I recently went to Hawaii for a business trip. As I was coming in for a landing and looking at the progress map in front of me, it occurred to me just how very small the Hawaiian Islands are out there in the middle of the great Pacific ocean. Later that evening when I was relaxing in the waves off the coast of Maui, I enjoyed looking out to the west and thinking of all of the ocean between me and Asia.

This begs the question: given Hawaii's size and solitude, just how likely was it that Captain Cook would discover it? Indeed, how likely would it be that Hawaii would be discovered before the age of satellites?

I am looking for people knowledgeable of the time and the exploration endeavor underway. Shipping routes, ocean currents, etc. might play a role in his answer.

I am exploring the possibility that Hawaii was never discovered by the old world and was left to develop independently.

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    $\begingroup$ By "Old World", are you referring just to Europe, or would, say, Asia be a possibility? Also, Cook did get to Hawaii - though he certainly wasn't the first. The Spanish beat him out, and the Polynesians were over a millenium ahead. $\endgroup$
    – HDE 226868
    Jan 16, 2018 at 1:57
  • $\begingroup$ Asia is a possibility. I guess strictly speaking it shouldn't be included in the concept of old-world, but for the purposes of this question it is. Asia had plenty of civilizations that were capable of exploration. Good point of clarification $\endgroup$
    – Trekkie
    Jan 16, 2018 at 2:06
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    $\begingroup$ Asia is most definitely included in the Old World. Excluding Asia from the Old World makes no sense; not only was south-western Asia firmly connected to the history of Europe, but the Romans used Chinese silk, for example -- it was a notoriously expensive article of luxury. Alexander's empire stretched deep into Asia, carrying the Hellenistic civilization to the gates of India. The Roman-Persian wars are an essential element of the Late Ancient and Early Medieval history. The Hunnic empire is a crucial element in the transition of the Ancient world to the Medieval world. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jan 16, 2018 at 3:56
  • $\begingroup$ I think Old World is easy to define as a spectrum of peoples in continuous trading and information exchange contact with each other. This would include five basic areas: Europe and Mediterranean; Middle East and Central Asia; Indian subcontinent; East Asia; SE Asia and the Sundas. Places beyond these regions (Sub-saharan africa, Polynesia, Molaccas/Papua New Guinea) would be somewhat known to some of the 'Old World' peoples, but not known to all, and not well known to any. $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Jan 16, 2018 at 13:17
  • $\begingroup$ @HDE 226868 "Spanish beat him out" - this is very, very debatable. $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Jan 16, 2018 at 17:48

3 Answers 3


Everything was discovered

It is quite amazing how many islands were discovered. Basically, all of them everywhere were discovered by the late 1700s; most of the islands in the Indian and Atlantic oceans were discovered far sooner. Hawaii is mountainous and visible from a distance, and has lots of islands to spot. Lets look at some other medium to large sized archipelagos that are not part of the continental margins that are comparable in size or smaller than Hawaii and when they were discovered. Arctic and Antarctic islands will be ignored. I'm not counting anything in the Philippines or between Indonesia and New Guinea either, since those Islands were generally well connected to each other.

  • Viti Levu and Vanua Levu in Fiji were first visited by Abel Tasman in 1643.

  • There are several large islands in the Solomon Islands chain, such as Bougainville and Guadalcanal. The Spanish first visited in 1568, and Bougainville was the last large island visited in 1768.

  • New Ireland and New Britain off the coast of New Guinea were visited in 1616 and 1700, respectively.

  • New Caledonia was sighted by James Cook in 1774.

  • The Kerguelen Islands in the distant southern ocean were located in 1772, just after Cook visited Hawaii (and just before he visited Kerguelen....guy really go around!)

  • The Galapagos were discovered in 1535 by the Spanish.

  • The first recorded landing on the Falklands was in 1690 by the British, though they may have been spotted up to a century earlier.

  • South Georgia was sighted in 1675 and appeared on maps after that date.

  • Reunion in the Mascarenes was probably already on medieval Arab maps, so may have been specifically looked for by Europeans. In any case, the fist European landing was the Portugese in 1507. Mauritius was also visited in 1507. Its native dodo was extinct by 1662.

  • Tahiti, less than 1/10 the size of Hawaii, was spotted in 1606, and possibly as early as 1576, and visited in 1767.

  • Guam, 1/20 the size of Hawaii and without large mountains, was visited by Magellan in 1521.

  • Palau, a group of hundreds of small islands together smaller than Guam, and even flatter still, was also located by Magellan, and annexed to the Spanish empire as early as 1565.

