“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


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

“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.

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 Climax of Queer Sensations

It had once been acceptable, even pragmatic for haole seamen and traders to keep Hawaiian mistresses, not unlike the domestic arrangements and love matches of the British merchants and company officials of the East India Company in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century India. A liaison or marriage to a Hawaiian woman was considered advantageous, particularly if a woman had ali’i blood and the land that often accompanied rank.

W’s great, great grandfather, Archibald S. Cleghorn, and his wife, Princess Likelike. From the left, his daughters Rose, Helen, and Annie. Rose is W’s great grandmother. (1870, Hawaiʻi S tate Archives)
W’s great great grandfather, Archibald S. Cleghorn, and his wife, Princess Likelike. From the left, his daughters Rose, Helen, and Annie. Rose is W’s great grandmother. 1870.  Hawaiʻi State Archives.

It was only with the coming of the missionaries in the early nineteenth-century that it became disreputable for a haole to live with a native woman who was not an aliʻi. The disapproval of the missionaries did little, however, to affect the small group of local white and, later, Asian men, who were regarded with hostility by the missionaries for their drinking and general bad morals, which presumably meant their relationships with Hawaiian women, with whom they lived openly, and sired children.

The chiefess Kaenoo, watercolor by Jacques Arago, 1819. Honolulu Museum of Art.
The chiefess Kaenoo, watercolor by Jacques Arago, 1819. Honolulu Museum of Art.

For the young Christian men of the mission, many of them fresh from the schoolrooms of New England seminaries, the physical ease and freedom of Hawaiian woman must have been very disturbing, even if the men were afforded protection by a sense of their own superiority, and their fear and mistrust of pleasure, which helped to turn any latent desire into disgust. It is no surprise that in missionary families, marriages with Hawaiians or Asians were rare. Exceptions were the marriage in 1866 of Rufus Lyman, the son of David and Sarah Lyman, to Hualani Ahung, who had a Chinese father and Cherokee-Hawaiian mother (in many records, her Chinese name is replaced with the name Rebecca Brickwood, thanks to her mother’s second marriage to the postmaster of Honolulu), and the son of the Hawai’i Island missionary John D. Paris married a woman descended from the ruling chiefs of Maui, named Kailikolamaikapaliokaukini.

A young woman of the Sandwich Islands, engraving after a drawing by John Webber, ship’s artist with Captain Cook, 1779
A young woman of the Sandwich Islands, engraving after a drawing by John Webber, ship’s artist with Captain Cook, 1779

When a visiting male friend of Clarissa Armstrong, wife of the Reverend Richard Armstrong, announced that he was marrying a Hawaiian woman and staying in the Islands, Mrs. Armstrong was horrified:

O what feelings of sorrow, contempt etc filled my breast. I have done nothing scarcely this P.M. but sorry, and weep for the folly, of one I watched over as a brother. A member of our family, and we keeping him from temptations, and the[n] without asking even our advice, is going headlong into folly, and I fear what is worse!! What will his poor mother say when she hears he is married to a heathen, who like the rest, regards not the truth, or the 7th commandment.

The Reverend George Rowell, stationed at Waimea on Kaua’i, was accused of adultery with his female parishioners by a Hawaiian woman in his church. His wife remained loyal to him, despite his dismissal and the efforts of the missionaries to turn her against him. In 1852, the Reverend Samuel G. Dwight, who had kept a school on Moloka’i for six years, was accused of lewd behavior with his young female students, and expelled from the church by unanimous vote. He married a Hawaiian girl named Anna, and became a dairy farmer.

The dashing high chief Ka’iana, lover of Ka’ahumanu, lithograph after a drawing by Captain John Meares of the Nootka , 1787. Hawaiian Historical Society
The dashing high chief Ka’iana, lover of Ka’ahumanu, lithograph after a drawing by John Webber, 1787. Hawaiian Historical Society.

If the missionary men were disturbed by the sight of naked Hawaiians, what can the missionary women have made of them? One would think, reading their letters and journals, that they did not, could not, at least at first, see them at all, although the newly-arrived Lucy Thurston, upon finding barely-clothed chiefs stretched on mattresses on the deck of the Thaddeus, admitted to feeling “the climax of queer sensations.”

