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.

 

 

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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. 

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

 

 

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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.

 

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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.”

 

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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.

 

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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
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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.

 

 

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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.

 

 

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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.

 

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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.

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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).

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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.

 

 

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

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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.

Falling are the Heavens, Part II

 

With the growth of the sugar industry in the second half of the nineteenth century, Hawaiians found work on the large plantations owned by the descendants of missionary families and early settlers, although the mill workers, boiler tenders, coopers, and carpenters were all haoles (Caucasians) from Honolulu. Between 1852 and 1856, however, thousands of Chinese, most of them Cantonese men from the Pearl River delta near Macao, were brought to the Islands as indentured workers. Laborers from Japan began to arrive in 1868, hired by the plantations against the wishes of the Japanese government (by the end of the century, forty percent of the population of Hawaiʻi was Japanese). The plantation owners were disappointed in the workers conscripted from Asia — they ran away, quarreled with the Hawaiians, smoked opium, protested that the law mandating nine-hour work days was too arduous, fell sick, and most irritating of all, died (plantation managers complained that many of the Chinese were already half-dead when they arrived).

 

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Chinese indentured laborers arriving in Honolulu

 

Although Hawaiians were thought to be good at heavy labor, they did not like the routine of daily field work. They began to find work more amenable to their temperament on the growing number of cattle ranches, where the Hawaiians, already fearless horsemen, were taught by paniolo (cowboys) who had been brought by ranchers from Spain in 1830. Hawaiian cowboys, already adept at riding over lava, became known for their courage, stamina, and skill in running cattle. By 1890, when sugar and pineapple were dominant, Hawaiians were no longer part of the plantation work force.

 

 

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Japanese indentured workers disembarking in Hawaiʻi

 

Throughout the last half of the nineteenth century, the oral history of the Hawaiians, and their music and dance were kept alive with the help of numerous Hawaiian-language newspapers, especially during the reign of King Kalākaua (1874-1891). Intent on preserving his people’s history, Kalākaua encouraged the study of Hawaiian culture. The fire-burning kapu which had once allowed those aliʻi who possessed it to light torches by day, had originated with a high chief whose daughter had been killed by one of his wives, causing him to roam across the island of Hawaiʻi with lighted torches. It was a prerogative long out of use, but Kalākaua, as one of the chiefʻs descendants, insisted on restoring the practice (he did not, however, order that his subjects fall to the ground in his presence, as was also his right), and the torches in his court burned day and night. Despite his efforts at good governance, Kalākauaʻs reign was fraught with ineptitude, compromise, foreign interference, rebellion, and the growing threat of annexation by the United States.

 

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Lūʻau in Waikīkī with Kalākaua at rear. Robert Louis Stevenson sits in front of the woman in the checked muʻumuʻu.

In 1885, Kamehameha School was founded for the education of Hawaiian children (the trust was not challenged until 2003 when a haole resident of Hawai’i sued the school for violating civil rights laws — the dismissal of the lawsuit was appealed, but the plaintiff eventually dropped his suit to accept the school’s settlement of seven million dollars) by Bernice Pauahi Bishop, the niece of one of the wives of Kamehameha II, who inherited an estate that made her the largest private landowner in the kingdom, with ten percent of all Hawaiian land. When it was founded, Kamehameha School mandated that all instruction be in English — a practice that continued until 1924 when the formal teaching of Hawaiian was allowed. The princess, married to the American businessman Charles Reed Bishop, also endowed the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, which collects and preserves the ethnographic and natural history of the Islands.

 

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Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop, age thirty-five, Honolulu

 

Kalākauaʻs poor health was aggravated by chronic drinking. In 1891, he suffered a stroke at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, and died a few weeks later. His sister, Lili’uokalani, became queen, inheriting a kingdom whose chaotic and riven politics were beyond her capacities to control or to mend. One of her first acts was to request the making of a new constitution in which the rights of native Hawaiians would be protected.