  • Ascension, a tiny rock less than 1/100 the size of Hawaii, 1600 km from the nearest continent and 1300 km from the nearest land of any sort (another tiny island); was spotted in 1501!

  • Diego Garcia, 1/2 the size of Ascension and a totally flat atoll, alone in the middle of the Indian Ocean (1800 km from India) was spotted in 1512.

  • The nearest analogue to Hawaii is Johnson Atoll, about 750 km away in the central Pacific. This strip of sand is 1300 hectares with a max elevation of 10 meters. It was first sighted by Europeans in 1796 by an American brig.


There is basically no precedent for an island being undiscovered past ~1770 when the great expeditions of people like James Cook went out, even if this island was in the storm-driven Southern Ocean. If even Johnson Atoll was discovered by 1796, there is basically no chance Hawaii could stay hidden any longer than it did.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Except that most of those islands were discovered, and inhabited, by other people long before the Europeans came along. In the case of Hawai'i, somewhere between 500 and 1500 years before. Even Easter Island, about as far as one can get from anywhere else, was settled in the same timeframe. So there's really zero chance of a Pacific island remaining undiscovered prior to European exploration. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Jan 16, 2018 at 3:21
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @jamesqf The question is framed in terms of discovery by Old World explorers. Natives don't matter (in the context of this question, don't hate me). $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Jan 16, 2018 at 13:14
  • $\begingroup$ Sure, I'm just emphasizing the fact that they could hardly escape being discovered. Though of course "Old World" is a rather imprecise term WRT Pacific and Indian ocean islands: do we count Asia, India, Africa, & the East Indies - all of which had seafaring cultures at various times - as "Old World"? $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Jan 16, 2018 at 19:01
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    $\begingroup$ Furthermore, the people inhabiting those islands pre-European discovery were not native to them, they'd just gotten there a bit earlier. In some case not that much earlier, either: for instance, the Maori got to New Zealand only a few hundred years before the Europeans showed up. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Jan 16, 2018 at 23:23
  • $\begingroup$ @jamesqf No human is native to anywhere other than sub-saharan Africa if you go back far enough, and choosing any point inbetween is a little arbitrary. Good point about the late discovery of New Zealand though :) $\endgroup$ Apr 23, 2019 at 12:09

The unfortunate answer to your question is "very unlikely."

During the time of Cook's voyages (1768-1779) every naval power on earth (the Dutch, the Portuguese, Spain, and of course, England) was trying to map the world. Not just for the purpose of business, but for military and political purposes as well. Naval technology, optical technology, navigational technology, and cartographic technology had all come to a point where the world took the next big step forward.

Yes, Hawaii is small, and it would seem like it was difficult to find. However, Cook was specifically a skilled navigator and cartographer. I can't find how tall the HMS Resolution's mast was, but it was not uncommon at the time for mast heights to reach 300 feet. That would allow them to scan a radius of over 20 miles at any time (depending on weather, or course). With an average speed of 5 or so knots (about 5.5 miles per hour) and, say, a 10 hour day (55 miles) that means you could view about 2,000 square miles a day.

But Cook wasn't depending on eyesight alone. Wherever he stopped he would talk to natives about their neighbors, both myth and reality. He wasn't just doing this for alturistic purposes, every inhabited island represented resources and supplies a ship at sea could use to stay at sea — especially during war. So he hopped from island to island, slowly charting everything he found.

Until he found Hawaii.

Considering how much effort was going on at the time, the odds of not finding Hawaii within the period of 1750-1850 are, frankly, zero.

Now, having said that, I wouldn't just throw away your ideas. Cook was met with enough equanimity, curiosity, and hospitality to allow for Hawaii's then dependent development. However, the Sentinelese are a stone-age people still living today. Despite the island being very, very close to the coasts of Burma, etc., the people survived cultural contamination — basically by being the meanest mother hubbards on the planet.

Regrettably, this would mean changing the basic nature of the Hawaiian people such that they beat off Cook and everybody following such that people stopped wanting to land on Hawaii. The island would still be discovered (couldn't be avoided), but the people would have developed more-or-less independently.


I mean, all sorts of flora and fauna found or washed up on to it as well. I'm assuming Hawaii is located near the confluence of several of those large ocean currents. Also, Hawaii isn't the only set of islands in the Pacific. Here is just a quick sampling from what I found on google maps, and you can see that it's fairly plausible that things just slowly moved that way over time.enter image description here


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