A Cultural History of Three
Traditional Hawaiian Sites on the
West Coast of Hawai'i Island

Overview of Hawaiian History

by Diane Lee Rhodes
(with some additions by Linda Wedel Greene)

  Chapter 2: Early European Contact with the Hawaiian Islands

A. Captain James Cook Brings the Islands to Europe's Attention

     1. Cook Discovers the Sandwich Islands

The Hawaiian Islands remained unknown to Europeans until the late 1700s. For nearly a decade, Englishman James Cook had systematically traversed and recorded much of the Southern Hemisphere attempting to find a sea passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. On his third voyage, Cook's ships the HMS Resolution and HMS Discovery spent almost a year in the South Pacific before sailing northward via a previously uncharted route. On January 18, 1778, the expedition sighted the westernmost three landforms (O'ahu, Kaua'i, and Ni'ihau) of the volcanic chain known today as the Hawaiian Islands.

Cook's ships anchored off the southwestern coast of Kaua'i near the village of Waimea. The friendly native Hawaiians welcomed the strangers warmly. Cook offered them gifts and invited some of them aboard his vessel in hopes of establishing a good relationship, much as he had done with the inhabitants of other Polynesian Islands.

The Hawaiians were intensely curious about these voyagers. Once invited aboard, they rapidly overran the ships and began to remove goods, especially metal items. This was in accordance with their traditional beliefs that items not under kapu were common property. According to Marion Kelly,

the acceptance of food and water on the part of the Europeans obligated them, according to Hawaiian social custom, to be as generous with their possessions as the Hawaiians were with their food supplies.

The English regarded these actions as theft, however, and, hoping to instill respect for private property, quickly devised deterrents and punishments for offenders.

Upon Captain Cook's arrival ashore, he received a tumultuous welcome. Hundreds of Hawaiians prostrated themselves in front of him, offering gifts of bananas, pigs, and bark cloth. Cook accepted these and offered presents of his own, exchanging nails and bits of iron for pigs and fowl, huge sweet potatoes, taro, and bananas. The Englishmen also acquired beautifully made native cloaks of red and yellow feathers, valued highly by the Hawaiians.

Word of the foreigners and their iron goods spread swiftly around the islands, and heavily laden canoes continued to bring goods to trade. Ultimately the high-ranking chiefs and priests welcomed the foreigners, and a long period of formal gift exchanges and ceremony followed. On February 1, 1778, Cook arrived at Ni'ihau. He took ashore goats, pigs, and seeds from the ship's stores to give to the Hawaiians, thus establishing important new items of trade as well as new sources of food for both the Hawaiians and future visitors.

Leaving the islands, Cook's expedition explored the northern reaches of the Pacific but failed to find a sea passage to the Atlantic Ocean. After battling the biller cold and the ice packs of the Arctic seas, Cook decided to winter in the Sandwich Islands and return north the next summer.

Late in 1778 Cook entered the Tropics again, and on November 26 the high volcanic mountains of the island of Maui came into view. The Hawaiians again welcomed the sailors warmly. After a short period of trading and exploring the windward side of the island, Cook's expedition sailed to the largest of the Sandwich Islands Hawai'i.

     2. Cook Winters at Kealakekua Bay

After sailing around that island and exploring its northern and eastern sides, Cook landed at Kealakekua Bay early in 1779. At least a thousand Hawaiians, enticed by trade and curiosity, swarmed over the ship. To discourage theft, Cook ordered that shots be fired over the heads of the people in canoes alongside the ship. Impressed by the sound, but not unduly frightened, the people continued to crowd around the vessel to trade. Dignitaries from the island of Hawai'i eventually came out to the ships. After an appropriate period of gift exchange and eating, they led Cook and several of his men ashore to a nearby heiau that was bedecked with human skulls. Believing that Cook was the god Lono, returned from his travels, the priests dressed him in sacred clothing and sacrificed animals in his favor. They also conducted an elaborate commemoration ceremony at the heiau (which had been dedicated to Lono), with Cook as a fascinated observer. From this point on, the priests accompanied Cook everywhere, announcing the arrival of "Orono" (Lono) as they encountered villagers.

There are a number of reasons why the Hawaiian priests may have thought Cook was the god Lono. His expedition arrived during the Makahiki festival, a time when the god Lono symbolically returned from his travels. During Makahiki, images of Lono were paraded throughout the coastal districts, tribute in the form of produce was collected for the chiefs, and commoners celebrated with feasts, contests, and holidays. Like Lono, Cook had come to the Hawaiian people from the sea. The shapes of the English ships were reminiscent of the kapa cloth and upright standards used in the Makahiki parades. Upon first sighting one of the vessels, the priests concluded that it was the heiau of Lono. Also, Cook's ships had sailed around Hawai'i clockwise, the same direction followed by Lono's processions. In addition, Kealakekua, where Cook's ships anchored, was the site of the important Hikiau Heiau dedicated to Lono.

