In the Wet Cave

I spent my entire childhood and adolescence at the Punahou School in Honolulu, as did most of my friends and my brother. We did not know many children from other schools. There were a few private schools that were Catholic, which meant that mainly Puerto Rican, Portuguese or Filipino children, segregated from us by religion as well as by race, attended these schools. When I was not in school, I was at the Outrigger Canoe Club, which was then in the heart of Waikiki, next to the Royal Hawaiian Hotel.

The green and white striped awnings of the old Outrigger Canoe Club in Waikiki (now located at Diamond Head), with the Royal Hawaiian Hotel behind it

When I was nine, I was taught to surf by the Outrigger beach boy Rabbit Kekai on a long and heavy wooden board, which was then in fashion — the plastic cord attaching the board to the ankle had not yet been invented.

Rabbit Kekai

Neither Rabbit nor myself found it unseemly or even uncomfortable to assume our position — I would lie on my stomach facing the front of the board with my legs pleasantly spread so that he could slide on behind me. He also laid on his stomach, between my legs, his chin hovering above my bottom. We both used our arms to paddle out to the break at Queen’s Surf.

One summer, my family stayed at Punalu’u on the windward coast of O’ahu. Punalu’u is the district known to be the haunt of the god Kamapua’a who, long before Freud educated us, could take the shape of either a pig or a handsome man — while a pig, he destroyed the lands of the ali’i; while a man, he seduced their women. At first light (sometimes in the dark with flashlights), we searched up and down the beach for any blue glass balls that might have broken free from fishing nets in the Sea of Japan to float across the Pacific to wash ashore at high tide. During the day, we collected limu. We went spearfishing. We prised opihi from the ledges of the rock pools. We ate at a long wooden table on the lawn — it was impossible to know how many places to set until the last minute. Often there were twenty people for dinner. Late at night, the daybeds were transformed with the addition of pillows and light straw mats or quilts (no sheets) for any guests who chose to stay the night or could not make it home.

There were five children, of whom I was the eldest. Our mother was fairly irresistible. She was our leader. We would have jumped into a fire had she wished it. As it was, she had us jumping into the ocean. She was not always sensible about this. She led us into deep water, literally as well as figuratively. She sometimes took us into that mysterious cavern in Haena, the wet cave. This is a passage from My Old Sweetheart, published thirty years ago. The child Lily is myself. My mother is the character Anna:

Anna was already in the water. Lily followed Anna’s black head, round and shiny like a seal, bobbing through the green water, to the rocks at the base of the cliff. Anna’s head disappeared as big, round bubbles floated between Lily’s legs. She took extra air into her lungs and then she too disappeared beneath the surface.
Under water, pale green, Lily followed a delicate trail of effervescence. She let some air rumble slowly out of her nose, saving the rest. The bubbles rose past her open eyes. Her mother was gone. Lily slid herself along the spiky wall of rock, arms outstretched to keep from being thrown against it by the current. She found the cleft in the lava wall, felt for the opening in the rock, and quickly pulled herself inside. At once she felt the temperature of the water change. It grew colder and colder as she nervously kicked herself back to the surface. She came up in darkness, spouting loudly, and breathed the cool, damp air. She was inside the Wet Cave. It was black all around her. There was not even a reflection in the water.

Isn’t it beautiful? she heard her mother whisper. Her voice echoed. Lily could not see her in the dark. They were inside the mountain in a vaulted cavern washed hollow for thousands of years by the sea. The hundreds of tiny pinholes in the lava dome above were distant constellations. It was like the clear night sky.

Where are you? Lily asked.

She felt the inky water move around her, and then a hand splashed behind her and she found her mother’s arm.

Are you afraid? Anna asked.

Lily didn’t answer. She was always a little afraid in the Cave, no matter how many times she had been there. She could just make out the shape of her mother’s round head next to her. There was the sound of wings beating. She looked around to make sure that the small, green circle of light, the opening to the world, was still beneath them in the water.

It is really like being on the very edge of the planet, Anna said exultantly.

Lily’s legs began to tire from treading water. The water was cold. It was growing difficult to judge distances — the distance from her to Anna and the distance from minute to minute. It made her dizzy. The pull of the tide rocked them gently, and the mock stars above them changed position. There was a story about two boys who had been caught in the Cave when the neap tide was rising. They were unable to find the green hole. Lily wondered what it must have been like, feeling yourself move higher and higher into the night sky. Their dead bodies were marked with hundreds of pricks where they had been crushed against the lava dome.

Lily said, I am getting tired, Mother.

Anna spoke as though she had been startled. Oh, my old sweetheart, she said.

Lily heard her mother take in air, then the splash of her kick, then it was more silent than before. She floated on her back. She was alone in the Wet Cave. The green light flickered as Anna wiggled through the hole on her way back into the world, then she too dived into it and smiled as she felt the stream of warm, living sea slide over her.

I was ten years old that summer in Punalu’u. I swam in the morning, and again in the early afternoon. I swam at sunset. I would swim until I was tired, although not too tired to make it back to the beach. I found a hole in the reef into the deep water at the edge of the channel. If I swam far enough, I could see the big rock on the side of the mountain that marked the site of the shark-god’s burial place. Sometimes I was overcome by an inexplicable feeling of panic, as if there were too much beneath and above me. I feared that the ocean might suddenly curl me into a wave and fling me from the loneliness of Earth into the loneliness of space, and I would hurry back through the reef as if the ocean were trying to catch me. As my mother became less and less rational, I grew convinced that I could see parts of bodies on the clean floor of the ocean. For some time, and to everyone’s bafflement, I would not go near the water.

outrigger 1961
At the Outrigger Canoe Club, 1961

The Praise of our Salvation


An ali’i, said to be Liholiho (Kamehameha II), and his attendants inside a grass house


In the spring of 1820, the high chief of Kona, Kuakini, a younger brother of the late king’s powerful widow, Ka’ahumanu, was the first person of important to greet the  Congregationalist missionaries upon their unexpected arrival in the Islands. He was very tall and very big, and wore a traditional malo or loincloth with a short cloak, known as a kihei, thrown around his huge shoulders. He invited the foreigners to his house, but they refused his invitation. Thomas Hopu, a young Hawaiian convert to Christianity who had sailed with the missionaries from New England, was surprised by the rudeness of the Americans and advised them to reconsider. They reluctantly agreed to attend a feast given by Kuakini, who was notorious even among the generous Hawaiians for his extravagance. Kuakini had earlier written to the president of the United States in the hope of exchanging names with him, as was a traditional Polynesian custom, and although President Adams did not deign to answer, Kuakini had begun to refer to himself as John Adams (according to the historian Kamakau, Kuakini was also a notorious patron of thieves, keeping men solely to plunder ships and the stores of foreign merchants). Although there was ample and varied food at the feast, the missionaries would not eat the food. Kuakini even had wine for them, which they declined, taking only sips of coconut water. He was an accomplished dancer and kept the finest troupe of dancers in the kingdom, but the missionaries ignored his invitation to watch the dance. The Reverend Hiram Bingham, the leader of the mission, and Asa Thurston left the feast early, announcing that in future they only wished to meet with the king.