In 1870, Isabella Bird, an Englishwoman advised by her doctor to travel abroad when she suffered complaints of hysteria, arrived in Hawai’i from Australia. She was not distressed by the beauty and grace of Hawaiian women, but enchanted by them. Bird, who would write Six Months in the Sandwich Islands (1875), as well as numerous books describing her adventures in the Rocky Mountains, Kurdistan, Nepal, Japan, Morocco, and Manchuria, among other places, described the enticing walk of native women:

A majestic wahine with small, bare feet, a grand, swinging, deliberate gait, hibiscus blossoms in her flowing hair, and a lei of yellow flowers falling over her holoku [fitted long dress with train], marching through these streets, has a tragic grandeur of appearance…There were hundreds of native horsemen and horsewomen…The women seemed perfectly at home in their gay, brass- bossed, high peaked saddles, flying along astride, bare-footed, with their orange and scarlet riding dresses streaming on each side beyond their horses’ tails, a bright kaleidoscopic flash of bright eyes, white teeth, shining hair, garlands of flowers and many coloured dresses…

Hawaiian women riding in pa'u, illustration by Emile Bayard, 1871
Hawaiian women riding in pa’u, illustration by Emile Bayard, 1871

For those men not encumbered by a rigid religious faith, the women of the Islands were fairly irresistible. Captain George Vancouver was captivated by the hula, sometimes performed by six hundred men and women at a time (the only objection he ever made was to the lively hula ma‘ i, a dance in honor of the genitals). “Such perfect unison of voice and actions, that it were impossible, even to the bend of a finger, to have discovered the least variation.” When the dancers collapsed into a heap on the ground in front of Vancouver and covered their heads with their kapa, “the idea of a boisterous ocean . . . [was] tranquillized by an instant calm.” Archibald Menzies, the English botanist on board the Discovery with Vancouver, was also entranced, if not aroused by the dancers. “Every joint of [the dancer’s] limbs, every finger of her hand, every muscle of her body, partook unitedly of the varied sympathetic impulses. . . . The motion of her eyes transferring their transient glances and the harmony of her features were beyond description.”

The bewitchment was not limited to the heterosexual. Charles Warren Stoddard, in his 1905 book of travel essays, The Island of Tranquil Delights, took the brave and somewhat reckless step of writing about a boy whose Hawaiian name, Kāne‘aloha, translates as Man of Love:

Kane-Aloha had been shedding garments by the way all the blessed afternoon. It was evident that presently there would not be a solitary stitch left for propriety’s sake. Nobody seemed to care in the least. . . .Is there anything more soothing, more cleansing, more ennobling and refining than the caress of the pure, cool air when it comes in immediate contact with the human body as God created it? . . . We slept the sleep of the just made perfect by the realization of our wildest dreams; meanwhile at the Mission House . . . [they were] joining in the prayer of the Family Circle, that we, the unregenerated, might be delivered from evil.

The Passion of Men, Women and Children

There is an assumption among collectors of Hawaiian antiques and artifacts, that koa was the wood favored by the ali’i (chiefs and chiefesses) of Hawai’i to make surfboards, paddles, house posts, utensils, bowls, and furniture, but it is not true. In the late nineteenth century, koa was used for palace furniture and in the houses of discerning haoles, and others, but the belief that objects of koa have always been highly prized is a modern construct. In the nineteenth century, the chiefs preferred carved Chinese beds and tables, brought from the East by sea captains and merchants, and traded for sandalwood, sought by the Chinese for incense. Sandalwood posts were used in Kamehameha’s grass house at Helumoa in Waikiki (between the present-day Royal Hawaiian and Moana hotels), but by 1829, the once-vast forests of the fragrant wood were decimated. Before the missionaries from New England forbade most games and entertainments (including hula), surfing was the passion of men, women and children, commoner and ali’i. As with all things, it was a ritualized act. The right tree with which to make the board had to be found. The hewing and shaping of the wood was imbued with ceremony, in the hope that the gods would favor the board, its maker, and its owner. The first time that it was put into the water had its own ritual, and its care (drying, oiling, wrapping in kapa) was accompanied by chants and prayers. People surfed naked, lying outstretched on thin boards, five to seven feet long, and flat on both sides, although the most accomplished surfers would stand. The chiefs, who often put a kapu on the best surfing spots so as to have exclusive use of them, used glossy black boards made of wiliwili wood, which was lighter than koa, that could reach sixteen feet in length and one hundred and fifty pounds in weight. In a surfing contest, a buoy was anchored close to shore, and whoever reached it first was the winner. If more than one surfer reached the buoy, or no one reached it, a tie was conveniently declared. Excited spectators placed bets on the competitors, as they did in most games and sports.

