“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.

“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.

Pololu and Other Valleys

Kohala pasture land
Kohala pasture land

I live in the small town of Kapa’au — population circa 1500 — in the far north of the Big Island of Hawai’i. It is fertile pasture land and rain forest, with a rocky coastline of high cliffs. It was the family land of the great Hawaiian king, Kamehameha I, who was born in 1752 by some accounts (there are many dates given for his birth as there was no written historical record until the early nineteenth-century) at ‘Upolu Point, where there is a large heiau, or temple, said to have been built by one of the Tahitian settlers of the eleventh century, a powerful priest named Pa’ao (the historian Nathaniel Emerson wrote that, “We have no proof that he was a cannibal. The times were perhaps not ripe for the development of this particular quintessence of paganism and heathenism.”)

There is a legend that during the pregnancy of Kamehameha’s mother, she wished to eat the eyeball of a chief (she was given the eye of a shark instead), an omen that the child she was carrying would one day become king. The night before his birth, a blazing streak passed across the sky, later thought to be Halley’s Comet (which would make his birthdate the winter of 1758). It was taken as another omen, as was the rain, thunder, and lightning that marked his birth. Because of these signs, certain ali’i (high chiefs) in the court of the child’s great uncle, King Alapa’inui of Hilo, conspired to kill the infant, saying the words, E ‘aki maka o ka lauhue. “Nip off the bud of the poison gourd.” This is a quote from the book, Ruling Chiefs of Hawai’i, by the nineteenth- century historian, Samuel Kamakau:

A numerous guard had been set to await the time of birth. The chiefs kept awake with the guards (for a time), but due to the rain and the cold, the chiefs fell asleep, and near daybreak Keku’iapoiwa went into the house and, turning her face to the side of the house at the gable end, braced her feet against the wall. A certain stranger was outside the house listening, and when he heard the sound of the last bearing-down pain…he lifted the thatch at the side of the house, and made a hole above. As soon as the child was born, [and] had slipped down upon the tapa spread to receive it, and Keku’iapoiwa had stood up and let the afterbirth…come away, [Naeole] covered the child in the tapa and carried it away. When the chiefs awoke they were puzzled at the disappearance of the child. Kohala was searched that day and houses burned.

Naeole, a chief of Kohala loyal to the child’s father, was pursued through the night and at last trapped, but he was allowed to keep the infant, and to become his kahu, or guardian. The two lived alone in the isolated ‘Āwini gulch of North Kohala, earning the boy the nickname, The Lonely One, until he was five years old, when he was taken to Hilo by his great-uncle to be raised at court, as befitted a royal chief.

Foundation of a heiau in the abandoned settlement of Haena, with steps marked by two lava rock posts leading to the platform.
Foundation of a heiau in the abandoned settlement of Haena, with steps marked by two lava rock posts leading to the platform

Pololu Valley, which is at the end of the road, is a much favored spot by tourists, not only because of its beauty, but because there is little else to see here (there are few beaches), especially if one is unaware of Kohala’s history. The location, even the existence of certain ancient trails, or the sites of rock platforms and terraces which once formed the foundations of heiau, or the freshwater mountain pools loved by Hawaiian queens and thus forbidden to commoners, are often kept secret, lest they be despoiled, or even viewed.

W.’s great great grandmother on the left, said to be a sorceress from Tahiti
W.’s great great grandmother (left), said to be a sorceress from Tahiti

I, too, am ignorant of the history of this ancient district, but in writing a book of non-fiction, Paradise of the Pacific, about Hawai’i that will be published this August by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, I have come to learn a small part of the history of this mysterious and beautiful place. My husband, W., descended from bird-catchers who in the eighteenth-century lived down the coast at Kamae’e in the district of North Hilo, has also taught me to see more than I would have ever discovered on my own.