The State of Aloha
John Montagu was just 10 years old when he was bestowed with the title and rank as the Fourth Earl of Sandwich nearly 300 years ago in 1729. The aristocratic earldom over a small town in the southeast of England in Kent had been in his family for generations. Strangely, we know of this 18th century aristocrat not because of anything he actually did, but because of the things named after him.
Let’s start with the story of questionable origin about his penchant for gambling. It is said that he would stay up late at night at the gambling table focused on the game at hand. The hours of cardplaying worked up an appetite, so he ordered his servants to prepare a snack by putting pieces of meat and cheese between slices of bread. The snack was named after him — the sandwich.
His descendants later capitalized on this revolution in handheld food. In 2004, the 11th Earl of Sandwich went into business with an American restaurateur to open a franchise of sandwich shops in Florida aptly called the Earl of Sandwich.
But that’s not the only thing named after the 18th-century earl. The aristocrat served as the First Lord of Admiralty from 1771 to 1782, overseeing the navy during the American Revolution and repelling threats from the Spanish in the English Channel.
He also commissioned the exploration of the Pacific and funded Capt. James Cook’s journeys. And that is why Capt. Cook wrote this in his journal on Feb. 2, 1778:
“Of what number this newly-discovered Archipelago consists, must be left for future investigation. We saw five of them, whose names, as given by the natives are Woahoo, Atooi, Oneeheow, Oreehoua, and Tahoora. . . . I named the whole group the Sandwich Islands, in honour of the Earl of Sandwich.”
It was classic imperialism. The five islands Capt. Cook saw were Oahu, Kauai, Niihau and the smaller islands of Lehua and Kaula in the far northwestern part of the main islands. He was perceptive enough to learn the names given to these islands by its inhabitants, but instead named the entire group — even those islands that he did not see — the Sandwich Islands after an aristocrat on the other side of the planet.
After Capt. Cook’s “discovery,” the name stuck. European maps referred to the islands as the Sandwich Islands. Capt. Nathaniel Portlock curiously referred to the individual islands by their native names, such as Owhyee (Hawai’i), but the collective islands as the Sandwich Islands.
Capt. Cook’s appellation continued into the early 19th century. The American missionaries who came to the islands in 1819 even called their organization the Sandwich Islands Mission.
The indigenous people — the Hawaiians themselves — were not amused. The term for the Hawaiian Islands was known as “Hawai’i nei pae aina,” something akin to the Obamaesque phrase “these Hawaiian Islands.”
When the Russians visited in 1818, a sea captain noted King Kamehameha’s dislike of the term Sandwich Islands. He reported that the name given by Capt. Cook greatly irritated the king. It was an affront to the sovereignty of his kingdom and reign. He insisted that his kingdom be called by the name given by his own people.
The sentiment did not pass with Kamehameha. By the late 1820s, a quiet movement had begun. Despite the laws on the books referring to the Sandwich Islands, locals stopped using the term. Instead of the Sandwich Islands, their letters, titles and correspondence referred to the Hawaiian Islands.
The most dramatic change occurred a decade later. While Kamehameha III issued the first declaration of rights in 1839 with the term Sandwich Islands, it would be the last time. When he promulgated the kingdom’s first constitution a year later in 1840, he made it a point to call his kingdom the Hawaiian Islands.
An American newspaper editor applauded the name change and wrote that same year that “nothing tends more rapidly to denationalize a people than to change their language.”
Ironically, it was the Americans who helped the Hawaiians with the name change when in 1843 it officially recognized the Hawaiian Kingdom as Hawai’i, not the Sandwich Islands. The French and the British followed the Americans’ diplomatic lead months later. After the 1840s the term Sandwich Islands gradually died out and the name used by the indigenous inhabitants has remained.
Fortunately for the cardplaying aristocrat from Kent, this was not the only archipelago named after him. While Hawai’i reclaimed its name, a lonely set of islands in the frigid and stormy waters between the Atlantic Ocean and the Weddell Sea near Antarctica still bear the name the South Sandwich Islands. Capt. Cook saw them in 1775, three years before he came to Hawai’i.
* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer, currently with the Office of the Public Defender, who grew up on Maui. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org. “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”