James Cook Finds the Sandwich Islands

United States - Scott #1733 (1978)

United States - Scott #1733 (1978): First Day Cover, Artcraft cachet
United States – Scott #1733 (1978): First Day Cover, ArtCraft cachet

On January 18, 1778, James Cook became the first known European to discover the Hawaiian Islands during his third voyage. On this, his last voyage, Cook again commanded HMS Resolution, while Captain Charles Clerke commanded HMS Discovery. The voyage was ostensibly planned to return the Pacific Islander, Omai to Tahiti, or so the public were led to believe. The trip’s principal goal was to locate a Northwest Passage around the American continent. After dropping Omai at Tahiti, Cook travelled north and made formal contact with the Hawaiian Islands. After his initial landfall in January 1778 at Waimea harbor, Kauai, Cook named the archipelago the Sandwich Islands after the fourth Earl of Sandwich — the acting First Lord of the Admiralty. From the Sandwich Islands, Cook sailed north and then north-east to explore the west coast of North America north of the Spanish settlements in Alta California, eventually reaching the Bering Strait. Cook returned to Hawaii in early 1779, sailing around the archipelago for some eight weeks, before making landfall at Kealakekua Bay where he would stay for a month. Here, he was stabbed to death on February 14, 1779.

Bonne, Rigobert, 1727–1794. “Carte des Isles Sandwich.” Copperplate map, with added color, 23 × 34 cm. Probably from R. Bonne and N. Desmarest’s Atlas encyclopédique . . . (Paris, 1787–1788).
Bonne, Rigobert, 1727–1794. “Carte des Isles Sandwich.” Copperplate map, with added color, 23 × 34 cm. Probably from R. Bonne and N. Desmarest’s Atlas encyclopédique . . . (Paris, 1787–1788).

James Cook and his voyages have been featured on ‘A Stamp A Day’ several times including a brief account of his death, an extensive narrative of his first voyage including details on the fate of HMS Endeavour, and lengthy accounts of Cook’s third voyage as well as his exploration of the Alaskan coastline.

The Hawaiian Islands (Mokupuni o Hawai‘i in the Hawaiian language) are an archipelago of eight major islands, several atolls, numerous smaller islets, and seamounts in the North Pacific Ocean, extending some 1,500 miles (2,400 kilometers) from the island of Hawaiʻi in the south to northernmost Kure Atoll. The name Sandwich Islands was in use until the 1840s, when the local name “Hawaii” gradually began to take precedence. The contemporary name is derived from the name of the largest island, Hawaii Island. The Hawaiian Islands have a total land area of 6,423.4 square miles (16,636.5 km²). The Hawaiian monarchy was overthrown in 1893. The islands were subsequently put under the control of a republic, which the United States annexed in 1898 and admitted as it’s 50th state in 1959. The U.S. state of Hawaii now occupies the archipelago almost in its entirety (including the uninhabited Northwestern Hawaiian Islands), with the sole exception of Midway Island, which instead separately belongs to the United States as one of its unincorporated territories within the United States Minor Outlying Islands.

The Hawaiian Islands are the exposed peaks of a great undersea mountain range known as the Hawaiian–Emperor seamount chain, formed by volcanic activity over a hotspot in the Earth’s mantle. The islands are about 1,860 miles (3,000 km) from the nearest continent. On June 15, 2006, President George W. Bush issued a public proclamation creating Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument under the Antiquities Act of 1906. The Monument encompasses the northwestern Hawaiian Islands and surrounding waters, forming the largest marine wildlife reserve in the world. In August 2010, UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee added Papahānaumokuākea to its list of World Heritage Sites. On August 26, 2016, President Barack Obama greatly expanded Papahānaumokuākea, quadrupling it from its original size.

A hand-coloured lithograph depicting a village visited by Captain James Cook near Waimea, Kauai, in the Sandwich Islands (now known as the Hawaiian Islands). Based on an 1778 etching by John Webber which was published by William Hodges, it is one of the few views of Hawaii made during Cook's third voyage (1776–1779).
A hand-colored lithograph depicting a village visited by Captain James Cook near Waimea, Kauai, in the Sandwich Islands (now known as the Hawaiian Islands). Based on an 1778 etching by John Webber which was published by William Hodges, it is one of the few views of Hawaii made during Cook’s third voyage (1776–1779).

