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Hawaii conjures images of tropical paradise – stunning beaches, verdant rainforests, and imposing volcanoes. But the state’s official name – the Hawaiian Islands – stands in contrast to a much older and largely forgotten moniker: the Sandwich Islands. So why were the islands once known by this unusual name that evokes images of lunch rather than a Pacific paradise?

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: The Hawaiian Islands were called the Sandwich Islands in the late 18th and early 19th centuries after the Earl of Sandwich, who was First Lord of the Admiralty when Captain James Cook first visited the islands in 1778.

In this approximately 3000 word article, we’ll dive into the history behind the Sandwich Islands name, looking at how it came about through early European exploration of the Pacific, the influence of Captain Cook and the Earl of Sandwich, Indigenous Hawaiian reactions to the name, and how the shift back to the Hawaiian Islands name aligns with the growth of the Hawaiian sovereignty movement in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The Earliest European Contact with Hawaii

Before we dive into the fascinating history of why Hawaii is called the Sandwich Islands, let’s take a look at the earliest European contact with this beautiful archipelago.

It was during the 16th century that the first Europeans arrived in Hawaii, and they were Spanish explorers. These early expeditions were led by Spanish navigators like Álvaro de Mendaña de Neira and Ruy López de Villalobos.

Although they didn’t establish any lasting settlements, their encounters with the Hawaiian Islands laid the foundation for future European exploration and colonization.

Early Spanish expeditions in the 16th century

The Spanish expeditions to Hawaii in the 16th century were part of a larger effort to explore and claim territories in the Pacific.

One notable expedition was led by Álvaro de Mendaña de Neira in 1595. Mendaña and his crew landed on an island they named “Santa Cruz,” now believed to be one of the islands in the Hawaiian archipelago.

However, due to various challenges, including conflicts with the local inhabitants and lack of resources, the Spanish were unable to establish a permanent presence in Hawaii.

Captain Cook’s arrival in 1778

The arrival of British explorer Captain James Cook in 1778 marked a significant turning point in the history of Hawaii. Cook’s expedition was the first documented European contact with the Hawaiian Islands in over two centuries. He arrived on the island of Kauai and later sailed his ships along the coast of the archipelago, exploring and mapping the islands.

Cook’s arrival opened the door to further European exploration and eventually led to increased contact, trade, and colonization by various European powers.

It is important to note that the name “Sandwich Islands” was not given by Captain Cook himself. The name was actually coined by his crew in honor of John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, who was the First Lord of the Admiralty at the time.

The crew named the islands after Montagu as a way to show their gratitude for his support of Cook’s voyages. The name stuck, and for a time, Hawaii was commonly referred to as the Sandwich Islands.

For more information on the early European contact with Hawaii, you can visit

Naming the Islands after the Earl of Sandwich

Have you ever wondered why Hawaii is called the Sandwich Islands? It all goes back to the 18th century and a man named John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich. He played a significant role in sponsoring exploration and had a lasting impact on the islands’ naming.

The Earl of Sandwich’s role in sponsoring exploration

The Earl of Sandwich was a prominent figure in England during the 1700s. He was known for his patronage of various exploratory voyages, including Captain James Cook’s famous expeditions. The Earl provided financial support to Cook’s voyages, which were aimed at discovering new lands and expanding the British Empire’s reach.

Without the Earl of Sandwich’s sponsorship, Cook’s voyages may not have been possible. The Earl’s interest in exploration and his financial backing paved the way for Cook to embark on his historic journey.

Cook’s decision to honor Sandwich by naming the islands after him

During Captain Cook’s third voyage in 1778, he became the first European to set foot on the Hawaiian Islands. As a tribute to the Earl of Sandwich’s support, Cook decided to name the newly discovered islands after him.

The decision to name the islands after the Earl was a way for Cook to express gratitude for the financial assistance he had received. It was also a common practice at the time to name newly discovered lands after influential individuals or sponsors of the expeditions.

Since then, the islands have been known as the Sandwich Islands, although the name was later changed to Hawaii. The legacy of the Earl of Sandwich lives on in the naming of these beautiful islands.

To learn more about Captain Cook’s voyages and the naming of the Sandwich Islands, you can visit National Geographic.

