The Chief Gets No Rest

Nāhiʻenaʻena as a child, oil painting by Robert Dampier, ca. 1825

One of the figures in my new book, Paradise of the Pacific: Approaching Hawaiʻi, which will be published next Tuesday by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, is Nāhiʻenaʻena (1815-1836), the daughter of Kamehameha I and his wife, Keōpūolani, whose forebears rendered her the highest-ranking woman in the Islands. Little has been written of Nāhiʻenaʻena, yet she is an obvious metaphor for the impossible position in which many Hawaiians suddenly found themselves in 1820, with the arrival of Congregationalist missionaries from New England. As I was writing the book, I regretted that I had not made Nāhiʻenaʻena my subject. I would like to write a book about her now.

Her mother, Keōpūolani, was so sacred that her husband, King Kamehameha, had to remove his clothes in her presence. Nāhiʻenaʻenaʻs older brother, Liholiho, succeeded King Kamehameha at his death in 1819, and her second brother, Kauikeaouli, who had been raised with her in their motherʻs compound, an unusual exception to the customary practice of giving away high-ranking children to relatives or friends, became Kamehameha III in 1824 after Liholihoʻs shocking death in London from measles.

There had been rumors for some time among the missionaries and the foreign traders and ship masters in Honolulu that the relationship between Kauikeaouli and Nāhiʻenaʻena was incestuous. The chiefs knew, of course, that the missionaries were aghast at the possibility, and that marriage between the two was not only a most grievous sin, but a deliberate refutation of their teachings. By 1825, the Hawaiians had already begun to grow weary and resentful of the Missionʻs many rules, among them the prohibition of singing, gambling, dancing hula, and surfing. The young princess, caught between the rituals and beliefs of her Polynesian heritage and the strict orthodoxy of her pious Christian teachers, wrote in a letter to a missionary wife, “One day my thoughts are fixed on God; another day I am ensnared; and thus it is continually.” A Tahitian convert named Toteta was sent by the missionaries to live with her, in the hope that he would encourage her conversion, and he kept a diary on their behalf in which he noted the girlʻs ambivalence and confusion: “The chief gets no rest.” Her growing interest in the Christian god worried her court and her noble advisers urged her to hold to the life of her ancestors. They were alarmed when she suddenly announced that those men and women who did not read hymns and study the Bible would no longer be allowed to enter her house. The Lahaina missionary William Richards was surprised one midnight by the arrival of the agitated princess who asked for the loan of a lamp, in order to chase some wicked people from a nearby church. When Richards later wondered who had been in the church at midnight, and how the princess had come to know, he was told that it had become her habit to visit the church alone at night to pray.

Nāhi’ena’ena, fatally caught between the new religion and the old pagan gods (the translation of her name is “Fires that Rage”) was the only female ali’i known to have possessed a feather pā’u, or skirt, but she refused to wear it, as it left her breasts bare, which was thought by the missionaries to be licentious and thus shameful. The feather garment, once a symbol of the gods, and considered so valuable that it had been the finest object a Hawaiian king could offer in tribute to white foreigners, had become a distasteful reminder of the past. The Rev. Charles Stewart described a feast held to honor Kauikeaouli and his sister:

Missionaries preaching to Hawaiians, lithograph from a drawing by Rev. William Ellis, 1820

This article [the feather pāʻu], nine yards long and one yard wide, was made at great expense of time and labour…and designed to be worn by the princess as a pau…with the wreaths for the head and neck necessary to form the complete ancient costume of a princess…but as it was necessary…that she should be naked to the waist, nothing could induce her to consent. To escape importunity, she fled to the Mission House early in the morning. She wept so as scarcely to be pacified by us, and returned to the chiefs only in time to take her seat, and have it thrown carelessly about her over her European dress, with one end cast across the arm of the sofa.

Liholiho, Kamehameha II, older brother of Kauikeaouli and Nāhiʻenaʻena, who died in London of measles in 1824, lithograph after watercolor by John Hayter, Hawaiʻi State Archives

Kauikeaouli’s determination to marry his sister did not lessen with time, and her hesitance to marry him was a torment to him. In late July 1836, however, Nāhi’ena’ena and Kauikeaouli had sexual intercourse in the presence of the high chiefs, as was traditional, to signify their union (there were many who believed that they had been sleeping together since they were seven and eight years old respectively). A stunned William Richards sent her a message when he received the news, reminding her of the wishes of her late mother, and of her request that her daughter be a good Christian. Although his letter, delivered to the princess while she sat drinking and dancing with her attendants, caused her much distress, she wrote to Richards that she wished never to see him again. She admitted that she had behaved in a shameless manner and had destroyed her soul, but she refused to repent. Richards threatened to excommunicate her, and she later met with him in Lahaina, where she swore to return to Christian ways. His threat of excommunication, which had alarmed her, was dropped, and she felt hopeful in her remorse. The wary missionaries decided that she should formally marry as quickly as possible a fourteen-year-old Kona chief, and she agreed, despite her recent ceremony of union with the king. She was married to the boy in a Christian rite performed by Richards, and in a surprising betrayal, was immediately excommunicated.

Queen Kamamalu, wife and half-sister of Liholiho, who died along with her husband in London of measles, colored lithograph from a watercolor by John Hayter, London, 1824

The following year, Nāhi’ena’ena gave birth to the king’s child, but the infant lived only a few hours. She herself fell gravely ill (it was thought by the haole doctors who treated her that she had imprudently taken a cold bath shortly after giving birth), and died three months later. Mrs. Judd, the wife of Dr. Gerritt Judd, was with her when she died and wrote that the young princess showed a deep agony over her past behavior. “Can there be hope for one who has sinned as I have?” (As there are no other written accounts of her death, it is not possible to know if Mrs. Judd is telling the truth.)

After her death, Kauikeaouli built a large stone house on the Lahaina waterfront, the top floor of which he made into a mausoleum in honor of his mother, and his sister and their child. Nāhi’ena’ena’s coffin, covered in a cloth of heavy red velvet, rested on a large bed in the center of the room, surrounded by her hereditary kāhili, or feather staffs. Along one wall, behind glass, were her clothes — silk and cambric gowns, satin slippers, a black lace shawl, and a white taffeta cape, although not her feather pā’u. For years, the bereft king took friends and visitors to see her coffin, and the little display of her belongings.

“I Want To Be At Waikiki With You, My Little Chickadee”

Sheet music for ʻHula Blues,ʻ 1919, with an oddly Mt. Fuji-like mountain complete with rising sun
Sheet music, 1919, with an oddly Mt. Fuji-like mountain, complete with rising sun

When I was a child, my parents and most of their friends preferred swimming in a chlorinated pool to the ocean, and traveled to San Francisco sooner than to Hanalei. The study of island culture, and the awareness of a specific and important history were to come in the late Seventies, to the point that many activists today demand that Hawaiʻi be granted status as a sovereign nation. Many people, of all races, now learn to speak Hawaiian, and study hula with a traditional kumu hula (teacher), give luaus for babies, build traditional outrigger canoes by hand, sew  Hawaiian quilts (in the past, the patterns came to women in dreams). Fifty years ago, however, Hawaiiana was not yet a business. Stores did not possess sections given to calendars of handsome beach boys, cookbooks with imaginative breadfruit recipes, and illustrated anthologies of ritual chants. Although the interest in all things thought to be authentically Hawaiian is sometimes tinged with postmodern rhetoric or New Age philosophy, the new scholarship and the publication of many good books, has occasioned a long overdue awareness of a history that came close to disappearing.

Although the Hawaiians were admired and even idealized in my childhood, there was little interest in Hawaiian culture or history. We learned to dance the hula, but it was always a hapa haole (half white) hula, like ‘My Little Grass Shack’ or ‘Lovely Hula Hands.’ The music that was popular throughout the Fifties came to be known as nightclub hula, with songs like, “I Want to Be At Waikiki With You, My Little Chickadee,” and later, the egregious and smarmy Don Ho, with his own particular version of Hawaiian music, aimed to please tourists.

When I was a child, a Hawaiian woman named Alice Kema looked after us. At my insistence, she taught me the Hawaiian words to old traditional songs (oddly enough, I did not know their meaning until much later, having learned the lyrics and chants by rote). She told me angrily — I could not tell: was she angry with Hawaiians or was she angry with me? — that the Hawaiian people had turned away from everything; the beautiful as well as the practical. Her great grandfather had been interpreter of omens for a chief of Oʻahu, but her children could not speak Hawaiian. She was distressed that many of the old secrets had been lost — the location of the apeʻape herb found only in the damp mountain gullies of east Maui, or the recipe for the love potion made from the last remaining stalks of red sugarcane. (Recently, to my surprise and delight, I saw several stalks of red cane growing in a parking lot in Kamuela on the Big Island, and I wished that Alice Kema were still alive so that I could show them to her.) She told me that there were very few people left who could speak with any certainty about the past, and that soon there would be no one. She minded deeply. There would be no one left to dance the old hulas; no one who would remember the meanings of the chants.