Lorrin Thurston, a lawyer and state legislator who was the grandson of Lucy and Asa Thurston, missionaries of the First Company, held that the queen, by demanding a new constitution, was guilty of an act of sedition. He formed a Committee of Safety with a group of friends, which aimed to end the monarchy and to establish a provisional government. The Committee, six of whom were Hawaiian citizens by birth or naturalization, wrote to the United States Minister to Hawai’i, John L. Stevens, to ask for the protection and support of the American forces under his command. Marines from an American warship were posted throughout the town as Thurston and his fellow annexationists took possession of several government buildings.

Liliʻuokalani and her supporters surrendered, certain that once the United States learned the true nature of the revolt, she would be restored to power. The newly-elected American president, Grover Cleveland, was at first willing to support Lili’uokalani, provided she give amnesty to the revolutionaries, which she refused to do. Cleveland then asked Thurston if the provisional government would be willing to relinquish its authority and restore the monarchy, and Thurston answered that it would not. The queen eventually changed her mind, but Cleveland had by then grown tired of the fracas, and left it to Congress to resolve. Sanford B. Dole was made president of the new republic in July 1894, and Cleveland sent a letter of recognition.

That year, the McKinley Act, which had raised protective rates fifty percent for most American-made products and goods and increased tariffs on imports while removing those on sugar, tea, molasses, and coffee, was repealed, restoring to Island planters their favorable trading position and their profits.

A badly organized counter-revolution came to nothing when contraband arms were discovered hidden at the foot of Diamond Head and in the garden of the queen’s house. Lili’uokalani was arrested and detained in ‘Iolani Palace, where she signed a letter of abdication which she later claimed was forced. She was released the following year, and immediately traveled to Washington in an emotional attempt to save her kingdom, as did her heir, the young Princess Kaʻiulani. Sereno Bishop, a son of the Rev. Artemas Bishop, missionary of the Second Company (1823), was the Hawaii correspondent of United Press, and had spent the previous few years undermining the cause of the monarchists, writing, among other things, that Lili’uokalani was under the influence of black-magic sorcerers, and that she made sacrifices to the fire goddess (he also helped to popularize the rumor that Kalākaua and Lili’uokalani were the children of a minor chiefess and a Negro bootblack named John Blossom). Lorrin Thurston published a pamphlet in which he wrote that annexation by the United States would bring an end to the growing danger of a militaristic Japan, and incalculable benefits to commerce, agriculture, ranching, and shipping. In the spring of 1898, the United States, at war with Spain, sank a fleet of Spanish ships in Manila harbor, reminding Americans that the nation’s global hegemony could only be enhanced by strengthening its position in the North Pacific. Three months later, on July 6, the Congress of the United States voted by joint resolution to annex the Hawaiian Islands. The kingdom of Hawaiʻi was no more.

 

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Liliʻuokalani in the garden of her home, Washington Place, Honolulu. 

Falling are the Heavens, Part I

 

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                                 Postcard of I’olani Palace, Honolulu

The high chiefess Kina’u, daughter of Kamehameha I and his wife Kaheiheimālie, bore five children of divine rank, including Lot Kapuaiwa and Alexander Liholiho. With the death of Kamehameha III in 1854, Alexander Liholiho became king (Kamehameha IV). His father was the high chief Mataio Kekūanāoʻa, governor of Oʻahu, but he had been raised as a hana’i (foster) child by Kamehameha II. Along with his wife, Emma Rooke, Liholiho was a student of Amos and Juliette Cook at the Chiefsʻ Childrenʻs School. The Cooks, while strict and austere, were known to be comparatively worldly in their views, and Liholiho dreamed of someday sending a son to Eton. As a young man, he traveled through Europe and Asia with his older brother, Prince Lot, and Dr. Gerrit P. Judd, a doctor and missionary turned government official, and he and his wife were the leaders of a young Honolulu set which included haole and Hawaiian grandees.

