1778. He named them the Sandwich Islands, in honor of John Montague, the Earl of Sandwich. However, the islands may have already been visited by Europeans prior to Cook. There is speculation that Captain Gaetano of Spain had landed in Hawaii in the 16th century.
He sailed from England along the coast of Africa, around the Cape of Good Hope and crossed the Indian Ocean. He sailed on to New Zealand, Tasmania, and the Friendly Islands. After leaving Bora Bora he headed for the Americas. On January 18,1778, Cook sighted the island of Oahu but didn’t land until two days later at Waimea on the island of Kauai.
Captain Cook named the islands the Sandwich Islands, in honor of John Montague, the Earl of Sandwich. However, the islands may have already been visited by Europeans prior to Cook. There is speculation that Captain Gaetano of Spain had landed in Hawaii in the 16th century. It was noted in Cook’s diary that the Hawaiians were fascinated by his ships and the metal iron. It was also noted that the native women gave themselves freely to the sailors. This was perhaps was a ploy to test for godliness as gods didn’t need women. Cook tried to keep the men who had venereal diseases away from the women, a nearly impossible task as the women typically swarmed the ships. When Cook returned a year later he noted that the Hawaiians already showed signs of infection. Thus began the downfall of the Hawaiian people as with many other indigenous people who encountered the Europeans.
Cook remarked in his diary about the resemblance of the Hawaiian people to others he had encountered and marveled at their spread across the Pacific. Cook was impressed with the Hawaiians’ swimming ability and with their well-bred manners and happy dispositions, though they had sticky fingers, stealing any object made of metal, especially nails. Hawaiians didn’t trade for beads or mirrors but were fascinated with iron. Cook provisioned his ships by trading iron, while the sailors joyously traded nails for sex.
Cook was known as a humane and just captain. He was greatly admired by his men. Unlike many other Europeans of that time, he was known to have a respectful attitude toward any people he discovered, treating them as equals and recognizing the significance of their cultures. Not known as a violent man, he would use his superior weapons against natives only in an absolute case of self defense.
The landing was marred by a Mr. Williamson, who unnecessarily shot and killed a Hawaiian during an excursion inland. The ships stopped briefly at Ni'ihau and headed for Alaskan waters and didn’t return to Hawaii for almost a year.
Cook Returns To Hawaii
Winter weather eventually forced Cook to return South from Alaskan waters. He spotted Maui on November 26, 1778 and mapped the coastline while looking for a suitable harbor before moving on. The mapper was Lt. William Bligh, who would 10 years later command the infamous H.M.S. Bounty. On board the Resolution and the Discovery were Mr. Anderson, the ship’s chronicler, who left a handwritten record of the events and John Webber, the ship’s artist, some of whose drawings and etchings are included here. Other noteworthy men aboard were George Vancouver, who would later return to Hawaii and introduce many fruits, vegetables, cattle, sheep, and goats. Also aboard was James Gurney, who would become a leading European authority on the Pacific.
Cook As The Great God Lono
Cook finally found safe harbor at Kealakekua Bay on the Kona coast of the Big Island. When Cook sailed into Kealakekua Bay on January 16, 1779, it was makahiki time, a period of rejoicing and festivity dedicated to the fertility god of the earth, Lono. Kealakekua Harbor happened to be considered Lono’s private sacred harbor.
It was long held in Hawaiian legend that the great god Lono would return to earth. Lono’s image was a small wooden figure perched on a tall, mastlike crossbeam; hanging from the crossbeam were big, white sheets of tapa. Who else could Cook be but Lono, and what else could his ships with their masts and white sails be but his sacred floating heiau? This explained the Hawaiians’ previous fascination with his ships, but to add to the remarkable coincidence, Hawaiians throughout the land were paying homage to the returning god.
Cook was afforded the highest respect and was brought to Lono’s sacred temple. The Hawaiians readily gave all they had to the ships stores, stretching their own provisions to the limit. After an uproarious welcome and hospitality for over a month, the newcomers began to overstay their welcome. William Watmana, a seaman, died demonstrating to the Hawaiians that the Europeans were mere mortals and not gods. Petty theft increased and many kapu were broken by the English. The once-friendly relations became strained until the ships sailed on February 4.
Encountering a savage storm after only a week, Resolution’s foremast was damaged and Cook sailed back into Kealakekua Bay. The Hawaiians, now totally hostile, hurled rocks at the sailors. Confrontations increased when some Hawaiians stole a small boat and men set after them, capturing the fleeing canoe and the sailors treated the Hawaiian roughly, to the onlookers’ horror.
The Death of Captain Cook
The Hawaiians stole a small boat from the Discovery. Captain Cook became furious and ordered Captain Clerk of the Discovery to sail to the southeast end of the bay and stop any canoe trying to leave Kealakekua. Cook then took nine armed marines ashore in an attempt to convince King Kalaniopuu to be held for ransom in exchange for the boat. As the tensions grew, a group of marines fired upon a canoe trying to leave the bay. Chief Nookemai was killed and the crowd around Cook reached an estimated 20,000.
A warrior advanced on Cook and struck him with his pahoa and Cook in retaliation fired at the warrior. The Hawaiians went wild and the marines returned fire. Overpowered by sheer numbers, the marines headed for boats standing offshore. It is believed that Captain Cook stood helplessly in knee-deep water instead of making for the boats because he could not swim. Hopelessly surrounded, Captain James Cook was killed.
Several days later a group of Hawaiians in a canoe taunted the sailors by brandishing Cook’s hat. Thinking that Cook was being desecrated, the English sailors finally broke. With Captain Clerk now in charge, they leveled their cannons and muskets on shore and shot anything that moved. It is believed that Kamehameha the Great was wounded in this flurry and another 30 Hawaiians were killed. The English sailed the next day and Captain Clerk continued the search for the Northwest Passage and died near Russia where he was buried. The Resolution and the Discovery returned to England.