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).


chinese immigrants
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.



Miike Maru
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.


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.


bpb age 35 ca 1866
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.


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

Falling are the Heavens, Part I



                                 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.



                            “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.



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.



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-three 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.



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


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.





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.



    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.


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     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 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


“What pinched-in bodies!”

Petroglyph at Pohue Bay, Ka’u, photograph by W. S. Chillingworth

Anchoring off Kawaihae, north of Kona, the captain of the brig Thaddeus, bearing the First Company (1819) of Congregationalist missionaries from New England, sent a boat ashore with one of his officers, who returned with the astonishing news that the great Kamehameha was dead, kapu abolished, idols destroyed, and temples demolished. The new king, Liholiho (Kamehameha II), was living thirty miles down the coast at Kailua. The high chief Kalanimoku, a cousin of Queen Ka’ahumanu’s, sent presents to the Thaddeus of coconuts, bananas, breadfruit, sweet potatoes, and two hogs. Men in canoes bartered fruit for knives, a pair of scissors, and some fishhooks. Kalanimoku, whom the English had nicknamed Billy Pitt for his skillful statesmanship, soon arrived on a canopied double canoe with his wife, Likelike, and Namahana and Kaheiheimālie, two of Kamehameha’s widows. Perhaps out of respect to the foreigners, the women, who were close to three hundred pounds each, wore shifts of Indian cotton over their pā’ū.

High chiefess Lydia Namahana Pi’ia, L. Massard, 1815
High chiefess Lydia Namahana Pi’ia, L. Massard, 1815


The missionaries may have been frightened and disgusted by what they saw, but the Hawaiians were curious, and even amused. They had never seen a white woman. “Crowds gathered, and one and another exclaimed, ‘What bright-colored eyes!’ ‘What strange hats, not at all like the tall hats of the men!’ ‘What long necks! but pleasing to look at!’ ‘What pinched-in bodies!’ ‘What tight clothing above and wide below!’” They asked the haole women to loosen their hair, so that they could comb and braid it, and some of the women obliged them. When the chiefesses asked the women to join them in cards, however, the missionaries explained that in America, ladies did not play cards, causing the Hawaiians to wonder that such a kapu could be imposed on white women.

Accustomed to the smiling faces of amorous sailors, the Hawaiians were bewildered by the solemnity of the strangers, while the missionaries, irritated by the constant chatter and laughter of the Hawaiians, were suspicious of the sudden explosions of laughter, convinced that native translators were deliberately altering their words.

At the invitation of the Americans, Kalanimoku and several of the royal women came on board the Thaddeus. Lucy Thurston described the queens in her journal:

Trammeled with clothes and seated on chairs, the queens were out of their element. They divested themselves of their outer dresses. Then the one stretched herself full length upon a bench, and the others sat down upon the deck. Mattresses were then brought for them to recline in their own way. After reaching the cabin…one of the queens divested herself of her only remaining dress, simply retaining her pa-u. While we were opening wide our eyes, she looked as self-possessed and easy as though sitting in the shades of Eden.

The Thaddeus sailed south from Kawaihae to Kona with the chiefs, numerous queens, and attendants on board, some of whom slept on deck. One of Liholiho’s wives demanded that the women make her a white cambric dress like they themselves wore, insisting that they finish it before reaching Kona, as she wished to wear it to surprise her husband. It took the women two days of stitching (they did not sew on the Sabbath), but when the Thaddeus arrived in Kona, the queen wore her new dress ashore to the screams and cheers of hundreds of her subjects. The women also gave her a lace cap and scarf, which they had brought from America as gifts.



‘Ahu’ena heiau in Kona, print after a drawing by Louis Choris, before its destruction in 1819, ca. 1816

Shortly after their arrival in Kona, Lucia Holman visited what remained of ‘Ahu’ena, the heiau used for human sacrifice by Kamehameha I when he lived at Kamakahonu, and which had been destroyed by order of Ka’ahumanu:

It was sure enough in ruins, and such a scene of devastation, I never before beheld. There appeared to me to have been stone (solid lava) enough among the ruins of the temple, to build a city — 4 of the wooden gods are left for curiosity…In a large ohale (or house) near by lies buried the bones of the Great Tamahamaah (sic) — with a cross on each side, signifying Tarboo, (or no admittance). Upon this sacred ground was no common person allowed to step his foot.