 

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              Dr. Gerrit P. Judd with King Kamehameha IV and his brother Lot Kapuaiwa (the future Kamehameha V) during their trip to the United States and Europe in 1850

Although Emma, who had been raised by her adoptive father, the Englishman Dr. Thomas Rooke, was educated by missionaries, as well as an English governess, and was one of the founders of the Episcopal Church in Hawaiʻi, she was extremely proud of her Hawaiian blood. In a letter to a cousin confined to a leper colony on Molokaʻi, she wrote that she wished her people to “become acquainted with ancient songs, their origin, object, composers, effects…for that is the way our Island history has been preserved — entirely oral.” As the queen and others encouraged the revival of Hawaiian culture, the once pervasive and often destructive influence of the missionaries from New England was simultaneously coming to an end — even the missionaries did not miss the irony when the beautiful Emma appeared at a masked ball as the pagan goddess Cybele.

 

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                            “Cybele,” queen consort of Kamehameha IV

In 1863, Dr. Rufus Anderson of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (he who had once advised against the teaching of English to Hawaiians), realized that the work of the Mission was finished. The number of missionaries sent in twelve companies to seventeen stations on five of the Hawaiian Islands between 1830 and 1863 was one hundred seventy-eight, almost half of whom had been teachers, doctors, agents, and lay members. The clergymen who had served in Hawaii, many of whom were elderly, if not exhausted by their years of labor, were encouraged to put their pastorates in the hands of native students trained by them or at schools in the United States.

 

 

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Princess Miriam Likelike (1851-1877), wife of W.’s great great grandfather, Archibald S. Cleghorn. Her early death was mysterious, and some believed that a death spell had fallen upon her.

The following is from the book Shoal of Time by Gavan Daws:

By the end of the sixties the retreat of the missionaries had turned into a rout. Their own children, confined to calisthenics (“Presbyterian dancing”) at Punahou, were quick to take up real dancing once they left school…At the opening of a skating rink at Honolulu Queen Emma sat in the royal box and watched the lancers, the quadrille and the grand march performed — all on skates; the elderly wife of the Reverend Lowell Smith…was seen swimming at Waikiki on a Sunday; and the children of missionaries were ‘dancing themselves silly’ at weekend parties in the country.

Alexander Liholihoʻs reign as Kamehameha IV (1854-1863) was marred by scandal, including the king’s own shooting of his private secretary, whom he wrongly suspected of dishonoring his wife. Dead by age twenty-nine, he was succeeded in 1863 by his brother Lot (Kamehameha V), who was the hanaʻi son of Princess Nāhiʻenaʻena.

 

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Princess Nahi’ena’ena, sacred daughter of Kamehameha I, wearing a traditional ‘ahu ‘ula, or feathered cape (gowns ordered from Worth in Paris were not to be fashionable for another fifty years)

A fervent advocate of his people, Lot Kapuaiwa cared little what haoles thought of him. He encouraged the dancing of hula, chanting, and native healing, and repealed the laws that forbade what missionaries called “kahunaism.” He refused to sign a bill permitting the sale of alcohol to Hawaiians, however, as he saw drink as the cause of much death amongst them. He had been betrothed at birth to Princess Bernice Pauahi, but she married instead the American banker Charles Reed Bishop, and he did not speak to her for the rest of his life. A powerful female sorcerer said to be expert in healing and in prophecy lived with him, and was believed by many to be his mistress. Like his brother and cousins, he suffered from ill health, and from an addiction to drink, but despite his melancholia, his concerns were always those of his people. Those lined against him — American business interests, the Protestant church, and the educated, confident, acquisitive descendants of missionary families — had become too powerful. The Islands had become valuable both economically and as a military outpost. Hawaiʻi was no longer a sleepy tropical backwater.