The date of the first settlements of the Hawaiian Islands is a topic of continuing debate. Archaeology seems to indicate a settlement as early as 124 AD. Patrick Vinton Kirch’s books on Hawaiian archeology, standard textbooks, date the first Polynesian settlements to about 300, with more recent suggestions by Kirch as late as 600. Other theories suggest dates as late as 700 to 800. More radical theories have been advanced from high-precision radiocarbon dating that drastically alter the timeline. These theories place the first settlements of Hawaii after 1120.

The history of the ancient Polynesians was passed down through genealogy chants that were recited at formal and family functions. The genealogy of the high chiefs could be traced back to the period believed to be inhabited only by gods. The pua aliʻi (“flower of royalty”) were considered to be living gods.

By about 1000, settlements founded along the perimeters of the islands were beginning to cultivate food in gardens.

A Tahitian priest named Pā‘ao is said to have brought a new order to the islands around 1200. The new order included new laws and a new social structure that separated the people into classes. The aliʻi nui was the king, with his ʻaha kuhina just below them. The aliʻi were the royal nobles with the kahuna (high priest) below them, the makaʻāinana (commoners) next with the kauā below them as the lowest ranking social caste.

The rulers of the Hawaiian islands (noho aliʻi o ko Hawaiʻi Pae ʻAina) are a line of Native Hawaiians who were independent rulers of various subdivisions of the islands of Hawaii. Their genealogy is traced to Hānalaʻanui and others. The aliʻi nui were responsible for making sure the people observed a strict kapu (a code of conduct relating to taboos). The system had rules regarding many aspects of Hawaiian social order, fishing rights and even where women could eat. After the death of Kamehameha I, the system was abolished, and the Hawaiian religion soon fell as the gods were abandoned.

By 1500, Hawaiians began to spread to the interiors of the islands and religion was more emphasized.

'Iles Sandwich - Vue du Morai du Roi a Kayakakoua' drawn by Jacques Arago and by Maurin.. Marvelous image of a ceremonial reception of French Naval Officers in Hawaii, from Jacques Arago's rare account of Freycinet's travels around the world from 1817 to 1820..First published in 1822, Arago's account met with much success. This plate is newly drawn by N. Maurin after the original sketchbook by Jacques Arago, who had become blind.
‘Iles Sandwich – Vue du Morai du Roi a Kayakakoua’ drawn by Jacques Arago and by Maurin.. Marvelous image of a ceremonial reception of French Naval Officers in Hawaii, from Jacques Arago’s rare account of Freycinet’s travels around the world from 1817 to 1820..First published in 1822, Arago’s account met with much success. This plate is newly drawn by N. Maurin after the original sketchbook by Jacques Arago, who had become blind.

During his third voyage, James Cook had lingered in the Society Islands from August until December 1777 before resuming his explorations. By December 8, they were in Bora-Bora, about ten months behind schedule, having lost a whole season of Arctic exploration. It was also obvious that the health of Captain Charles Clerke — who commanded HMS Discovery — was deteriorating. Proceeding north, they discovered the Pacific’s largest atoll, Christmas Island (today’s Kiritimati), where they celebrated Christmas and Cook observed an eclipse of the sun. After stocking up on over a ton of green turtles, the ships departed on January 2, 1778.

On January 18, the surprising, momentous discovery of Hawaii occurred when HMS Resolution and Discovery arrived at the mouth of the Waimea River on the Western side of Kaua‘i. Originally, Cook sent three small craft to Waimea so that his men could determine if it was a good place for the ships to dock. They reported back that there was a fresh water lagoon alongside a native village, so Cook and his men anchored their ships with the sun rising over the islands’ volcanic mountains. Trading pigs and potatoes for nails began immediately with canoeists coming alongside; venturing aboard, the islanders were astonished at what they saw and could not refrain from trying to steal anything they could.

When Cook went ashore on the morning of January 20, the people prostrated themselves on the ground in his honor; remarkably, they understood the Tahitian language. Cook always wondered how the Polynesians had populated the vast Pacific. Later, Cook learned that Third Lieutenant John Williamson, who had been in charge of the search party that had found this anchorage, had shot and killed a native in senseless fear. An ominous, symbolic beginning. The people, though, were friendly, the water was sweet, and the trading was excellent. Captain Clerke, feeling somewhat better, reported that one moderate-size nail supplied his ship’s company with a day’s worth of pork.

