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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.