HONOLULU (KHON2) — There’s a little-known fact amongst those of us who live in Hawaiʻi. For nearly 200 years, the Spanish Empire found and lost Hawaiʻi several times.

Since around 21% of Hawaiʻi residents speak Spanish as their first language, understanding the long-time relationship that Hawaiʻi has with Hispanic populations is important in understanding Hawaiʻi’s modern history.

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The journey to explore this information came out of a meeting with Puakea Nogelmeier. While talking story with Nogelmeier on a beautiful Saturday morning, this reporter was talking about some of the stories being covered here at KHON2.com.

When Nogelmeier heard that we were covering Hispanic Heritage Month, he said, “you know, the Spanish found Hawaiʻi long before Cook found the islands; but they were not able to return because longitude had not been established yet. They had a complete map of the islands well before Cook arrived, and they had the latitude coordinates. But because they didn’t have longitude, the islands could not easily be relocated.”

Of course, this prompted the question of whether these explorers had dropped off people in their travels, sailors or otherwise.

Nogelmeier said that he did not have that information but that anything is possible…

Yes, we found this utterly fascinating, too. Captain James Cook is who developed our modern system to determine longitude. So, when he landed on what seemed to be a random group of islands in the Pacific, he’d found where the Spanish had been going already for quite some time. But, unlike the Spanish explorers before him, he was able to find it again.

Nogelmeier pointed KHON2.com to the research of Donald Cutter, who was a professor of history at the University of New Mexico and who specialized in Hispanic history.

According to Cutter, the long-lived Spanish legend that said Spain had beaten all its European contemporaries to the New World extended all around the Pacific region.

“Spain’s early activity in Alaska, Canada, Washington, Oregon and California reinforces the idea that Spain was also the early explorer of the Pacific Islands,” explained Cutter. “The vast Pacific, from its European discovery in Panama by Vasco Nunez de Balboa, until almost the end of the 18th Century, was part of the Spanish overseas empire.”

This was emboldened by a very generous Papal recognition of Spain’s discoveries which was intended to mitigate a world war between Spain and Portugal as both powers were exceedingly active in their pursuit of new lands to consume.

“In 1513, Nunez de Balboa waded into the Pacific, banner in hand, and in a single grandiose act of sovereignty claimed the ocean and all of its islands for Spain,” added Cutter. “It was a majestic moment in time—nearly one third of the world was staked out for exclusive Spanish control by this single imperial act. And Spain was able to parlay this act of sovereignty into the creation of a huge Spanish lake of hundreds of thousands of square miles, a body of water in which no other European nation could sail in peaceful commerce.”

The hundreds of treks between Manila and San Diego de Acapulco made by Spanish explorers and merchants does lend to the idea that the Spanish explorers did come across Hawaiʻi many of the times they sailed past.

Maps of what Spain called Islas del Rey, Islas de los Jardines, Islas de las Tablas or Islas de la Mesa may very well have been Hawaiʻi. The explorer to note in this, according to Cutter, is Juan Gaytan.

“Juan Gaytan [Gaytano, Gaetano] … was one of the early trans-Pacific explorers; and based on his rudimentary account and a supposed map, Gaytan might have hit the Islas del Rey while outbound from the coast of New Spain in 1555,” said Cutter.

Along with Gaytan, there is another mid-level explorer named Francisco Gali (or Hualde) who may have also trekked through Hawaiʻi in his expeditions which began in 1582.

“Spanish interest in Hawaiʻi was a spin-off from its interest in the Pacific Northwest, an interest which became very evident in the Nootka Sound Affair,” explained Cutter. “It is clear that Spanish activity was associated with its political fortunes on the international scene.”

Cutter goes on to explain that each time one of these explorers came across the islands that later became known as Hawaiʻi, they dropped off merchant colonists in order to establish trade with the indigenous peoples. No one really knows what happed to the colonists since the explorers who dropped them off were not able to find the islands again.

Were they integrated into local communities? Were they murdered for being outsiders? Did they simply create their own community? Many questions are still unanswered about these early Spanish colonists.

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Cutter said that Spain’s history of blanket land claims does not dampen the significance of Cook. According to Cutter, Cook remains the sole explorer who opened the world to Hawaiʻi and showed Hawaiʻi the world.

This story was updated from its original version on Nov. 2, 2023.