Kuakini, a younger brother of Ka’ahumanu, was the first person to greet the missionaries in Kona. He was very tall and very big, and wore a traditional malo with a short cloak, known as a kihei, thrown around his huge shoulders. He invited the foreigners to his house, but they refused his invitation. Thomas Hopu, surprised by their rudeness, advised them to reconsider, and they reluctantly agreed to attend a feast given by Kuakini, who was notorious even amongst the generous Hawaiians for his extravagance. Kuakini had earlier written to the president of the United States in the hope of exchanging names with him, and although Adams did not trouble to answer him, Kuakini had begun to refer to himself as John Adams (according to Kamakau, Kuakini was also a notorious patron of thieves, keeping men solely to plunder ships and the stores of foreign merchants). There was ample and varied food at the feast, but the missionaries refused to eat. Kuakini even had wine for them, which they declined, taking only coconut water. He was an accomplished dancer and kept the finest troupe of dancers in the kingdom, but the missionaries refused his invitation to watch the dance. Hiram Bingham and Asa Thurston left the feast early, announcing that in future they only wished to meet with the king.

With Hopu serving as intermediary and with the help of Kamehameha’s counselor, the English sailor John Young, the two men at last met Liholiho. They arrived while he was eating dinner with his five wives, two of whom were his sisters, and one of whom had been married to his father. Refusing to be seated, the missionaries read aloud formal letters from the board in Boston. One can imagine — or perhaps not — the reaction of the king and his queens to the dry and somewhat naive instructions of the board. A private Missionary Album with confidential advice for the First Company, which was not read aloud, contains surprisingly benign, although ultimately ineffective instructions, particularly concerning involvement in the kingdom’s politics:

Your views are to be limited to the low, narrow scale, but you are to open your hearts wide and set your goals high. You are to aim at nothing short of covering these islands with fruitful fields, and pleasant dwellings and schools and churches, and of raising up the whole people to an elevated state of Christian civilization. You are to obtain an adequate language of the people; to make them acquainted with letters, to give them the Bible, with skill to read it…to introduce and get into extended operation and influence among them, the arts and institutions and usages of civilized life and society; and you are to abstain from all interference with local and political interests of the people and to inculcate the duties of justice, moderation, forbearance, truth and universal kindness. Do all in your power to make men of every class good, wise and happy.

Out of fear of Ka’ahumanu, or perhaps an instinctive foreboding, Liholiho refused to give the missionaries an answer as to whether they would be permitted to stay in the Islands. Although his father had asked Vancouver to send religious instructors, it had been in the interest of increasing the wealth of his kingdom, not his chances of salvation. Liholiho told Bingham that Ka’ahumanu was away fishing, and he could not make a decision without her. Lucy Thurston wrote in her journal that the missionaries then invited the king and his family to dinner on the Thaddeus. The king came to the ship in a double canoe of twenty paddlers and a large number of attendants:

The king was introduced to the first white women, and they to the first king, that each had ever seen. His dress on the occasion was a girdle, a green silk scarf put on under the left arm, brought up and knotted over the right shoulder, a chain of gold around his neck and over his chest, and a wreath of yellow flowers upon his head. The next day several of the brothers and sisters of the Mission went ashore, hoping that social intercourse might give weight to the scale that was then poising (sic). They visited the palace. Ten or fifteen armed soldiers stood without, and although it was ten or eleven o’clock in the forenoon, we found him on whom devolved the government of a nation, three or four of his chiefs, and five or six of his attendants, prostrate on their mats, wrapped in deep slumbers.


Falling Are The Heavens

Abandoned heiau, ca. 1930, Hawaiʻi State Archives

The task of understanding the past is never-ending. It is impossible not to feel at times ambivalent, and to resist the ease of disapproval, if not condemnation. It will be the obvious view of most readers that the Hawaiians should have been left to work out their own history. Although it has become useful for contemporary scholars and writers of Hawaiian history to blame the influence of foreigners, particularly the missionaries, for the near annihilation of the race, it is impossible to exempt the ali’i from hastening its perilous decline. Putting aside the inexorability of historical determinism, it is too easy to fault foreigners for the dissolution and eventual collapse of the Hawaiian monarchy, too simplistic to decry the acquisitive traders and shopkeepers who followed the ships, or the native chiefs who lost their kingdom through negligence and misrule. “The gods did not die: slowly they withdrew from the people, who no longer honored them.”

