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The battle over Hawaii's history

Amateur historian Rick Rogers just knows Europeans visited the islands two centuries before Captain Cook landed in 1778. Trying to prove it and convince professionals, that's another story.

January 18, 2010|By Alana Semuels
  • Rick Rogers has studied maps from the 16th and 17th centuries that he believes show the Hawaiian Islands. But he wants to find irrefutable evidence: a shipwreck predating Captain Cook's landing.
Rick Rogers has studied maps from the 16th and 17th centuries that he believes… (Lucy Pemoni / For The Times )

Reporting from Haleiwa, Hawaii — In the clear blue water 150 feet down, off Palemano Point on Hawaii's Big Island, Captain Rick Rogers swam along the ocean floor, concentrating on the light white swirls of staghorn reef below him.

As tiny bubbles of air escaped from his tank, his black flippers propelled him above the coral, next to schools of reddish mempache and juicy turquoise uhu fish. The scene was breathtaking, but Rogers didn't care about nature. He was looking for man-made objects only: porcelain plates, pieces of cannons, a sunken iron anchor.

Finding evidence of a shipwreck beneath the ocean would finally prove a theory that Rogers, an amateur historian, has been promoting for decades. He thinks a handful of Spanish and Dutch ships visited Hawaii in the centuries before Captain Cook landed there in 1778. Some Europeans came ashore after shipwrecks, like the characters in "The Swiss Family Robinson," he claims, and eventually integrated into the local society. That early European influence in the 16th and 17th centuries forever changed Hawaiian culture, Rogers says.

"It's cool -- you read 'Swiss Family Robinson' and pirate stories, and here it really did happen," said Rogers, a retired commercial airline pilot. "But nobody else is really paying attention to it."

Rogers is following in the footsteps of others with no formal training who have tried to convince scholars that they've stumbled across great historical discoveries, correct or not. They include German businessman Heinrich Schliemann, who boasted he'd found archaeological proof that Troy actually existed, and adventurer Gene Savoy, who said he'd found dozens of Inca settlements in Peru while on the hunt for El Dorado, the fabled city of gold.

To prove his theory, Rogers has spent countless hours poring over ancient maps, tracking down artifacts in the dusty storage rooms of disorganized museums and combing Hawaii's jagged coastline. The onetime Army salvage diver has done much of his work off the Pilialoha, a baby-blue Navy launch he bought in 1986 and loaded with equipment and maps, as well as an assortment of sleeping bags and cushions.

The work is not for fame or money, Rogers said, but rather for the satisfaction of knowing that after all these years, he was right.

He's battled historians and archaeologists -- most with many more degrees on their walls than he has -- who say he has no proof to back up his theory. They, like the history books, stick to the idea that Cook was the first European to step onto Hawaii, two centuries after Rogers thinks other Europeans landed here. Some politely concede his version of history could have happened, but that there's no proof. Others are more blunt.

No Europeans contributed to Hawaiian culture before Cook, Thomas S. Dye, a professional archaeologist, said bluntly. "I don't think Rick's work is worth a story," he said.

Rogers, who can often be found clambering around his boat barefoot and wearing jeans, a baseball cap and polo shirt, thinks the proof is obvious. He's found maps from as early as 1589 that show islands in Hawaii's shape and location, albeit with different names. Hawaiians had iron when Cook arrived, although they had no evident means with which to produce it, indicating that Europeans had already brought it. Europeans also brought diseases prior to Cook's landing, Rogers says: Remains of a young woman who died in 1664 indicate she had congenital syphilis.

The dive off Palemano Point was a search for irrefutable evidence: a wrecked Spanish galleon. Between 1565 and 1815, Spain ran a main trade route between Manila and Acapulco, passing near Hawaii. Five ships disappeared in that period, and Rogers thinks two of them wrecked off the coast of Hawaii and that some people made it ashore.

Months before the Palemano dive, he had convinced a friend to run a magnetometer along the shore, measuring changes in magnetic substance below the water. To their astonishment, it showed a dark black blot just north of the point, indicating there was something below the sea.

"When I got the data back, it was heart-stopping," Rogers said, his ruddy arms peeking out from a Smithsonian T-shirt, a souvenirfrom one of the many maritime expeditions he's managed.

But after peering into nooks in the reef and scouring the ocean floor for as long as their oxygen would allow, Rogers and his fellow divers started to head for the surface with no more evidence than they'd gone down with. There was still hope: Two scuba diving experts were 250 feet below the surface, searching for ruins in water deeper than most divers go.

"A shipwreck would be great proof," said Peter Mills, an anthropologist at the University of Hawaii at Hilo who has read Rogers' work but remains skeptical. "If we come up with a Manila galleon, I would be the first to applaud Rick."

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