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.
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).
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.
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, kī, 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.
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.
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.