Sombre-looking dancers, dressed by missionaries
Sombre-looking dancers, dressed by missionaries

 In the Twenties, a dyspeptic traveler named Mrs. Gerrould wrote:

A few aged men and women can still sing and dance in traditional fashion, but there is no one to whom they can pass on the words of the songs or the motions of the dance. The new songs are different — lyrical at best, never epic, and the new dances might delight a cabaret, if any cabaret could conceivably be allowed to present them. The old hulas were different, were stately and, dare I say, a little tiresome, with their monotonous swaying and arm gestures repeated a thousand times. Only a very old person now can dance in the earlier fashion; you could easily count up the Hawaiians who know the meles [songs]; and there is just one man, I believe, left on Oahu, if indeed he is still living, who can play the nose flute as it should be played, to the excruciation of every nerve in a Caucasian body. I have never, I am sorry to say, heard anyone in Hawaii play a nose flute.

The dancer Meymo Ululani Holt, featured dancer in the Lexington Hotelʻs ʻHawaiian Roomʻ in New York, 1938. She was from a prominent hapa haole (part Caucasian) Honolulu family and attended the Punahou School. She was said to be treated as a ʻminor celebrityʻ on the mainland.
Meymo Ululani Holt, featured dancer in the Lexington Hotelʻs Hawaiian Room in New York, 1938. She was from a prominent Honolulu family and attended the Punahou School. She was said, with some condescension, to be treated as a ʻminor celebrityʻ on the mainland.
Illustration of sailors watching hula girls, Honolulu, 1845
Illustration of sailors watching bare-breasted dancers, Honolulu, 1845
Detail from oil painting ʻPomp and Circumstanceʻ by Eugene Savage, 1940, collection of Matson Lines Shipping
Detail from oil painting ʻPomp and Circumstanceʻ by Eugene Savage,
1940, collection of Matson Lines Shipping

Mrs. Gerrould was wrong. We know from journals and letters (those of Archibald Menzies, who sailed with Vancouver; the French artist Jacques Arago; the Reverend Charles Stewart; and Mark Twain, among others) that the hula was anything but monotonous, and was a sight inducing much delight,  if not sexual longing. It did not inhibit admiration that until the restrictions imposed by the missionaries, the dancers were nude but for their kapa skirts (the grass skirts that we know from nightclubs, movies, and graphic art were introduced much later by people from the Gilbert Islands).

When I left the Islands as a young woman, my Hawaiian life became a dream of longing, particularly a longing for the ocean. The Atlantic Ocean could not compare to the Pacific, although the Mediterranean and the Adriatic, the Aegean, the Sea of Cortes and the Indian Ocean were seductive substitutes. The sea became a matter of summer holidays, and resorts out of season. Never the same, and I was not the same for it. To my regret — what to do?— I find that I am less courageous in the ocean than I once was, and I swim less far. I no longer swim alone at night.  I used to think that it was a sign of growing wisdom, but in truth it is simply a sign of my fading strength. Iʻd like my body to be given to the sea when I am dead, a gesture that is almost impossible these days for reasons of public health and safety, but I am in the oceanʻs debt — it has given me the books.

One Seed Every 30,000 Years

This article appeared on the Op-Ed page of the Los Angeles Times last Sunday:

Each year, I await with dread the federal governmentʻs catalog of the endangered species under imminent threat in the Hawaiian Islands, where I was raised and where I live.

The endangered Hibiscus waimeae, or Kokiʻo keʻokeʻo, found in only two places on the island of Kauaʻi
The endangered Hibiscus waimeae, or Kokiʻo keʻokeʻo, found in two places on the island of Kauaʻi

On its 2015 list, the Fish and Wildlife Office included the ‘ea, or hawksbill turtle, as well as the green turtle, Ridley sea turtle, and leatherback turtle. Four mammals are considered endangered — the Hawaiian hoary bat; the kohola, or humpback whale; the sperm whale; and the endemic Hawaiian monk seal. Among the thirty-four endangered birds are the Hawaiian goose, or nēnē; the Maui parrotbill; the Nihoa millerbird; the red- legged stilt; and the iʻo, or Hawaiian hawk. There were once 99 species of land snails in the Islands; of the 25 that have survived, 9 are under threat of extinction. Fifteen arthropods, including the sphinx moth and the oceanic damselfly, are listed. Among the endangered plants are a white hibiscus found only in Wailau Valley on Molokaʻi; the lovely Hawaiian gardenia or naʻu (although now widely cultivated in an effort to save it, there are only two or three plants remaining in the wild), the mountain silversword of Mauna Loa; the loʻulu, or Pritchardia palm; and one small yellow campanula (Brighamia insignis) last seen on a cliff on the Na Pali coast of Kauaʻi.

Sandwich rail (Porzana sandwichensis), or flightless Hawaiian crake, painted by William Ellis on Captain James Cookʻs third voyage of discovery (1776-78), last seen in 1884.
The Sandwich rail (Porzana sandwichensis), or flightless Hawaiian crake, painted by William Ellis on Captain James Cookʻs third voyage of discovery (1776-78), was last seen in 1884.

There is a certain irony that such adaptive and resilient species as those indigenous (native, but occurring elsewhere) and endemic (occurring nowhere else in the world) to the Hawaiian Islands should be allowed to disappear from the planet. The chance of any species reaching and then surviving on an island as distant as one of the Hawaiian chain is infinitesimal, but despite the extraordinary odds, species found their way ashore, carried by the tide or blown by trade winds; inside birds or in their feathers; in the branches of trees; and in the jetsam of sunken ships. It is thought that such an event occurred only three hundred times in the history of the archipelago, meaning that on average, if one takes 70 million years as the life of the Islands, one seed or sapling was successfully introduced every 20,000 to 30,000 years. Many of those original species have now disappeared. According to the Bernice P. Bishop Museum, 271 species of all indigenous and endemic flora and fauna (introduced by various means) have become extinct in the last two hundred years.

Feather lei, worn around the head or neck, watercolor by Sarah Stone, 18, private collection
Feather lei, worn around the head or neck, watercolor by Sarah Stone, 1783, private collection

Although the decimation of species is due to commercialization, the loss of forests, hunting, the growth of population, pervasive invasive fauna, and now global warming, it began with the first voyagers from Polynesia in the seventh century A.D., who brought to the Islands their own plants and animals, including pigs, chickens, and dogs, which ensured the survival of the settlers, but threatened those native species which were innocent of predators. In the early nineteenth-century, rapacious Hawaiian chiefs were responsible for the disappearance of vast sandalwood forests, the fragrant wood sought by the Chinese for incense, and for the loss of thousands of native birds killed to make the yellow, red, and green feather capes, lei, and helmets of the nobility. Hawaiʻiʻs first king, Kamehameha I, must be held accountable for some of the early loss of plants, thanks to the kapu he placed on the cattle given him in 1793 by Captain George Vancouver. The cattle, and later goats, were allowed to roam wild in the uplands, where they destroyed the delicate ferns, vines, trees, and grasses that had provided generations of Hawaiians with food, fishing lines, nets, vegetable dyes, timber, medicine, barkcloth, and thatch for their houses. European contact, which began in 1778 with the discovery of the Islands by Captain James Cook, brought disease and the further destruction of ecosystems.

IMG_460078027Feather capes, watercolors by Sarah Stone, 1783

Later in the nineteenth century, the spread of sugar plantations ensured that additional acres of native grasslands and forests, and the creatures who lived in them, many of them natural pollinators, were heedlessly destroyed. Large cattle ranches, particularly on the Big Island, meant that the forests and valleys that were once home to numerous species were turned into grazing land.

The ʻio, or Hawaiian hawk, photograph by W. S. Chillingworth, 2014
The ʻio, or Hawaiian hawk, photograph by W. S. Chillingworth, 2015

Despite its rank as the state with the highest number of endangered or threatened species, Hawaiʻi receives less than 5% of the funding allotted by the federal government’s endangered species program — $1.5 million in 2013, out of $32 million given to twenty states, a third of which went to buy 635 acres of forested land on Oʻahu, while the rest was given to Kauaʻi to plan habitats for birds. Private landowners, community watch groups, conservation groups, local government agencies, and even schoolchildren are increasingly aware of the great loss that is underway, but for many species, it will be too late. Many people despair that there is not enough compassion, not enough will, not enough time or money to go around. Is the disappearance of the Hawaiian cave wolf spider, they ask, or the Hibiscadelphus distans, one of the worldʻs rarest trees, that important to most people? Especially in comparison to human lives? History, it appears, indicates that the human ones will be able to survive without honeycreepers and monk seals, but that is a solipsistic view. If the wolf spider is in trouble, we are in trouble, too.