There were, however, a few disquieting incidents that may have provoked disbelief of Cook's godliness among some of the Hawaiians. At one point the sailors ripped the railings and the huge carved wooden idols from Lono's heiau at Kealakekua for firewood. Some authors suggest that the priests acquiesced in these actions (and even helped dismantle the structure) because they had identified Cook with Lono and saw nothing wrong in giving away the images from the heiau dedicated to that god. However, one of the seamen recounted the affair differently. John Ledyard asserted that the chiefs refused Cook's demands and were forced to watch in humiliation as the heiau was dismantled. The chiefs refused the gift of a hatchet by throwing it on the ground, an act which "would have taken place only under circumstances of the most extreme stress." The commoners also objected vigorously to the desecration, and some of them threw the wood back at Cook's men as soon as it was removed from the heiau. Later, the Hawaiians burned the structures on the temple, perhaps to cleanse this sacred area.

Cook's visit also placed a great economic hardship upon the commoners. For at least a fortnight the people of the district had provided food, water, and fuel for some 180 English sailors, thinking that their visitors were in need of supplies.  In addition, Kalani'opu'u; ruler of the island, had collected the yearly tribute from the people in the area, including foodstuffs and ceremonial goods, and even some of the prized iron objects taken from the ships. Keeping only a third for himself, Kalani'opu'u offered the rest to Captains Cook and King.

     3. Cook's Death

Leaving Hawai'i, Cook's ships ran into bad weather and one lost her foremast, forcing the crew to return to Kealakekua Bay. The bay was deserted because the area was under kapu, although Cook persuaded the natives to begin repairs and reestablish the observatory. Trading resumed, and the relationship between the islanders and the English appeared unchanged. However, before long several disquieting events occurred. First, sailors aboard the Discovery opened fire on natives escaping from the ship with stolen goods. Then, intending to teach the Hawaiians a lesson, the sailing master of the Resolution seized a canoe belonging to an important ali'i, who was injured in the conflict. The natives retaliated for these attacks, smashing the boats and equipment and beating several sailors. Deciding to put an end to the problem, Cook armed his men, blockaded the bay, and fired upon one of the canoes, killing an important chief. Meanwhile, Cook led an armed party ashore to seize Chief Kalani'opu'u as a hostage. But he and a small group of sailors were surrounded at the beach, and Cook was clubbed to death in the ensuing conflict. A day and night of retaliation by both sides ended with complete destruction of the village despite continued pleas for peace by the native priests.

There are a number of possible reasons why the Hawaiians turned on Cook, a mortal whom they had elevated to god-like status. The Europeans had desecrated the nearby heiau and its images of Lono and had used the structure to house their sick and as a burial place for their dead. Also, the tremendous amounts of food, fuel, and water taken aboard the ships had been a heavy drain on Hawaiian resources. The refusal to fully share their prized iron goods with the Hawaiians may also have caused animosity. Cook also seemed to expect subservience, intending finally to force submission of the Hawaiians by taking their high chief Kalani'opu'u hostage. By encouraging the natives to break the kapu on Kealakekua Bay, Cook had directly challenged the authority of the chiefs. One author suggests that when the women began to visit the ships in great numbers, their husbands grew jealous "and began to distrust these new divinities."  Others suggest that the fact that the sailors slept with the women of the islands proved they were foreigners (haoles).  The return of the English ships to Kealakekua Bay to repair a broken mast shortly after their triumphant exit only served to illustrate their fallibility; Cook's death in battle finally proved to the Hawaiians that they were mere mortals. Cook's ignorance of Hawaiian customs probably contributed in large part to his death, he and his men failing to grasp the intricate relationship between politics and religion in the Hawaiian culture. Even though Cook recognized the extraordinary homage and honor accorded him, he failed to correct the Hawaiians "misimpression of his identity, allowing himself to be addressed and treated as their god." 

Eventually a fragile truce took place between the Hawaiians and the English. Parts of Cook's body (which had been partially dismembered and burned) were recovered, along with some of his belongings, and his bones were interred in the bay. It should be noted that the priests had treated Cook's body and personal effects in the same manner and with the same reverence they accorded their own chiefs.  The Englishmen quickly took on water and supplies and completed the repairs to their ship. On the evening of February 22,1779, eight days after Cook's death, the Disco very and the Resolution sailed out of Kealakekua Bay, leaving behind the lovely islands that had claimed the life of their captain. Despite Cook's death, these voyages successfully explored great reaches of the Pacific and opened the door for future expeditions from England, France, Spain, and Russia. For years after Cook's death, Hawaiians held ambivalent feelings about him, inquiring of other sea captains whether Cook would ever return and questioning whether Cook had, in revenge, sent the Spaniards to make them slaves and take their country. The natives were especially concerned about how long Cook would stay hostile towards them, blaming his anger for volcanic eruptions in Hawai'i. 

B. Hawai'i Becomes an Important Pacific Port

     1. Provision Stop

For the Hawaiians, the next forty years encompassed a period of intermittent contact with foreigners. It was a time of political consolidation accompanied by the gradual disintegration of traditional religious beliefs. Geography played a critical role in the events of these four decades.

