Captain Cook and the Complicated Legacy of the Sandwich Islands

The holidays have come and gone, leaving most of us with lighter wallets, tighter pants, and weeks upon weeks of endless winter drear on the horizon. My head is filled with dreams of somewhere warm and green, the sound of the ocean in my ears and the smell of salt in my hair…

…and I’m not the only one. The lure of the islands has been captivating and enticing people for hundreds of years.

On January 18, 1778, Captain James Cook, a surveyor in the Royal Navy, “discovered” the Hawaiian Islands after sailing around the tip of Oahu. Of course, Native Hawaiians had been living on the island for thousands of years so the term “discovered” is a bit out-dated and insensitive, but the fact remains that Cook and his men became the first Europeans to set foot on our modern version of paradise.

Cook had been sailing for years, embarking on expeditionary journeys to Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia, the South Pacific, and even the Antarctic region to map, chart, and explore the globe for his country. This particular journey started out with the intent to discover a northwest passage around the American continent and instead ended on a group of islands he named the “Sandwich Islands,” after John Montague, the earl of Sandwich and one of Cook’s patrons.

Cook and his men harbored in Kealakekua Bay, a spot sacred to the Hawaiian fertility god Lono…and they happened to arrive precisely during a festival dedicated to this god. So it’s no wonder the natives took the arrival of these strange visitors as religiously significant, viewing the men themselves as immortal and god-like, a misunderstanding the Europeans did nothing to dispel. In addition, the Hawaiians were fascinated the sheer size of the visitors’ ships and the number and variety of metal objects they contained. No sources of iron ore occurred naturally on the island and, as such, the natives were still using stone and wooden tools for their work. The arrival of metal hatchets and other utensils, which made work quicker and more efficient, truly seemed like a god-send.

The expeditionary team remained on the island for several months, enjoying the Hawaiians’ warmth and hospitality. But there’s a fine line between staying and over-staying…and soon, Cook and his men crossed it. Such was the value of iron that the Hawaiians began trading anything they could for it–including sex. Venereal disease, along with others like measles and chicken pox, began to spread among the population, which had no immunity to these foreign illnesses. Some Hawaiians, growing fearful, took to stealing the metal instead. As suspicions among both parties grew, so did tensions. And when one of the crew members died, tearing apart the final veil on the illusion of the Europeans’ immortality, Cook knew it was time to pull up anchor.

British ships left the islands on February 4, 1779 but were forced to turn back due to rough seas. This time, however, they were not welcomed as gods. Instead of cheers and gifts, the sailors were greeted with rocks. One group of natives even managed to steal a small cutter from one of the ships. In retaliation, Cook attempted to kidnap King Kalaniopuu, the island’s ruling chief, but was met with resistance from an angry mob of islanders. During the skirmish, a Hawaiian chief was shot and Cook himself was clubbed on the head and stabbed several times. While a few of his men managed to escape back to the boats, Cook himself died on shore. The British remained off-shore for a few more days, firing cannons and muskets at the natives, killing thirty of them, before finally pulling out to sea and returning to England.

Nowadays, Cook’s legacy on the Hawaiian Islands is seen as a complicated one. What started out with so much promise quickly deteriorated into a mess of greed, dishonesty, and bloodshed. The introduction of disease and the spread of colonialism is only now being recognized and viewed, not only for the light, but also for the shadows it cast. And while Cook’s memory may forever be tarnished by the circumstances of his death, it was what occurred just afterwards that speaks volumes about the land and the people he “discovered.”

After the violence that transpired between the Europeans and the native Hawaiians, one would have expected a celebration of Cook’s demise. Or, at the very least, indifference. But that wasn’t the case. Rather, the islanders prepared Cook’s body with the funeral rites usually reserved for priests or the highest chiefs. The body was baked to remove the flesh, and the bones then cleaned for preservation. When Europeans returned months later, Cook’s bones were handed over for a burial at sea.

On whatever side of history Captain Cook ultimately lands, one cannot dispute the honor and integrity of the Hawaiian people, and their reverence for the man who remains simultaneously a hero and a villain to this very day.

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