swimming in muumuu
Women swimming in the muʻumuʻu imposed on them in the nineteenth century by missionaries, ca. 1890, Hawaiʻi State Archive

The mythic navigator, Ka’uluakalana, is said to have composed this chant, only a fragment of which has been preserved, when he first landed in the Islands in the eleventh century A.D.:

Interior of heiau in Waimea on the Big Island, with gods wrapped in kapa, and sacrificed pig, after a drawing by Webber
Interior of heiau on Kauaʻi with gods wrapped in kapa, and sacrificed pig, after a drawing by Webber (in which the pig does not appear).

Falling are the heavens, rushing through the heavens
Falls the dismal rain, rushing through the heavens
Falls the heavy rain, rushing through the heavens
Falls the gentle rain, rushing through the heavens
Soars the dragonfly, rushing through the heavens
Passed away has this one to Moanawaikaioo.
The strong current, the rolling current, whirl away,
“It will be overcome by you,—
Passing perhaps, remaining perhaps.

When the cabinet minister William N. Armstrong, who accompanied David Kalākaua on a trip around the world in 1881, warned him that the future of the Hawaiian people was in danger, Kalākaua insisted that his people were happy enough — there was food, their small kuleana (homesteads) supported them, and no one robbed them. “If they are [dying out], I’ve read lots of times that great races died out, and new ones took their places; my people are like the rest. I think the best thing is to let us be.” They were not left to themselves, as both the king and Armstrong must have foreseen, and they did begin to disappear. There is no little irony in recognizing that the speed with which this occurred — a short one hundred and twenty years from the arrival of Captain Cook in 1777 to the annexation of the Islands in 1898 by the United States — serves as testimony to the generosity of spirit, patience, and adaptability of the Hawaiians themselves. In their grace lay their defeat.

King Kalakaua with Robert Louis S tevenson, 1889, Hawaiʻi State Archives
King Kalakaua with Robert Louis Stevenson, 1889, Hawaiʻi State Archives

Pālea, a Hawaiian chanter from Ka‘u who was born in 1852, composed this chant after he and his wife came upon a mirror for the first time. It is called “Piano Ahiahi,” or “Piano at Evening” (the native land shell is now an endangered species):

Pre-1900 Hawaiian woman
Hawaiian woman, ca. 1890, Hawaiʻi State Archives

O Piano I heard at evening,
where are you?
Your music haunts me far into the night
like the voice of landshells
trilling sweetly
near the break of day.
I remember when my dear and I
visited aboard the Nautilus
and saw our first looking glass.
I remember the upland of Ma‘eli‘eli
where the mists creeping in and out
threaded their way between the old
houses of thatch.
Again I chant my refrain
of long ago and a piano singing
far into the night.

Pilgrims and Strangers

Grass dwelling in Waipio Valley on the Big Island

Letʻs return now to Hawaiʻi.

The thoughts of the Congregationalist missionaries who first set sail from Boston for the Sandwich Islands on board the bark Thaddeus are accessible to us through their journals and letters, which are suffused with piety and instruction. Now and again, a hint of confusion and estrangement appears in their writing, along with an occasional note of frustration — a moment’s revelation, followed by remorse and guilt, but nothing more. A few of them would be enthralled by island life and the Hawaiian people, and stay long after they had fulfilled their mission; others left as soon as they could, and some even before their time of service was complete. Most of the journals kept by the missionaries on board the Thaddeus dutifully begin on the first day of their journey, the 23rd of October, 1819, and then fall silent until taken up a few weeks later, their writers too seasick to write another word until the middle of November. When she recovered, Mercy Whitney, whose husband Samuel was a lay teacher, made a schedule of her day’s activities:

5:00 private devotion and sewing
7:30-9 breakfast and exercise
9-12 writing and study
12-1 recitation and conversation
1-2 dinner and private devotion
2-5 writing and reading
5-6 study of the Hawaiian language
6-7:30 tea, conversation, and exercise
7:30-9:30 private and family devotion

In a letter dated December 20, two months after the kapu system in the Sandwich Islands was overthrown and the Hawaiian gods and their temples destroyed, Lucy Thurston, the new wife of the seminarian Asa Thurston wrote to her father from the Thaddeus. The ship was twenty-four feet wide and eighty- five feet long, and it would be three more months before it reached the Sandwich Islands:

Chests, trunks, bundles, bags &c., were piled into our little room six feet square, until no place was left on the floor for the sole of one’s foot…With such narrow limits, and such confined air, it might be compared to a dungeon. This was with me a gloomy season, in which I felt myself a pilgrim and a stranger…Our whole family, with the exception of the natives, were all under the horrors of seasickness, some thrown on their mattresses, others seated in clusters, hanging one upon another, while here and there individuals leaned on the railing, or supported themselves by hanging upon a rope…We had entered a new school.