Cook’s mission is thought to be one of scientific and social exploration. His men documented the flora and fauna of the Waimea area, and tried to translate the language of the natives. This first encounter was relatively friendly. One of Cook’s men wrote, “On landing I was reciev’d with every token of respect and friendship by a great number of the Natives who were collected upon the occasion; they every one of them prostrated themselves around me which is the first mark of respect at these Isles.”

Cook’s arrival, the first Western contact with Hawaii, is fraught with contradictions. While it was originally friendly and is responsible for a vast resource of information about the flora, fauna and culture of Hawaii, it also marks the beginning of the period of colonization of Hawaii and its people. The arrival of Europeans also introduced venereal disease and tuberculosis, which is responsible for decimating the native Hawaiian population.

 An Offering before Captain Cook in the Sandwich Islands engraving after John Webber, Honolulu Museum of Art, accession 5734. Landscape engraved by Samuel Middiman, and figures engraved by John Hall.
‘An Offering before Captain Cook in the Sandwich Islands’ – engraving after John Webber, Honolulu Museum of Art, accession 5734. Landscape engraved by Samuel Middiman, and figures engraved by John Hall.

Cook was impatient to get to New Albion, the British name for the region that Sir Francis Drake had explored along northwest North America in 1579, so they stayed at Kauai and nearby Niihau for only two weeks. On February 2, 1778, Cook continued on to the coast of North America and Alaska searching for a Northwest Passage for approximately nine months. He returned to Hawaii chain to resupply, initially exploring the coasts of Maui and Hawaii Island to trade.

After sailing around the archipelago for some eight weeks, he made landfall at Kealakekua Bay, on Hawaii Island, largest island in the Hawaiian Archipelago. Cook’s arrival coincided with the Makahiki, a Hawaiian harvest festival of worship for the Polynesian god Lono. Coincidentally the form of Cook’s ship, HMS Resolution, or more particularly the mast formation, sails and rigging, resembled certain significant artefacts that formed part of the season of worship. Similarly, Cook’s clockwise route around the island of Hawaii before making landfall resembled the processions that took place in a clockwise direction around the island during the Lono festivals. It has been argued (most extensively by Marshall Sahlins) that such coincidences were the reasons for Cook’s (and to a limited extent, his crew’s) initial deification by some Hawaiians who treated Cook as an incarnation of Lono. Though this view was first suggested by members of Cook’s expedition, the idea that any Hawaiians understood Cook to be Lono, and the evidence presented in support of it, were challenged in 1992.

After a month’s stay at Kealakekua Bay, Cook attempted to resume his exploration of the Northern Pacific. Shortly after leaving Hawaii Island, however, the Resolution‘s foremast broke in bad weather, so the ships returned to Kealakekua Bay for repairs. Tensions rose, and a number of quarrels broke out between the Europeans and Hawaiians. An unknown group of Hawaiians took one of Cook’s small boats. The evening when the cutter was taken, the people had become “insolent” even with threats to fire upon them. Cook was forced into a wild goose chase that ended with his return to the ship frustrated. He attempted to kidnap and ransom the aliʻi nui of Hawaiʻi, Kalaniʻōpuʻu.

That following day, February 14, 1779, Cook marched through the village to retrieve Kalaniʻōpuʻu. Cook took the king (aliʻi nui) by his own hand and led him willingly away. One of Kalaniʻōpuʻu’s favorite wives, Kanekapolei and two chiefs approached the group as they were heading to boats. They pleaded with the king not to go until he stopped and sat where he stood. An old kahuna (priest), chanting rapidly while holding out a coconut, attempted to distract Cook and his men as a large crowd began to form at the shore. The king began to understand that Cook was his enemy.

'The Death of Captain James Cook, 14 February 1779', an unfinished painting by Johan Zoffany, circa 1795.
‘The Death of Captain James Cook, 14 February 1779’, an unfinished painting by Johan Zoffany, circa 1795.