Hawaiian women with feather lei around their necks and on their heads, dancing for haole men, seated right. Lithograph after Louis Choris, 1822


With Hopu serving as intermediary and with the help of John Young, the late Kamehameha’s English counselor and friend, the two men at last met the young king, Liholiho. They arrived while he was eating dinner with his five wives, two of whom were his sisters, and one of whom had been married to his father. Refusing to be seated, the missionaries read aloud formal letters from the Board in Boston. One can imagine — or perhaps not — the reaction of the king and his queens to the dry and somewhat naïve instructions of the Board. A private Missionary Album with confidential advice for the First Company, which was not read aloud, contains surprisingly benign, although ultimately ineffective instructions, particularly concerning involvement in the kingdom’s politics:
Your views are to be limited to the low, narrow scale, but you are to open your hearts wide and set your goals high. You are to aim at nothing short of covering these islands with fruitful fields, and pleasant dwellings and schools and churches, and of raising up the whole people to an elevated state of Christian civilization. You are to obtain an adequate language of the people; to make them acquainted with letters, to give them the Bible, with skill to read it…to introduce and get into extended operation and influence among them, the arts and institutions and usages of civilized life and society; and you are to abstain from all interference with local and political interests of the people and to inculcate the duties of justice, moderation, forbearance, truth and universal kindness. Do all in your power to make men of every class good, wise and happy.

Out of fear of Queen Ka’ahumanu, or perhaps an instinctive foreboding, Liholiho refused to give the missionaries permission to land in the Islands. Although his father, Kamehameha I, had asked the English captain and explorer, George Vancouver, to send religious instructors to the Islands when Vancouver returned to England, it had been in the interest of increasing the wealth of his kingdom, not his chances of salvation. Liholiho told Bingham that Ka’ahumanu was away fishing, and he could not make a decision without her. Lucy Thurston wrote in her journal that the missionaries then invited the king and his family to dinner on the Thaddeus. The king came to the ship in a double canoe of twenty paddlers and a large number of attendants. Although Westerns had been present in the Islands for many years, they had been men — ships’ captains, sailors, escaped convicts from Australia, whalers, merchants, and adventurers.
The king was introduced to the first white women, and they to the first king, that each had ever seen. His dress on the occasion was a girdle, a green silk scarf put on under the left arm, brought up and knotted over the right shoulder, a chain of gold around his neck and over his chest, and a wreath of yellow flowers upon his head. The next day several of the brothers and sisters of the Mission went ashore, hoping that social intercourse might give weight to the scale that was then poising (sic). They visited the palace. Ten or fifteen armed soldiers stood without, and although it was ten or eleven o’clock in the forenoon, we found him on whom devolved the government of a nation, three or four of his chiefs, and five or six of his attendants, prostrate on their mats, wrapped in deep slumbers.


The Reverend Hiram Bingham, photograph from his book, A Residence of Twenty-One Years in the Sandwich Islands, published in 1848


Hiram Bingham was shocked that Liholiho wore no shoes, stockings, pants, or gloves, although Thomas Hopu had warned the chiefs and chiefesses to dress with care when they called on the missionaries. As the aliʻi were accustomed to wearing Western clothes (merchants had long supplied them with suits, and bolts of Indian and Chinese textiles for gowns), most of them obligingly appeared for their daily visits in gowns of Peking silk and striped taffeta, brocade jackets, and heavy velvet waistcoats, which were stifling in the heat. Some of the ali’i, hoping to please the haoles, evoked instead their private ridicule by their odd assortment of clothes — one of many melancholy ironies that was to ensure they remained unknown to one another. In his memoir, the missionary Charles Stewart described a “monstrously large” chiefess dressed in white muslin, “thick woodsman’s shoes, and no stockings, a heavy silver-headed cane in her hand, and an immense French chapeau on her head!”


High chiefess Lydia Namahana Pi’ia in Western dress, watercolor by L. Massard, 1815


The royal women and their chiefs and attendants arrived at the ship each morning, seated under red and gold Chinese umbrellas on the platforms of large double canoes as they were fanned by a dozen men. The redoubtable Hiram Bingham was impressed by the agility and physical grace of the paddlers, if little else:

Ten athletic men in each of the coupled canoes making regular, rapid, and effective strokes, all on one side for a while then, changing at a signal in exact time, all on the other. Each raising his head erect and lifting one hand high to throw the paddle forward…dipping their blades and bowing simultaneously…making the brine boil and giving great speed to their novel seacraft. These grandees and their ambitious rowers gave us a pleasing indication of the physical capacity, at least, of the people whom we were desirous to enlighten.

The missionary wives sewed a dress for the queen mother, Keōpūolani, that so delighted her that she ordered more for her attendants and herself, waiting as the foreign women, unused to the dry heat of Kona, dazedly cut and stitched her a wardrobe. The chiefesses and queens were particularly taken with the Chamberlain’s young daughter and decided to adopt her, or hana’i, a practice common in Hawaiian families. To their surprise, the Chamberlains refused, but reluctantly agreed to let the child be taken ashore for the night, a gesture that helped to convince the queens that the missionaries meant them no harm. Lucia Holman, the prettiest of the missionary wives, wrote that one of the queens, “got me into her lap, and felt me from head to foot and said I must cow-cow and be nooe-nooe, i.e., I must eat and grow larger.” When Lucia walked with Nancy Ruggles and Maria Loomis on shore, the delighted Hawaiians surrounded them, touching and poking them with curiosity.

Over the next weeks, the missionaries waited patiently for the king’s decision, confident of the sanctity of their mission (to their irritation, the chiefs were easily distracted, at one point by a troupe of musicians), as they made excursions on shore, sailed aimlessly up and down the coast on the Thaddeus, and visited with the Hawaiians. As the moon rose one evening, Asa Thurston and Hiram Bingham climbed to the maintop of the Thaddeus, and while their wives, the captain and crew, and the ali’i of Hawai’i Island watched in silence, loudly shouted the hymn they had sung at their ordainment in New England and again at Park Street Church when they left Boston for the distant Sandwich Islands:

Head of the Church Triumphant,

we adore Thee,

Till thou appear,

The members here,

Shall sing like those in glory:

We lift our hearts and voices,

In blest anticipation,

And cry aloud,

And give to God

The praise of our salvation.



Queen Ka’ahumanu, hand-colored  lithograph after Louis Choris, artist aboard the Russian ship Rurick, 1816

Awe of the Night Approaching



The Hawaiian hawk, ‘Io Lani, a royal ‘aumakua or totem, photo by W. S. Chillingworth


The word kapu may mean sacred, as well as forbidden (the word can also mean privilege). Any person, object, or place could be deemed kapu, which meant that the possibility of mortal danger imbued every aspect of existence. There were different categories of kapukapu of consecration, kapu of the kingdom, minor kapu, the kapu applied to those persons who possessed the volcano as an ‘aumakua (a family god or totem such as an owl or a caterpillar), and those whose spirits had entered into the bodies of sharks.



Portrait of a chief, John Webber, 1787


Some kapu were practical in origin and used to protect diminishing supplies of fish or plants; others were whimsical, or commemorative of a special date or event in the family of a chief. The extent to which kapu were enacted and enforced in Hawaiian society is thought to have been instituted locally in response to the fierce rivalry and competition among ruling families, and used to insure the immense power of the secretive priestly clans. Both aliʻi and priests had the right of life and death (only a high chief was given the awful kapu wela, which allowed him to burn alive any violator who offended him), enforced by a seemingly arbitrary system of strict rules and prohibitions, as well as a complex system of religious ritual.

The…tabu were strictly enforced, and every breach of them punished with death, unless the delinquents had some very powerful friends who were either priests or chiefs. They were generally offered in sacrifice, strangled, or despatched with a club or a stone within the precincts of the heiau, or they were burnt…the great mass of people were at no period in their existence exempt from its influence, and no circumstance in life could excuse their obedience to its demands. 