What Will She Do?

Princess Kaiulani, the daughter of Archibald Cleghorn and Princess Miriam Likelike
Princess Kaʻiulani, the daughter of Archibald Cleghorn and Princess Miriam Likelike, and heir to the kingdom of Hawaiʻi. She died when she was twenty-three years old.

I begin with a character. As you know, there are many kinds of characters — Henry James’s peripheral but all the same essential character who observes the narrative with the same mystification and curiosity as does the reader; Joan Didion’s ironical and vaguely menacing character, sometimes even the writer Joan Didion herself, who tells you the plot in the first paragraph, and then fills in the blanks; Stendhal’s historical figure, who is a creature both of his own ambition and the strivings of history. The character with whom I begin is a solitary figure, and always a woman (at least so far). But what is it that am I to do with her? Better still, what is it that she will do? If I trust her, she will tell me. Studying her with careful attention, while all the time giving her an inordinate freedom, she will reveal herself to me. How she looks and speaks and thinks; what she is wearing when she is sleeping in the room that I have made for her. There is in her story a certain inevitability, which often surprises and confounds me.

Dr. Gerrit Judd of the Second Company of missionaries, with Prince Lot and Prince Lunalilo, on their trip around the world
Dr. Gerrit Judd of the Second Company of missionaries, with the young Prince Lot (left) and Prince Alexander Lunalilo, on their trip abroad, Paris, 1849

My book In the Cut arrived by way of Raymond Chandler and Sherlock Holmes. While I was writing the last Hawaiian novel, I read every mystery and thriller I could find —- books about detectives in Bombay and judges in Stockholm, as well as the American classics of the first half of the twentieth century that came to be known as Noir. I wanted to take the traditional American crime story, and to turn it upside down. I wanted my crime fighter, my dissolute, tired, cynical detective who is typical of the genre, to be a woman. And I wanted my female character to survive at the end of the book. As it turned out, the detective in In the Cut is not a woman, and the heroine does not survive, but I did not know that then. I understood that in order to write the book, I would have to do research, something I had never done before in writing fiction. My imagination is vivid, but I would need facts. I would even need impressions. While it is possible to do absolutely anything with the novel — it is one of its charms (and terrors) — the one thing that I did not want to do was to propagandize either for a cause or a point of view. It was in my interest — it is always in the interest of a writer — to be without an opinion at all — a position that later was to cause me to disappoint some critics and readers. But the writer’s work is to render the world, not to alter it. I never intended when I began writing, nor in truth throughout the long two years it took me to finish the book, that In the Cut would be narrated by a dead woman. When I came to write the end of the book, there was no other possible resolution than her horrible death; and once I accepted this, I was bereft. I tried later, when writing the second and third drafts, to change the book so that the story is told by Franny as she is dying, when she would at last understand what had happened to her, but it would not do. In this kind of detective story, the heroine must be as innocent of the (fictional) facts as is the reader, until the end, when all that is mysterious and inexplicable is made clear.

Lydia Kamakaeha Paki, the future ueen Liliuokalani in her youth. Honolulu, Hawaii, 1850s
Lydia Kamakaeha Paki, the future Queen Liliʻuokalani, Honolulu, circa 1850

When I began to write my new book, Paradise of the Pacific, which will be published in August, I again began with a heroine, the brilliant, cunning, and willful Kaʻahumanu. At first, I did not know what to do with her. Her story has been told many times. As I was not writing a novel, I was not able to invent her, or even to imagine her. I did not want to write a book in which I attributed words and thoughts to the characters, or even to attach adjectives to nouns: “Kʻaahumanu, bored and irritable inside the airless and dark grass house in which she was ritually confined during her menstrual period, wondered restlessly if the high surf (she could hear the waves breaking on Kauhola Point at the bottom of the kingʻs large compound) would continue through the week, when she would be at last cleansed of her defilement.” Many writers do assume the point of view of historical characters, but I dislike it when they do, and tend to put away their books.

By the roadside, Puna, 1895
A race dispossessed, sitting by the roadside, Puna, 1895
Kauikeaouli, the future Kamehameha III, oil painting by John Hayter, 1824
Kauikeaouli, Kamehameha III, oil painting by John Hayter, 1824

In order to find Kaʻahumanu and to keep a clear head, without censure or adulation, I began to read. I did not stop reading for two years. In the end, I had thousands of pages of notes, collected from journals, memoirs, newspapers, gossip sheets, histories, songs, research papers, archaeological surveys, monographs, oral histories, church records. I knew that I was ready to stop reading, which is always difficult for me, and to begin writing, which is even more difficult, when I began to dream of Kaʻahumanu.

As I wrote the new book, my love affair with the great queen, as love affairs tend to do over time, began to include other people — Kamehameha, Lucy Thurston, Liholiho, Dr. Judd, Kauikeaouli, Hiram Bingham, Kaumualiʻi of Kauaʻi, and George Vancouver, among many others — and, to my relief, the numerous characters began to insist on having their own way. This happens, of course, in writing history, as one is expected, if not required to adhere to the facts, but I was interested to discover that in all that is available to the writer of history, certain events, certain statements, certain actions force themselves to the front, insisting upon precedence and illumination, and requiring not only your attention, but your use of them. Given Kaʻahumanuʻs guile, I should not have been surprised.

rchibald Cleghorn at his home, Ainahau, in Waikīkī (now the site of the Princess Kaiulani Hotel). Kaʻiulani is on the right. Wʻs great grandmother, Rose, is sitting to the left, a baby in her lap.
Archibald Cleghorn at his home, Ainahau, in Waikīkī (now the site of the Princess Kaiulani Hotel). Kaʻiulani is on the right. Wʻs great grandmother, Rose, is sitting to the left, a baby in her lap.


“Sprightly, and beautiful for a Polynesian” (Part III)

 Liholiho, Kamehameha II, lithograph after a watercolor by John H ayter, painted in London shortly before the kingʻs death from measles, 1824

Liholiho, Kamehameha II, lithograph after a watercolor by John Hayter, painted in London shortly before the kingʻs death from measles, 1824

In the summer of 1821, King Liholiho sailed from Honolulu in a state of drunkenness to visit the windward side of the island. Once at sea, however, he ordered his captain to take the small and crowded boat across the dangerous channel to Kaua’i, arriving after a night of high seas at Waimea, the village where Captain Cook had first landed more than forty years earlier.

The Kaua’i chiefs were not surprised to see Liholiho. They were well aware of his late father’s long desire to conquer the island, the only kingdom to remain independent through generations of warfare, and there had been reports that Liholiho and his chiefs had set out on other occasions for Kaua’i, without ever making it across the channel. Ten years earlier, at the instigation of foreign merchants who wished to increase trade between the islands, the ali’i nui of Kaua’i, Kaumuali’i, and Kamehameha had at last come to an agreement in which the Kaua’i king relinquished his sovereignty, paying a yearly tribute of kapa, fruit, hogs, and calabashes in return for retaining control of the island. As a vassal state, Kaua’i no longer presented a military threat to the unified kingdom that Liholiho had inherited from his father.

Mahiole, or feather helmet belonging to King Kaumualiʻi of Kauaʻi, 1899, Bernice P. Bishop Museum
Mahiole or feather helmet belonging to Kaumualiʻi, 1899, Bernice P. Bishop Museum

As the king arrived without cannon or soldiers, but, like the missionaries, with his wives, he was welcomed by Kaumuali’i, who immediately sent lele, or messengers, to reassure the chiefs of O’ahu that the king had arrived safely. Kaumuali’i, confident that his small kingdom was in no danger, sought to honor Liholiho and his entourage by conducting them on a six-week-long progress around the island. One afternoon, Liholiho announced that he wished to repay the king’s generosity and invited Kaumuali’i on board his yacht, secretly giving orders to sail. When Kaumuali’i realized that he had been tricked, he shouted to his men on shore. His chiefs chased after the schooner in canoes, but lost sight of the darkened boat in the night, and Kaumuali’i was taken as an honored prisoner to O’ahu.

Historians question whether Ka’ahumanu was an accomplice in the abduction of Kaumuali’i, and whether she had deliberately allowed Liholiho out of her keeping. She may have been distracted by the completion of her new two-story frame house near Honolulu harbor, furnished in the Western style with two doors, chandeliers, mahogany tables, and Chinese sofas of embroidered silk. The house remained empty, however, when the queen suddenly moved to the north shore, announcing that she would remain there for several months.

