This Date in Native History: On January 18, 1778, Captain James Cook became the first European to explore the Hawaiian Islands when he sailed past the island of Oahu with his two ships, the Resolution and the Discovery.
He landed on the island of Kauai two days later, where he was welcomed as a sacred chief or god, said Jonathan Kay Kamakawiwo?ole Osorio, professor of Hawaiian Studies at the University of Hawai’i at M?noa.
“The Native Hawaiians were quite welcoming when the sailors showed up,” he said. “The chiefs on Kauai were quite hospitable and impressed by this expedition. They traded fairly and gave a fair amount of food and water hospitably.”
Cook, who was about 50 when he landed on the Hawaiian Islands, was commissioned nine years earlier by the British government—first to track the path of the planet Venus and look for South America, then later to search for a northwest passage that linked the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
This official portrait of Captain James Cook was painted in 1775.
Cook’s arrival on Kauai coincided with the Native harvest festival and he likely was mistaken as Lono, a god associated with agriculture, fertility and relaxation, Osorio said. Cook landed only for provisions and had no intention of staying.
“He needed fresh food and water, and he came across green islands that had huge agricultural developments,” Osorio said. “He stopped to get food, but he was really on his way to look for a northwest passage.”
Cook left at the end of the harvest and sailed north, but he returned near the end of 1778, just in time to once again be mistaken for Lono. He found safe harbor in Kealakekua Bay on the island of Hawaii, and once again departed near the end of the harvest season.
Only one week later, however, on February 11, 1779, Cook returned to the bay when his ship was damaged in a storm. This time he was recognized as a fallible mortal and met with hostility, Osorio said.
“He’s no longer in the story,” he said of Cook. “He’s doing things that aren’t supposed to happen.”
A group of Natives stole a small cutter vessel from one of the ships and Cook reportedly said he was afraid “that these people will oblige me to use some violent measures… they must not be left to imagine that they have gained some advantage over us.”
A short battle ensued, during which Cook’s men opened fired on the Native Hawaiians. Cook was killed during the exchange and buried at sea.
This painting is “The Death of Captain James Cook” by Johann Zoffany. The one Native is carrying a feather helmet and cloak that are in the Vienna museum. Cook had returned to Kealakekua Bay in February 11, 1779, but this time he was seen as a fallible mortal and met with hostility. He was killed during a short battle and buried at sea.
Although the ships returned to England in 1780, Hawaii’s indigenous population had been forever altered. At the time of Cook’s arrival, as many as 800,000 indigenous people lived on the islands, but disease soon devastated the population, Osorio said.
Cook’s sailors introduced tuberculosis to the Native population, which would eventually kill thousands of people. But they also brought venereal diseases like syphilis and gonorrhea, Osorio said.
“While there would be other diseases brought by other visits that would wipe out tens of thousands of people in epidemics, the real foundational reason for the collapse of the population was fertility and the inability to generate new generations,” he said. “There is some pretty important evidence of the inability of Hawaiians to conceive, have children, during the 100-year period after Cook.”
The European influence also meant a shift in the economic landscape of Hawaii, Osorio said. Native Hawaiians were self-sufficient until their economy, which was based on water and agriculture, was disrupted.
“That system started to crumble when thousands of people got sick and died,” he said. “The ideas of work, wages and surviving that came with the Europeans were different from the system we had created.”
The demographics of the islands also changed permanently, said Mara Mulrooney, assistant anthropologist at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu. There is no ethnic majority in Hawaii today, and fewer than 20 percent of the total population reports Native descent.
The first settlers on Hawaii are believed to have sailed from Polynesia about 1,000 years ago, Mulrooney said. A second migration likely occurred between 1350 and 1400 A.D.
“The thing about Polynesians that a lot of people don’t realize is that once they arrived, they didn’t stay put,” Mulrooney said. “They continued to make return trips to Polynesia, 4,000 miles away. There is material evidence of people traveling great distances after initial settlement.”
Those early settlers had different motivations than Cook and the European explorers of later generations, Osorio said. He compares Cook’s exploitation of the Native Hawaiians to Christopher Columbus’s “discovery” of America and the Caribbean Islands.
“Columbus and Cook stumbled on these islands when they were looking for something else,” he said. “It’s interesting to me that Europeans pay homage to these people and all they did was further European aims, including exploitation, slavery and settlement. What is true for Native people in Hawaii is that Cook is not central to our narrative at all except for understanding the great harm that has been done to our people.”