3A Bathing_scene,_Lahaina,_Maui,_watercolor,_by_James_Gay_Sawkins

    Surfing at Lahaina, watercolor by James Gay Sawkins, 1855. National Library of Australia

It is said that upon Kamehamehaʻs marriage to the young Kaʻahumanu, he built a stone wall at Kauhola Point in Kohala to make a small protected cove where he could teach her to swim, although it seems unlikely that she would not have known this essential skill by adolescence. He did teach her to surf, and throughout her life, she was a keen and skillful surfer. John Papa I’i described one of her favorite surfing spots in Kohala:

Kekahau was a kama’aina [old-timer] of the place, and it was he who led Ka’ahumanu to the surf of Maliu…As the story goes, Ka’ahumanu and Kekakau swam or went by canoe to the spot where the surf rose. Before they left, Kekakau talked with the king about the nature of the surf and showed Ka’ahumanu the places to land, which would be signaled by the waving of a white tapa. If the tapa was moved to the right or to the left, she was to go to the side indicated before the sea rose up high and overwhelmed her. If the tapa was spread out, or perhaps wadded into a ball, the signal meant to go in on the middle of the wave.

“Reine Cahoumanou,” Plate III in Louis Choris’ Voyage Pittoresque Autour du Monde, Paris, 1822. Hawaii State Archives.
“Reine Cahoumanou,” with the dwarf whose only responsibility was never to let her out of his sight. Plate III in Louis Choris’ Voyage Pittoresque Autour du Monde, Paris, 1822. Hawaii State Archives.

Ka’ahumanu, who was Kamehameha’s ku’u i’ini, or heartthrob, was said to be impossible to control, and willful, jealous, and spoiled, but she was beautiful (some foreigners were surprised, given her reputation, to discover her size — she was six feet tall and corpulent), and she was very intelligent. In a compliment rendered by one foreigner, she was said to possess the thought processes of a man.

Lieutenant Thomas Manby, sailing with Vancouver in 1791, was beguiled by Ka’ahumanu, and described her 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 would have been killed if caught. She amused herself by “tying and untying his hair,” as she braided it with feathers and flowers. She was fascinated by the whiteness of his complexion. “She then nearly undressed me to observe my skin,” and was 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 ali’i, 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 put to death 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, like any clever royal favorite, to befriend pretty newcomers to court, turning any possible threat into a companion. Most women, however, were said to be frightened of her, and did not like to enter her house. Before the coming of the missionaries, there had been no binding formal marital relationship between Hawaiians. There was no word in Hawaiian for marriage or adultery — “the woman who sat sideways” is an old expression for a woman who takes another man. He ʻuha leo ʻole (“a thigh over which no word is spoken”) was said disparagingly of a woman thought to be promiscuous, and a child whose paternal lineage was unknown, was said to have been conceived by the wayside, a keiki a ka pueo, or “child of an owl.” If a man and a woman remained together through the night, it was tantamount to a declaration of union. When a man took a new woman to his house, it was left to her to decide whether any of his other women might remain. Should a woman choose to leave a man, her children remained with their father. It was different among the aliʻi, however. If a person was abducted by a chief, his (or her) companion could go to the chief with an offering of a dog (to eat) in hope of an exchange. John Papa Iʻi again: “If an insolent courtier were to see that a country clown had a beautiful woman for a wife he would say to her, ‘You come along with me,’ and the country clown would be too spiritless to make any resistance. Or one of the women about court, meeting a handsome young countryman whom she fancied, would turn his head with flattery and try to win him to herself, saying, ‘Why does such a fine fellow as you condescend to live with such a fright of a creature as that wife of yours? You’d better come along with me’…Men and chiefs acted strangely in those days.”

Kaʻahumanu in middle age, pen, inkwash and watercolor by Louis Choris, 1816, Honolulu Museum of Art
Kaʻahumanu in middle age, pen, inkwash and watercolor by Louis Choris, 1816. Honolulu Museum of Art

When Ka’ahumanu’s father died of plague in 1804, his last words to Kamehameha were to beware of his daughter, as it was she alone who could take the kingdom from him. Treating his 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, ‘Ōlelo No’eau, refers to the unification of Maui, Moloka’i, O’ahu, Lānaʻi, Hawaiʻi, 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. Five years later, when Kaʻahumanu was in her forties, she began a love affair with Kanihonui, the nineteen-year-old son of Kamehameha’s half-sister. A favorite of Kamehameha, he had lived in the king’s house since childhood, and 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, frightened 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. The surf at Waikīkī was particularly high on the day of Kanihonui’s death, and Ka’ahumanu asked that a holiday be granted so that the court could surf at Kapua, near Diamond Head (still a popular surfing spot, now known as First Break). Ka’ahumanu could see the heiau where the body of her lover lay rotting on the altar, and the smoke as the sacrificial fires were lighted. Surrounded by her chiefs, she wailed in rage as she surfed to shore. It is said to have been the last human sacrifice conducted in the Islands.