Hiram Bingham
The Reverend Hiram Bingham, leader of the First Company of missionaries, who sailed to the Sandwich Islands on board the Thaddeus

Daniel Chamberlain, a farmer who was traveling with his wife and their five children, wrote that the small cabins were so packed with their belongings that it was necessary to walk bent in two, crawling over chests and trunks on their hands and knees, and banging their heads against the walls and ceiling. Halfway through the journey, Samuel Ruggles, a schoolmaster, was exultant to collect three pints of drinking water from the tip of his umbrella. At the end of January, in the Strait of Le Maire, near Tierra del Fuego, the ship was blown off course by high winds. Lucy Thurston wrote:

Sails were taken down and we were carried before the wind, The incessant and violent rocking of the vessel keeps me here laid prostrate upon my couch. Oh, the luxury in feeble health of reclining on a bed with tranquility and ease! But I must not, I will not repine. Even now, though tears bedew my cheeks, I wish not for an alteration in my present situation or future prospects. When I look forward to that land of darkness, whither I am bound, and reflect on the degradation and misery of its inhabitants, follow them into the eternal world, and forward to the great day of retribution, all my petty sufferings dwindle to a point, and I exclaim, What have I to say of trials, I, who can press to my bosom the word of God.

Lucy asked the captain of the Thaddeus if the lives of the missionaries would be in danger in the Islands. He answered that while the natives were addicted to alcohol, which resulted in an occasional “bold assault,” the only threat of which she should beware was that of poisoning. “When they conceive a dislike, no intimation is given, but by these means they secretly seize on the first opportunity to accomplish their fatal purpose.” Theft, too, he added, could be a bit of a difficulty. He arrived on one visit with twenty-four shirts and left a few weeks later with three. It is not surprising that Lucy was terrified.

We were taught that unprovoked, the natives of these islands conspired the death of the great navigator, Capt. Cook, cut off vessels, murdered crews, and chewed the flesh of their enemies as the sweetest titbit of revenge. Conversing with the captain of our vessel, a few weeks before reaching these islands, in 1820, he remarked that he must get his guns out, for it was not safe to approach these islands without being in a state of defense. ‘What,’ I replied, ‘leave us, a feeble company, in a defenseless state, among a people you cannot approach without fire-arms?’ ‘Ah,’ said he, shaking his head, ‘it is not my wish to leave you in such circumstances.’

Hawaiian missionaries
Congregationalist missionary preaching to Hawaiians

On the one hundred and fifty-eighth day, the missionaries saw the island of Hawai’i looming before them. The coastal village of Kawaihae was visible from a porthole, and Lucy watched apprehensively as a canoe of “natives with animated countenances” approached the ship. The canoe pulled alongside and the Hawaiians handed Lucy a banana. When she grabbed hold of it and tentatively passed them a biscuit in return, the natives called out, Wahine maikai, or “Good woman.” She impulsively threw them more biscuits, and when she repeated the word wahine, they shouted in delight. “Thus, after sailing eighteen thousand miles, I met, for the first time, those children of nature alone.”

Not so frightening, after all. But certainly repellent. The missionaries could not have landed in a place more unsettling, more provocative to their untried souls than the Sandwich Islands. Led to believe that they would find cannibals, sorcerers, murderers, and thieves, they must have been relieved that the heathens were only repulsive. Instead of terror, there was superiority, condescension, and ignorance.

The appearance of destitution, degradation, and barbarism, among the chattering, and almost naked savages, whose heads and feet, and much of their sunburnt swarthy skins, were bare, was appalling…Some of our number, with gushing tears, turned away from the spectacle.

heiau at top of Koko Head Ave., Kaimuki

Heiau at the top of what is now Koko Head Ave., in the Kaimuki neighborhood of Honolulu

And Why Now?