Kapu served to establish order, requiring men to respect the land; to honor the chiefs who were the literal representatives of the gods; and to serve the thousands of omnipresent big and little gods. In return, the gods endowed the land and sea with bountiful food, and protected people from danger (often the gods themselves). In Existentialism is a Humanism, Sartre writes that taboos represent threats of “inert violence,” in theory meant to protect those restricted by them. Violence is justified as counter-violence, or a retaliation and a defense against potential danger. In most early societies, the sight of a woman’s menstrual blood is a frightening omen, especially when it is the first time that the woman menstruates. Not only may the mysterious blood be dangerous to others, it may be dangerous to the girl herself — the danger is no less real because it is imaginary. To safeguard against the harm that the blood may bring to her and her community, the menstruating (or post partum) woman is deemed defiled, and isolated and confined until the blood disappears.

The extreme prohibitions in the Hawaiian system, particularly those applied to women, were reminders of the division between the mundane and the divine, emphasizing the understanding that humans were inferior to gods, and that women, who lived in a realm of darkness and death, were inferior to men (according to the historian Kepelino, a man born on the third night of the full moon would be fearless, brave, and kindhearted, while a woman born on that night would be an “ensnarer who ate filth”). The eating kapu was a fixed law for both chiefs and commoners, not because a man would die if he ate food that was forbidden, but to maintain the distinction between what was meant for men and what belonged to the gods.

As the system of kapu assumed a belief in sympathetic magic, commoners were forbidden any contact with ali’i, or with their food, clothing, canoes, temples, or sacred images, since anything possessed or even touched by an ali’i, including his nail parings, urine, excrement, and spittle  (maunu) was considered invested with mana (spirit power) and could be used in sorcery. As a precaution against sorcery, maunu  were daily carried away in the greatest secrecy by a chief’s most trusted attendants and taken out to sea, or buried, or hidden in a cave. When a chief’s feather staff, or the skirt of a chiefess, or the dirty bath water of an ali’i was carried through a village, an attendant warned anyone nearby to sit on the ground — should be disobey, he would be dragged to a heiau and killed. Discarded clothing was buried so that it could not be used as maunu, and old timers soaked their clothes in water so that they would disintegrate faster once they were buried. One never gave a lei to anyone who was not a close relation, for example, for if it fell into the hands of a sorcerer, it could be used to cause chronic scrofulous pustules to appear on oneʻs neck.

Mary Kawena Pukui, who was born in 1895, writes, “When I was a little girl, my grandmother used to take special care of my hair. She’d take any that came out during combing and roll it up and bury it in a hidden place…watching over every little thing because it could become maunu.”

John Papa Iʻi in his book, Fragments of Hawaiian History, a collection of essays written for the Hawaiian language newspaper Ka Nupepa Ku’oko in the years 1866 to 1870, described in the third person the training he received as a child in preparation for becoming an hereditary attendant in the court of Kamehameha II:

His mother placed on his back a bundle containing a wonderful malo made of feathers from mamo and apapane birds attached to a fine net, with rows of human teeth at the end…slipping his arms into the loops of the bundle, she taught him to cry, ‘E noho e! Squat down!’…The proclamation of this kapu was an exceedingly common practice in the court, and one which flustered many a newcomer who did not know that he must squat quickly and slip off his tapa wrap or shoulder covering…If a person was wearing a lei on neck or head, he must remove it and throw it away when the cry to squat (noho) was heard, otherwise the penalty would be death.



Execution, lithograph after Jacques Arago, 1820


When a chief and his entourage, resplendent in long feather cloaks, helmets, and scented loincloths, ventured out of doors, they were accompanied by men whose responsibility it was to bear their spittoons; men who looked after their cloaks; and attendants who carried the towering kāhili. If a chief possessed the prostrating taboo, which required a person to throw himself face down on the ground should he be near the chief, executioners followed at the end of the procession, so as to catch more easily anyone who violated the kapu. A chief could spare a person’s life if he chose, however, placing his hand on the head of the offender and declaring him kapu to the chief.


A high chief, lithograph after Jacques Arago, 1822

As it was believed that a person’s shadow was his spirit made visible, a man could be put to death (burned, strangled, clubbed, or stoned) if his shadow fell upon a high chief, who was the possessor of the greatest possible mana, and thus untouchable (if the shadow of a person fell upon the dwelling of a high chief, he could also be killed). Because of this, aliʻi were carried in sedan chairs as their very footsteps rendered kapu the earth on which they walked. Royal children were carried on the shoulders of a special attendant, chosen for his loyalty and strength, who walked with his arms crossed over his chest to make a resting place for the childʻs feet.

When a chief and his men were eating, those present knelt with knees pressed tightly closed, forbidden to move until the meal was finished. If, in the presence of a high chief, a man’s head was seen to be smeared with clay, he could be put to death. If a man mistakenly stepped on a chief’s kapa, he could be put to death. If a man entered the house of an ali’i without first drying his loincloth, he could be put to death. Certain high chiefs and chiefesses were forbidden to hold a baby, lest the child soil their laps, a violation that would result in the childʻs death (because of this kapu, many high-ranking women did not tend their own children). If a man were to consort with a menstruating woman, he could be put to death, as to lie with a woman during menstruation was considered a greater offense than rape. A man could also be killed for sexual union with another woman during his wife’s menses.


A high chief, perhaps Liholiho, the son of Kamehameha I, resting with his attendants inside a grass house


The following is from Chant Seven,“The Dog Child,” in the creation myth known as the Kumulipo. The “narrow trail” was the path to the heiau, forbidden to anyone but priests.


Fear falls upon me on the mountain top

Fear of the passing night

Fear of the night approaching

Fear of the pregnant night

Fear of the breach of the law

Dread of the place of offering and the narrow trail

Dread of the food and the waste part remaining

Dread of the receding night

Awe of the night approaching.

A Book Lives Longer than a Girl

I grew up with people who believed unquestioningly in the spirits. This was of great benefit to me. Simply to walk through the groves where I lived as a child was to enter a magical realm of taboos, spells and curses.

The island of Moloka’i, known for its sorcerers

On the small island of Moloka’i, a haunted place of cowboys, sorcerers, and fishermen, a neighborhood story teller, Harriet Ne, saw the spirits known as the Night Marchers as recently as fifty years ago: “It is in the season called October and November,” she would say, ‘that they come, walking, walking, and chanting as they walk. That night, the first man was of the chiefs’ class, tall and strong. As we watched, the marchers continued down the hill to the house, and disappeared inside.” I sat at Harriet Ne’s feet as a girl and listened to her stories — all of them fanciful to the point of implausibility with magic and myth; stories that were, literally, incredible. After each of Auntie Harriet’s stories, one more chilling than the next, she would say: “I myself have seen it.” And I believed her, succumbing perhaps not so innocently to what Coleridge called the suspension of disbelief. Years later, myself a storyteller, I used her injunction as title for one of my books.

Tattooed warrior in feather cape and helmet, colored lithograph after Jacques Arago, ca. 1820

Which is not to say that I am as literal, as inspired as Aunt Harriet. Or as truthful. With maturity, or shall I say time, a certain shyness, a certain reticence has overtaken me. It is almost a feeling of shame. The revelation of infantile fears and wishes, even in the form of metaphor, is no longer so compelling to me. My earliest work seems excruciatingly puerile, even vainglorious in its revelation. I have come to accept that when the public reads fiction, the public likes to believe that what it is reading is true. I don’t mean true in the sense that all fiction is true — but the literal truth. The reader wishes —- more than wishes —- requires for his well being that fiction represent the real.

The worse way to read a book is in the expectation, the assumption that the characters are real. The good reader understands that this need for real life, this instinct and craving for veracity is not only impossible to gratify, but is beside the point — the reality of a character or a situation depends solely on the writer’s ability to convincingly create a world of his own, and if he succeeds, no matter how preposterous or strange his world may be, we are convinced of its authenticity. Like other writers, I have had a most difficult time convincing readers that my books are not real. And despite my injunction that I myself have seen it. To quote Nabokov: “The girl Emma Bovary never existed: the book Emma Bovary shall exist forever and ever. A book lives longer than a girl.”

