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How Spain Cast Its Spell On Hawai'i

by Chris Cook

The tale of Spanish immigra- tion to Hawai'i is one of mystery and legend. Though there is little documentation about Spain's first contact with Hawai'i, Spanish influence is considerable. It stretches from the mythical centuries before the arrival of Captain Cook in 1778 to the arrival of Hawai'i's first coffee planter, Don Marin, and the immigration of workers from Andalusia, the Philippines and Puerto Rico. The establishment of common surnames like Cayetano, Hawai'i's current governor; the development of the Hawaiian guitar and 'ukulele; Hawaiian gowns with Spanish lace; and spicy tropical foods can be traced to Spain. Even Charo, one of the Islands' most popular entertainers of today, is originally from Spain and raves about Hawai'i during her international engagements.


An old Spanish map, showing Hawai'i, may have been carried by Captaing Cook.


The story begins in the early 1500s with the arrival of two ships. Some say these were Polynesian or Micronesian. Others say the ships were Spanish and wrecked off the Kona coast in 1527, with only the Captain and his sister making it to shore alive. Another tale says Juan Gaetano, a Spanish navigator, arrived in 1555. While these stories are hard to prove, it is known that Spanish ships were passing within a few hundred miles of Hawai'i during this period, as they sailed between Latin America and the Far East.

Documents found in Spanish archives indicate that three ships were sent by the conquistador Cortez, from Mexico to the Moluccas-the Spice Islands of today's Indonesia. Only one reached its destination. The others may have been the ships that were wrecked off Kona. Though no clear report of the shipwreck was found in the archives, and Spain never claimed ownership of the Hawaiian Islands, Spanish maps from the 1500s show islands that may well be Hawai'i. While official British records set forth that Captain Cook knew nothing of Hawai'i until his crew sighted the southwest shore of O'ahu in early 1778, some claim Cook was steering north with the aid of a 200-year-old Spanish map.

A flurry of research and talks on possible early contact between Hawai'i and Spain reachedd its apex around 1900, led by Professor William Alexander, a missionary son and early member of the Hawaiian Historical Society. Alexander wrote: "There is little doubt that these islands were discovered by the Spanish navigator, Juan Gaetano, in the year 1555." Alexander was probably citing a document issued in February, 1865 from the Colonial Office at Madrid in Spain and addressed to the Governor of the Philippines.

The letter said in part: "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 (Table Islands) There are besides other islands situated in the same latitude, but 10 degrees farther east and respectively named La Mesa, 'La Desgraciade, Olloa or Los Monges. The chart appears to be a copy of that called the chart of the Spanish Galleon, existing long before the time of Cook, and which is referred to by all the national and foreign authors that have been consulted Foreign authors say that It (the discovery) took place in 1542, in the expedition commanded by General Rui Lopez de Villalobo, while the Spanish chronicles denote 1555."

Later, critics asked how the name Sandwich Islands could have been coined by the Spanish centuries before the Earl of Sandwich bankrolled Capt. Cook's expedition. Perhaps Sandwich Islands was added to the maps after Cook's journals were published in 1784. Proof one way or another hasn't been determined.

However, two island groups, called Los Monges d Los Bolcanos, appear on a great many maps of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, and may represent the Hawaiian archipelago, according to Hawai'i Roman Catholic historian Father Reginald Yzendoorn, writing in the 1920s:

"The Los Bolcanos group, consisting of five islands, one of which is called Farfana (probably a misreading for La Tartana), appears for the first time in 1569 on Mercator's map: Nova et aucta orbis description at between 22 and 26 degrees north latitude and about 176 degrees west longitude

"Los Monges are mapped for the first time by Abraham Ortelius on the map of America, made in 1587, and reproduced in the 1612 edition of his monumental atlas: Theatrum Orbis Terrarum. There they are at between 20 and 22 degrees north latitude and 159 and 162 degrees west longitude. Various cartographers during the two following centuries have maintained the Los Monges group on their maps, until Cook rediscovered and renamed them; whilst Los Bolcanos are mapped for the last time by J. A. Maginus in 1617."

Yzendoorn concludes: "A complete study of all these maps leaves no doubt as to the identity of these groups with the Hawaiian Islands."


