The battle over Hawaii's history

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."

The decades of searching for evidence have caused strains at times for Rogers, who is married with four grown children. Besides having spent plenty of time away from home in his job as a pilot, he's gotten stuck in caves overnight looking for clues and spent countless hours unreachable underwater. At one point, Blossom, his wife of 36 years, suggested they move to Maui and that he give up treasure hunting. They currently live in the hills near an old sugar cane plantation on Oahu.

"He's always on some kind of grand quest," she said.

Though he defended his theory in an in-flight magazine of a now-defunct airline, Rogers has been rejected by most other publishers. In 1999, tired of the snubs, he self-published a book about his search, "Shipwrecks of Hawai'i: A Maritime History of the Big Island," which he hopes to follow with books about wrecks off other Hawaiian islands. He carries with him a 132-slide PowerPoint presentation he'll show to any group willing to give him an hour of its time, which has included archaeological societies and university classes. But he hasn't convinced the scholars.

"It's like I'm looking at UFOs," he said, watching ships pass by in the Haleiwa Bay harbor in northern Oahu, where the Pilialoha is moored. "When I go to conferences and mention this they roll their eyes and say, 'Here he goes again.' "

Rogers always knew he wanted to do something on the sea. Born in Missouri in 1949, he spent hours gazing at paddle boats on the Mississippi River and consuming every pirate movie he could find. As a teen, he dived off the coast of South Carolina, scavenging for plates, guns and swords from the ships of Civil War blockade runners. He served in Vietnam as an Army diver, then ended up in Hawaii.

Rogers stumbled onto this obsession while researching shipwrecks off the coast of Hawaii. Hoping to find promising dive spots, he started reading books and newspaper articles written in the 19th century about wrecks. Some of what he read suggested that Europeans had visited Hawaii before Cook, a theory that had fallen out of favor. So he decided to look for proof.

Some of Rogers' claims about the early Europeans' influence on Hawaiian culture are controversial among Hawaii scholars. For example, Rogers thinks that native statues were inspired by figurines of lions on the front of European ships that passed by in the 17th century. Even helmets and cloaks the Hawaiians wore when Cook arrived could have been modeled on the helmets and capes of the 17th century Europeans, Rogers says.

"It strikes me as racist to suggest that Hawaii was 'advanced' because it might have had contact with non-Polynesians," Dye, the archaeologist, wrote to Rogers.

Rogers doesn't think his theories are racist. His work contributes to Hawaiian history, he says: By matching up shipwrecks with legends, he can accurately date when various chiefs ruled, and possibly explain some of the events contained in the tales.

For example, one Hawaiian story talks about seven strange god-men dressed in yellow who came ashore and eventually helped rule the island. Rogers thinks that story is linked to sailors said to have deserted a Dutch ship in 1600. A 19th century missionary found a letter written by one of their shipmates that said eight men had jumped ship "on an island 16 degrees of north latitude, the inhabitants whereof are man-eaters." Rogers thinks that island is Hawaii.

"It's not fairy tales," Rogers said. "All the Hawaiian stuff, even the crazy stuff, has some basis in fact."

Those facts are, for the moment, still slippery.

When Rogers reached the surface of the water off Palemano, he swam to where the deep-sea divers were coming up. Their verdict: thumbs down. They hadn't found anything either.

Rogers had seen a patch of volcanic lava during the dive, which he thinks is from a 19th century eruption that might have buried the ruins. He suspects that reef has grown over the ship since it wrecked centuries ago. The only way to find out for sure would be to drill through the reef, a costly proposal that would probably be opposed by environmentalists. Rogers is now thinking about conducting a DNA test of native Hawaiians to try to prove that they have Dutch or Spanish ancestry from the 1600s.

He'll keep going back to Palemano Point off the coast of the Big Island, hoping that a storm or quake will stir up the evidence that will prove him right.

"It's driving me crazy -- I know there's a shipwrecked Spanish galleon out there," he said, laughing at himself as his boat rocked gently back and forth. "The proof will be when I find it."

alana.semuels@latimes.com

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
55°