Captain Cook and the Discovery of Hawaiian Islands

Hawaiian islands unknown

Until after the middle of the eighteenth century the Hawaiian islands remained unknown to the civilized world of Europe, America, and Asia. There are some reasons for supposing that a few Spanish or Dutch sailors may have landed on Hawaii at some time in the sixteenth century or about the beginning of the seventeenth century, but if such a landing took place it did not result in bringing the islands to the knowledge of the outside world

Search for northwest passage

In fact very little was then known about the geography of the Pacific Ocean and the lands bordering it and of the islands which it contained. There were many strange ideas held by geographers and scientists. Among these ideas was a belief that there was a strait through the northern part of America, by which it would be possible to sail from Europe to Japan, China, and India, without making the long voyage around Africa or South America. It was considered very important to find this strait and so a great many expeditions were sent out to look for it. England took the greatest interest in this search because she would profit most from the discovery of a shorter route from northern Europe to Asia. Among the men who headed these expeditions were Frobisher, Davis, Hudson, and Baffin; their names are now to be found on the map of the northern coasts of America. These men tried to find the entrance to this strait on the Atlantic Ocean side. Finally it was decided to send an expedition into the Pacific Ocean to look for the strait from that side. Captain James Cook was selected to head this expedition.

Captain James Cook

James Cook was born in 1728 of humble parents. At an early age he was apprenticed to a shipping firm on the east coast of England and entered upon the career of a sailor. Young Cook was industrious and eager to learn. Seeing this, his employer gave him opportunity to study and acquire experience in navigation. He soon rose to the rank of mate in the merchant service, and then, in 1755, volunteered as an ordinary seaman in the British navy. Almost immediately he was promoted to master's mate and during the next few years sailed in different ships, serving in America in the French and Indian War. From 1763 to 1767 he was engaged in surveying the coast of Newfoundland, and in the following year was placed in command of an expedition whose purpose was to go to Tahiti to observe the transit of the planet Venus across the face of the sun and to carry on explorations in the South Pacific. He thus began a series of explorations in the Pacific Ocean and the southern hemisphere, extending over a period of ten years and giving him a distinguished place in the history of maritime discoveries.

The Hawaiian Islands discovered

On his third voyage Cook's instructions were to go first to the Society Islands and to sail thence to the coast of America at about 45 degrees north latitude, from which point he was to skirt the coast northward in search of the supposed strait. In accordance with these instructions the ships under his command, the Resolution and the Discovery, sailed north early in December, 1777, from Borabora in the Society Islands. At daybreak on the morning of January 18, 1778, an island was sighted on the northeast side of the ships and a little later another island came into view to the west of that first seen. These islands were Oahu and Kauai. The next day as the ships approached the coast of Kauai a number of canoes came out to meet them. Captain Cook wrote:

"They had from three to six men each; and, on their approach, we were agreeably surprised to find that they spoke the language of Otaheite and of the other islands we had lately visited. It required but very little address to get them to come alongside; but no entreaties could prevail upon any of them to come on board. I tied some brass medals to a rope and gave them to those in one of the canoes, who, in return, tied some small mackerel to the rope, as an equivalent. This was repeated; and some small nails, or bits of iron, which they valued more than any other article, were given them. For these they exchanged more fish and a sweet potato, a sure sign that they had some notion of bartering or, at least, of returning one present for another."

Going slowly around the island, the ships came to anchor in the bay of Waimea, where, during the next few days, the natives had an opportunity to observe more closely their strange visitors from across the sea. Captain Cook in his account of the voyage speaks about the great astonishment of the natives and their interest in iron. These two points are also clearly shown in the Hawaiian account of this event:

"It is at Waimea, on Kauai, that Lono first arrived. . . . He arrived in the night at Waimea, and when daylight came the natives ashore perceived this wonderful thing that had arrived, and they expressed their astonishment with great exclamations.

"One said to another, 'What is that great thing with branches?' Others said, 'It is a forest that has slid down into the sea,' and the gabble and noise was great. Then the chiefs ordered some natives to go in a canoe and observe and examine well that wonderful thing. They went, and when they came to the ship they saw the iron that was attached to the outside of the ship, and they were greatly rejoiced at the quantity of iron."

The English ships remained at Kauai and Niihau until February 2, engaged in filling up their water barrels and in trading with the natives, buying for trinkets and bits of iron large quantities of hogs, yams, and other food stuffs. To the entire group of islands Cook gave the name Sandwich Islands, in honor of his friend and patron the Earl of Sandwich. Finally he sailed away to the northwest coast of America without having seen the three large islands to the southeast.

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