And this despite V. S. Naipaul’s warning that fiction never lies — it is autobiography that lies. I have been trying for the last few months to write a memoir; that is, I have been struggling not to lie, or at the very least, not to exaggerate or ameliorate my haphazard collection of memories. For the moment, however, I have put it aside in defeat, and am reading thrillers instead.

Hawaiian women wearing the long gowns imposed by missionaries, 1899


The Koa Desk

My father, who was a doctor, had a large desk made of native koa, a wood much valued in the Hawaiian Islands, which was said to have once belonged to the high chiefess, Princess Ruth Ke’elikolani. One evening when I was ten years old, he called me into the library and gestured toward the desk. Iʻd been reading The Count of Monte Cristo and had an exalted reverence for titled ladies of any nation or color, so that a desk once used by a princess, even so unlikely a princess as a fierce-looking Hawaiian woman of almost three hundred pounds, was a hallowed object. My fatherʻs papers were on the desk, a few medical journals, some books, a heavy black telephone. He waited for me to speak and when I said nothing, he led me to the front of the desk, where I saw, carved deeply into the wood, my full name, Susan Paine Moore, in capital letters. It would have taken some time and care to dig the letters, and to finish them with such precision, requiring patience as well as dexterity, and not least, the right tools.



Tantalus house
The shingled house in Tantalus, full of koa furniture, where I lived as a child. The new houses since built in the five acres of garden have been disappeared by W.


I was very shocked. I crouched on the lauhala mat to give myself time to think, fitting my fingers neatly into the deep grooves. I did not know what to say, intensely aware of my father, with his amused skepticism, standing behind me. The library led to a screened sleeping porch, and I could see that the sky had begun to darken, the mynahs raucously jostling for perches in the banyan at the edge of the lawn. The freshly-dug bed that Ishi, the gardener, and I had been preparing for our gardenia cuttings was already in shadow and it occurred to me that we had not chosen a sufficiently sunny place for my mother’s favorite flower. While I knew, even if my father did not, that I was for once absolved of the misery of deceit, the small lies of childhood that serve as protection against the seemingly irrational and arbitrary demands set by adults, it served me little if he chose not to believe me. It would even make my supposed crime worse, in that Iʻd ruined his desk, and then lied about it. I worried, too, that the desk, now defaced, would no longer be the desk of a princess. 


Princess Ruth Ke’elikolani


I turned to face him and told him that I did not do it. He sighed and took a breath. “Because,” he said slowly, offering me his hand, “you are a child who does not lie, I will —- despite what is here in front of us — believe you.” As he pulled me to my feet, I realized that he sounded a little disappointed, whether in my dependability or in the fact that our family harbored a vandal, I couldn’t tell.

I was relieved to be let off so easily, but also confused. I knew that extreme situations tend to reveal character, if only for a moment or two. But was I really a child who did not lie? I wasnʻt convinced. And if I were that child, what an enormous burden such rectitude would be. I knew that my father was fair-minded, and sometimes even kind, but more interesting to me was the ease with which he accepted moral diffusion. He was, at best, detached — a perfect radiologist, each day deciphering the black and white x-ray images that served as reminders of the disembodiment that awaited all of us, rarely touching or even seeing a patient in the flesh, a diagnostician consulted by his fellow physicians. He had shrewdly chosen a medical speciality in which he did not need to offer solace, or even explanation. His ample charm was not wasted on strangers.

Koa settee, nineteenth-century


I was still young enough that illusion and reality hovered at the same just-accessible level of consciousness, and I did not trouble myself further about the desk. I donʻt think that my father, who did not have the excuse of inexperience, rather the opposite, did, either. His habitual gallantry was sufficient to conceal his distraction, and in this instance, as perhaps in others of which I am unaware, it worked in my favor.

As I write this, I realize how little I know about him. My mother told me one or two stories about his childhood, but he himself said very little. I was rarely alone with him. Once when my mother was in the hospital, he asked if I would go with him to a National Geographic lecture at the local high school about New Guinea. I was very excited. I wet my short hair and spent a frustrating hour trying to tamp down the cowlick at the back of my head. I wore one of my mother’s embroidered cashmere cardigans, taken from her closet, and I wonder now if he recognized it as belonging to her. It certainly smelled like her. I like to think that he sought to amuse and distract me, but it is more likely that in his restlessness and boredom he simply wanted something to do — there were not a lot of choices in Honolulu in 1955. It is also possible, I now see, that he was meeting someone there.

My father did not spend much time with his children, and when he did — driving us to school in the morning, for example — he did not instruct or amuse us with tales of his childhood. Once my mother was dead, there was no one to tell us family stories until much later when I found myself in the tenuous care of my grandmother, and by then, I had already created my own myths. Even those memories that originate in photographs were mysterious to me. Who is the solemn man holding me in his lap? Where is the house with the white pillars? Once we were alone as children — that is, no mother and a ghost of a father — there were no bedtime tales, no favorite jokes passed from one generation to the next, no descriptions of the day that my brother Rick was born, or my sister Tina’s tumultuous first day of kindergarten. It was then that I began to invent stories, incorporating the scraps and hints that I’d heard along the way, which I whispered each night to my brothers and sisters, soothing them to sleep.

christmas tantalus 1955
Tantalus, Christmas Eve, 1955

He Kanaka Pepehi No Ia

Foreigners who visited the Sandwich Islands in the early nineteenth century were treated by the Hawaiians with great care, particularly by the far-seeing king, Kamehameha I, who perhaps did not wish to antagonize or threaten them after the death of Captain James Cook at Kealakekua Bay in 1799. It is little wonder that the English explorer, Captain George Vancouver, like other early travelers, found much to admire in the Hawaiians:

They [the Hawaiians] had been constantly with [the astronomer] Mr. Whidby in the marquee, and had acquired such a taste for our mode of living, that their utmost endeavors were expended to imitate our ways…Their attachment was by no means of a childish nature, or arising from novelty, it was the effect of reflection; and a consciousness of their own comparative inferiority. This directed their minds to the acquisition of useful instruction…Their conversation had always for its object useful information, not frivolous inquiry…and the pains they took to become acquainted with our language, and to be instructed in reading and writing, bespoke them to have not only a genius to acquire, but abilities to profit by instruction.


George Vancouver, by an unknown artist


When Captain Vancouver, who had sailed as a young seaman with Cook in 1772, arrived in Kona in 1793, he was distressed to learn that Kamehameha, whom he greatly admired, had separated from his favorite wife, Ka’ahumanu, because of her suspected liaison with the high chief Kaʻiana. Vancouver considered Kaʻiana and his brother to be “turbulent, treacherous, and ungrateful,” and believed them responsible for the massacre of the sailors on the Fair American, in which Isaac Davis, the only survivor, had been taken captive by Kamehameha.

King Kalākaua in his 1888 study of Kaʻiana claimed that an angry Kamehameha had sent Ka’ahumanu to live with her parents in Kealakekua. Archibald Menzies believed that Ka’ahumanu’s infidelity was not with Kaʻiana, but one of her attendants or another handsome young chief, who was not killed by Kamehameha for his disloyalty, but deprived of his rank and his lands. Menzies claimed that Ka’ahumanu had been left in disgrace in Hilo, while her parents were in Kona at the bedside of a young son who was dying of wounds suffered in a mock spear fight. Samuel Kamakau wrote that Kaʻiana was not the lover of Ka’ahumanu, but of her mother, Namahana, and the father of two of Namahana’s sons. As there was no written history in the Islands until 1825, it is impossible to know.