The Cloak of Bird Feathers

Looking east from the lookout at Pololu toward Honokāne and Honokāne Iki

W. and I go to the lookout at Pololu often, sometimes twice a day, because W. takes photographs of the ‘io, the rare hawk that is found only on the Big Island. No one knows how the ‘io, a species related to the mainland red-tail hawk, came to be here, but it is surmised that birds were blown off their migratory course 40,000 years ago to take refuge in the Islands. W. published a book of photographs of the hawk last year, ‘Io Lani (wschillingworth.com), and when we are at Pololu now, some of the surfers and old- timers recognize him and tell him about hawks they have seen. “Behind Arakaki Market, get one nest high in a ironwood tree…”

Taking the trail into the Valley with the horse Maka-Blue, or Blue Eyes
Fred taking the trail into the Valley with the horse Maka-Blue, or Blue Eyes

The hawks often appear low in the sky, leaving the valley and swooping over the house of Kindy Sproat, a member of one of the last Hawaiian families to live in Honokāne Iki. Visitors in the nineteenth century described the valleys along this coast as well-populated, with forty grass houses in Pololu alone, stretching from the beach, along the river, and into the gulch, but they are abandoned now, and the invasive vegetation (seen by some as a metaphor) has covered any signs of past habitation. Kalāhikiola Church, founded in 1841 by the missionary, the Reverend Elias Bond, at Iole in nearby Kapaʻau, was built with lava rock walls, strengthened with sand from Pololu. G. W. Bates in his book Sandwich Island Notes by a Haole wrote, “The sand was brought from the valley of Pololu and the beach at Kawaihae — the former place six miles distant, the latter twenty-six. There were no roads over which a team could travel; consequently, the materials were conveyed to the site of the building in a method entirely new, and each native threw in a share of labor. Some carried sand from the place just mentioned in handkerchiefs, others in their undergarments. Others very ingeniously connected an entire suit

together and filled it with the same material, and then conveyed it to Iole.”
perched 'io 2 At Pololu, we often stand with our backs to the ocean, causing some visitors to ask why we are looking away from the view that they have come some distance to admire. The tourists sometimes stay at the lookout a minute or two and then head back to their hotels. Others take the steep trail into the valley. Others only photograph the obliging mules in the Sproats’ nearby pasture. People often ask W. (because of his serious-looking camera) to photograph them with their phones. Others simply photograph themselves. selfie at pololu A few miles to the west is the favorite surfing spot of Kamehameha’s favorite, the high chiefess Ka’ahumanu, whose name means The Cloak of Bird Feathers. kuhio3_thOnly high chiefs wore the bright red, yellow, and black capes, made with hundreds of thousands of feathers in designs of fins, rainbows, sharks, and wings (the color yellow was associated with O’ahu; black and red with the island of Hawai’i), flung over one bare shoulder to facilitate the use of weapons. Judge A. G. M. Robertson, W’s great-great-uncle (left), wears a cloak of peacock feathers (over both shoulders) at the funeral of Prince Jonah Kuhio in 1922. Kuhio’s nickname was Prince Cupid, given to him by a French schoolmaster at what is now ʻIolani School, for his mischievous smile and “twinkling eyes.” A young Duke Kahanamoku is to the left of Robertson, wearing a feather cape.

Kamehameha took Ka’ahumanu as his third wife in 1785 when she was seventeen years old. She was six feet tall, and said to be without blemish. Samuel 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.

The missionary Hiram Bingham, not given to praising women for their beauty, wrote in 1823, when Kaʻahumanu was fifty-five years old, that she was “sprightly, and beautiful for a Polynesian, and engaging when young . . . Kamehameha was exceedingly jealous of her.”

Black sand beach at Pololu
Black sand beach at Pololu

Upon their marriage, Kamehameha built a stone wall at Kauhola Point to make a small protected cove where he could teach her to swim, although it seems unlikely that she would not have known this essential skill by adolescence. He did teach her to surf, and throughout her life, she was a keen and skillful surfer. John Papa I’i described one of her favorite surfing spots in Kohala:

Kekahau was a kama’aina [old-timer] of the place, and it was he who led Ka’ahumanu to the surf of Maliu . . . As the story goes, Ka’ahumanu and Kekakau swam or went by canoe to the spot where the surf rose. Before they left, Kekakau talked with the king about the nature of the surf and showed Ka’ahumanu the places to land, which would be signaled by the waving of a white tapa. If the tapa was moved to the right or to the left, she was to go to the side indicated before the sea rose up high and overwhelmed her. If the tapa was spread out, or perhaps wadded into a ball, the signal meant to go in on the middle of the wave.