Lunch on the Mekong River, while writing One Last Look, Laos, 2010
Lunch on the Mekong River, while writing One Last Look, Laos, 2010

It is true that in the beginning, most writers are by necessity content — more than content, preoccupied — with their own stories. Some writers never outgrow this. Ideally, at a certain point, usually after a writer’s third or fourth book, and somewhat to his surprise, his own life catches up with him. There are fewer stories to tell about himself. He has exhausted his own mythology. Twenty years ago, when I finished my third novel about Hawaii, I realized, somewhat forlornly and certainly with a sense of panic, that I’d come to the end of my own particular tall tales. 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 required that I leave Hawaii, at least figuratively. It forced me into the world. I had to make things up.(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?) My new book of non-fiction, Paradise of the Pacific, a history of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Hawaiʻi, has been nominated for a National Book Award. Because of this, I have been asked — all writers are often asked — how it is that I became a writer. I used to wonder if the islands of Hawai’i had made me a writer. My first three books, whose subject is my family, are known rather dramatically as the Hawaiian Trilogy. They are taken, incorrectly, to be more memoir than fiction. Nietzsche defined truth as a mobile army of metaphors, which is a very good description of a book, fiction or otherwise.

Writing My Old Sweetheart, St. Barthʻs, 1981
Writing My Old Sweetheart, St. Barthʻs, 1981

The novelist must know everything about his characters, but choose not to tell us all that he knows. Many of the facts may be — in truth, should be — hidden. In our own lives, we cannot expect to understand one another fully, but in the novel we can attempt to rectify this mystery. The secret life of a character may or may not be visible, whereas in real life, secret lives are concealed. That is why novels comfort us —they suggest a clearer and thus more manageable race of human beings. The novelist Eudora Welty once said of her mother that she read Dickens as if she were going to elope with him, and I know that feeling (I have spent most of my life in love with the lawyer Gavin Stephens in William Faulkner’s novel Knights Gambit, and am deeply attracted to Trollope’s Irish gentleman, Phineas Finn, but that is about fantasy, not reality.

Moʻokini heiau in North Kohala, once used for human sacrifice,  with Jonathan and Tenoch, 2014
Moʻokini heiau in North Kohala, once used for human sacrifice, with Jonathan and Tenoch, 2014

While it is possible to do absolutely anything with the novel — it is one of its charms (and terrors) — the one thing that I do not want is to propagandize either for a cause or a point of view. It is in my interest — it is always in the interest of a writer — to be without an opinion at all — a position that causes me to disappoint some critics and readers. But the writer’s work is to render the world, not to alter it. Some readers of my new book of history prefer those books of mine (not only novels) in which I am more present, more exposed, and more subjective. This would indicate a less than subtle reading. In any book, whether fiction or nonfiction, the writerʻs every choice — subject, tone, language, setting, adjectives, adverbs, even punctuation — reveals all that you need to know.

The basis of almost any book is simply a story, and a story is a series of events arranged in time. A memoir, ideally, is history based on evidence. Historians deal with the character of an individual only in so far as they can deduce meaning from his actions, however tenuous the interpretation. The historian may be as much concerned with character as is the novelist, but he can only know, actually know, what exists on the surface. In the end, it is never the facts that excite me, but all that is left unexplained. It is the unspoken  that awakens my interest. In my novel One Last Look, I transformed a sister’s fervent affection for her brother into incest (like bigamy, I suspect that it was more common than we know), much to the irritation of some readers familiar with the life of Emily Eden, the nineteenth-century English blue-stocking whose letters were the provocation for the book.

What is fictitious then in the novel is not the story but the way in which thought becomes action; character becomes plot — not something particularly knowable in everyday life. Proust said that in fashioning a work of art we are by no means free — we do not choose how we shall make it — it pre-exists and therefore we are obliged, since it is both necessary and hidden, to do what we should have to do if it were a law of nature, that is to say, to discover it.
At the Kutub Minar in New Delhi, while writing One Last Look, 2003
At the Kutub Minar in New Delhi, while writing One Last Look, 2003
Teaching a seminar on myths, fairy tales, and legends at Princeton, 2013
Teaching a seminar on myths, fairy tales, and legends at Princeton, 2013
Hiking with W. in Kohala, while writing Paradise of the Pacific, 2014
Hiking with W. in Kohala, while writing Paradise of the Pacific, 2014