Because of their strategic location on a direct route between the North American continent and the ports of the Far East, the Sandwich Islands became a convenient place for ships especially those of the Russians and Americans to rendezvous, replenish their supplies, and seek replacement crews.  The Hawaiian bays offered good anchorage, while abundant supplies of fresh food, wood, and water could be obtained. In 1787 Captain George Dixon found that the island of Hawai'i was

by far the most plentiful island of the whole . . . and the land is more universally cultivated than at any of the other islands, which . . . accounts for the great plenty of vegetables &c. met with here. 

The Hawaiian Islands also offered the sailors a pleasant break from the daily monotony of storm and sea and sky. Once within reach of land, the sailors were warmly greeted by the Hawaiian women who, "sublimely indifferent to politics and war," went out to the ships "in droves." 

     2. Northwest Coast-Canton, China, Fur Trade

Cook's voyages set the stage for a major change in the pattern of world commerce and travel. During the 1780s, the British held the monopoly on trade with Canton, purchasing Chinese goods with the "spoil of India and the Moluccas."  British ships regularly sailed the coast of Africa, around the Horn, to India and China. Although eager to join in this lucrative business, the merchants and shipping companies of New England had little to offer the Cantonese in return for their goods.

Accounts of Cook's voyage published in 1784 encouraged a group of Boston merchants to expand American trade frontiers into the Pacific. (The British and the Europeans had not, as yet, laid claim to the northern Pacific routes.) The Bostonians decided to carry trade goods to the Indians living along the northwest coast of North America, swap these items for fur pelts, and then ship the furs to China to trade for items such as tea, spices, silks, and luxury goods. These merchants quickly fitted out the ship Columbia and chose John Kendrick as captain. The Columbia was accompanied by the tender Lady Washington, commanded by Robert Gray, also an American. Eleven months out of Massachusetts, the vessels anchored at Vancouver Island and began to collect furs. The next summer the Columbia carried a load of furs to Canton, exchanging it for tea.

Unfortunately, the voyage of the Columbia was not financially successful. Other American ships had already reached Canton via Africa's Cape, and their goods were being sold in Boston by the time the Columbia dropped anchor in her home port. However, the idea of the triangular trade from New England via Cape Horn to the Northwest Coast fur country and thence to China quickly caught on. By 1792 the trade route from Boston to the Northwest Coast to Canton to Boston was fairly well established, and American merchant ships had begun to make regular calls at the Hawaiian Islands.

By 1790 several other foreign ships also visited the islands, helping to establish them as a "familiar resort for the fur traders" and as a "port of call and wintering place . . . for those engaged in the more general trade which grew up between Asia and the west coast of North and South America." These voyagers included English Captains Portlock, Dixon, and Meares (seeking commercial development), and French naval vessels under the command of La Perouse.

The Northwest trading ships generally stopped twice on their voyage to China. Sometimes the first stop was at the Cape Verde Islands, the Falklands, or the Galapagos, but invariably Hawai'i was their second stop. There they obtained fresh provisions and fruit to prevent scurvy and received a respite from the long voyage and the damp cold of the Pacific Northwest. The trade increased so rapidly that by 1805-1806 the value of imports to Canton on American vessels had grown to more than five million dollars.

     3. Military and Scientific Value

Recognizing the strategic location, important resources, and trade potential of the Hawaiian Islands, several European nations sent exploratory missions to the Pacific over the next three-quarters of a century. Scientists recorded botanical features, native customs, and volcanic activity and mapped harbors and coastlines. Their work provided the outside world a glimpse of these new people and places and provided a basis for later scientific research. While most of these missions were ostensibly scientific in nature, they had underlying military value and aspirations.

     4. Commercial Exchange Initiated

Because of their excellent harbors and strategic location nearly equidistant from the coasts of the Orient and North America, the Hawaiian Islands quickly became a primary stop on the Pacific trade routes. These islands contained more cultivated land than most of the other Pacific islands, forming "an oasis in the ocean desert." At first traders used the islands simply as a refueling and provisioning stop where they bartered for food, water, wood, and salt in return for inexpensive pieces of metal and items of Euro-American manufacture. Iron objects, weapons, and ammunition comprised the most popular trade items. For nearly two decades after Cook's visit, the islands " were the theatre of long and destructive wars'' in which the arms furnished by the traders played a major role. Soon, however, traders included a variety of manufactured items in their cargoes, and island products like salt and sandalwood were sought for export.

It was not long before the two trading partners had worked out ways of obtaining the best deals. During the early part of the period, the kapu system was often used to the advantage of the Hawaiian traders in obtaining weapons for internecine warfare or in procuring other desirable goods. For example, Hawaiian pigs might be declared kapu to the foreigners unless they were paid for in arms. Sometimes other methods were used to equalize trading opportunities. There were continuing incidents of theft and hostilities between the crewmen of the trading ships and the Hawaiians. Occasionally shore parties were attacked and boats and anchors stolen, to be later ransomed for guns and ammunition, or the metal converted into hand weapons. As time went on, the natives became sophisticated traders. Island sandalwood, discovered in the early 1790s, became a major Hawaiian export by 1812. The Chinese highly prized this fragrant wood, using it for boxes and incense.


Chapter 3: Foreign Population Grows          Back to Contents          Back to History

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