The State of Aloha

The official first European to make contact with Native Hawaiians was Capt. James Cook of England in 1778. Sure, everyone knows that. But not everyone agrees that it’s true.

The English certainly weren’t the first Europeans to travel the Pacific. Centuries before Cook, Spanish explorers were stumbling upon Pacific islands.

Take Guam. The first European to reach Guam is credited to none other than Ferdinand Magellan in 1521, before he sailed on to his death in the Philippines. That was a good 200 years before Cook came to Kauai.

Magellan’s voyage through the vast Pacific sparked the start of Spanish domination on the high seas. The Spanish instituted a grueling trade route that started at the port of Acapulco and moved west along the Equator (and south of Hawaii) all the way to Manila. To get back, galleons went north through Guam and the Marianas and across the ocean back to Mexico.

Hawaii is in the middle of this trade route. How could they miss it? After all, Spanish ships were the first Europeans to reach far-off places like Pitcairn Island, Vanuatu and the Marquesas Islands just to the west of Hawaii. What gives?

Many theorize that the Spanish were, in fact, the first Europeans to reach Hawaii, but kept it to themselves. The Spanish were in tight competition with Portuguese and Dutch explorers. The route from Mexico to the Philippines was top secret (and rightfully so since Spanish galleons were often full of gold pillaged from the New World).

Perhaps the most intriguing part of this alternative to Cook comes from Cook himself in his encounters with Native Hawaiians. When the English reached Kauai and started to trade with the Native Hawaiians, they were surprised to find that the locals had with them bits of iron. And when the locals found out that the English were willing to trade iron nails for food, they were ecstatic.

As one of Cook’s officers wrote, “a moderate sized Nail will supply my Ships Company very plentifully with excellent Pork for the Day, and as to the Potatoes and Tarrow, they are attained upon still easier Terms, such is these People’s avidity for Iron.”

So how did the iron get there if Cook was the first European to reach Hawaii? We will never know. Some hypothesize that nails were fastened to pieces of driftwood, but others point to it as proof that Cook was not the first white man to make contact.

And there are other bits and pieces of history that suggest that Cook was not the first white person to reach the Hawaiian Islands. There’s a legend that, long before Kamehameha united the islands, a strange foreign vessel was wrecked on the rocky coast of south Kona on the Big Island. Tradition says that the captain and his sister were the sole survivors, who swam to a beach for safety. There, they kneeled in silence for a long time before standing up right and met with the locals. The place where they knelt was christened Kulou (which means bowing or kneeling) and it remains the name to this day.

The captain and his sister were white and were welcomed by Native Hawaiians. They intermarried and their descendants became chiefs in their own right. Were these shipwrecked Spaniards? Some think so.

In the 1590s, a fleet of ships set out west from Mexico bound for Indonesia to gather spices. Near the proximity of Hawaii, all but one were lost in a storm. Perhaps the strange visitors who landed in Kona were in fact Spanish survivors kneeling at the beach to thank their God for making it to shore.

But the most definitive proof of Spanish sailors in Hawaii are the maps. Italian and Spanish mapmakers in the 1500s and 1600s reveal that long before Cook set out from Portsmouth, there were islands in the general vicinity of Hawaii. The largest island was the southern one called La Mesa (table), and to the north was another island with three smaller islands around it known as Los Monjes (the monks). It was believed that this depicted the Big Island, Maui and the smaller islands of Maui County. Maui, by the way, was named La Desgracia (the unfortunate).

And so there is some proof — maybe not enough to undermine the English — that the Spanish got here first. And so, until we find a sunken galleon full of Mexican or Peruvian gold off the coast of Waianae or Kahoolawe, we will still credit Cook.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer who grew up on Maui. His email is “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”