The high chief Ka’iana, lover of Ka’ahumanu, lithograph by John Meares


It is known, however, thanks to the journals of the foreigners, that in February 1793, Ka’ahumanu was in Kealakekua when her brother died from wounds received in a sham fight, and Vancouver secretly arranged for her to visit his ship to surprise Kamehameha, who was already on board. When Ka’ahumanu arrived, Vancouver led her to Kamehameha and placed her hand in the king’s hand. Kamehameha relented at the sight of her, and embraced her, both of them weeping. Before she left the ship, however, Ka’ahumanu asked Vancouver if he would make Kamehameha promise to stop beating her. Kamehameha was, by many accounts, a violent man.

The traveler James Jarves, who spent the years 1840 to 1848 in Honolulu as the editor of a weekly newspaper, later described Kamehameha I in his book, Scenes and Scenery in the Hawaiian Islands (1844):

The savage look…ascribed to him, had lost much of its expression of stern ferocity, while it retained its natural dignity and firmness. His carriage was majestic, and every action bespoke a mind which, under any circumstances, would have distinguished its possessor. His eyes were dark and piercing, in the words of one who not long after was well acquainted with him, he seemed capable of penetrating the designs and reading the thoughts of those about him, before his glance the most courageous quailed. His general deportment was frank, cheerful and generous…His sagacious mind seized upon every opportunity of improvement and aggrandizement…Cook’s narrative presented him as a wonderful savage, ambitious, brave and resolute, Vancouver’s intercourse showed him in the dawn of a ripened intellect, as possessing all the latter qualities, yet humane and thoughtful.


One of Kamehameha’s chieftains, after a drawing by Jacques Arago


The Reverend Hiram Bingham, writing twenty years after Kamehameha’s death, was told of the king’s temper by his wife Kaheiheimālie, sister of Kaʻahumanu and later a governess of Maui. Bingham seems to commiserate with the king as to the difficulties inherent in possessing more than one wife:

How it would be possible for a barbarian warrior to manage from one to two dozen wives — some young, and some old — some handsome, and some ugly — some of high rank, and some low, without martial law among them, or without resorting to despotic violence…it would be…extremely difficult to conceive. Kalakua [Kaheiheimālie], the late governess of Maui, who gave me much of Kamehameha’s domestic history, says of him, “He kanaka pepehi no ia; aole mea e ana ai kona inaina. He was a man of violence,—nothing could pacify his wrath.” She said she was once beaten by him, with a stone, upon her head, till she bled profusely, when in circumstances demanding his kindest indulgence and care, as a husband…An English resident, who enjoyed his confidence as fully and long as any foreigners, says, he has seen him beat Kaahumanu with severity for the simple offence of speaking of a young man as “handsome”…Captain Douglass (sic) speaks of his violent temper and rashness, judging that “those about him feared rather than loved him;” and says, “Conceiving himself affronted, one day, by the chiefs who were on board, he kicked them all by turns, without mercy, and without resistance.”

It is not surprising, although disappointing, that Hiram Bingham could not allow himself to see fully and clearly the people amongst whom he had chosen to spend his life. It was inconceivable to him, for example, that Ka’ahumanu might have lived happily with Kamehameha: “The amount and the kind of attention which a young wife, among many, could, in the circumstance of Kaahumanu, receive from such a pagan polygamist warrior, and his heathen family, must have failed of producing much domestic happiness as her share.” Bingham wrote with ill-concealed admiration that the queen had run away from her husband when they were living at Waikīkī, “determined on making the passage to Kauai, by herself,—[she] embarked in a beautiful single canoe, and nearly accomplished her design. She was, however, brought back to Honolulu, where she complimented Captain Broughton, of the Providence, with the present of the canoe in which she had made the bold attempt.”


Queen Ka’ahumanu, watercolor by Louis Choris

Kamehameha and Ka’ahumanu later accompanied Vancouver to the site of Cook’s death fourteen years earlier. Vancouver had been in one of the guard boats when Cook was killed, and Kamehameha took pains to assure him that he himself had not been present the morning of Cook’s death, which was not true. Kamehameha was well-aware of the rich and powerful kingdoms beyond the Pacific, having been visited by the armed merchant ships of the United States, Portugal, Spain, Russia, and Britain. Mindful that at any moment, one of these powers could take possession of the Islands, he wished to cede his kingdom to the British, in the hope that they would help to repel any future foreign aggression, while retaining for the Islands the right of self-government, according to the kingdom’s own laws. Observing that these powerful and wealthy nations worshipped a Christian god, he also asked Vancouver to send religious instructors from England. It has never been clear if the well-meaning Vancouver promised Kamehameha the protection that he sought, as such an agreement would have required the ratification of the English Parliament, which was never given, or whether Kamehameha and his chiefs (although one might presume that John Young understood the terms and requirements of such a treaty) did not fully comprehend the meaning of cession. Andrew Bloxam, who in 1824 was a botanist on board H.M.S. Blonde, wrote:

This singular cession of the country to a power nearly at the Antipodes was not, of course, followed by any act of authority, or any apparent change in the conduct of the English to Hawaii, but it was proof of the anxious desire of Tamehameha (sic) for the advantage of his kingdom. His intelligent mind was aware of the incalculable superiority possessed by the Europeans and others, whose ships visited him, over his own poor Islanders. The circumstances, that the English were the first to touch there; that their vessels were the largest and most powerful; that, besides the advantages sought for themselves in procuring provisions of all kinds, they had endeavoured to improve the Islands by carrying thither new and profitable animals and vegetables; all let him to look on the British as not only the most powerful but the most friendly of the new nations they had learned to know; and he might reasonably hope that we should be as willing as able to protect them against the insults and injuries that some of the traders had offered them.


Kamehameha I, watercolor by Louis Choris, 1817

When Vancouver left the Islands, Kamehameha, Ka’ahumanu, and her brother, Kalanimoku, were so upset that they traveled alongside his ships in canoes, following him up the coast, although Kamehameha had to return to shore before dark to conduct a religious ceremony to cleanse himself from the pollution of eating with men who had eaten with women. During these ceremonies, it was customary for the gifts that had been received from the foreigners, many of them given to women, to be laid at Kamehameha’s feet so that he could claim his share. These presents accounted for much of the booty — cloth, mirrors, nails, and trinkets — that Kamehameha was rapidly accumulating in his treasure houses.

The Owl Itself is Not a God


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French naval officers visiting a heiau at Kealakekua Bay, Jacques Arago, 1822


For the Hawaiians, hundreds of lesser gods represent temporal objects as well as abstractions and states of being — gods of fish, reptiles, birds, mountains, revenge, music, strange noises, trees, hills, rain, pigs, empty houses, the sick, peace and war, stones, the insane, the dance, canoes, and darkness and light. The very trees in the forests are spirits. The ʻō’hiʻa tree is thought to have a human voice and to cry in pain when cut, and wood used by a man to make an image of a god is thereafter kapu to him (in this usage, kapu does not mean forbidden, but special or unique, or exclusive). The enticing calls and songs of the woodland spirits fill the forests with incessant sound. O. A. Bushnell writes: The forty thousand little gods…who moved so easily in and out of the all-embracing spirit world. These lived in mountains and hills, in valleys, caves, and stones; in trees, herbs, ferns, and grasses; in fishes, birds, and beasts of every kind; in springs, streams, swamps, and drops of dew; in mists, clouds, thunder, lightning, winds; and in the wandering planets, the glittering far-off stars.



