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View of Atowa

"View of Atowa, one of the Sandwich Islands." and "Atowi, the King's Mount over the land." Sketches by William Ellis, from Cook's third voyage. National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.


The story of explorers coming to Kaua‘i, and of the transformations that followed, is told by Andy Bushnell.

“Captain Cook was in the Pacific looking for the Northwest Passage, an alternate route between the Atlantic and the Pacific to the north of North America.  He and others thought that perhaps such a passage could be more easily found from the western side of the Americas. That's why he was in the North  Pacific.  They were coming from Tahiti and they spotted the island of O`ahu first, but because of the trade winds, they couldn't get there easily. 

Captain Cook

Captain James Cook.

"So they instead sailed to the second island they saw, which was Kaua`i, and they sailed along the southern coast of that island and finally arrived at Waimea. They anchored off Waimea because there was a large river, and they were pretty sure they could get fresh water there. That was what attracted them.

“As they sailed along the coast, between Koloa and Waimea, they had some interactions with Hawaiians who came out in their canoes.  And those Hawaiians spoke a language that they understood—not completely, but at least partially—because they were familiar with Tahitian, and the Hawaiian language was similar enough to Tahitian that they could get a fairly good idea of what the Hawaiians were saying.

"When they stopped at Waimea Cook decided to go ashore; he wanted to get a look at the culture and see what was there. The reception was very friendly except that it was so exuberant that it caused problems. Before Cook went ashore, he sent a boat and some of his men ashore to check out the water and find a good landing place. A large crowd of Hawaiians met the boat and tried to pull it on shore. One Hawaiian grabbed on to the boat hook and refused to let go. Ultimately, one of the sailors felt it was necessary to shoot the Hawaiian. The sailors assumed he was killed. They didn't check him out to see, but the Hawaiians hauled his body off, so he was probably dead. So the very first interaction resulted in violence.


"Internal view of a Morai or Burial place in Atooi, one of the Sandwich Islands." Engraved by D. K. Bonatti, after drawings by G.Gattina, 1827. Webber, on Cook's voyage, made a very similar sketch.

“The haoles [white men] decided that it was probably not a good place to land, so they went further down the coast toward the river and did check the water and it was good. Later in the day Captain Cook came ashore and the next day he spent a good part of the morning walking around Waimea, checking out various spots including houses, farms and heiau, which he called 'marae' because that is the Tahitian term for temple.

"Cook was treated like a Hawaiian chief, or ali`i, as the commoners prostrated themselves wherever he went. He was very much impressed, positively, by the cultivation of the area—the Hawaiians were extremely productive. They had built impressive irrigation systems. But he was also concerned—maybe I should say appalled—by the indications of violence that he saw.

"And he didn't know about the death of the Hawaiian. His people hadn't told him, which might have changed the way he behaved. When he visited the heiau that was closest to where they had landed, he discovered that there were burials there, and his Hawaiian guide explained that some of the burials had to do with human sacrifice. So this was disturbing."

“If we can believe the accounts of the haole who came here, and not just Captain Cook, but later visitors as well, there was human sacrifice on Kaua`i. The question, I think, really is how widespread it was: was it common or was it unusual.  Was it offered only at certain junctures? It has been exaggerated, I think, in some accounts, but there was human sacrifice.

“Cook spent a good part of the day on land. His men got water; they were helped by the Hawaiians who helped to fill the casks. The next day the wind came up. There was no harbor at Waimea, it is basically a sheltered bay, and when the wind got strong, the shelter went away.

Captain Clerke

Charles Clerke [in New Zealand], by Nathaniel Dance-Holland, 1776.

"Cook’s ship was blown out beyond the place where he could easily come back. Captain Clerke, commander of the second ship in the expedition, was able to remain close to shore for several days, and was visited by a number of Hawaiians. When Cook was ashore he had not encountered any important chiefs. He saw people of some authority, but no important chiefs.

"But Clerke was visited by Ka-neoneo who was one of the contenders for the throne, because Kaua‘i was in the middle of a civil war at the time. Ka-neoneo had been the ruling chief of Kaua‘i by virtue of his “marriage” to the most powerful chiefess at that time, Ka-maka-helei. Ka-neoneo had been with her and was now at war with a chief from Maui who had replaced him as her mate and as the ruler of the island. He came out to see Captain Clerke.

