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Although British sea captain and explorer James Cook is credited with the "discovery" of Hawai'i in 1778, convincing evidence suggests that Spanish ships preceded him by more than 200 years. During the mid-16th century, Spanish galleons made annual treks across the Pacific between their colonies in Western Mexico and their recently established bases in The Philippines. In 1542 a fleet led by Portuguese navigator Joao Gaetano stumbled onto islands that they named the Isla de Mesa group. Navigators were ordered not to mention the islands in their logs for fear that knowledge of them would fall into the hands of the British enemy.

In 1742, the British burst into the Pacific with the man-of-war Centurion, commanded by Lord Anson. They captured a Spanish galleon in its annual crossing and seized its treasure, including a chart showing the Isla de Mesa group. Cook must have had a copy of that chart. The timing of Cook's arrival at Kealakekua Bay, Hawai'i Island, constitutes one of history's oddest ironies. His ships the Resolution and the Discovery appeared at the height of the makahiki festival, an annual celebration honoring the Hawaiian god of agriculture, Lono. Strangely enough, the British ships bore a startling correspondence to certain Hawaiian prophecies, which said that Lono would return one day on a floating island. The Hawaiians greeted Cook with ceremony and reverence beyond anything he had experienced in the Pacific. All went well until Cook's departure in February 1779.

Off the north coast of Hawai'i a storm snapped one of the British masts, forcing Cook to limp back into Kealakekua Bay. By now the Hawaiians had surmised that the haole, the Westerners, were less than divine. A series of squabbles, which included the killing of a first rank chief, quickly escalated into violent confrontation over a stolen cutter. Cook himself was knifed to death in the fray, and the Resolution and Discovery sailed back to London without their captain. Of course, other explorers followed, including the Frenchman La Perouse in 1786, who was first to set foot on Maui. In 1790, American Simon Metcalf ordered the slaughter of scores of Maui natives in an incident termed the Olowalu Massacre. In 1792 British captain George Vancouver introduced cattle to Hawai'i. Within a generation of "discovery," imported domestic animals had begun to denude the islands' forests and imported diseases had begun to kill as much as 80 percent of the Hawaiian population.