As Cook turned his back to help launch the boats, he was struck on the head by the villagers and then stabbed to death as he fell on his face in the surf. He was first struck on the head with a club by a chief named Kalaimanokahoʻowaha or Kanaʻina (namesake of Charles Kana’ina) and then stabbed by one of the king’s attendants, Nuaa. The Hawaiians carried his body away towards the back of the town, still visible to the ship through their spyglass. Four marines, Corporal James Thomas, Private Theophilus Hinks, Private Thomas Fatchett and Private John Allen, were also killed and two others were wounded in the confrontation.

The esteem which the islanders nevertheless held for Cook caused them to retain his body. Following their practice of the time, they prepared his body with funerary rituals usually reserved for the chiefs and highest elders of the society. The body was disemboweled, baked to facilitate removal of the flesh, and the bones were carefully cleaned for preservation as religious icons in a fashion somewhat reminiscent of the treatment of European saints in the Middle Ages. Some of Cook’s remains, thus preserved, were eventually returned to his crew for a formal burial at sea.

Clerke assumed leadership of the expedition, and made a final attempt to pass through the Bering Strait. He died from tuberculosis on August 22, 1779, and John Gore, a veteran of Cook’s first voyage, took command of Resolution and of the expedition. James King replaced Gore in command of Discovery. The expedition returned home, reaching England in October 1780.

1928 Hawaii Sesquicentennial half-dollar commemorative coin, featuring James Cook.
1928 Hawaii Sesquicentennial half-dollar commemorative coin, featuring James Cook.

A United States coin, the 1928 Hawaiian Sesquicentennial half dollar carries Cook’s image. Minted for the 150th anniversary of his discovery of the islands, its low mintage (10,008) has made this example of early U.S. commemorative coins both scarce and expensive. The site where he was killed in Hawaii was marked in 1874 by a white obelisk set on 25 square feet (2.3 m²) of chained-off beach. This land, although in Hawaii, was deeded to the United Kingdom. A nearby town is named Captain Cook, Hawaii; several Hawaiian businesses also carry his name. The Apollo 15 Command/Service Module Endeavour was named after Cook’s ship, HMS Endeavour, as was the space shuttle Space Shuttle Endeavour. Another shuttle, Discovery, was named after Cook’s HMS Discovery.

The House of Kamehameha (Hale O Kamehameha), or the Kamehameha dynasty, was the reigning Royal Family of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi, beginning with its founding by Kamehameha I in 1795. In 1793, Captain George Vancouver sailed from the United Kingdom and presented the Union Flag to Kamehameha, who was still in the process of uniting the islands into a single state; the Union Jack flew unofficially as the flag of Hawaii until 1816, including during a brief spell of British rule after Kamehameha ceded Hawaii to Vancouver in 1794.

By 1795, Kamehameha had conquered all but one of the main islands. For his first royal residence, the new King built the first western-style structure in the Hawaiian Islands, known as the “Brick Palace”. The location became the seat of government for the Hawaiian Kingdom until 1845. The king commissioned the structure to be built at Keawa’iki point in Lahaina, Maui, by two ex-convicts from Australia’s Botany Bay penal colony. It was begun in 1798 and was completed after four years in 1802. The house was intended for Kaʻahumanu — the favorite wife of Kamehameha I and also the most politically powerful — but she refused to live in the structure and resided instead in an adjacent, traditional Hawaiian-styled home.

Sugar became a major export from Hawaii soon after Cook’s arrival. The first permanent plantation began in Kauai in 1835. William Hooper leased 980 acres of land from Kamehameha III and began growing sugarcane. Within thirty years plantations operated on the four main islands. Sugar completely altered Hawaii’s economy. American influence in Hawaiian government began with U.S. plantation owners demanding a say in Kingdom politics. This was driven by missionary religion and sugar economics. Pressure from these plantation owners was felt by the King and chiefs as demands for land tenure. After a brief  takeover by the British in 1843, Kamehameha III responded to the demands with the Great Mahele, distributing the lands to all Hawaiians as advocated by missionaries including Gerrit P. Judd.

Stone marking Cook's landing at Waimea Bay, Hawaii, in January 1778. Photo taken on August 20, 2009.
Stone marking Cook’s landing at Waimea Bay, Kauai, in January 1778. Photo taken on August 20, 2009.

