The Arrival of Captain Cook

Not long after the Spanish explorer Balboa sighted the Pacific in 1513, European mariners set off to explore its waters. Coming around Cape Horn, they often set off west from South America. We now believe that the first island in Polynesia encountered by Europeans was Puka Puka, in the Tuamotu atolls. The navigator was Ferdinand Magellan, on his transpacific voyage of 1520–1521. Further exploration in search of treasure and possible converts to Christianity increased thereafter. The commercially minded Dutch became heavily involved in exploring the Pacific in the 1600s. In the following century, the French and British sailed the seas to protect and enlarge their territories and in search of scientific enlightenment.


In their mythology, Hawaiians trace their first ancestors back to a couple of gods, Papa and Wakea, who were the parents and original ancestors of the Hawaiian people, if not all humans.

One of the greatest expedition leaders of his day was Captain James Cook. Born in England in 1728, the highly respected navigator led three major voyages in the Pacific. His first (1768–1771) brought him to Tahiti on a stated mission to collect astronomical data but with a hidden agenda to look for a southern continent believed to be somewhere in that part of the world. His second voyage (1772–1775) explored vast areas of the southern Pacific. During his third voyage, beginning in 1776, it was hoped that the good captain would discover the elusive Northwest Passage that would provide a shortcut across the North American continent for European ships heading into the Pacific. The passage would never be found, but on that momentous adventure, Cook encountered something utterly spectacular: the Hawaiian Islands.

An Alien Invasion

On January 18, 1778, a pair of huge, odd-looking ships appeared cruising off the coast of Oahu, Kauai, and Niihau. The strange occupants of the ships spent a couple of weeks on land, got more supplies, and disappeared to the east. Captain Cook found the islands hospitable and the climate delightful, and named the place the Sandwich Isles after one of his British friends and supporters, John Montague, the Earl of Sandwich. Hawaii would never again be the same.

After this first encounter, Captain Cook sailed off to explore the northwest coast of America and as winter approached, the expedition returned to the warm retreat of the Sandwich Isles. Sailing along the coasts of Maui and the island of Hawaii, Cook's two ships, the Discovery and Resolution, made a grand appearance at Kealakekua Bay on Hawaii's west coast. The timing was especially fortuitous. An annual religious festival called the makahiki was in progress. Makahiki honors the god Lono, and it is generally believed that much of the local population decided Captain Cook and his men were none other than Lono and his entourage. Cook was treated as a deity, and the Hawaiians lavished him with gifts and supplies.

The Death of “Lono”

It must have been a relief when “Lono” and his men finally left, but they would soon return to Kealakekua to repair a damaged ship. On February 13, 1779, one of the small rowing boats from Cook's ships was stolen. On the following day, the Captain went ashore with the idea of taking a chief hostage until the boat was returned. In the process, a scuffle took place, shots were fired, and a melee broke out. Captain Cook was struck down and killed, and it became clear to all that this foreigner was all too mortal. Cook's ships eventually returned home, and the British mourned their hero. Descriptions and maps of the “Sandwich Islands” were published, and in 1786, the next foreign ship arrived in Hawaii.


If you're interested in exploring the area where Cook landed, you're going to have to step off the well-traveled path. The once-thriving village of Kealakekua is now an abandoned and overgrown area that can only be reached from the water or by a difficult hike from above. A white obelisk on a small dock near the site serves as a memorial to Captain Cook. A plaque along the shore marks the spot near where Cook fell. The clear waters of Kealakekua Bay are now a popular snorkeling and diving venue.

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