The Invisible Someone

Tattooed chief in feather cape and helmet, 1838

William Chillingworthʻs book, ʻIo Lani, The Hawaiian Hawk, was published in 2014, and this winter won an award for the best photography book of the year from the association of Hawaiian book publishers. Williamʻs maternal ancestors were birdcatchers in the district of Kamaeʻe, north of Hilo on the Big Island.  The feathers of certain birds, many of which subsequently became extinct, were used to make the ravishing red, yellow, green, and black capes worn by the chiefs, as well as helmets, leis worn on the head and around the neck, effigies of gods, and the royal staffs known as kahili. The now-extinct mamo, pictured below, was perhaps the most highly prized of all the birds, perhaps because they were particularly difficult to catch. Found only on the island of Hawaiʻi, they were first recorded by Captain Clerke of Cookʻs third voyage in 1779. Their few yellow feathers were more vivid than those of other birds. A cape belonging to King Kamehameha I, which is now in the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, was made of 450,00 feathers, 80,000 of which were mamo feathers. As their population diminished, there was a kapu on the birds, but by the turn of the last century, the mamo had been hunted out of existence.

Mamo (Drepanis pacifica)

The following is from an essay by the Hawaiian cultural anthropologist Nathan Napoka of Maui, written for W.ʻs book. This quote from the historian Kepelino (1859) describes the different ways to catch a Hawaiian hawk, or ʻio, whose feathers were not commonly used in decoration or clothing:

There are two methods of catching the ʻio. The first involved the use of a hapapa, a long stick with a shorter stick tied to it in the form of a cross. The catcher would tie a small live bird or a captive ʻio just below the intersection of the sticks. This bait, along with the skilled ʻio call of the bird catcher, summoned the ʻio from its lofty heights. “They…hurry like human beings to save the one who is in distress. Because the Io is a bird who loves its fellow Io when in distress of when taken captive. If a live Io is tied with a cord, it struggles and jerks to and fro and cries ʻfiro.ʻ The others hear the cry of the Io that is tied up; they fly hither to rescue him. If the cord is not well tied, the captive Io will escape with the aid of its rescuers. If a man is careless or foolish he will be badly injured by the Io, as it is a bird that flies into a rage when a man comes too close. Therefore, in order to kill an Io, he should run up with a stick in hand as soon as it swoops down upon the birds tied to the hapapa and thrust it in front of the Io. It will grasp the stick with its talons, then the bird catcher twists the stick around rapidly, thus breaking its legs. And so on.

Feather cloak
Feather helmet, or mahiole, constructed on a wickerwork frame

perched 'io 2

The Hawaiian hawk (Buteo solitarius), which closely resembles the Swainsonʻs hawk and the short-tailed hawk (Buteo brachyurus) found in South America, arrived in the Islands tens of thousands of years ago, presumably blown off course during its annual migration south along the coast of what would one day be California and Mexico. In order to reach the southeastern-most islands in the Hawaiian archipelago, the lost birds would have had to fly for seven or eight days before at last reaching landfall.

North Kohala


The biologist John Culliney writes:

Having established itself across the main islands of Hawaiʻi…before the arrival of human beings, the adaptable ʻio weathered the onslaught of environmental change that began with the expansion of the early Hawaiians [in the ninth century A.D.]. Within a few centuries, lowland forests were greatly altered and diminished as growing human populations burned wide areas for…agriculture. Many bird species became extinct, replaced by new kinds of prey that arrived with the Polynesian canoes…For a time, ʻio populations thrived in the increasingly turbulent ecological disruption brought by the human pioneers, and the Hawaiians took significant notice of these fierce birds that soared with such a powerful presence on the trade winds.

With the establishment of the Hawaiian kingdom in the late eighteenth century and the rise of the Kamehameha dynasty, the ʻio became the bird of kings; a royal totem of enormous power and majesty.

hawk mono
A monotype of the ʻIo made by W.

The high priest of the sacred ʻIo cult lived in the valley in North Kohala where Kamehameha I was first hidden as a child from the rivalrous chiefs who wished to kill him. One of the high priestʻs descendants, Montano, remembered that “the priesthood of Iolani was the highest priesthood of the islands…Neither chieftains nor priests dared utter the word Io…Io is the Holy Spirit, the invisible someone. There was no human sacrifice on this altar…The people by this religious order did believe, however, in stoning a wrongdoer to death. The priests of Io were feared and respected…Io to us is Jehovah to other peoples.”