Use of the Name Sandwich Islands

The name “Sandwich Islands” originated from the British explorer Captain James Cook, who named the archipelago after his sponsor, John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich. This name gained prevalence in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, as European explorers and traders began to visit the islands.

Prevalence of the Sandwich Islands name in the late 18th/early 19th centuries

During this period, the name Sandwich Islands became widely used in maps, charts, and journals of explorers and voyagers. It quickly gained recognition and was adopted by European and American navigators as the official name for the archipelago.

The name was used to honor the Earl of Sandwich, who was known for his support of Cook’s voyages and his innovation of the sandwich, a popular food item that is still enjoyed today.

As the name spread, it became synonymous with the islands in the minds of many outsiders. In fact, the name Sandwich Islands was used more frequently than the native Hawaiian name, which is Hawai’i.

This colonial name became deeply ingrained in Western cartography and literature, contributing to the perception and understanding of the islands by non-Hawaiians.

Also read: How To Spell Hawaii Correctly

Indigenous Hawaiian reactions to the colonial name

While the name Sandwich Islands was widely used by Europeans and Americans, its adoption was not without controversy. The indigenous Hawaiian population, who had their own rich cultural identity and language, did not commonly use the name Sandwich Islands to refer to their homeland.

Some Hawaiians saw the use of the name Sandwich Islands as a form of colonization and erasure of their cultural heritage. They felt that it imposed a foreign identity on their land and people, further contributing to the subjugation and marginalization of the Hawaiian people.

Indigenous Hawaiians preferred to use their native name, Hawai’i, to assert their sovereignty and maintain their cultural distinctiveness.

Today, while the name Sandwich Islands is still occasionally used in historical contexts, it has largely been replaced by the name Hawai’i in official documents and everyday conversation.

This shift reflects a greater awareness and respect for the indigenous culture and identity of the Hawaiian people. It serves as a reminder of the importance of acknowledging and preserving the unique heritage of each land and its people.

Shift Back to the Hawaiian Islands Name

Have you ever wondered why Hawaii is often referred to as the “Sandwich Islands”? Well, let’s dive into the history and uncover the reasons behind this peculiar name.

Declining usage of Sandwich Islands in the 19th century

In the 18th century, the British explorer Captain James Cook arrived in Hawaii and named the islands after John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, who was his sponsor.

The name “Sandwich Islands” gained popularity among Europeans and Americans during that time. However, as the 19th century progressed, the usage of this name started to decline.

The decline in the usage of “Sandwich Islands” can be attributed to several factors. One of the main reasons is the increasing interest in the indigenous culture and history of Hawaii.

People began to realize that the name “Sandwich Islands” did not accurately represent the unique identity and heritage of the Hawaiian people.

Additionally, the name “Sandwich Islands” was seen as a symbol of Western colonization and imperialism. It reminded the Hawaiian people of their troubled history, marked by the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1893. As a result, there was a growing movement to reclaim and restore the original name of the islands.

Also read: When Was Hawaii Made A State: A Detailed History

Connection to the Hawaiian sovereignty movement

The shift away from the name “Sandwich Islands” was closely tied to the Hawaiian sovereignty movement. This movement seeks to restore the political and cultural independence of Hawaii, recognizing it as a sovereign nation. As part of this movement, there was a push to revert to the original Hawaiian name for the islands.

The original name of Hawaii is “Hawaiian Islands” or “Mokupuni o Hawai’i” in the Hawaiian language. This name reflects the deep connection between the land and the indigenous people who have inhabited it for centuries.

Today, the name “Sandwich Islands” is rarely used, and the preferred term is “Hawaiian Islands.” This shift back to the original name is a testament to the resilience and pride of the Hawaiian people in preserving their cultural identity.

For more information on the Hawaiian sovereignty movement and the history of Hawaii, you can visit

Also read: When Was Hawaii Discovered?


The renaming of the Sandwich Islands as the Hawaiian Islands in the late 19th century is emblematic of Hawaii’s cultural reawakening and fight for self-determination in the face of colonialism. While the Sandwich Islands name remains an artifact of early Western contact and exploration of the Pacific, the reclaiming of the Hawaiian Islands name represents an assertion of Native Hawaiian identity and independence that continues to this day.

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