Until recently, it was generally thought that initial Polynesian discovery of Hawai‘i happened around AD 300–750.
However, with significant advances in radiocarbon dating and the targeted re-dating of key Eastern Polynesian and Hawaiian sites has strongly supported and suggested that initial Polynesian discovery and colonization of the Hawaiian Islands occurred between approximately AD 1000 and 1200. (Kirch)
Later, in the dawn hours of January 18, 1778, on his third expedition, British explorer Captain James Cook on the HMS Resolution and Captain Charles Clerke of the HMS Discovery first sighted what Cook named the Sandwich Islands (that were later named the Hawaiian Islands.)
Cook continued to sail along the coast searching for a suitable anchorage. His two ships remained offshore, but a few Hawaiians were allowed to come on board on the morning of January 20, before Cook continued on in search of a safe harbor.
On the afternoon of January 20, 1778, Cook anchored his ships near the mouth of the Waimea River on Kauaʻi’s southwestern shore. After a couple of weeks, there, they headed to the west coast of North America.
Hawaiian lives changed with sudden and lasting impact, when western contact changed the course of history for Hawai‘i.
But, was Cook the first foreigner to find Hawaiʻi?
“Old Spanish charts and a 1613 AD Dutch globe suggest that explorers from Spain had sighted Hawaiʻi long before Captain Cook. When Cook arrived in 1778, galleons laden with silver from the mines of Mexico and South America had been passing south of Hawaiʻi for two centuries on annual round trip voyages of 17,000 miles between Acapulco and Manila.” (Kane)
“It seems to be almost certain that one Juan Gaetano, a Spanish navigator, saw Hawaii in 1555 AD. A group of islands, the largest of which was called La Mesa, was laid down in the old Spanish charts in the same latitude as the Hawaiian Islands, but 10 degrees too far east.” (Hawaiʻi Department of Foreign Affairs, 1896)
There are undoubted proof of finding the Hawaiian Islands by the Spaniard, Juan Gaetano. This is the first known record of the islands among the civilized nations. There are evident references to this group in the legends of the Polynesians in other Pacific islands. (Westervelt 1923)
La Perouse noted, when he briefly visited the Islands (1786,) “In the charts, at the foot of this archipelago, might be written: ‘Sandwich Islands, surveyed in 1778 by Captain Cook, who named them, anciently discovered by the Spanish navigators.’” (La Perouse, Fornander)
“By all the documents that have been examined, it is demonstrated that the discovery dates from the year 1555 and that the discoverer was Juan Gaetano or Gaytan. The principal proof is an old manuscript chart, registered in these archives as anonymous, and in which the Sandwich Islands are laid down under that name, but which also contains a note declaring that he called them Islas de Mesa”. (Spanish Colonial Office letter to the Governor of the Philippines, The Friend May 1927)
“It is true that no document has been found in which Gaytan himself certifies to this fact, but there exist data which collectively form a series of proofs sufficient for believing it to be so. The principal one is an old manuscript chart … in which the Sandwich Islands are laid down under that name…” (The Friend May 1927)
“(H)e called them “Islas de Mesa” (Table Islands.) There are besides, other islands, situated in the same latitude, but 10° further east, and respectively named “La Mesa” (the table), “La Desgraciado” (the unfortunate), “Olloa,” and “Los Monges” (the Monks.)”
Gaetano passed through the northern part of the Pacific and found large islands which he marked upon a chart as “Los Majos.” The great mountains upon these islands did not rise in sharp peaks, but spread out like a high tableland in the clouds, hence he also called the islands “Isles de Mesa,” the Mesa Islands or the Table Lands. One of the islands was named “The Unfortunate.” Three other smaller islands were called “The Monks.” (Westervelt 1923)
In 1743, English captain George Anson set sail for the Pacific to attack Spanish galleons (English and Spain were at war at the time.) Overcoming the ‘Nuestra Senora de Covadonga,’ he found a “chart of all the ocean between the Philippines and the coasts of Mexico.” A cluster of islands were noted in mid-ocean; the island La Mesa is on the same latitude of the Island of Hawaiʻi and its southern contour resembles the southern coastline of Hawaiʻi; however, they are noted east of their actual location. (Kane)
Until 1744 and the development of the chronometer, determining longitude was an historic problem for navigators. Longitude (East-West) was estimated by distances a ship covered within various periods of time, estimated by the ship’s speed during each period. (Kane)
Ship speed was measured with a block of wood attached to a line with knots tied at intervals. The ‘log’ was cast from the sterns and the number of ‘knots’ run out during a certain time interval enabled the navigator to calculate his speed. However, this method doesn’t address the west-bound ocean current that would effectively place a position east of its true position. (Kane)
Fortunately, however, the Spanish made no use of this find, thus permitting the Hawaiians to escape the sad fate of the natives of the Ladrones and Carolines under Spanish dominion. (White 1898)
Juan Gaetano may not have been the first Spaniard, here. Stories suggest an earlier arrival of shipwrecked Spaniards at Keʻei, Kona Moku (district,) Island of Hawaiʻi.
There is fairly complete evidence that a Spanish vessel was driven ashore on the island of Hawaii in 1527, it being one of a squadron of three which sailed from the Mexican coast for the East Indies. (White 1898)
“A well known Hawaiian tradition relates that in the reign of Keliiokaloa, son of Umi, a foreign vessel was wrecked at Keei, South Kona, Hawaii. According to the tradition, only the captain and his sister reached the shore in safety. From their kneeling on the beach and remaining a long time in that posture, the place was called Kulou (to stoop, to bow,) as it is unto this day.” (Alexander 1892)
“The natives received them kindly and placed food before them. These strangers intermarried with the Hawaiians, and were the progenitors of certain well known families of chiefs, as for instance, that of Kaikioewa, former Governor of Kauai.“ (Alexander 1892)
Jarves expanded on the story, “In the reign of Kealiiokaloa, son of Umi, thirteen generations of kings before Cook’s arrival, which, according to the previous calculation, would bring it near the year 1620, a vessel, called by the natives Konaliloha, arrived at Pale, Keei, on the south side of Kealakeakua bay, Hawaii.”
“Here, by some accident, she was drawn into the surf, and totally wrecked; the captain, Kukanaloa, and a white woman, said to be his sister, were the only persons who reached the land. As soon as they trod upon the beach, either from fear of the inhabitants, or to return thanks for their safety, they prostrated themselves, and remained in that position for a long time. The spot where this took place, is known at the present day, by the appellation of Kulou, to bow down. The shipwrecked strangers were hospitably received, invited to the dwellings of the natives, and food placed before them.” (Jarves 1843)
The image shows a chart noting the correct location of the Islands and the Table Islands suggested in the Spanish Chart (this was used by La Perouse, who looked for, but did not find the Table Islands.). In addition, I have included other related images in a folder of like name in the Photos section on my Facebook and Google+ pages.