 

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Princess Ka’iulani, heir to Queen Liliu’okalani, the last queen of Hawai’i, daughter of Miriam Likelike and Archibald Cleghorn, who died of a lingering illness when she was twenty-nine years old

Lotʻs cousin, William Charles Lunalilo, had been in love since childhood with Lotʻs sister, Princess Victoria Kamāmalu, who was a granddaughter of Kamehameha I, and heir to Kaʻahumanuʻs large estates. Lot, who wished Kamāmalu to be the consort of David Kalākaua, at last gave Lunalilo permission to marry her, despite her long intimacy with Marcus Monsarrat, a married haole auctioneer in Honolulu. Lunalilo surprisingly refused to marry her at the last moment, promising to arrive too drunk for any ceremony to be binding. He wrote the following poem, “The Princeʻs Words to the Princess.”

I loved you once, I believed you.

Even I thought you were true. You made me swear to be loyal and remember.

Remember your own oath and keep it true.

For this body, beloved, brims with my love.

At the thought of your mouth my heart leaps with love remembered in a magic pool.

Now as we climb a winding way at Maʻemaʻe, here where buds of Mauanaʻala shed the fragrance we knew from childhood only too well,

what flower will burn from your body if I, beloved, lie in your arms?

 

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                                                            Lot Kapuaiwa, King Kamehameha V  

During Lotʻs reign, the legislature fell into turmoil, with certain haole members refusing to speak Hawaiian, and Hawaiian senators refusing to speak English. In bad health for some time, he died without children on his fortieth birthday, marking the end of the Kamehameha line of kings. Among his possible successors were Lunalilo, a descendant of a half-brother of Kamehameha I, who was the favorite of both Hawaiian and American interests; and David Kalākaua, the ambitious son of a high chief of Maui (whose grandfather had been hanged for killing Kalākauaʻs mother). The legislature, which had been granted the right to choose a new king under the constitution of 1862, settled on Lunalilo. Isabella Bird somewhat condescendingly described the new king, who lived with his mistress, Eliza Meeks, the part-Hawaiian daughter of a harbor pilot:

The king is a very fine-looking man of thirty-eight, tall, well formed, broad-chested, with his head well set on his shoulders, and his feet and hands small. His appearance is decidedly commanding and aristocratic: he is certainly handsome even according to our notions. He has a fine open brow, significant at once of brains and straightforwardness, a straight, proportionate nose, and a good mouth. The slight tendency to Polynesian overfulness (sic) about his lips is concealed by a well-shaped moustache…His eyes are large, dark brown of course, and equally of course, he has a superb set of teeth…He is remarkably gentlemanly looking, and has the grace of movement which seems usual with Hawaiians.

 

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   My childhood friend, a part-Hawaiian descendant of Dr. Gerrit P. Judd

THE LONG VOYAGES

There is still dispute and controversy as to the identity and origin of the first human settlers in the Hawaiian Islands, although most scholars agree, thanks to recent radiocarbon dating, that the initial voyagers sailed from distant islands, known by Polynesians as Kahiki, in the South Pacific, most likely the Marquesas, in the eleventh century A.D.

Around 1200 b.c., the farmers and fishermen who had migrated over centuries from Asia to Australia, Indonesia, and New Guinea began to move slowly across the Pacific, sailing to Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa, which lie only a few days’ sail from one another, where they became the ancestors of present-day Polynesians. After almost two thousand years, the islanders began to venture farther, eventually reaching Hawai‘i to the north, New Zealand to the southwest, and remote Easter Island to the east. Historians once believed that many of the islands in the Pacific were discovered by fishermen who had been blown off course, although the fact that the first voyagers to Hawai‘i carried with them crops, seeds, and animals, as well as women and children, suggests that the journeys were deliberate and well-prepared.

The double-hulled outrigger canoes of the settlers were 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, men sitting two to a bench would paddle 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 canoes across the ocean.