View of H onolulu, watercolor over pencil by George H enry Burgess, 1867, H onolulu Academy of Art
View of Honolulu, looking toward Manoa and Nu’uanu, watercolor over pencil by George Henry Burgess, 1867, Honolulu Academy of Art

Kaʻahumanu returned unexpectedly to Honolulu with the arrival of Liholiho and his prisoner, and three days later, while accompanying Kaumuali’i on a visit to Hiram and Sibyl Bingham, she demanded that he marry her. The forty-three-year-old king, a man known to be mild in temper and happy in his marriage to the beautiful high chiefess Kapule, had no choice but to agree. Kaumuali’i and Ka’ahumanu, lying side by side on a low platform piled with thirty mats of the finest weave and covered by a blanket of black kapa to signify their union, were married that same night before a gathering of chiefs. The marriage served to unite the royal family of Kaua‘i with high-ranking Maui and Hawai‘i chiefs, and ended the possibility of conflict, as unlikely as it was, with the only island still to remain unconquered.

Hawaiian chiefess, painting by John Mix Stanley, 1849, Bernice P. Bishop Museum
Hawaiian chiefess wearing the long gown, or mu’umu’u, introduced by missionaries, painting by John Mix Stanley, 1849, Bernice P. Bishop Museum

A short time later, Ka’ahumanu also married Kaumuali’i’s son, Keali’iahonui, further torturing Kapule, who was deprived of both her husband and her son (Albertine Loomis writes that Kapule was also married to Keali’iahonui, who was in truth her step-son, and much preferred him to his father). Not surprisingly, Keali’iahonui, who was seven feet tall, was said to be the best-looking man in the Islands, in spite of missing his front teeth, which he had knocked out while mourning the death of his new wife’s late husband, Kamehameha I. James Jarves wrote that Ka’ahumanu soon held “both father and son in her chains, which were not silken.” At the time of her second marriage, Ka’ahumanu was perhaps fifty-three years old, and still beautiful, despite her arrogant demeanor, riding to church with Kaumuali’i in a wagon drawn by fifteen men, shell combs and feathers in her hair.

Hawaiian chief, lithograph in, ca. 1870
Hawaiian chief, lithograph from “Northern California, Oregon, and the Sandwich Islands,” by Charles Nordhoff, ca. 1870

Unlike most of the chiefs, Kaumuali‘i was slight of build, with skin and features said to be like those of a white man. He was known for his elegance, dressing in cashmere waistcoats, white silk stockings, and black velvet pantaloons from which hung a gold watch with seals and ornaments. He spoke English well, having learned it on Kaua’i. As a captive husband who longed for his wife Kapule, he busied himself in studying the Bible. The missionary Charles Stewart, who thought that the king in his melancholy resembled James I, found Kaumuali‘i to be “the most Christian person in the nation…I have never heard a word, nor witnessed in him a look or action, unbecoming a prince, or, what is far more important, inconsistent with the character of a professedly pious man.” Kaumuali’i once asked the Reverend Hiram Bingham for a blessing on his food, infuriating Ka’ahumanu, who threw a heavy pot at his head, which was deflected by a startled Bingham at the last moment. It comes as no surprise that Kaumuali’i is said to have wished the devil to take his new wife.

A frustrated Ka’ahumanu, not used to resistance, complained that he did not return her possibly real affection, and wrote melancholy chants bemoaning his indifference to her. Perhaps inspired by her husband’s dress, she soon abandoned her traditional pā’ū to wear heavy striped satin gowns, white muslin shawls, and Leghorn bonnets rather than her customary kapa skirt and wreaths of bright feathers and flowers. In her new finery, she surprised and amused the haole women with both her grandeur and her lack of modesty. Lucy Thurston sat with the queen at a tea given by the Binghams for some of the chiefs, and the officers of the Dolphin, which was then in port:

The time passed pleasantly until nine o’clock, when it was announced that our queen, Ka’ahumanu, was tired, and wanted to go home. She arose (I never saw her look so tall), gathered up the ample folds of her black silk dress, even to the very waist, holding a portion on each arm, and exposing a beautiful undergarment of pink satin. Thus she stood…while we gathered around her to bid her good night.

Despite the teachings of her new friends, Ka’ahumanu still preferred to spend the Sabbath swimming and surfing, rather than in church. She stopped one Sunday at the Binghams after a day of surfing, and settled comfortably on a sofa next to Lucy Thurston. She happened to be naked. “In the presence of them and their wives, she entered the sitting room. With the ease and self possession of royalty, she took a seat on the settee, and carried on conversation with freedom. Did I say she came from the bathing place? —She came as it were from Eden, in the dress of innocence.”

“Sprightly, and beautiful for a Polynesian” (Part II)

After “eating the land” at Lahaina, Kamehameha moved his court to O’ahu in 1804, in the last stages of preparation before attacking the island of Kaua’i. As he assembled his army, however, there was an outbreak of plague, which killed many of his chiefs and warriors. Hundreds of bodies were washed to sea each day from the beaches of Waikīkī. The historian Samuel Kamakau wrote that those who contracted it died very quickly:

It was a very virulent pestilence…A person on the highway would die before he could reach home. One might go for food and water and die so suddenly that those at home did not know what had happened. The body turned black at death. A few died a lingering death, but never longer than twenty-four hours; if they were able to hold out for a day they had a fair chance to live. Those who lived generally lost their hair, hence the illness was called “Head Stripped Bare.”

Kamehameha himself was ill, but recovered. As Ka’ahumanu’s father, the high chief Ke’eaumoku, lay dying in Kamehamehaʻs arms, the weeping king asked him if there were anyone strong enough to take the kingdom from him. Ke’eaumoku is said to have answered that Kamehameha need fear only his wife, Ka’ahumanu. He reminded the king that her intervention in various plots against him over the years had helped to keep him in power. If she were ever to ally herself with another man, there was the chance that a new husband or lover would rise against Kamehameha, bringing along the many powerful chiefs who were her relatives and adherents.

Ka’ahumanu’s grief at the death of her father was very great. For the rest of her life, she kept his bones next to her sleeping platform on a feather mattress given to her by a sea captain, assuring that her father’s mana would be in her care as his spirit assumed the nature of an ʻaumakua or family god. This is the mourning chant that Ka’ahumanu wrote at her father’s death:

Like a peal of thunder is your tread
Reverberating to the presence of Wakea,
Here is the divine child of a multitude of sacred offspring, My father and chief,
My beloved companion,
My loved one.
I am breathless with grieving for you.
I weep for my companion in the cold,
The chill encircles me,
The cold surrounds me,
Purple with cold not rejected,
Only two places to find warmth —
The bedmate at home,
The tapa covering is the second warmth,
Found in the bosom of a companion.
It is there, it is there, it is there.

(Translation by Samuel Kamakau)

Treating Ke’eaumoku’s warning with the seriousness it deserved, Kamehameha declared Ka’ahumanu kapu to all persons other than himself. The following proverb from Mary Kawena Pukui’s book of Hawaiian sayings, ‘Olelo No’eau, refers to the unification of Maui, Moloka’i, O’ahu, Lāna‘i, Hawai‘i, and Kaho’olawe in 1795:

Eonu moku a Kamehameha ua noa ia ‘oukou,
Akā o ka hiku
O ka moku ua
Kapu ia na’u.

Six of Kamehameha’s islands
Are free to you,
But the seventh [Ka’ahumanu] is kapu,
And is for me alone.

The kapu on the queen meant that should Ka‘ahumanu be caught in adultery, her lover would be killed, and his body given in sacrifice to the gods, although she herself would be spared. If any person, including Kamehameha‘s own relatives, were to start a quarrel with any of Ka’ahumanu’s family, he, too, would be put to death. Kamehameha assigned the somewhat fraught responsibility of guarding her, given her sensuous and willful nature, to two of his men, who, it may be surmised, were not always successful in their task.

Kamehameha also gave to Ka’ahumanu the right of pu’uhonua, which allowed her to grant sanctuary to anyone who sought her protection, and the power to repeal a death sentence, making her person, while forbidden to anyone but the king, a place of refuge where men, women, children, fugitives, and criminals could find safety. The lands that Ka’ahumanu had inherited and that Kamehameha had given her were also deemed places of refuge. Samuel Kamakau, who valued Ka’ahumanu at half the worth of her husband’s kingdom, wrote that Kamehameha dealt out death, and Ka’ahumanu saved from death, but the king’s gift was potentially dangerous, as it lessened the religious significance of refuge, once found only at heiau and special sacred sites, at the same time that it increased Kaʻahumanuʻs already estimable power. The role once played by gods and priests within kapu precincts was henceforth to be shared with a woman. In addition, she was awarded her father’s place at the king’s councils, a privilege which would by tradition have gone to one of her brothers.