Perhaps a profile of a Spanish gentleman, this carving was made before the arrival of Captain James Cook.


Another controversial piece of evidence of early Spanish discovery is a bust , said to have been found on O'ahu before Cook's arrival. The white stone statue is now in Bremen, Germany but a cast remains at the Bishop Museum.

The figure, legitimate or not, looks like a European gentleman of the late 1500s with a ruffled high collar, and a pointed beard. At least, the white bust might suggest that Spaniards came to Hawai'i well before Cook.

The next chapter of the Spanish in Hawai'i begins in 1793 with the arrival of Don Francisco de Paula Marin, a Spaniard from Jerez in Andalusia, aboard the Lady Washington. Marin may have been dark skinned as many Andalusians are of Moorish descent. No one knows for certain as only a rough pen and ink drawing of him with sword and uniform remains.

The story of his life in Hawai'i is part-fact based on written accounts, and part legendary.

He joined the Spanish navy and served at Nootka on the northwest coast of America. From there he deserted and joined the crew of the Lady Washington, under the command of Captain John Kendrick. Kendrick was killed by an accidental cannon discharge in Honolulu Harbor in the winter of 1793 ­ 94.

Marin stayed in Hawai'i and became an advisor to King Kamehameha. Legend has it that Kamehameha forbade Marin to leave Hawai'i, while journals of western sailors suggested he left several times on adventurous voyages to California and perhaps the South Pacific. He settled down on O'ahu and served as an interpreter aboard visiting merchant ships, providing wise council for Kamehameha in his dealings with western traders. What is known about his life in Hawai'i comes from his early journals ,which were found by a Scot, Robert Crichton Wyllie. Wyllie, the Foreign Minister of the Hawaiian Kingdom in the 1850s and founder of Princeville on Kaua'i, was an indefatigable collector of printed matter dealing with Hawai'i. He reportedly found Marin's journal in a dusty Honolulu basement. The journal has since been lost.

The Andalusian is best known for cultivating the first coffee trees and probably the first guava trees in Hawai'i at his home near today's downtown Honolulu. He also grew "pineapples, oranges, beans, cabbages, potatoes, peaches, cherimoyas, horse-radish, melons, tobacco, carrots, asparagus, maize, fig trees, lemons, lettuce, and hand made kukui-oil, coconut-oil, candles, tiles, hay, cigars, beer and brandy." Marin wrote that he also grew cotton, cloves, tomatoes, turnips, peppers, limes, and chiles, wheat and barley, and manufactured castor oil, soap, molasses, pickles. He also had a go at growing sugar.

Marin served long and faithfully in the court of Kamehameha and his wife Ka'ahumanu as an interpreter, doctor, distiller and military advisor. Following Kamehameha's death at Kona in 1819, Marin became a captain in the Hawaiian army. He was probably the most influential European living in Hawai'i in the early 1800s before his own death in 1837.

Marin was said to have been a paradox to the people of early Honolulu. Known as "Manini" by Hawaiians for not showing aloha in sharing the many and varied fruits of his well-kept gardens in Honolulu along today's Vineyard Street, Marin also held a deep concern for the Hawaiian people.

Before the overthrow of the kapu system in 1819, Marin was obliged to assist with Hawaiian religious ceremonies as part of his duties to Kamehameha. During this time, he apparently felt uneasy at displaying a Catholic cross and other overt Christian images in his own home, though he privately retained his Catholic faith. He is also said to have taken two wives, following Hawaiian custom. And while teaching western ways to Hawaiian royalty - the ali'i, he refrained from dissuading their tradition of following the teachings of the shaman-the kahuna.

In the journals of Arago, an early European visitor to Hawai'i, Marin's underground Catholic work is described: "He told me also that as soon as he knew a person in danger of death, he went to the house, and under pretext of administering some medicine, he baptized the person. He added that he had thus saved over three hundred souls from eternal punishment."

Marin didn't take to the Protestant missionaries who arrived in Honolulu in 1820, and felt threatened by their intrusion in the royal kingdom. A Father Short wrote: "There lives in this town an old Spaniard who has been in Sandwich (Isles) for over twenty years. He possesses great properties and has wives and children who occupy a village by themselves. I have not been informed yet how great their number is. He baptizes all his children and teaches them in Spanish... morning and night he makes them say their prayers and the beads; on Sundays he reads the greater part of the mass, his family gathering around him, and he gives them an exhortation in Spanish If polygamy were allowed, he could pass for a patriarch."

