It is fitting that, as Westside residents and others embark on Waimea Town Celebration events not far from where Capt. James Cook is recognized as having discovered the Hawaiian islands in 1778, that a discussion take place about the possibility of the first non-Polynesian visitors coming to this place some time before Cook’s arrival.
Hawaiian legends of shipwrecks, strange visitors, and castaways indicate that Europeans and Asians had contacted Hawai‘i long before Captain Cook, surmises historian Hank Soboleski.
Even the great Hawaiian historian Samuel M. Kamakau (1815-1876) mentions pre-Cook Spanish visitors in his book “Ruling Chiefs,” and King David Kalakaua (1836-1891) tells of Japanese landing centuries ago on Maui in his story “The Iron Knife.”
Speculative evidence also exists, including a Spanish map, a stone carving found in Manoa Valley on O‘ahu, and documented discoveries made by Cook himself, which point to Spaniards having visited Hawai‘i prior to 1778.
A Spanish map, made by Abraham Ortelius in 1587, shows the Hawaiian Islands under the names of Los Bolcanes, La Farfana, Monges, Vezina, and Desgraciada, set in the Pacific Ocean west of Mexico.
As for the stone carving, officials at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu possess the cast of a white stone statue that resembles a European in 17th-century dress that was by all accounts found in Manoa Valley on O‘ahu prior to Cook’s arrival. The original carving is now in Bremen, Germany.
During Cook’s survey of Hawai‘i, he observed that Hawaiians possessed iron (although they did not manufacture it themselves), a piece of an iron hoop, a cutting instrument that appeared to be part of the blade of a cutlass, and so forth, but those could have been washed ashore as flotsam or jetsam, or brought to Hawai‘i in times past by Spaniards.
In fact, Spanish galleons had been sailing across the Pacific between Acapulco, Mexico, and Manila in the Philippines, on a trade route that could have taken them to Hawai‘i if, for example, storms or faulty navigation had taken them off course, over 200 years before Cook reached Hawai‘i.
Dutch traders, following similar routes, may also have visited Hawai‘i, as the following crosscheck between a Hawaiian legend and a Dutch account of the time demonstrates: In the 1820s, Hawaiians told the missionary Rev. William Ellis the story of seven foreigners having landed in Hawai‘i during the reign of Kahoukapu, while a corresponding Dutch report written in 1599, during the time of Kahoukapu’s reign, mentions eight men deserting ship in a pinnace to islands that are now assumed to be Hawai‘i. But if the Spanish, Dutch, Chinese, or Japanese had ever visited Hawai‘i, they made nothing of it, and until more convincing historic or archeological evidence comes to light, Cook will remain Hawai‘i’s official “discoverer.”