The ʻio was once on the list of endangered species — they are killed by hunters, poison, dogs, cats, the mongoose, starvation, and the mysterious, at least to me, “actions of introduced ungulates” — but is no longer considered a threatened bird. They are raucous during the breeding season in the spring, when they make a piercing cry, much like their name in Hawaiian. They customarily have a clutch (such a good word) of one egg. Should you be on the watch for an ʻio, mature birds have yellow legs, while the legs of juveniles are fittingly greenish. (An ungulate is a large mammal who may be classified as odd-toed, that is, horses and rhinos, or even-toed, such as cattle, pigs, giraffes, and camels, the latter two yet to be seen in the Islands, at least outside the melancholy zoo in Honolulu.)

theblogazine-kiki-smith-20121001-3 (1)
Portrait of SM with an owl, or pueo, by Kiki Smith

In a survey made by the United States government in 2007, there were perhaps three thousand ʻio living on the Big Island, primarily in the district of Kohala, with a range of 2,372 square miles (58% of the island).There have been occasional sightings of the bird over the last thirty years on Kauaʻi, Oʻahu, and Maui.

Looking south into Pololu Valley

io eye 2 (1)

io hiwa

wsc puu pili

The above photographs of the ʻio and of Kohala were taken over the last two years by William S. Chillingworth. There are more of his photographs on the website wschillingworth.com.

“The Genius, Temper, Disposition and Number of the Natives,” Part I

“The Discovery,” painting by Horatio Nelson Poole, ca. 1920
“The Discovery,” painting by Horatio Nelson Poole, ca. 1920

Born in 1728, James Cook was the son of a Yorkshire day-laborer. His quickness and intelligence were evident in childhood, and one of his father’s employers arranged for him to go to school (his disappointed father had hoped that he would become a shopkeeper). He had a passion for the sea and was apprenticed on a coal ship in the North Sea, which was considered hard training for any man. He later volunteered in the Seven Years’ War, and within a month’s time, was promoted to master’s mate. Cook took part in the survey of the St. Lawrence River and parts of the Newfoundland and Nova Scotia coasts, which earned him distinction as a skilled marine surveyor, and in 1766, when he witnessed an eclipse of the sun, his observations were sent to London, where he became known at the Royal Society and the Admiralty as an astute observer, and even-tempered commander of men. His first voyage to the Pacific in 1768 was to observe the Transit of Venus from the vantage point of Tahiti, and to verify the existence of the continent of Australia.

Captain James Cook, painting by John Webber, ca. 1780, Museum of N ew Z ealand
Captain James Cook, painting by John Webber, ca. 1780, Museum of New Zealand

Cook’s confidential charge from the Admiralty in 1768 had been to observe “with accuracy the Situation of such Islands as you may discover in the Course of your Voyage that have not hitherto been discover’d by any Europeans and take possession for His Majesty and make Surveys and Draughts of such of them as may appear to be of Consequence…You are likewise to observe the Genius, Temper, Disposition and Number of the Natives…the Beasts and Fowls that inhabit or frequent it, the fishes that are to be found in the Rivers or upon the coast and in what Plenty.”

The Admiralty particularly wished Cook to find a passage from the northwest coast of America east to the Atlantic Ocean. Sailing to Polynesia for the third time in 1776, Cook stopped at Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) and New Zealand, storing supplies of wild celery and scurvy grass, before continuing to Tonga and the Society Islands, where he was cured of a bad attack of rheumatism (he was in his early forties) by being punched and squeezed from head to foot by native healers. Before leaving Tahiti in September 1777, bound for North America, Cook inquired if the natives knew of any land or islands to the north or northwest, and they said that they knew of none.