Marin told Arago that the first 13 baptisms registered in the Catholic Mission at Honolulu were performed at his estate by a Mexican merchant from Sonora. Those baptized included his two young wives: Maria Akonia Kahuelua, 28, and Maria Kahikola, 24.

Marin's death was as remarkable as his legendary life. He died in October, 1837 and was given a funeral at a native Protestant church at a time when Catholicism was still somewhat outlawed in Hawai'i. There a Lowell Smith read a passage about Lazarus from the Bible, perhaps partly in rejecting Marin, because of his opposition to the missionaries. A newspaper editor complained that Marin deserved a Catholic burial, but wasn't given one. On November 7, Marin's body was sealed in a proper tomb. The same day one of the strongest tsunami to ever strike Hawai'i rolled in. Some say it was a sign that Marin was truly a Hawaiian ali'i, and that the deadly waves provided a portentous Hawaiian omen.

Another legendary event involving Spaniards occurred in 1818 after Kamehameha bought a large ship named Santa Rose, which became the Kalaholile. The ship had been purchased from thieves , and it is said that a Spanish man-o-war took the ship back to its rightful owners. Some sailors involved in the theft were taken prisoner and returned to Spain, and some were hidden away at Kailua-Kona and became early western settlers of that district.

At this time golden Spanish dollars were the favored money of the Hawaiian Kingdom, and continued to be the coin of the realm well into the 19th century.

Perhaps the best known Spanish influence in Hawai'i is that of the introduction of paniolo (cowboys) who arrived about 1830 from Mexico, settling in Waimea on the Big Island. The paniolo taught horsemanship, cattle herding and ranching to Hawaiians at the famous Parker Ranch. Hawaiian paniolo of today trace their skills, and often an ancestor, back to these days. On Kaua'i, Miguel Castro, an early paniolo, became one of the first paniolo landowners on the island, living at Ko'olau, north of Anahola.

Spanish immigrants to Hawai'i who were solicited to work in the sugar industry, arrived in October 1898, numbering 7,735 men, women and children by 1913. Most of them came from Andalusia, home of Don Marin. However, unlike other plantation immigrant groups, the Spanish moved on, and by 1930 only 1,219 remained, including a scant eight children born in Hawai'i. Most Spanish left for the promising fields of California to make higher wages and live among relatives and friends who had settled in greater numbers there.

However, two other immigrant groups with Spanish influence, the Filipinos and the Puerto Ricans supplanted workers from Spain, and continued to pour Sppanish culture into Hawai'i. Filipino sugar plantation workers first arrived in large numbers in 1906, mostly from the Visayan and Ilocos Norte provinces of the Philippines. The Puerto Ricans followed.

With them came words from the Spanish language, music, dance, dress and foods, which melded into these islands. Gowns of Spanish lace for weddings, Filipino Terno Balls and the Puerto Rican Catchie Catchie Dances, became part of Hawaiian fashion. Traces of Spanish architecture in two-story villas with columned gates in Honolulu and other sections of Hawai'i show the Spanish style. Latin foods started blending with Hawaiian cuisine to create Hawaiian paella, tropical tacos, Hawaiian salsas and Hawaiian tortillas. A magazine for visitors in the Spanish language, further promotes the connection between Hawai'i and Spain. In the phone book, there are many Garcias, Peraltas, Fernandes and other names of Spanish descent, including the name of Hawai'i's chief of state, Governor Ben Cayetano.


Charo, from Spain, ls in Hawai'i and writes music about the Islands.


In Hawai'i's entertainment world, the guitar and the 'ukulele (from Spanish and Portuguese descent) are standard. Chris Rego, of Spanish descent, is a popular entertainer in Honolulu. One of the most gregarious promoters of life in Hawai'i is also from Spanish heritage. Dancer, songwriter Charo sings of Hawai'i and boasts about living here on television, during her international tours and during her shows at the Polynesian Palace in Waikiki. She says she is inspired by the beautiful setting of her house on the ocean on Kaua'i and that her melodies sometimes come to her "on the Hawaiian breeze."