The first Hawaiian word written is ‘Hamaite’ – it was spoken to Captain Cook at the time he made contact with the Islands and he wrote it in his journal.
It was made in reference to iron. Some suggest it refers to Hematite (ferric oxide – a mineral form of iron oxide – that is Hematita in Spanish.) However, others suggest ‘Hamaite’ is actually a Hawaiian expression of He maita‘i – good. (Schutz) The following is Cook’s explanation:
“In the course of my several voyages, I never before met with the natives of any place so much astonished, as these people were, upon entering a ship.”
“Their eyes were continually flying from object to object; the wildness of their looks and gestures fully expressing their entire ignorance about every thing they saw, and strongly marking to us, that, till now, they had never been visited by Europeans …”
“… nor been acquainted with any of our commodities except iron; which, however, it was plain, they had only heard of, or had known it in some small quantity brought to them at some distant period.”
“They seemed, only to understand, that it was a substance much better adapted to the purposes of cutting, or of boring of holes, than any thing their own country produced.”
“They asked for it by the name of hamaite, probably referring to some instrument, in the making of which iron could be usefully employed …”
“… for they applied that name to the blade of a knife, though we could be certain that they had no idea of that particular instrument; nor could they at all handle it properly.”
“For the same reason, they frequently called iron by the name of ‘toe,’ which in their language signifies a hatchet, or rather a kind of adze.”
“On asking them what iron was, they immediately answered, ‘We do not know; you know what it is, and we only understand it as ‘toe,’ or ‘hamaite.’”
“The only iron tools, or rather bits of iron, seen amongst them, and which they had before our arrival, were a piece of iron hoop about two inches long, fitted into a wooden handle, and another edge tool, which our people guessed to be made of the point of a broadsword.”
“Their having the actual possession of these, and their so generally knowing the use of this metal, inclined some on board to think, that we had not been the first European visitors of these islands.”
“But, it seems to me, that the very great surprise expressed by them on seeing our ships, and their total ignorance of the use of fire-arms, cannot be reconciled with such a notion.”
“There are many ways by which such people may get pieces of iron, or acquire the knowledge of the existence of such a metal, without ever having had an immediate connection with nations that use it.”
“It can hardly be doubted that it was unknown to all the inhabitants of this sea, before Magellan led the way into it ; for no discoverer, immediately after his voyage, ever found any of this metal in their possession …”
“… though, in the course of our late voyages it has been observed, that the use of it was known at several islands, to which no former European ships had ever, as far as we know, found their way.”
“At all the places where Mendana touched in his two voyages, it must have been seen and left, and this would extend the knowledge of it, no doubt, to all the various islands with which those whom he had visited had any immediate intercourse.”
“It might even be carried farther; and where specimens of this article could not be procured, descriptions might, in some measure, serve to make it known when afterward seen.”
So, it appears evident, before Cook’s contact with the islands, the Hawaiian already had, used and wanted more iron – to make tools and weapons (principally to shape into knives.)
In answering the obvious follow-up question – Where did it come from? – we need simply recall our existing apprehension of the recent and coming debris from the Japan tsunami, as well as the ongoing volunteer activity by thousands across the State clearing our shorelines of marine debris.
As noted in historic records, examination of the flotsam on the windward beaches of the islands reveals principally logs from the north-west coast of America and floats from Japan.
After comparing and considering the possibilities in 1778, it is probable that floating pieces of shipwrecks and other marine debris, from Japan and elsewhere, were the more likely sources of the iron.
Or, maybe the Spanish made contact with the Islands centuries before Cook …