Captain Cook’s Atooi = And Tauai

The Rev. William Ellis of the London Missionary Society is arguably the leading non-Native Hawaiian chronicler of Hawai‘i in the first half of the 19th century.

There are gems tucked away in Ellis’ books that clarify points of Hawai‘i’s history that have surfaced and been sometimes used inaccurately in the 21st century.

One is the pronunciation and source of the place name Atooi, as recorded in the journals of Royal Navy Captain James Cook. Atooi is how Cook heard Kaua‘i Island named by Native Hawaiians he and his crew encountered in landing at Waimea, Kaua‘i in early 1778.

On Kaua‘i today you hear Cook’s word Atooi pronounced Ah-too-ee, likely due to those speaking the place name employing Hawaiian language pronunciation for the vowels in the word. However, in recording the place name for Kaua‘i, Cook used straight English language pronunciation. According to Ellis the place name as heard by Cook was a compound word; A (the “A” translated as the conjunction “and”) Too-i, the “i” as in the word “idea”. The letter “T” was commonly used on Kaua‘i before the Sandwich Islands Mission codified the Hawaiian language, replacing the “t”mostly used in the dialect of the leeward islands with the letter “k”, a letter used in the windward islands. For example, Tamehameha became Kamehameha.

Here’s what Ellis wrote about the meaning and pronunciation of Cook’s word Atooi. Ellis recorded this in the 1832 edition, Hawai‘i volume, of  his book series Polynesian Research During a Residence of Nearly Eight Years in the Society and Sandwich Islands:

“Another cause of the incorrectness of the orthography of early voyagers to these islands, has been a want of better acquaintance with the structure of the language, which would have prevented their substituting a compound for a single word. This the case in the words Otaheite, Otaha, and Owhyhee, which ought to be Tahiti, Tahaa, and Hawaii. The O is no part of these words, but is the preposition of, or belonging to; or it is the sign of the case, denoting it to be the nominative, answering to the question who or what, which be O wai?….
…Nom. O wai ia aina?—What that land?
Ans. O Hawaii :—Hawaii.…

“Atooi in Cook’s Voyages, Atowai in Vancouver’s, and Atoui in one of his contemporaries is also a compound of two words, a Tauai, literally and Tauai. The meaning of the word tauai is, to light upon, or to dry in the sun; and the name, according to the account of the late king (Kaumuali‘i), was derived from the long droughts which sometimes prevailed, or the large pieces of timber which have been occasionally washed upon its shores. Being the most leeward island of importance, it was probably the last inquired of, or the last name repeated by the people to the first visitors. For, should the natives be pointed to the group, and asked the names of the different islands, beginning with that farthest to windward, and proceeding west, they would say, O Hawaii, Maui, Ranai, Morotai, Oahu, a (and) Tauai: the copulative conjunction preceding the last member of the sentence would be placed immediately before Tauai; and hence, in all probability, it has been attached to the name of that island, which has usually been written, after Cook’s orthography, Atooi or Atowai, after Vancouver.

“The more intelligent among the natives, particularly the chiefs, frequently smile at the manner of spelling the names of places and persons, in published accounts of the islands, which they occasionally see.”

Source: Ellis, William. 1831. Polynesian researches during a residence of nearly eight years in the Society and Sandwich Islands. London: Fisher, Son & Jackson. pp. 51-53.