Learn the German, Swiss, and Austrian connections to America’s Pacific paradise.
By Peter von Buol
For nearly two-and-a-half centuries, the Hawaiian Islands have captured the imagination of visitors from the German-speaking world. Many consider it to be the epitome of tropical paradise and each year, more than 40,000 Germans, Austrians, and Swiss visit the 50th State of the United States of America.
Interestingly, the Germans love for Hawaii actually helped change post-war German cuisine. In 1955, Clemens Wilmenrod, one of the biggest stars of post-war German television, captured the imagination of his viewers when he named a sandwich he created Toast Hawaii. Consisting of a slice of ham, a slice of melted-cheese and a slice of canned pineapple that is topped with a Maraschino cherry, the sandwich helped transport countless Germans to an exotic getaway during their lunch break.
In 1778, three Germans and one Swiss were among the first Europeans to visit the Hawaiian archipelago. They had sailed with the acclaimed British explorer Captain James Cook on his third and final voyage to the Pacific. John Webber, a classically-trained Swiss artist from Berne, and Heinrich Zimmerman, an adventurous German sailor from Speyer were on Cook’s ships. Cook’s mission had been to sail to the northwest coast of North America to search for the entrance of the Northwest Passage. Cook arrived in Hawaii in January, 1778 after having sailed north from Tahiti. His route was ironically similar to that of the original inhabitants of Hawaii. After Cook’s ships returned home (the famed explorer was killed during a misunderstanding with Hawaiians), the words and images related by members of his crew helped inspire others to visit.
“Hawaii has played quite a role in the German imagination; and Germans and their German-speaking neighbors have actually contributed considerably to the development of the Islands,” wrote Niklaus Schweizer in his book Hawaii and the German Speaking Peoples.
Originally from Zürich, Schweizer immigrated to Hawaii in 1968 and is today professor of German at the University of Hawaii-Manoa on the island of Oahu. Since 1972, he has also served as honorary consul of Switzerland.
The first Hawaiians to encounter Cook were a group of fishermen off the island of Kauai. At that time, the visitors were remarkably able to converse with the residents as their language was similar to Tahitian, a language familiar to the Europeans.
“Many [Kauai] residents came to meet us with their boats. They were the most beautiful people we have seen among all the savage nations; we searched for friendly characters [among them] and showed them various gifts to attract them to our ship. Initially, they refused and with great astonishment, we learned that these people had not before seen [sailing] ships,” wrote Zimmerman in his 1781 German-language book Trip Around the World with Captain Cook.
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