In 1809, when Kamehameha was no longer young, although still possessing the physique and strength of a warrior (“without the flabbiness of age,” wrote Kamakau), he at last married Kekauluohi, the daughter of Kaʻahumanuʻs sister Kaheiheimālie and Kamehamehaʻs half-brother, whom he had claimed at birth. The girl, who had a light complexion and husky voice, had spent her childhood studying genealogy chants, although Ka’ahumanu, whose responsibility it had been to guard her, allowed her to meet in secret any man who pleased Ka‘ahumanu, which tended to keep the girl from her studies. (At the death of Kamehameha twenty years later, she married his son, Liholiho, who in turn gave her to one of his favorite chiefs.)

That same year, Ka‘ahumanu’s mother, Namahana, died in Honolulu. A mourner hurried to town from Waialua on the north shore so that she could be buried with the chiefess, sharing her grave, as was the custom, but Ka’ahumanu and her brothers would not permit it. This is Ka’ahumanu’s death chant for her mother:

My mother in the house well-peopled,
House into whose shelter we entered
To rest from the heat of the way,
Love to my mother who has gone,
Leaving me wandering on the mountainside.
You are the woman consumed by the wind
Consumed by the trade wind,
Consumed, consumed, consumed with love.

(Translation by Samuel Kamakau)

Idols made of hundreds of thousands of feathers, mother-of-pearl eyes, human hair, and dog’s teeth attached to wickerwork, watercolor by Sarah Stone, from the Leverian Museum, England, ca. 1783, private collection
Idol made of tens of thousands of feathers, mother-of-pearl eyes, human hair, and dog’s teeth attached to wickerwork, watercolor by Sarah Stone, from the Leverian Museum, England, ca. 1783, private collection

Despite the kapu on her body, Ka’ahumanu began a love affair with Kanihonui, the nineteen-year-old son of Kamehameha’s half-sister. A favorite of Kamehamehaʻs, he had lived in his house since childhood. He was said to be the most beautiful man in the kingdom — a description used for all of Ka’ahumanu’s lovers. The queen met him in secret whenever Kamehameha conducted rites in the heiau, but a guard of the sleeping house, aware that he would be killed if he did not report it, told the king, and Kanihonui was promptly strangled to death in Papa’ena’ena heiau on the slope of Diamond Head in Waikīkī.

War gods, watercolor by Sarah Stone, ca. 1783

The surf was particularly high on the day of Kanihonui’s death, and a holiday was granted so that the court could surf at Kapua, near Diamond Head (still a popular surfing spot, now known as First Break). As Ka’ahumanu rode her board to shore, she could see the heiau where the body of her lover lay rotting on the altar, and the smoke as the sacrificial fires were lighted. Ka’ahumanu, who blamed her disloyalty to Kamehameha on foreigners’ alcohol, angrily determined to take the kingdom from her husband on behalf of Liholiho, the king’s son, whom she had raised from childhood.

Hawaiian women with feather lei around their necks and on their heads, dancing for haole men, seated right. Lithograph after watercolor by Louis Choris, 1822
Hawaiian women with feather lei around their necks and on their heads, dancing for haole men, seated right. Lithograph after watercolor by Louis Choris, 1822

John Papa ʻĪʻī wrote:

Kalanimoku [Kamehameha’s commander-in-chief and prime minister of the kingdom] was there, watching over his grieving cousin. While the young chief [Liholiho] and a group of chiefs were in their presence, Kalanimoku asked, ‘What do you think? Shall we wrest the kingdom from your father, make you king, and put him to death?’ Liholiho bowed his head in meditation…and answered, ‘I do not want my father to die.’ This reply brought forth the admiration of all the chiefs.

Although perhaps not the admiration of Ka’ahumanu. Kamakau believed that while it was wrong of the king to put Kanihonui to death, there had been talk of rebellion, and Kamehameha had been forced to kill his foster son Kanihonui in order to frighten the restive chiefs.
Human sacrifice, lithograph from a drawing by Jacques Arago, 1822
Human sacrifice, lithograph from a drawing by Jacques Arago, 1822

“Sprightly, and beautiful for a Polynesian…” (Part I)

Kamehameha I, watercolor by Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, Honolulu
Kamehameha I in red vest, watercolor by Louis Choris, 1816, Honolulu Academy of Art

When I first began to think about writing a non-fiction book in which the brilliant, charismatic Kaʻahumanu, the powerful favorite wife of Kamehameha I, would be an important character, I was startled by the reaction of two of my young women friends. They each made a face, sufficient indication that they did not share my affection for the great queen, which puzzled me. No, they did not admire her at all. They are a generation younger than I am, and I wondered if they had been influenced by the revisionist teaching of Hawaiian history that began in the Seventies and is still prevalent and popular. Was it because she became a friend of the missionaries, and eventually a convert to Christianity? Because she was headstrong and selfish? adulterous? They did not explain their disdain, and I did not press them. I am, however, hoping that my book will change their minds. In some ways, I wrote the book for them (take note, Miss Mamie and Miss Mele).

There is a portrait of Ka’ahumanu at age forty-eight made by Louis Choris in 1816, and another by Jacques Arago in 1819. There are a number of descriptions of her by travelers, as well as by missionaries, but the queen herself did not learn to write until a few years before her death in 1832, and there is no evidence that she troubled to confide her thoughts to a journal or diary. There are many legends and anecdotes about her in histories, chants, and songs, and while they are not always reliable sources (there are at least five different dates given for her birth), they reveal the fears and fantasies of a culture, as well as record temporal events.

A high chiefess, drawing by Louis Choris
A high chieftess, lithograph after a drawing by Louis Choris, 1816, Honolulu Academy of Art

By most accounts, the high chiefess Ka’ahumanu, known to John Papa ʻI‘i as Mokualoha or Island of Love, was born March 17, 1768, in a small cave on the side of a hill in Hana, on the island of Maui, to Namahana, the recent widow of her half-brother, Kamehamehanui, who had been king of Maui, and her second husband, the high chief Ke‘eaumoku of Kona. There is a legend that the infant Ka’ahumanu, wrapped in kapa, was left to sleep on the platform of a double canoe, but rolled unnoticed into the sea, disappearing under the waves, only to be saved at the last moment.

Namahana’s marriage to Ke’eaumoku caused much envy, particularly as she was formally the inheritance of her late husbandʻs successor, King Kalaniōpuʻu, who had planned to take her as wife once her period of mourning ended. Ke’eaumoku was described by King Kalakaua in his book, The Legends and Myths of Hawaii:

This must have been known to Keeaumoku, who was thoroughly acquainted with the royal customs of his time: yet he paid such court to the sorrowing dowager, and so sweetly mingled his protestations of love with her sighs of grief, that she became his wife without consulting with the moi…Taking up his residence at Waihee, Keeaumoku enlarged and beautified his grounds and buildings, and established a petty court of princely etiquette and appointments. He was fond of display, and soon attracted to Waihee many of the more accomplished young chiefs of the island…He had carefully trained bands of musicians and dancers, and his entertainments were frequent and bountiful.

Enemies of the couple, not least of them the enraged Kalaniōpu’u, conspired to drive them from Maui, however, and some time between 1777 and 1779, during one of the many wars between Hawai’i and Maui, Ke’eaumoku and Namahana fled to Kona with their household and attendants.