Detail of “ A God Appears,” painting by Eugene S avage, 1940
Detail from“ A God Appears,” painting by Eugene Savage, 1940

Four months later, on the 18th of January, 1778, Cook sighted an island in the North Pacific,  O‘ahu, and shortly after, the island of Kaua‘i. At sunrise the next day, O‘ahu was several leagues to the east, and Cook bore north, discovering yet a third island, Ni‘ihau (he gave to his discovery the name Sandwich Islands, after his patron, the Earl of Sandwich, First Lord of the Admiralty). Cook saw several villages on the larger island of Kaua‘i, both along the beach and on the hillsides, but the wind prevented the ships from approaching the island that Cook would later call “Atooi.” The ships stood off and on during the night, tacking along the southeastern coast of the island, nearing land the following day, when canoes of curious natives came to the ships. Cook wrote in his journal:

It required but very little address to get them to come along side, but we could not prevail upon any one to come on board; they exchanged a few fish they had in the Canoes for any thing we offered them, but valued nails, or iron above every other thing; the only weapons they had were a few stones in some of the Canoes and these they threw overboard when they found they were not wanted. Seeing no signs of an anchoring place at this part of the island, I boar (sic) up for the lee side, and ranged the SE side at the distance of half a league from the shore. As soon as we made sail the Canoes left us, but others came off from the shore and brought with them roasting pigs and some very fine Potatoes…several small pigs were got for a sixpeny (sic) nail or two apiece, so that we again found our selves in the land of plenty…

Cook was still unable to anchor the following day, when natives again left the beach in canoes and paddled to the ships, which they boarded with less fear than they had shown the previous day. “One asked another,” wrote the historian David Malo, ʻWhat are those branching things?ʻ and the other answered, ‘They are trees moving about on the sea,ʻ…The excitement became more intense, and louder grew the shouting.”

Detail of “The Discovery,” painting by Arman Manookian, 1928
Detail from “The Discovery,” oil painting by Arman Manookian, 1928

At the first sight of the mysterious ships, some of the chiefs had been eager to kill the strangers before running the ships ashore for plunder. Other chiefs, recalling the legend of Lono, the harvest god who had promised to return one day to the Islands, wished to humor them, and gave them gifts of pigs and bananas. The chiefs met in counsel, where after some dissension it was decided to send yet more gifts. John Rickman, second lieutenant on the Discovery, wrote in Journal of Captain Cook’s Last Voyage to the Pacific Ocean (1781) that, “This diffused a joy among the mariners that is not easy to be expressed. Fresh provisions and kind females are the sailors sole delight; and when in possession of them, past hardships are instantly forgotten; even those whom the scurvy had attacked, and had rendered pale and lifeless as ghosts, brightened upon this occasion, and for the moment appeared alert.”

Among the women taken to the ships was Lelemahoalani, the daughter of the high chiefess of Kaua’i, who, it is claimed by David Malo, spent the night with Cook, who was more and more thought to be the avatar of the benign god Lono: “And Lono slept with that woman, and the Kauai women prostituted themselves to the foreigners for iron.” If it is true, Cook, who was said to be abstemious regarding alcohol and women, consorted that first night in Waimea with a pagan princess (Judge Fornander wrote in 1870 that the last generation of Hawaiians whom he interviewed openly claimed that Lelemahoalani slept that night with Lono — that is, with James Cook).

King Kalaniopuʻu greeting Captain Cook in Kealakekua Bay, watercolor by John Webber, 1784

Cook was at first, and perhaps always, unaware that the Hawaiians saw him as the god Lono. David Samwell, surgeon on board the Discovery, quickly perceived the difficulties inherent in deciphering and understanding the language of the Hawaiians, both symbolic and literal, as well as the behavior of a people so profoundly unknown to them, despite Cookʻs somewhat vainglorious belief that he understood the Indians, as he called them, very well. Samwell wrote that, “There is not much dependence to be placed upon these Constructions that we put upon Signs and Words which we understand but very little of, & at best can only give a probably Guess at their Meaning.”

Certain similarities (not unlike the coincidences and seeming fulfillments of prophecies that marked the arrival of Herman Cortes in Mexico in 1519) caused the Hawaiians to believe that Cook was the godʻs incarnation — Cook appeared at the time of Lonoʻs Makahiki festival and the godʻs traditional symbol, a white length of kapa wrapped around a wooden crossbar, was very like the sails of Cookʻs ships. Some historians speculate that a mysterious voyager in the distant past had arrived in the Islands at the same time of year, carrying with him tributary offerings and new gods. The stranger introduced games, athletic competitions, and a system of annual taxation in which much wealth was acquired by the god during his counterclockwise circuit of the island before he departed for Kahiki, the inclusive name of all distant places from Easter Island to Malaysia, with the promise to return someday.