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Episode 31: First contact with the West

On January 18th 1778, Captain James Cook and his crew made landfall on Kaua‘i—the first known Westerners in Hawai‘i. Cook was on his third expedition in the Pacific, charged with finding the Northwest Passage. He knew some of his sailors were infected with disease—gonorrhea and syphilis—and when he arrived on Kaua‘i he forbade all connection between Hawaiian women and those in his crew who had, as he put it,  “the venereal upon them.” But try as he did to keep the disease from entering Hawai‘i, Cook did not succeed. His ships sailed north in February; they returned in November to evidence that disease had taken hold. After Cook was killed, Captain Charles Clerke took command, returned to Kaua‘i and met many Hawaiians who were, as he recorded in his journal, “miserably afflicted.” Clerke wrote, “Our Seamen are in these matters so infernal and dissolute a crew that for the gratification of the present passion that affects them they would entail universal destruction upon the whole of the Human Species.” The disease Cook’s ships brought was just the beginning; over the next century foreign diseases would cause no less than a holocaust in Hawai‘i. No one knows exactly what the population was when Cook arrived; but by the 1896 census there were fewer than 40,000 Hawaiians.  Even using the conservative estimate of 400,000 at contact means that for every ten Hawaiians then, nine would be gone by the monarchy’s overthrow.

researcher, writter, and narrator of Aloha Aina. She is currently an editor at Hawai‘i’s largest magazine, Hana Hou!, where she has written and edited numerous award-winning articles about Hawai‘i. She was the founding editor of Honolulu Weekly. She holds a BA in Pacific history and journalism from the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa and a JD from Stanford Law School.
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