The child Ka‘ahumanu was said to have been much loved by her father, and by her grandmother, who told the girl that she was destined to be a queen, and that her relatives would one day bow in her presence. The Kohala high chief Kamehameha first admired her at a Makahiki festival (as a child, she would have seen him on the battlefield when her father cut the throat of Kamehamehaʻs cousin, Kiwalā’o), and in 1785, the thirty- two-year-old chief, already in possession of two wives, had the seventeen-year- old Ka’ahumanu, whose name means The Cloak of Bird Feathers, brought to him in North Kohala, where he married her. Two rival chiefs had sought her as wife, but she was Kamehameha’s prize, enabling him to align himself with some of the most sacred and thus most powerful ali’i of Maui. While Kamehamehaʻs twenty-two wives, some of them sisters of Kaʻahumanu, served to solidify, and entangle his relations with his high chiefs, many of whom were the fathers and brothers and sometimes husbands of the women, Ka’ahumanu remained the favorite; his kuʻu ʻi’ini, or heartʻs desire. She in turn described Kamehameha as pāpale ‘ai ‘āina, ku’u aloha, or “the head-covering over the land, my beloved.”  Kamakau wrote that, “Kamehameha cherished her as if she were a goddess or an ivory-tooth necklace to adorn his neck. She was as carefully protected as if she were living in the sacred place of a heiau. He feared lest, if she escaped from her nest, all the fledglings also would leave it with her, hence she was carefully guarded…”

British officers meet Kamehameha, wearing a cloak, and Kaʻahumanu, who is sitting next to him, watercolor by
British officers meet Kamehameha, wearing a cloak, and Kaʻahumanu, who is sitting next to him, watercolor by Louis Choris, 1816

The missionary Hiram Bingham, not given to praising women for their beauty, wrote in 1823, when Ka‘ahumanu was fifty-five years old, that she was “sprightly, and beautiful for a Polynesian, and engaging when young…Kamehameha was exceedingly jealous of her.” She was six feet tall, and without blemish. Kamakau wrote that her arms were like the inside of a banana stalk:

…her fingers tapering, her palms pliable like kukunene grass, graceful in repose, her cheeks long in shape and pink as the bud of a banana stem; her eyes like those of a dove or the moho bird; her nose narrow and straight, in admirable proportion to her cheeks; her arched eyebrows shaped to the breadth of her forehead; her hair dark, wavy, and fine; her skin very light. Of Kamehameha’s two possessions, his wife and his kingdom, she was the more beautiful.

Tattooed high chief in tailcoat and loincloth, and chieftess, watercolor by Jacques Arago, 1819, Honolulu Academy of Art
Tattooed high chief in tailcoat and loincloth, and chiefess, watercolor by Jacques Arago, 1819, Honolulu Academy of Art

She was said to be passionate about games, and very good at them. She liked to fly kites, some of them twenty feet in length and seven feet wide, and so difficult to control that once aloft, they had to be tied to the trunk of a tree. Captain John Kendrick of the Lady Washington gave her a checkerboard in 1791, and twenty years later, when she played against officers on board the Beaver, an American trading vessel owned by John Jacob Astor then in port, not one of the officers could win a game against her.

Lieutenant Thomas Manby, sailing with Vancouver, later described Ka’ahumanu, as she sat stringing beads under a tree in a small courtyard in Kamehameha’s compound in Kealakekua while attendants fanned her with feathered staffs. A fresh mat was spread for him, and Ka’ahumanu sat next to him. She offered him fruit, asking one of her servants to bring some coconuts for herself and her guests. Manby would have known that men were forbidden to eat with women, but Ka’ahumanu must also have known that the Hawaiian women visiting the sailors on board the foreign ships frequently ate with the sailors, a violation of kapu for which they could be put to death. She amused herself by “tying and untying his hair,” as she braided it with feathers and flowers.

Chiefs calling on the commanders of the foreign ships, painting by Arman Manookian, ca. 1929

She was fascinated by the whiteness of his complexion, and “nearly undressed” him to observe his skin, delighted to find that he bore a Tahitian tattoo on his leg. She sent for an old man who examined it intently and interpreted the design to much teasing and laughter. Manby’s attention to the queen must have seemed a bit too forward even for the aliʻi, who were impressively informal about their sexual arrangements (unlike commoners who tended to be monogamous), as Ka’ahumanu was “called to order by a little deformed wretch” who would be strangled should his charge be found in the arms of a man not her husband.

She liked to turn out the pockets of her Western friends to choose what she wanted for her own, and when she discovered that Manby’s pockets had already been picked by one of her attendants, the guilty one was punished and dismissed from her household. She was said to take great pleasure in the company of men, preferring them to women, and did not hesitate to show her contempt for a rival, although she took care to befriend pretty newcomers to court, turning any possible threat into a favorite companion. Women were said to be frightened of her, and did not like to enter her house.

My Old Sweetheart

One summer, my family stayed at Punalu’u on the north shore of Oahu. Punalu’u is the district known to be the haunt of the god Kamapua’a who, long before Freud educated us, could take the shape of either a pig or a handsome man — while a pig, he destroyed the lands of the ali’i; while a man, he seduced their women. At first light (sometimes in the dark with flashlights), we searched up and down the beach for any blue glass balls that might have broken free from fishing nets in the Sea of Japan to float across the Pacific to wash ashore at high tide. During the day, we gathered limu, or seaweed. We went spearfishing. We prised the tiny ocean snail named opihi from the ledges of the rock pools. We ate at a long wooden table on the lawn — it was impossible to know how many places to set until the last minute. Often there were twenty people for dinner. Late at night, the punees (daybeds) were transformed with the addition of pillows and light straw mats or quilts (no sheets) for any guests who chose to stay the night or could not make it home.

In my motherʻs Chevrolet convertible, Honolulu, 1954
In my motherʻs Chevrolet convertible, Honolulu, 1954

There were five children, of whom I was the eldest. Our mother was fairly irresistible. She was our leader. We would have jumped into a fire had she wished it. As it was, she had us jumping into the ocean. She was not always sensible about this. She took us into deep water, literally as well as figuratively. She sometimes took us into a mysterious wet cave in Haena, on the island of Kauaʻi. This is a passage from My Old Sweetheart, published thirty years ago. The child Lily is myself. My mother is the character Anna:

Anna was already in the water. Lily followed Anna’s black head, round and shiny like a seal, bobbing through the green water, to the rocks at the base of the cliff. Anna’s head disappeared as big, round bubbles floated between Lily’s legs. She took extra air into her lungs and then she too disappeared beneath the surface.

Under water, pale green, Lily followed a delicate trail of effervescence. She let some air rumble slowly out of her nose, saving the rest. The bubbles rose past her open eyes. Her mother was gone. Lily slid herself along the spiky wall of rock, arms outstretched to keep from being thrown against it by the current. She found the cleft in the lava wall, felt for the opening in the rock, and quickly pulled herself inside.

At once she felt the temperature of the water change. It grew colder and colder as she nervously kicked herself back to the surface. She came up in darkness, spouting loudly, and breathed the cool, damp air. She was inside the Wet Cave. It was black all around her. There was not even a reflection in the water.

Anne Moore 1953 Honolulu (1)
My mother, Anne, 1953. The child is my younger brother, M.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” she heard her mother whisper. Her voice echoed. Lily could not see her in the dark. They were inside the mountain in a vaulted cavern washed hollow for thousands of years by the sea. The hundreds of tiny pinholes in the lava dome above were distant constellations. It was like the clear night sky.

“Where are you?” Lily asked.

She felt the inky water move around her, and then a hand splashed behind her and she found her mother’s arm.

Are you afraid?

Lily didn’t answer. She was always a little afraid in the Cave, no matter how many times she had been there. She could just make out the shape of her mother’s round head next to her. There was the sound of wings beating. She looked around to make sure that the small, green circle of light, the opening to the world, was still beneath them in the water.

“It is really like being on the very edge of the planet,” Anna said exultantly.

Lily’s legs began to tire from treading water. The water was cold. It was growing difficult to judge distances — the distance from her to Anna and the distance from minute to minute. It made her dizzy. The pull of the tide rocked them gently, and the mock stars above them changed position. There was a story about two boys who had been caught in the Cave when the neap tide was rising. They were unable to find the green hole. Lily wondered what it must have been like, feeling yourself move higher and higher into the night sky. Their dead bodies were marked with hundreds of pricks where they had been crushed against the lava dome.

Lily said, “Iʻm getting tired, Mother.”

Anna spoke as though she had been startled. “Oh, my old sweetheart,” she said.

Lily heard her mother take in air, then the splash of her kick, then it was more silent than before. She floated on her back. She was alone in the Wet Cave. The green light flickered as Anna wiggled through the hole on her way back into the world, then she too dived into it and smiled as she felt the stream of warm, living sea slide over her.

A shark god perhaps, spotted at a nearby heiau by W.
A shark god perhaps, spotted at a heiau in North Kohala by W.

I was ten years old that summer in Punalu’u. I swam in the morning and again  in the early afternoon. I swam at sunset. I would swim until I was tired, although not too tired to make it back to the beach. I found a hole in the reef into the deep water at the edge of the channel. If I swam far enough, I could see the big rock on the side of the mountain that marked the site of the shark-god’s burial place. Sometimes I was overcome by an inexplicable feeling of panic, as if there were too much beneath and above me. I feared that the ocean might suddenly curl me into a wave and fling me from the loneliness of Earth into the loneliness of space, and I would hurry back through the reef as if the ocean were trying to catch me.