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Heiau site
Heiau at Honaunau, William Ellis, 1822


Like the original voyagers of the ninth century, the later settlers from Tahiti venerated the spirits, or ‘aumakua, who served as intermediaries between humankind and the great gods. An ‘aumakua, which is mortal as well as divine, can be, among other things, a shark, eel, hawk, limpet, a red-haired woman (symbolizing a volcano), lizard, wild goose, mouse, caterpillar, or owl. An ʻaumakua, which is particular to individuals and to families to this day, represents both fertility and a deified ancestor, the two becoming indistinguishable with time.

The historian Samuel Kamakau, who converted to Christianity before writing his history of ruling chiefs, is careful, even impatient, to distinguish between the actual object or living creature, and a god: The owl itself is a worthless thing; it is eaten by the people of Kula, Maui, and Na’alehu in Ka’u, Hawaii, and thrown about on the road. The owl itself is not a god — it has no mana. The god is separate. Kukauakahi is the main god…who is consecrated in the body of the owl and who shows his mana in the worthless body of the owl…Is the owl a god? The writer of this history says that the owl is not a god — it is the form…taken by a god.

For the Hawaiian people, there were enough gods and godlings to keep a man busy, and very frightened should he fail to honor them in accord with the rigid and seemingly arbitrary, although in practice often efficient and purposeful, rituals that each required.

For perhaps one hundred years after the arrival of the second group, there was sporadic warfare between the original settlers and the aggressive newcomers. The Tahitians prevailed, and those earlier settlers who did not become assimilated through marriage were transformed over generations into the elusive nocturnal elves known as menehune. Whimsically and perhaps guiltily described as our memories of the past, the menehune found refuge in the mountains, where some people still claim to hear their plaintive sighs and murmurs, although the ability to see them is denied to all but their own kind. They are said to creep after dark from the caves and hollow trees where they live, summoned to build in one night a ditch, or a heiau, or a house constructed of the bones of birds.

As the number of new settlers from Polynesia grew, the original inhabitants slipped into servitude. The historian Mary Kawena Pukui believed that the outcast slaves known as kauwā, who were used for human sacrifice, may have been the descendants of the earliest people. Kauwā, who were known as corpses or foul-smelling things, were tattooed on their foreheads and made to hide their heads under pieces of kapa. Like the Untouchables of India, kauwā were scapegoats born into and imprisoned within an abhorred class. Confined to certain districts such as Makeanehu in Kohala, and Kalaemamo in Kona on the Big Island, they were forbidden to marry outside their caste, or even to enter the house or yard of a man who was not kauwā. If a child was born of a union between a commoner or chief and a kauwā, the child would be dashed to death against a rock, and the disgrace felt for generations. Kauwā were buried alive next to their dead masters, and often served as proxies for chiefs who had been sentenced to death for infractions of kapu, their heads held under water until drowned. If it was discovered that a kauwā was among a man’s ancestors, the man’s eyes would be gouged from his head.

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Heiau site

“Fluttering up like Startled Game”



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Writing studio in downtown Manhattan


Twenty years ago, when I finished my third novel about my childhood in Hawaii, I realized, somewhat forlornly and certainly with a sense of panic, that I’d come to the end of my own particular tall tale. I’d reached, so to speak, my present self, and I began to cast about anxiously for a subject. In the end, it was a good thing. It compelled me to leave my childhood. It forced me into the world. I had to make up things. In an author’s note accompanying Nostromo, Joseph Conrad wrote that years earlier in the Gulf of Mexico, he heard a wisp of a rumor about a man who was said to have stolen single-handed a boatful of silver. He heard no other details. Thirty years later, while rummaging in a second hand bookstore, he happened upon a shabby edition of a memoir written by an American seaman. In the book — the adventure itself takes only three scant pages — the sailor claims to have once stolen a boat heavily loaded with silver. Nothing to speak of, writes Conrad, but the curious confirmation of the few casual words heard in my early youth evoked the memories of that distant time, a time when everything was so fresh, so surprising, so venturesome, so interesting — there still was in the world something to write about.” This may seem like a hard lesson to those of you who aspire to write, but I am afraid that it is true: one of the things that you will both require and employ is time itself.

Upon reaching this stage of experience, a writer is fortunate if lost anecdotes, forgotten stories, memories idly stored rise mysteriously to the surface — mysterious because you inevitably ask — why this particular story? And why now? Henry James wrote: Possible stories, presentable figures, rise from the thick jungle as the observer moves, fluttering up like startled game, and before he knows it, he has fairly to guard himself against the brush of importunate wings.



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Mark Ruffalo and Meg Ryan in the film of In the Cut, directed by Jane Campion (2003)


My book In the Cut arrived by way of Raymond Chandler and Sherlock Holmes. While I was writing the last Hawaiian novel, I read every mystery and thriller I could find —- books about detectives in Bombay and judges in Stockholm, as well as the American classics that came to form the genre known as Noir. I read certain books when I am writing because I do not want to be distracted, and I do not want to be corrupted. If I were to read Faulkner while I am writing, two things are bound to happen: I will begin to doubt my own work, quite understandably, and I will, unconsciously and sometimes even consciously begin to parody a writer’s style, even to insert some of his words and phrases and rhythms into my own work. I’ve learned over the years that it is best to read something utterly disparate from the book that I am writing —- memoirs of the French Revolution or books about Sri Lankan amphibians.


With In the Cut, I wanted to take the traditional American crime story, and turn it upside down. I wanted my crime fighter, my dissolute, tired, cynical detective who is typical of the genre, to be a woman. And I wanted my female character to survive at the end of the book. As it turned out, the detective in In the Cut is not a woman, and the heroine does not survive, but I did not know that then. I knew that in order to write the book, I would have to do research, something I had never done before in writing fiction. My imagination is vivid; but I needed facts. I even needed impressions.  I never intended when I began to write In the Cut that it would be narrated by a dead woman. When I came to write the end of the book, there was no other possible resolution than her death; and once I accepted this, I cried for days. I tried later, when writing the second and third drafts, to change the book so that the story is told by Franny as she is dying, but it would not do. In this kind of detective story, it is essential that the heroine be in the dark, which of course was not possible at the end of my story. By the time of Franny’s death, she knows everything. And so do you.

My next book, One Last Look, came to me in the streets of Calcutta where I lived for a year. The novel that I wrote about the Second World War, The Life of Objects, first seemed possible one afternoon at tea with a displaced countess in Berlin. As a writer, it is most gratifying that life prevails —- interferes, placates, distracts, inspires. It would be unbearable if it refused us the solace available to each of us — that is, the solace of memory. Despite a writer’s efforts at disguise, his subject will and must remain himself.



In West Bengal


Although it is logical to assume that my novel, The Big Girls, was the result of my experience teaching in a womens’ federal prison, the book was already finished when I began to teach in prisons. I later taught at Island Academy, which is the high school for incarcerated men and women on Rikers Island in New York. The young people in class, some of them arriving straight from jail, are continuing their education as part of the terms of their parole or probation. I doubt if a book of my own will come of it. They, however, are writing their memoirs.

“Pink as the Bud of a Banana Stem”

In Honolulu in the winter of 1827, Queen Ka’ahumanu, the widow of Kamehameha I, paid for the paper to print three thousand copies of the Sermon on the Mount in Hawaiian on the small press brought by Congregationalist missionaries from New England seven years earlier. The queen, the favorite of Kamehamehaʻs twenty-two wives, was a new convert to Christianity, having been instructed by the Reverend Hiram Bingham, the leader of the First Company of missionaries (the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions in Boston was ultimately to send twelve different companies to the Islands, each of about ten missionaries and lay workers, from 1820 to 1848).