During the 1850s, the U.S. import tariff on sugar from Hawaii was much higher than the import tariffs Hawaiians were charging the U.S., and Kamehameha III sought reciprocity. The monarch wished to lower U.S. tariffs and make Hawaiian sugar competitive with other foreign suppliers. In 1854, Kamehameha III proposed a policy of reciprocity between the countries, but the proposal died in the U.S. Senate.

U.S. control of Hawaii was considered vital for the defense of its west coast. The military was especially interested in Pu’uloa, Pearl Harbor. The sale of one harbor was proposed by Charles Reed Bishop, a foreigner who had married into the Kamehameha family, had risen to be Hawaiian Minister of Foreign Affairs and owned a country home near Pu’uloa. He showed two U.S. officers around the lochs, although his wife, Bernice Pauahi Bishop, privately disapproved of selling Hawaiian lands. As monarch, William Charles Lunalilo, was content to let Bishop run most business affairs, but the ceding of lands became unpopular with Hawaiians. Many islanders thought that all the islands, rather than just Pearl Harbor, might be lost and opposed any cession. By November 1873, Lunalilo canceled negotiations and returned to drinking, against his doctor’s advice; his health declined swiftly, and he died on February 3, 1874.

Lunalilo left no heirs. The legislature was empowered by the constitution to elect the monarch in these instances and chose David Kalākaua as Lunalilo’s successor. The new ruler was pressured by the U.S. government to surrender Pearl Harbor to the Navy. Kalākaua was concerned that this would lead to annexation by the U.S. and to violating the traditions of the Hawaiian people, who believed that the land (‘Āina) was fertile, sacred and not for sale. From 1874 through 1875, Kalākaua made a state visit to Washington D.C. to gather support for a new treaty. Congress agreed to the Reciprocity Treaty of 1875 for seven years in exchange for Ford Island. After the treaty, sugar production expanded from 12,000 acres to 125,000 acres in 1891. At the end of the seven-year term, the United States showed little interest in renewal.

James Cook Monument at Waimea, Kauai. Photo taken on May 15, 2005.
James Cook Monument at Waimea, Kauai. Photo taken on May 15, 2005.

On January 20, 1887, the United States began leasing Pearl Harbor. Shortly afterwards, a group of mostly non-Hawaiians calling themselves the Hawaiian Patriotic League began the Rebellion of 1887. They drafted their own constitution on July 6, 1887. The new constitution was written by Lorrin Thurston, the Hawaiian Minister of the Interior who used the Hawaiian militia to threaten Kalākaua. Kalākaua was forced to dismiss his cabinet ministers and sign a new constitution that greatly lessened his power. It would become known as the “Bayonet Constitution” due to the force used.

This new constitution severely curtailed the power of King “David” Kalākaua, and disenfranchised the rights of most Native Hawaiians and Asian citizens to vote, through excessively high property and income requirements. This gave a sizeable advantage to plantation owners. Queen Liliuokalani attempted to restore royal powers in 1893, but was placed under house arrest by businessmen with help from the U.S. military. Against the Queen’s wishes, the Republic of Hawaii was formed for a short time. This government agreed on behalf of Hawaii to join the United States in 1898 as the Territory of Hawaii. on August 21, 1959, the islands became the State of Hawaii of the United States. Hawaii is the only U.S. state located in Oceania, the only U.S. state located outside of North America and the only one composed entirely of islands.

Scott #1733 is half of a two stamp se-tenant issue released on January 20, 1978, marking the 200th anniversary of Captain James Cook’s visits to Hawaii and Alaska. This issue is unique in that one of the stamps was printed vertically and the other printed horizontally. Printed by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing on the Giori press in a quantity of 101,077,500 and perforated 11, the 13-cent green stamp was initially released in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Monument erected at the location of James Cook's death. Photo taken on January 12, 2009.
Monument erected at the location of James Cook’s death at Kealakekua Bay, Hawai’i. Photo taken on January 12, 2009.

Kingdom of Hawaii Coat of Arms
Seal of The Republic of Hawaii, 1894-1900
Seal of the Territory of Hawaii, 1900-1959
Seal of the State of Hawaii (1959-date)
Seal of the State of Hawaii (1959-date)

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