The small companies of perhaps fifty men, women, and children brought with them dogs, pigs, and chickens, as well as food and water. They had seedlings of hibiscus, sugar cane, bamboo, mountain apple, coconut, breadfruit, mulberry, and tubers of wild ginger, kalo (taro), yam, turmeric, 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. The settlers named their new home Ka‘ū, or “the breast that nursed them,” although the leeward coast would have been dry and hot, with little fresh water. Parts of Ka‘ū are now covered with layer upon layer of lava from successive eruptions. At the time of the first settlers, though, it would have been wood and brush land, interspersed with broad prairies of native grass. (The now ubiquitous kiawe tree was introduced in 1828 by Father Alexis Bachelot, the head of the first Catholic mission; the sugi pine arrived in 1880; the Australian bluegrass gum in 1870; and the bagras eucalyptus in 1929.)

The settlers would have known at once that their new home would not give them all that 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. In his 1993 book, The Gifts of Civilization: Germs and Genocide in Hawai‘i, microbiologist, historian, novelist, and professor at the University of Hawai‘i, O. A. Bushnell observes: “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, owing 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 bog to rain forest to coastal shrub, all with widely different levels of wind and rainfall. In the north, on the windward side, the earliest Polynesian settlers of the eleventh century would 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 ‘ōhi‘a trees. 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 Hawai‘i 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 water could be found, 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, the settlers 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 bartered fish, seaweed, shellfish, and salt for the produce grown by those living in the hills and gulches. The historian Mary Kawena Pukui (1895–1986) described the sharing of food during her childhood in the book The Polynesian Family System in Ka‘ū:

In the days of the horse-drawn vehicle, [people traveling between Hilo and Ka‘ū] often stopped at my aunt’s to pass the night—usually unexpected. There was no market . . . and whatever of fish and meat there was, was salted. The family gave guests poi—paste made from kalo—and the best salted meat, even if it was the last . . . Cowboys came too, tired and hungry, to share the salted fish, or meat with poi. Sometimes, they came with a portion of a wild bullock or pig—then there was fresh meat. But only for that meal.

 

 

 

'Hawaiian_Woman_with_Necklace',_graphite_on_paper_drawing_by_George_Henry_Burgess,_c._1870,_Honolulu_Museum_of_Art.jpg

Portrait of Hawaiian woman with necklace, graphite on paper, George Henry Burgess, 1870

 

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, (the small evergreen Cordyline fruticosa), sugarcane, breadfruit, and coconut were planted. Kalo was tended with reverence, and the preparation and eating of it was an act complex in meaning. A square mile of kalo was capable of feeding fifteen thousand 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 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. It was early remarked by Europeans that Polynesian chiefs were unusually well developed in contrast to the ethnic stock from which they most likely descended, and it has been suggested that the switch from an acidic starch (rice) to that of poi was responsible for the robust health and beauty of the ali‘i.

 

John_Webber's_oil_painting_'A_Chief_of_the_Sandwich_Islands',_1787.jpg

    High chief, wearing a mahiole or feather helmet, painting in oil by John Webber, 1787

 

Poi, rich in mineral and organic salts, was largely responsible for the large jaw structure of Hawaiians and their exceptionally fine teeth. The uniformity and strength of their teeth were later to astonish foreign sailors (no difficult task given the teeth of eighteenth-century English and Irishmen), as was 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. The Reverend Charles S. Stewart, who served as a missionary on Maui from 1823-1825, found the ali‘i, who were not simply local nobility but thought to be avatars of the gods, superior to commoners in their physical appearance. In his Journal of a Residence in the Sandwich Islands During the Years 1823, 1824, and 1825, he wrote:

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.

The first people to settle Hawai‛i lived secluded and isolated lives until the beginning of the fourteenth century, when, according to Polynesian folklore, legends, and chants, a second migration of voyagers made the journey north from Tahiti, a distance of 2,626 miles. The later migrations are known as the Long Voyages. Like the earlier journeys, they are now thought to have been forays of exploration, rather than a flight from internecine struggle, war, famine, or epidemic. The travelers brought seeds and animals with them, but they also carried new gods, powerful beings who demanded the enactment of a system of strict kapu.