There is a portrait of Queen Ka’ahumanu, the powerful favorite wife of Kamehameha I, at age forty-eight made by Louis Choris in 1816, and another by Jacques Arago in 1819. There are a number of descriptions of her by travelers, as well as by missionaries, but the queen herself did not learn to write until a few years before her death in 1832, and there is no evidence that she troubled to confide her history or her thoughts to a journal or diary. There are many legends and anecdotes about her in histories, chants, and songs, and while they are not always reliable sources (there are at least five different dates given for her birth), they reveal the fears and fantasies of a culture, as well as record temporal events.



Kaʻahumanu in middle age, ink and watercolor by Louis Choris, 1816


By most accounts, the high chiefess Ka’ahumanu, known to John Papa Iʻi as Mokualoha or Island of Love, was born March 17, 1768, in a small cave on the side of a hill in Hana, on the island of Maui, to Namahana, the recent widow of her half-brother, Kamehamehanui, who had been king of Maui, and her second husband, the high chief Keʻeaumoku of Kona. There is a legend that the infant Ka’ahumanu, wrapped in kapa, was left to sleep on the platform of a double canoe, but rolled unnoticed into the sea, disappearing under the waves, only to be saved at the last moment.

Namahana’s marriage to Ke’eaumoku caused much envy, particularly as she was formally the inheritance of Kalaniopuu, who had planned to take her as wife once her period of mourning ended. Ke’eaumoku was described by King Kalakaua in his book, The Legends and Myths of Hawaii:

This must have been known to Keeaumoku, who was thoroughly acquainted with the royal customs of his time: yet he paid such court to the sorrowing dowager, and so sweetly mingled his protestations of love with her sighs of grief, that she became his wife without consulting with the moi…Taking up his residence at Waihee, Keeaumoku enlarged and beautified his grounds and buildings, and established a petty court of princely etiquette and appointments. He was fond of display, and soon attracted to Waihee many of the more accomplished young chiefs of the island…He had carefully trained bands of musicians and dancers, and his entertainments were frequent and bountiful.

Enemies of the couple, not least of them the enraged Kalaniopu’u, conspired to drive them from Maui, however, and some time between 1777 and 1779, during one of the many wars between Hawai’i and Maui, Ke’eaumoku and Namahana fled to Kona with their household and attendants. The child Kaʻahumanu was said to have been much loved by her father, and by her grandmother, who told the girl that she was destined to be a queen, and that her relatives would one day bow in her presence. Kamehameha first admired her at a Makahiki festival (as a child, she would have seen him on the battlefield when her father cut the throat of Kiwala’ō), and in 1785, the thirty-two-year-old chief, already in possession of two wives, had the seventeen-year-old Ka’ahumanu, whose name means The Cloak of Bird Feathers, brought to him in North Kohala, where he married her.


North Kohala, on the island of Hawaiʻi

Two rival chiefs had sought her as wife, but she was Kamehameha’s prize, enabling him to align himself with some of the most sacred and thus most powerful ali’i of Maui. The missionary Hiram Bingham, not given to praising women for their beauty, wrote in 1823, when Kaʻahumanu was fifty-five years old, that she was “sprightly, and beautiful for a Polynesian, and engaging when young…Kamehameha was exceedingly jealous of her.” She was six feet tall, and without blemish. Kamakau wrote that her arms were like the inside of a banana stalk:

…her fingers tapering, her palms pliable like kukunene grass, graceful in repose, her cheeks long in shape and pink as the bud of a banana stem; her eyes like those of a dove or the moho bird; her nose narrow and straight, in admirable proportion to her cheeks; her arched eyebrows shaped to the breadth of her forehead; her hair dark, wavy, and fine; her skin very light. Of Kamehameha’s two possessions, his wife and his kingdom, she was the more beautiful.

It is said that upon their marriage, Kamehameha built a stone wall at Kauhola Point in Kohala to make a small protected cove where he could teach her to swim, although it seems unlikely that she would not have known this essential skill by adolescence. He did teach her to surf, and throughout her life, she was a keen and skillful surfer. John Papa I’i described one of her favorite surfing spots in Kohala:

Kekahau was a kama’aina [old-timer] of the place, and it was he who led Ka’ahumanu to the surf of Maliu…As the story goes, Ka’ahumanu and Kekakau swam or went by canoe to the spot where the surf rose. Before they left, Kekakau talked with the king about the nature of the surf and showed Ka’ahumanu the places to land, which would be signaled by the waving of a white tapa. If the tapa was moved to the right or to the left, she was to go to the side indicated before the sea rose up high and overwhelmed her. If the tapa was spread out, or perhaps wadded into a ball, the signal meant to go in on the middle of the wave.

She was said to be passionate about games, and very good at them. She liked to fly kites, some of them twenty feet in length and seven feet wide, and so difficult to control that once aloft, they had to be tied to the trunk of a tree. Captain John Kendrick of the Lady Washington gave her a checkerboard in 1791, and twenty years later, when she played against officers on board the Beaver, an American trading vessel owned by John Jacob Astor then in port, not one of the officers could win a game against her.

One of her amusements was to make drunk two Aleutian women who had been brought by sailors from the northwest coast of America and then abandoned. The women were favorites of the queen, perhaps because she could be easy in their presence. She liked alcohol, and was able to drink when Kamehameha, frequently restricted by religious ritual, could not (later he eschewed alcohol altogether). The queen did not like the crude alcohol distilled from the root of the plant, but kept a special supply of brandy that she received in secret from Don Francisco Marin in exchange for gifts (I’i wrote with disapproval that Ka’ahumanu was overly fond of drink, and sometimes given to excess). Marin, a deserter from a Spanish ship, had bought large pieces of land from Kamehameha as early as 1794 while serving as his translator, and quickly established vineyards, orchards, and stock-breeding. Marin, who kept a boarding house for sea captains, introduced to the Islands the damask rose, cotton, figs, doves, and English hares, among other things. With his three Hawaiian wives, he had twenty-three children. Although Marin did not begrudge the queen his brandy, Charles Stewart disapproved of his stubborn unwillingness to share the produce or even the seeds from his orchards with Hawaiians:

He [Marin) had introduced the grape, orange, lemon, pineapple, fig, and tamarind trees, but to a very limited extent; and seemingly from a motive entirely selfish: for he has perseveringly denied the seeds, and every means of propagation to others, and been known even secretly to destroy a growth that had been secured from them without his knowledge.

In 1792, Kamehameha moved to Kona to begin building a fleet of a thousand war canoes, living with Ka’ahumanu and his other wives and attendants in a large compound surrounded by stone walls, and separated by a gate from the lava platform and kapu precincts of nearby Hikiau heiau. Ka’ahumanu was not allowed inside the largest house, which was kapu to the king. Her own house was next in size, although she and Kamehameha slept in a smaller house built for that purpose. She was closely tended, lest she indulge what was said to be an amorous nature. If she so much as stepped outside the yard, she was followed by a malformed boy, the traditional bodyguard of high-ranking women, whose only task was to keep her in constant sight.

