I live in the small town of Kapa’au — population circa 1500 — in the far north of the Big Island of Hawai’i. It is fertile pasture land and rain forest, with a rocky coastline of high cliffs. It was the family land of the great Hawaiian king, Kamehameha I, who was born in 1752 by some accounts (there are many dates given for his birth as there was no written historical record until the early nineteenth-century) at ‘Upolu Point, where there is a large heiau, or temple, said to have been built by one of the Tahitian settlers of the eleventh century, a powerful priest named Pa’ao (the historian Nathaniel Emerson wrote that, “We have no proof that he was a cannibal. The times were perhaps not ripe for the development of this particular quintessence of paganism and heathenism.”)
There is a legend that during the pregnancy of Kamehameha’s mother, she wished to eat the eyeball of a chief (she was given the eye of a shark instead), an omen that the child she was carrying would one day become king. The night before his birth, a blazing streak passed across the sky, later thought to be Halley’s Comet (which would make his birthdate the winter of 1758). It was taken as another omen, as was the rain, thunder, and lightning that marked his birth. Because of these signs, certain ali’i (high chiefs) in the court of the child’s great uncle, King Alapa’inui of Hilo, conspired to kill the infant, saying the words, E ‘aki maka o ka lauhue. “Nip off the bud of the poison gourd.” This is a quote from the book, Ruling Chiefs of Hawai’i, by the nineteenth- century historian, Samuel Kamakau:
A numerous guard had been set to await the time of birth. The chiefs kept awake with the guards (for a time), but due to the rain and the cold, the chiefs fell asleep, and near daybreak Keku’iapoiwa went into the house and, turning her face to the side of the house at the gable end, braced her feet against the wall. A certain stranger was outside the house listening, and when he heard the sound of the last bearing-down pain…he lifted the thatch at the side of the house, and made a hole above. As soon as the child was born, [and] had slipped down upon the tapa spread to receive it, and Keku’iapoiwa had stood up and let the afterbirth…come away, [Naeole] covered the child in the tapa and carried it away. When the chiefs awoke they were puzzled at the disappearance of the child. Kohala was searched that day and houses burned.
Naeole, a chief of Kohala loyal to the child’s father, was pursued through the night and at last trapped, but he was allowed to keep the infant, and to become his kahu, or guardian. The two lived alone in the isolated ‘Āwini gulch of North Kohala, earning the boy the nickname, The Lonely One, until he was five years old, when he was taken to Hilo by his great-uncle to be raised at court, as befitted a royal chief.
Pololu Valley, which is at the end of the road, is a much favored spot by tourists, not only because of its beauty, but because there is little else to see here (there are few beaches), especially if one is unaware of Kohala’s history. The location, even the existence of certain ancient trails, or the sites of rock platforms and terraces which once formed the foundations of heiau, or the freshwater mountain pools loved by Hawaiian queens and thus forbidden to commoners, are often kept secret, lest they be despoiled, or even viewed.
I, too, am ignorant of the history of this ancient district, but in writing a book of non-fiction, Paradise of the Pacific, about Hawai’i that will be published this August by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, I have come to learn a small part of the history of this mysterious and beautiful place. My husband, W., descended from bird-catchers who in the eighteenth-century lived down the coast at Kamae’e in the district of North Hilo, has also taught me to see more than I would have ever discovered on my own.