 

young woman ca 1880 A.A. Montano.jpg

     Young Hawaiian woman wearing maile lei, eight hundred years after the first settlers from Polynesia arrived in the Islands, photograph by A. A. Montano, ca. 1880

For perhaps one hundred years, there was sporadic warfare between the original settlers and the aggressive newcomers from Tahiti. The Tahitians prevailed, and those earlier settlers who did not become assimilated through marriage were believed to be transformed over generations into the elusive nocturnal elves known as Menehune. Whimsically and perhaps guiltily described as our memories of the past, the Menehune are said to have 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 thought 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. Mary Kawena Pukui believed that the outcast slaves known as kauwā, kept for human sacrifice, may have been the descendants of the earliest people. Kauwā, who were regarded as 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.

“What Pinched-In Bodies!” Part II

'Tattooed_Hawaiian_Chief',_lithograph_after_Jacques_Arago,_Honolulu_Museum_of_Art
Tattooed chief, lithograph after a drawing by Jacques Arago, 1819

The Reverend Hiram Bingham was shocked that Liholiho, who had become Kamehameha II with the death of his father the previous year, wore no shoes, stockings, pants, or gloves, although Thomas Hopu, the young Hawaiian missionary who had traveled with the Americans on the Thaddeus from New England,  had warned the chiefs and chiefesses to dress with modesty when they called on the missionaries. As the aliʻi were accustomed to wearing Western clothes (merchants had long supplied them with shoes and suits, and bolts of cloth for gowns), most of them obligingly appeared for their daily visits in gowns of Chinese silk and striped taffeta, brocade jackets, and heavy velvet waistcoats, which were stifling to wear 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 that the Hawaiians and the missionaries remained unknown to one another.

Over the next week, 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 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.

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

Head of the Church Triumphant,
We joyfully 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.

The royal women and their chiefs and attendants arrived at the ship each morning, seated under Chinese silk 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.

View of Ka’awaloa, Kealakekua Bay, drawn by Persis, daughter of Lucy and Asa Thurston, 1835
View of Ka’awaloa, Kealakekua Bay, drawn by Persis, daughter of Lucy and Asa Thurston, 1835

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 Hawaiians surrounded them, touching and poking them with curiosity.

They are white and have hats with a spout. Their faces are round and far in. Their necks are long. They look well.” The Hawaiians’ nickname for the women was Long Necks, in the tradition of awarding people — natives and foreigners alike —- with apt and perceptive names…The women…enjoyed their loudest transports of merriment at our expense, quizzing us without mercy, but never with ill-nature, while the singers honoured us occasionally with a place in their extemporaneous compositions.

“Reine Cahoumanou,” Plate III in Louis Choris’ Voyage Pittoresque Autour du Monde, Paris, 1822. Hawaii State Archives.
“Reine Cahoumanou,” Plate III in Louis Choris’ Voyage Pittoresque Autour du Monde, Paris, 1822, Hawaii State Archives.

When the missionaries learned that Ka’ahumanu had at last returned from fishing, they went on shore to discover the chiefs at a feast to welcome her home. Ka’ahumanu lay on a large mat in a yellow satin pā’ū (skirt of kapa, or barkcloth) with a purple satin kihei (capelet) over her shoulders, wearing a lei of maile leaves, and a band of yellow feathers low on her forehead. Her attendants fanned her and scratched her back, while the chiefs waited in line to greet her. It was the first time that the missionaries saw the hula — hundreds of dancing men and women, shouting and clapping, the men in anklets of rattling dog’s teeth. The women dancers were bare-breasted, wearing pā’ū and feather anklets. Daniel Chamberlain wrote that he had never in his life seen anything so Satanic.

Dancer in kapa skirt, with tattoos and bleached fringe of hair, colored lithograph after Jacques Arago

'Femme_dansant,_Iles_Sandwich'_by_Jacques_Arago,_published_1840.jpg