Taking a break from bodysurfing at Polihale on the island of Kauaʻi, 1986. There is a heiau at the north end of the beach, to my right, where people jumped from the cliff to enter the underworld Po, which lies beneath the surface of the ocean. It is said that because of the number of corpses, sharks gathered at Polihale, and they still do.
Taking a break from bodysurfing at Polihale on the island of Kauaʻi, 1986. There is a heiau at the north end of the beach, to my right, where people jumped from the cliff to enter the underworld Po, which lies beneath the surface of the ocean. It is said that because of the number of corpses, sharks once gathered at Polihale, and they still do.

The Rescue of Warriors

Once when I was nine years old, swimming in front of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel (where once a week, I, with twenty-five other boys and girls, attended a class in cotillion in a thatched long house in the garden), I was lifted by a little wave and could no longer touch the bottom. I was, for a moment, drowning. As promised, my life passed before my eyes. But the surge of high water gently withdrew, and I was earthbound once again. At lunch, I made the adults laugh, which embarrassed me, when I admitted in disappointment that the events of my life had flitted past very quickly — I had not lived long enough to render the experience of drowning very interesting.

The Royal Hawaiian Hotel in the late Fifties, with new hotels rising around it
The Royal Hawaiian Hotel in the late Fifties, with new hotels rising around it
The house in Tantalus --- the new houses that have been built in what was once our garden have been ʻdisappearedʻ by W.
The house in Tantalus — the new houses that have been built in what was once our garden have been ʻdisappearedʻ by W.

Until I was ten years old, we lived in the mountains in Tantalus, a fragrant rain forest high above Honolulu, in a large nineteenth- century shingled house.

Later, we lived in a neighborhood half an hour from downtown Honolulu, on the ocean side of Kahala Avenue, near Pueo Street. Kahala was, and still is, a fashionable and expensive place. With fitting irony, one of the most prestigious stretches of land in the Islands possesses the most unpleasant beach. The water has a flat, opaque surface, grey in color, with little movement, stretching placidly to a low reef a half mile from shore, indicated by a thin line of white where the sea breaks over the lustreless coral. Chunks of loose coral and rocks, broken glass and tin cans litter the bottom. There is a sulfurous stench at low tide, occasioned by the desiccation of the endless organisms that thrive in the mud. The beach, draped with rotting seaweed, is not really good for anything but walking. A mile from our house, Henry J. Kaiser had employed dredges to dig a swimming hole in front of his own house, and sometimes we walked to Hunakai, as it was called, to swim in the little hole cut from the shelf of coral and clay.

At the old Halekulani Hotel, Waikiki, 1963
At the old Halekulani Hotel, Waikiki, 1963

Honolulu was a ravishing little world then (the population was about one hundred thousand people); an isolated place, redolent with romance. Before the development of jet-travel in the late Fifties, it had been difficult to reach the Islands — five days by ship from San Francisco (Los Angeles did not exist for us; it was thought to be a little vulgar). Honolulu was a snobbish, hierarchical and quietly racist society. The charming, even enchanting life of a mainly haole elite was to change, of course, but it lasted for a very long time. As children, we were unaware of the racism, and that it had long been institutionalized, but our parents and teachers knew, and sanctioned the restrictions and bylaws that kept most non-whites not only from private clubs, but from certain neighborhoods. These restrictions are ended now (sometimes by court decision), but in 1958 they were unquestioned by either side. I was astonished when I learned that only haoles were allowed to live in the most desirable neighborhoods — Diamond Head and Kahala, for example — especially as there were three generations of Hawaiians, named the Worthingtons, with quite a number of children and dogs, and an irritable but dignified matriarch in black holoku, ʻilima lei and trim Kona hat, who lived in a large compound on the beach at the bottom of our garden in Kahala. To visit the Worthingtons, which I did every day, I had to bend low and squeeze through a hole in a thick hedge, which only increased the strange and intense delight I felt on leaving my constrained and somewhat fraught haole world to enter a different kingdom. I spent most of my time with this mysterious and jolly family, as did my younger brother, M. Years later, I tried to find the Worthingtons, but they had disappeared.

Just this week, while doing research for my book, I came upon a privately published genealogy by a woman named Helen Y. Lind. Like many of my own generation, she had taken an interest in her antecedents too late, and many of the informants who might have guided her were dead. Helen Y. Lind, who was an instructor at the University of Hawaiʻi, died seven years ago, when she was ninety-eight years old. She wrote that while trying to sort out her tangled genealogy, she spoke to a man named George Clement K. Kopa, who lived for many years in the Fifties “at the makai (ocean) side of Kahala Avenue near the corner of Pueo…[with his wife] Mrs. Worthington,” and a number of Worthington step-children. I realized with a shock of joy that Iʻd found them. Mr. Kopa was from Hana, Maui, the descendant of a warrior named Kahoʻoilimoku, who with his four brothers had been in the service of a high chief of Kaʻu. In the late eighteenth century, when the chief was killed in battle, the brothers escaped with his body in a canoe (both prisoners and the dead were used as sacrifices by the victors), only to be blown off-course by a storm. They came ashore near Kaupo on Maui, where they were revived by four young women, who, true to the nature of benevolent maidens, married the handsome strangers. The name Kahoʻoilimoku commemorates the menʻs flight and shipwreck.

To think that I might have listened to Mr. Kopa talk about these things as I played in his dusty courtyard!

The Fullers, of the paint and brush company, were our other neighbors in Kahala (they were unaware of the Worthington compound, and might have minded had they known of it). It was at lunch with the Fuller children that I first saw that curious thing, an artichoke; the Fullers had lately moved to Honolulu from San Francisco. There was a serious but kind mother, and a boyishly handsome blond father, perhaps thirty-five years old, of high spirits in a country-club kind of way —- daiquiris, golf and a charming (even I could feel it at ten years old) manner with the ladies. I am quite sure now — and I was quite sure then — that adults were having a very good time. There was lots of drinking; and certainly infidelity, although the latter was unseen by most children (I am ashamed to admit that the one girl in our class at Punahou whose mother had been divorced was tormented unmercifully by us and soon turned to horses rather than schoolmates for companionship).

Christmas in the tropics was not celebrated with any less fervor than in more appropriate climates graced with snow and cold weather. Santa Claus dutifully appeared, although there were few chimneys, sweating profusely under his false beard and heavy clothing, and we did not mention the acrid odor of perspiration acquired over the years by his rented costume. Like other places, we had wreaths of holly, and mistletoe, lighted crèches, roast turkey and eggnog, and extravagant tableaux of lights in the front yards of the less expensive (and more Catholic) neighborhoods.

One Christmas Day, Mrs. Fuller, my father and three children —- my brother, Rick, my younger sister and myself —- fell in quickly with Mr. Fuller’s giddy idea to put the outrigger canoe on his lawn into the water. There were only five seats in the traditional canoe, and my sister, who was eight, would have to sit at the bottom of the canoe, between the legs of a paddler. I had not been aware of Mr. Fuller’s skill as a steersman, no easy thing with a big canoe, the work being done by a subtle but strong inflection of a paddle held in the water close to the side of the canoe, but he was convincing in his Santa Claus hat with a white pompom. We pulled the canoe across the lawn to the water and jumped inside, taking up the long-handled wooden paddles that all but the two younger children would use. Within minutes, given the high spirits of the three adults, we were approaching the gap in the reef that led to the open sea. Although I, too, was over-excited, I sensed, despite my unworldliness, a gaiety that neared hysteria, which I now understand was stimulated by alcohol. It seemed to me then that we were joyous to excess, and I liked it. The weather may have contributed to the exuberance, and the holiday, of course, and the seemingly endless expanse of ocean that rose before us as we glided effortlessly through the reef.


Oil on canvas by Arman Manookian, 1928, private collection

The water was suddenly very different. I was delighted by the sudden change of color from grey to deep blue, and the shallow troughs of water into which we were rhythmically dropped only to be lifted by the next swell. The adults, too, seemed changed by what they saw —- less noisy, less easy. I was sitting in front of Mr. Fuller, in the seat (really a polished plank) called Number Four by racers, and I could hear his breathing change as he labored to keep the canoe from swinging parallel to the waves. I saw my father look back at him once over his shoulder in what seemed to be quizzical concern as the canoe swung to the left, exposing the outrigger to an oncoming swell. A wave, larger than the others, blocked the horizon. We were tilted high for one dizzying moment, before the canoe was overturned and we were thrown into the sea.

I was trapped beneath the canoe for a few seconds before swimming free. We were not wearing life jackets. The other children were quickly pulled through the water to the long floating arm of the outrigger. Mr. Fuller’s red hat floated for a few minutes, then disappeared. Mrs. Fuller, never very talkative, was silent, watching the children, one hand on the outrigger.

