Answer: The Sandwich Islands
For U.S. citizens living on the mainland, the name “Hawaii” calls to mind beautiful tropical islands and a sort of paradise far removed from continental urban centers and rural towns. Although the islands would still be the same as they are with a different name, we can’t help but imagine it wouldn’t have quite the same ring to it if the original colonial name had been preserved.
Discovered by Europeans in 1778 when the islands were visited by Captain James Cook, the islands—which had always been called Mokupuni o Hawai‘i by the indigenous people—were renamed the “Sandwich Islands” in honor of one of Cook’s sponsors: John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich and the First Lord of the Admiralty at that time (seen here, and probably daydreaming about islands while his portrait was being painted).
Now, if you’re not familiar with British history and the tangled web of titles, nobility, and royalty that go along with the history of therein, you might think we’re pulling your leg. The Earl of Sandwich is a noble title in the Peerage of England, found in the House of Montagu, and related to the historic town of Sandwich (located in Kent). And yes, we call meat between two pieces of bread a sandwich because the claim is that the very Earl of Sandwich we’re talking about was fond of this form of food because it allowed him to continue playing cards while eating, without using a fork, and without getting his cards greasy from eating meat with his bare hands.
So why don’t we call the islands by a different name today? The Hawaiian islands remained the “Sandwich Islands” until around the 1840s when referring to the islands in the native tongue of the islanders began to take hold. Over the following decades, any references to the Sandwich Islands faded away and the title belongs to history now.
Painting by Thomas Gainsborough (Hugh Manatee/Wikimedia).