“Clerke was impressed by him and the way in which he was treated by the other Hawaiians. The other Hawaiians treated him not only like a very important person, but perhaps even like a god, say a demi god. They didn’t want him to be touched by the haoles. When he came on board Clerke’s ship, Clerke clapped him on the back, which was not the thing to do, but nothing happened except that the chief’s retainers made some threatening gestures. And they exchanged gifts.

"And when the chief was either coming out or going back in his canoe—which was bigger than ordinary canoes of the commoners who were in the water—the commoners buried themselves in the canoes or jumped overboard. And Ka-neoneo’s canoe basically ran over them—there was no kindness shown by Ka-neoneo to the commoners. There was a huge difference, a huge disparity in rank and privilege. So those were things that they noticed.


Cloak front



Front and back views of a feather cloak (ahuula) believed to have been given to Captain Clerke by Ka-neoneo. British Museum photos.


Captain Cook's crew introduced new diseases on Kaua‘i that spread across the islands. Read about that here.

“Captain George Vancouver came to Kaua‘i in 1792, fourteen years after Cook’s discovery. He had previously been a midshipman on either Cook’s or Clerke’s ship. And Waimea was one of those places early on that was fairly often visited because people knew they could get water and provisions. The Hawaiians were generally considered friendly. Later on, because of the civil war between Kamehameha and the various chiefs of Maui and O‘ahu, Kamehameha figured out pretty quickly that if you were good to the haoles, they came back. You could trade and you could get guns. One of the reasons he was successful is that he was one of those who figured out early that by being a good host, he could get guns, and that gave him an advantage in the wars. The other chiefs figured that out too, but it took them maybe a little bit longer.


Believed to be George Vancouver, by unknown artist. National Portrait Gallery, London.

“And also the water: Kaua‘i offered good water and taro and yams. In fact some of the traders went to Ni‘ihau because Ni‘ihau had a reputation for having really good yams, and yams were better than sweet potatoes because they lasted longer. Sweet potatoes tended to rot and yams would hang in there for a while.

"There were reports of really huge yams, although after a few years the yam crops in Ni‘ihau seemed to have pretty much dried up and there weren’t any. So visitors stopped going to Ni‘ihau after about the 1790’s, and as far as I know there was almost no more contact there."

“One of the early explorers, probably Vancouver, landed and went ashore on Kaua‘i and walked from where Waimea town is now down towards Kekaha. He may have gotten as far as Kekaha, maybe not that far. But he saw that there were houses all along that area. He was impressed with the Hawaiian hospitality. Everywhere that he went they offered him food and drink, and sometimes their women.

"He saw one woman who was carrying a baby dog and was suckling it, and he saw that they were very close to their animals. The last time he visited Waimea, I think it was 1795, the Hawaiians put on a show for him. They had a big hula festival and there were hundreds of people, maybe even thousands, who gathered at Waimea."


‘Uhi (Dioscorea alata) is one of the Hawaiian yams. These are completely unrelated to the sweet potatos called "yams" in the United States. Photo from

"Vancouver sails around the island but he does not stop at Hanalei or anywhere on the North side of the island. He hangs out outside of Wailua for a short period of time and makes contact with Hawaiians there, but he doesn’t come ashore. It’s too dangerous to come ashore anywhere except the south side of Kaua‘i because the trade winds are going to push your ship right onto the shore.

"As far as I know, none of the explorers landed anywhere except from Kōloa on to Waimea. The only one that I can remember for sure who goes around the island is Vancouver. I believe his artist draws some pictures of the coast line up there, but they don’t anchor and stop, and hang out and meet the Hawaiians and so contact is just not happening up there."


Chart Inset

Chart from Vancouver's published account showing his travels in the Hawaiian Islands, suggests he circumnavigated Kaua‘i.


The impact of these visits will be discussed in the Society page. A side story, related to a very different early visitor, is the construction of Russian forts on Kaua‘i.

The next major group of visitors to arrive is the missionaries.



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