The two men would have to lean their weight on the side of the overturned canoe opposite to the outrigger in the hope of flipping it over — not an easy task for two men with a large canoe. It also meant that the children would be deprived of the safety of the outrigger as it was lifted into the air. I swam to collect the paddles that had floated away, only to be summoned back by my father’s shout. It was the anger in his voice that at last made me acknowledge that there was cause for fear.

I know from my own later excess that their drunkenness must have dissipated the moment we were in the water. The men went to work, jumping in unison to throw their weight against one rounded side of the upturned hull. It is not easy to jump in water, as everyone knows. The two children were adrift now. My sister reached out to encircle my neck with her arms. Mrs. Fuller held on to my brother, or was it he who held her afloat? I soon grew tired with the weight of my sister. I was afraid that I would vomit, and the idea of it seemed odd; rather like crying underwater, a feat, which I had mastered.

My father counted to three and, with a great burst of strength, the men once more threw their weight onto the canoe in time with a rising swell. It took four tries, but the outrigger was at last raised, wavering tremulously as it hesitated then fell gracefully into the sea, righting the canoe. The men pulled themselves over the side. The muscles in my father’s arms quivered with strain. I slid the paddles into the canoe. We were hauled over the side, and quickly found our way to our places in the few fraught moments before the canoe was brought under control. We bailed with cupped hands, as Mr. Fuller shakily turned the canoe toward land. With one final push from the sea, we sped back through the reef and into the familiar calm, grey water. Nothing was said, not even to those waiting unconcernedly on the beach for us. It did not serve to make me wary of the sea, as it might have done, but wary of adults.

The Woman Has Lighted Her Fires

Vog Aerosol Output – Hawaiʻi Island

It is not always paradise here. Sometimes the air is so filled with sulfur dioxide and other gases from the Kilauea volcano in the Puna district of southeast Hawaiʻi, that it is difficult to breathe. Your eyes burn, and your throat hurts, and the dense atmosphere of toxic chemicals, called vog, occasions depression and malaise.

Kilauea, the home of the fire goddess, Pele, has been erupting since 1983. According to measurements taken in 2008, the volcano spewed 3000 tons of sulfur dioxide into the air every day. There is more poisonous air now. It is often worse in Kaʻu and Kona, which are in the path of the once invigorating trade winds. Kona is the destination of most planes from the mainland to the Big Island, and the unwary tourist often steps into a thick miasma of ash, smoke, sulfates, and ammonia. Perhaps I should not be telling you this.

Portions of Haleʻmauʻmau Crater collapsed May 3, triggering an explosion of spatter and a "robust particle-laden plume"
Portions of Haleʻmauʻmau Crater collapsed May 3, triggering an explosion of spatter and a “robust particle-laden plume”

The fire goddess Pele, capricious, cruel, jealous, and vengeful, makes her home with her five compelling brothers and sister in Kilauea crater. O. A. Bushnell writes:

Those first Hawaiians became acquainted with two manifestation of divine power they could not have seen in the land of their birth. With a fine sense of relationships, and their realists’ humor, they decided that these novel forces must be feminine. The blazing, impulsive, destructive, hot-tempered, and beautiful one who issued so unpredictably from her underground realm they called Pele. The haughty, pallid, silent, cold maiden who never deigned to descend from her lofty mountain citadels they named Poli’ahu . . . Pele as their Earth Goddess in her triple manifestations: as Mother, maker of mountains and of islands and humankind; as Lover-Pursuer-Virago, devourer of men who do not heed her power, no matter how handsome and accomplished they may think they are; and, finally, as Kuku Wahine, Grandmother, who receives in her wrinkled bosom the bodies of the dead, taking them into her care once more.

Halemaʻumaʻu crater on the Big Island with rising lava, April 25, 2015
Kilauea crater, home of Pele. Oil on canvas by Titian Ramsey Peale, 1842. Bernice P. Bishop Museum, Honolulu.
Kilauea crater, home of Pele. Oil on canvas by Titian Ramsey Peale, 1842, Bernice P. Bishop Museum, Honolulu

(guardians or acolytes) of Pele coated their long hair with red dust, and made their eyes red. The fact that volcanoes destroy entire villages understandably helped to underline the magical connection between the visible danger (the kahu) and the invisible danger (the goddess).

Kamehameha I, watercolor over pencil by Mikhail Tikhanov, artist on board the Kamchatka, 1818. The king had shaved his head in mourning for his sister. Academy of Arts, St. Petersburg.
Kamehameha I, watercolor over pencil by Mikhail Tikhanov, artist on board the Kamchatka, 1818. The king had shaved his head in mourning for his sister. Academy of Arts, St. Petersburg.

Kamehameha was said to be a favorite of Pele. When his land at Puako in South Kohala was threatened with lava from an eruption at Hualalai, people said that Pele had lost patience with him and was punishing him for making love to Kaheiheimālie the sister of the favorite, Kaʻahumanu. He quickly made offerings to Pele, and a forgiving Ka’ahumanu and Kaheiheimālie (who was said to be the more corpulent of the two) loyally resolved to perish with Kamehameha should the lava overtake him. The historian Samuel Kamakau wrote that Pele appeared to the women, dancing at the end of a troupe of goddesses, chanting, “Our husband has gone to carry the bigger load [Kaheiheimālie], while the lighter load [Ka’ahumanu] is neglected.”

Pele sent her lovely sister Hi’iaka to find the handsome chief Lohi’au of Kaua’i to bring him to Pele on the Big Island. During the dangerous journey, beset by water spirits and sorcerers, Hi’iaka and Lohi’au fell in love (a Hawaiian version of Tristan and Isolde). Hi’iaka, who is herself a sorceress with the gift of prophecy, is said to have composed the following chant:

I lose my breath crossing Hilo’s rivers and ravines,
countless hills, descents innumerable as I travel
Kula’imano’s gullies and streams.
There’s Honoli’i stream and the cliff called Kama’e,
single cliff among many in spacious Hilo-of-the-standing-cliffs.
Waiolama River flows on and on through Pana’ewa,
Pana’ewa the rain drenched forest-island of tallest trees, dense branches of scraggly lehua,
‘ohi’a’s flame flower, beloved of birds.

Now Hilo darkens. Night falls in Hilo.
Puna, sunk in dusk, glows through my smoky land.
All things stir with life, breathe anew.

The Woman has lighted her fires.

In 1824, the high chiefess Kapi’olani (a recent convert to Christianity), despairing of the reverence and fear with which Hawaiians still worshipped Pele, made the arduous journey across the lava fields to climb the southwest slope of the crater to challenge the goddess in her lair. Kapiʻolani, accompanied by the Hilo missionary Joseph Goodrich (the missionary Samuel Ruggles wished to go, too, but he had no shoes), was followed along the rough path by hundreds of people who pleaded with her to return home, knowing that it was they, not the haoles and the ali’i, who would suffer the revenge of the goddess. At the edge of the crater, Kapiʻolani defiantly ate a handful of the ʻōhelo berries sacred to Pele, and threw stones into the volcano (Peleʻs skin was said to be so hot that if a bundle of taro touched her for even an instant, it would be cooked at once). Kapiʻolani sang numerous hymns, and prayed at length with Goodrich to give Pele sufficient time to display her fury. When the goddess was silent, Kapi’olani triumphantly turned her back in scorn and walked home, leaving the frightened Hawaiians to follow in astonishment.

Pele seems to bring out the worst in artists. I used to think that Santa Fe had more bad art per square mile than any place in the world, but what might be considered contemporary Hawaiian art may be worse.

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Oil on velvet, Ralph Burke Tyree,
Oil on velvet, Ralph Burke Tyree

Excepting of course, paintings on velvet from the Fifties and Sixties. As a young woman, I read scripts for an actor who was eager to begin an art collection. As I now and then came home to Hawai’i, he asked me to find him some paintings on velvet. There was a very good dealer in Hawaiian antiquities in Honolulu, the late Don Severson, and I would make an appointment to see him at his gallery. He had the most exquisite things — calabashes, Hawaiian quilts, poi pounders, nineteenth-century paintings by Hitchcock, Peale, and Tavernier, prints and watercolors by Choris, Arago, and Webber, delicately-patterned Hawaiian kapa cloth unlike anything in Oceania, and once, an exquisite koa-wood outrigger canoe. He also had a small collection of kitsch, including paintings on velvet, which he somewhat amusedly kept in a separate room. I tried to convince my employer to buy something of beauty — at least what I thought beautiful — but he really wanted his nudes on black velvet, and so I would purchase them on his behalf and carry them to Los Angeles. To be just, he soon abandoned paintings on velvet and moved on to Matisse and Picasso, among others, but I had nothing to do with that.