With the sighting of great white sails on the horizon, the likes of which the Hawaiians had never seen, the islands were forever changed. Captain James Cook, one of the world’s most recognized British navigators, sailed into Waimea Bay on the island of Kaua’i first in 1778, and then onto the Big Island at Kealakekua Bay in early 1779. At the time of Cook’s arrival on the Big Island, some 10,000 or more Hawaiians were in the midst of their makahiki celebration, a celebration that honored the god Lono. Cook arriving on his ship with white sails (similar to that of the god Lono’s flag) was likely mistaken as the god Lono and treated accordingly. During his two week stay on the Big Island, he was honored in ceremony upon ceremony. Cook and the Hawaiians entertained each other mutually with their own inventions before the famous navigator set sail away from the islands. Shortly thereafter, the makahiki celebration ended, and the bay was made kapu (off-limits).
Meanwhile, a storm off-shore had damaged one of Cook’s ships. Naturally, he returned to the bay expecting the same hospitality he’d received before. But many of the Hawaiians had grown tired of the sailors’ presence in the bay, and despite the fraternization that took place, one of Cook’s smaller boats was stolen. It should have ended there but Cook instead decided to go ashore and kidnap Chief Kalaniopu’u until his boat was returned. Intentional or not, Cook was stabbed in a skirmish which left him dead at the hands of Hawaiian warriors.
Today, a white monument stands erected at the northern end of the bay where Cook met his demise, a solemn reminder of this event. This is the only piece of land in the Hawaiian chain that remains British soil. Today the area has become most popular for its snorkeling and kayaking.
Cook’s presence forever changed the islands. Chiefs were always at war with one another in Hawai’i. Never had a single ruler controlled all the islands. But a young chief by the name of Kamehameha, a native of Kohala on the Big Island, had taken note of the Westerners weapons and set out to conquer all the islands in the Hawaiian chain: to be their first king. By 1791, he had defeated his cousin and arch-rival on the Big Island, and by 1795, he had conquered Maui, Moloka’i, Lana’i, and O’ahu. In 1810, the chief that ruled Kaua’i, seeing all that had happened with Kamehameha and his warrior’s island by island, pledged his loyalty to Kamehameha. With that act, Kamehameha fulfilled the prophecy that he would become the first King of Hawai’i.
Kamehameha ruled with a tight grip. He wished to prepare the islands for increasing contact with the west – sailors, whalers, and entrepreneurs. Unfortunately, Kamehameha could not prepare the islands for what would affect them the most, venereal disease. Over the next century, the Hawaiian population was decimated by the likes of influenza, typhoid fever, and measles. Estimates say the population decreased by as much as 80%.
It was greed that would next change the islands. Riches were to be made of the forests of Hawai’I with the sweet-smelling sandalwood, a huge commodity in the orient. Guns, boats, and even canons made their way into Hawaiian life, and for the first time, the concept of owning land came into existence. In 1819, when Kamehameha died, so did the remainder of Hawaiian life. A short time later Kamehameha II, at the behest of Kamehameha I’s wife, Ka’ahumanu, broke the kapu system that had ruled the islands for generations. A year later, the missionaries arrived from Boston.