Untouchables and Other Beloved Persons

A restored heiau at Lapakahi on the Kohala coast
A restored heiau at Lapakahi on the Kohala coast

During the eleventh century, as the number of new settlers from Polynesia grew, the original inhabitants from the earlier voyages of the eighth century slipped into servitude. The historian Mary Kawena Pukui believed that the outcast slaves known as kauwa, kept for human sacrifice, may have been the descendants of the earliest people. Kauwa, 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, kauwa were scapegoats born into and imprisoned within an abhorred class. Confined to certain districts such as Makeanehu in Kohala, which is between Pololu and Kawaihae, near the restored national historic site of Lapakahi. Kauwa were forbidden to marry outside their caste, or even to enter the house or yard of a man who was not kauwa. If a child was born of a union between a commoner or chief and a kauwa, the child would be dashed to death against a rock, and the disgrace felt for generations. Kauwa 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 kauwa was among a man’s ancestors, the man’s eyes would be gouged from his head. IMG_0553Unlike the despised kauwa, a valued attendant in a chief’s household was the punahele, or favorite, who had been adopted or taken in by the chief, and who might be the son of a friend, or a foster son (the custom of hanai, in which a child, usually the first-born son and daughter, was freely given to a grandparent or friend or relative to raise). Regarded as sacred to the chief, a favorite had the right to enter the kapu places. The favorite was not the same, however, as a moe aikāne, or a man’s male sexual companion. A shocked John Ledyard, an American from Connecticut who in 1777 accompanied Captain Cook as a marine on HMS Discovery, wrote that chiefs eagerly sought the most beautiful young men in the Islands, whom they brought to court and kept close to them. The chiefs, who were jealous of any unwelcome attention paid to their favorites, appeared to Ledyard to be very fond of the boys, and to treat them with more kindness than they showed women. The Kohala high chief Kamehameha, later to be the greatest of Hawaiian kings, was twice described at age twenty-five as being extremely affectionate with a favorite. David Samwell, a surgeon traveling with Cook, wrote in his journal that Kamehameha had a young male companion with him when he visited Cook’s ships in 1778:

“Kamehameha, a chief of great consequence and a relation of Kariopoo [Kalaniōpu’u], but of a clownish and blackguard appearance, came on board of us in the afternoon dressed in an elegant feathered Cloak, which he brought to sell but would part with it for nothing but iron Daggers, which they of late preffered to Tois (sic) and everything else; and all the large Hogs they bring us now they want Daggers for and tell us that they must be made as long [as] their arms, and the armourers were employed in making them instead of small adzes. Kameha-meha got nine [daggers] of them for his Cloak. He, with many of his attendants, took up his quarters on board the ship for the Night: among them is a Young Man of whom he seems very fond, which does not in the least surprize (sic) us as we have had opportunities before of being acquainted with a detestable part of his character which he is not in the least anxious to conceal.”

Swimming with my childhood friend at Mahukona.
Swimming with my childhood friend at Mahukona

A few miles north of Lapakahi is Mahukona, a small bay with dangerous reefs where Cook first traded nails and trinkets for fresh water, yams, bananas, and pigs with the Indians, as Cook called them. Later a cement landing was built with a rail line to carry sugar cane to the ships that would take it, along with half-drowned cattle, to Honolulu and on to the mainland. On a hill above the bay are the remains of a heiau, said to be a navigatorʻs temple, which was partially destroyed during World War II when it was used as a machine gun site. In her book, Kohala Āina, Sophia Schweitzer writes that, “Archaeological records mention a cave nearby as another possible heiau. The author Violet Hansen was told that Charles L. Wight, then railroad president…stumbled upon the cave in the late 1800s. He said he found ‘idols, stone objects, and artifacts.’ Story has it that Wight removed the objects and then lost a finger the next day in an accident. He returned everything, and sealed the cave.” Every now and then, a consortium of developers tries to buy Mahukona to build hotels and a shopping center and a subdivision, but so far they have been thwarted by local activists.

The house in North Kohala where my friend’s father lived as a boy. His family started one of Kohala’s first sugar plantations.
The house in North Kohala where my friend’s father lived as a boy. His family started one of Kohala’s first sugar plantations.

One thought on “Untouchables and Other Beloved Persons

  1. Cathleen Rickard March 26, 2015 / 6:05 am

    Susanna’s explorations, research, and beautiful writing are very precious to me. I swim and hike on the Big Island almost daily. I am naturally curious to know some of the history as I visit so many of the wonders of this island and would like to attach Hawaiian history and culture with my experiences. She is filling me in with so many answers to my questions. I look forward to having her book as a reference point.

    Thank you, Susanna!


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