Kaʻahumanu with the boy who guarded her, colored engraving after Louis Choris


“A Great Beauty of Person”



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Haleakala crater on Maui, photo by W. S. Chillingworth

Historians once believed that the islands in the Pacific were discovered by fishermen who had been blown off course, although the fact that the first voyagers to the archipelago that would someday be known as Hawaiʻi carried with them crops, seeds, and animals, as well as women and children, suggests that the journeys were deliberate and well-prepared. Abraham Fornander, an historian who was a circuit judge on the island of Maui in the late nineteenth century, believed that the first settlers arrived in the sixth century A.D. in what would become the Hawaiian Islands, and lived secluded and isolated for twelve to fourteen generations until the beginning of the eleventh century, when Polynesian folklore, legends, and chants attest a second migration of voyagers who made the journey north from Tahiti. More recent research, however, backed by radiocarbon dating,  indicates that the first voyagers arrived in the Islands as late as the eleventh century. The purpose of their extraordinary journeys across the Pacific is still a subject of contention, however, as it is not known, and most likely will never be known, why the voyagers left their homelands. It is thought that famine may have driven them to sea, or war, or plague, or dynastic quarrels. Some believe that they were purely voyages of discovery, undertaken by adventurers keen on exploration.

The small groups of perhaps fifty people sailed in double-hulled wood canoes, eighty to one hundred feet long, rigged with masts, and triangular sails woven of lau hala (the dried leaf of the hala, or pandanus tree). A raised platform, screened and roofed with mats, was lashed across the hulls for the women, children, animals, plants, and, not least of all, the images of the gods that the travelers carried with them. When there was no wind, perhaps forty men, sitting two to a bench, would paddle the canoe with the guidance of a master steersman, who, trained since childhood, used his deep knowledge of the sky, wind, clouds, ocean currents, temperatures, and the habits of sea creatures and birds to guide the canoe across the ocean.

The small companies of men, women, and children brought with them dogs, pigs, and chickens, as well as food and fresh water. They had seedlings of hibiscus, sugar cane, bamboo, mountain apple, coconut, turmeric, breadfruit, mulberry, and wild ginger, and tubers of kalo (taro), yam, and sweet potato. They are thought to have first landed on the desolate southernmost tip of Hawai’i Island, where the land rises gently to the summit of Mauna Loa.

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Petroglyph of fish hook, Pohue Bay, Ka’u, photograph by W. S. Chillingworth

The settlers named their new home Kaʻū, or “the breast that nursed them,” although the leeward (facing in the direction in which the wind is blowing) coast would have been dry, hot, and bare, with few trees, and little fresh water. The settlers would have known at once that their new home would not give them all they needed. There was no reef and few beaches and coves, which meant that there were insufficient amounts of shellfish and seaweed, foods essential to Polynesians, but they would have seen, too, that it was a safe place in which to live, where they would not be threatened by enemies, human or animal. “Only the sea was treacherous, but only occasionally, and Polynesians are accustomed to the moods of Kanaloa [the god of the sea].”

The environment of Hawai’i Island, due to trade winds from the northeast, the height of the mountains, and the warmth of the surrounding ocean, can shift within a few miles from savanna to high desert to rain forest to coastal shrub, all with widely different levels of wind and rainfall. In the north, on the windward (facing into the wind) side, the settlers would later find streams and springs, grasses, and trees. Thanks to the lush inland forests, the island would have been less windy than it is now, and there would have been more rainfall (eighteenth-century travelers describe snow on Mauna Loa in July and August). The hills of Kohala in the north would have been rolling grassland, much as they are today, with an occasional grove of native ʻōhiʻa trees. Although parts of Ka’ū are now covered with layer upon layer of lava, at the time of the first settlers it would have been wood and brush land, interspersed with broad prairies of native grass (the now ubiquitous kiawe tree (mesquite) was introduced in 1828 by Father Bachelot, the head of the first Catholic mission; the sugi pine arrived in 1880; the Australian bluegrass gum in 1870; the bagras eucalyptus in 1929).

Watercolor of drums and war god, John Webber, 1779

In time, the settlers ventured to other islands in the archipelago. Cultivation began in Waialua valley on O’ahu, and Hālawa on Moloka’i. On Hawaiʻi Island, fertile Waipi’o Valley was settled, and the sloping mauka (inland) highlands of Kona, Ka’ū, and Kohala, as the settlers sought the verdant valleys where fresh water could be found (“The man with the water gourd, that is a god” is a line in the Kumulipo, the Hawaiian creation chant), spreading across the hills and plains overlooking the ocean to settle on land where soil and rainfall were sufficient for their simple needs. In the beginning, they lived in caves, low rock shelters built on hillsides or near the ocean, and in lava tubes, which are formed when a river of hot lava forces a path under lava that has already cooled and hardened. They built houses of grass in small villages near rich fishing grounds, although bays and inlets amenable to fishing or the use of canoes were few in relation to the length of coastline. To bring their canoes safely ashore, ladders were built with wooden runners or steps to make easier the task of pulling canoes from the rough surf, and over sharp lava. Those living near the shore exchanged and bartered fish, seaweed, shellfish, and salt for the produce grown by those living in the hills and gulches.



Hawaiian grass house, photograph by J. A. Gonsalves, ca. 1890


As the settlers began to clear the endemic vegetation to grow the subsistence plants they brought with them, many native plants disappeared from areas of cultivation. The forest was both altered and exploited as trees were used to make canoes, house posts, religious statues, weapons, and utensils. The bird population, with few if any predators before the arrival of the settlers, was reduced by hunting, both for food and later to make kāhili (royal standards) and lei, and the feather helmets and capes worn by the chiefs. More than six hundred species of fish were once found in Hawaiian waters, and fish were farmed in carefully tended ponds built along the shore with sluice gates to allow passage of both fish and clean tidal water. Sweet potato and arrowroot, gourd vines, , a small evergreen palm (Cordyline fruticosa), sugar cane, breadfruit, and coconut were planted.

Kalo was tended with reverence, and the preparation and eating of it was an act complex in meaning. Mary Kawena Pukui remembered that her grandmother would not allow any serious conversation or dissension at dinner once a calabash of poi, the paste made from kalo, was placed on the table, as it would offend Hāloa, the progenitor of the Hawaiian race, and a poetic name for both kalo and sweet potato. Should anyone disobey, her grandmother would call out in a surprised voice, Kāhāhā! ke hōʻole mai neʻi ka ʻumeke poi! (“Oh! The poi bowl does not consent to this kind of talk!”)

A square mile of kalo was capable of feeding 15,000 people; forty square feet could support one man for a year. As there were no fireproof cooking utensils or vessels — no iron or clay with which to make them — food, usually eaten cold, was first cooked in lined pits in the ground, or boiled in calabashes into which hot stones had been dropped. Unlike rice, which causes an acid reaction in the body, kalo is full of vitamins A and B.

Women dancing, after Louis Choris, 1822

It was early remarked by Europeans that Polynesian chiefs were unusually well-developed in contrast to the stock from which they most likely developed, and it has been suggested that the switch from an acidic starch (rice) to that of poi and fish was responsible for the robust health and beauty of the ali’i, or ruling class.

Poi, rich in mineral and organic salts, was largely responsible for the large jaw structure of Hawaiians, and their exceptionally fine teeth. The Hawaiians were later to astonish foreign sailors with the uniformity and strength of their teeth (no difficult task given the teeth of eighteenth-century English and Irishmen), and the size of their bodies, particularly those of the ali’i, which in both men and women was frequently more than six feet in height.




Print after a watercolor by John Webber, artist traveling with Captain Cook, 1779

The missionary Charles Stewart found the ali’i, who were not simply local nobility but thought to be avatars of the gods, to be distinctly superior to commoners in their physical appearance:

They seem indeed in size and stature to be almost a distinct race. They are all large in their frame, and often excessively corpulent; while the common people are scarce of the ordinary heights of Europeans, and of a thin rather than full habit…although little more than twenty-five years old, [one chief] is so remarkably stout, as to be unequal to any exertion, and scarcely able to walk without difficulty. This immense bulk of person is supposed to arise from the care taken of them from their earliest infancy…Many of the common people…have a great beauty of person, though of a less noble scale.