The story of Hawai’i begins millions of years ago, long before the green folds of its mountains were creased by cataracts foaming into the sea. Two enormous plates struck each other, creating a crack that reached the earth’s liquid core. Plumes of molten rock shot up, piercing the black depths of the sea. Hissing steam burst into the air.
Hardened black rock grew mound by mound, forming a range of cone-shaped peaks which surfaced at around the same time the first mammals roamed the African plains. At first, only the tips of this underwater mountain range jutted above the ocean swells. But as lava accumulated, the range rose. A host of creatures made new homes on these harsh outcroppings: grubs, coral polyps, sea urchins, mother-of-pearl, conch shells, seaweed, ferns, and finally man and woman.
Thus began the world, as told in the Kumulipo, the Hawaiian chant which some scholars have compared to the Greek creation myths and Hebrew Genesis.
In more than two thousand lines, it describes a world born in ‘deep darkness’ advancing toward the light, expressing both the geological beginnings of the islands as well as the experience of a human emerging from a womb into the world.
The people who memorized this long chant were descendants of intrepid voyagers. Navigating by the stars and by observing subtle shifts in the wind, the flight paths of migrating birds, and even the changing color of the air, they accomplished an extraordinary feat. They found their way from Tahiti or the Marquesas to one of the most remote chains of islands in the world, some 2,400 miles from the nearest continent.
Setting off around the time that Constantine ruled the Roman Empire, perhaps as early as 200 A.D., they travelled thousands of miles before reaching the Hawaiian islands, paddling through the windless doldrums of the north Pacific and surviving its unpredictable squalls, gales, thunderstorms, and cyclones.
It’s uncertain how many people made the trip or why they left their homes. Were they pulled to sea, drawn by the hope of new lands to settle? Or pushed onto the waves by drought, hunger, or warfare? Or maybe they were just adventurers, eager to discover what lay beyond the horizon’s edge.
Whatever the reason, they prepared for a long journey. They brought gourds filled with fresh water, dried fruits, as well as dogs and pigs. They also brought cuttings of foods they hoped to plant, including tiny shoots of sugar cane—a crop that would come to shape the Hawai’i’s destiny as much as the arrival of the first people who introduced it.
Once these voyagers reached the islands, they found an untouched Eden: a world with no four-legged predators, no serpents or snakes, and few biting insects. The seas teamed with fish and swaying underwater gardens. The forests rang with trills and flashed with the yellow brilliance of birds that had tumbled out of the jet stream. The islands were home to flightless birds and other defenseless creatures.
The highest peaks of this volcanic chain soared more than thirteen thousand feet and were often covered with snow. When the volcanoes erupted, they’d spew orange-red lava, which sped down the slopes of the mountains, releasing clouds of steam when they hit the cooling waters of the Pacific. Beyond the shores lay a separate underwater world of fluorescent coral reefs.
Hawai’i may have looked like a gentle paradise, but the ancient Hawaiians knew its terrors. A volcanic eruption, the fury of the goddess Pele, might destroy villages of grass houses and bury carefully tended fields of sugar cane and sweet potatoes beneath ash. Jagged deserts of sharp, black lava could appear overnight, creating new land where there had once been sea.
Pele, on a whim, might send pungent swirls of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, infusing the air and the mountain streams with its rotten-egg scent, or she might hurl flames down the slopes. The goddess was a force to be worshipped and placated with small offerings: taro root, dried fish, or mountain berries left near the edge of the crater. Sometimes larger offerings were necessary and humans were thrown into the volcano’s depths to appease her.
The Polynesians who arrived in Hawai’i brought beliefs with them, including their long genealogies, memorized in the form of chants, and taboos, known as kapu. Like other South Sea Islanders, they believed in many gods. To worship them, they built stone temples, heiau, overseen by priests. They would lay offerings at fields and fish ponds, in hopes of the gods granting them good harvests. Priests, or kahuna, would perform ceremonies seeking prosperity by offering up a black pig.
Some chiefs ruled with the imperiousness of Pele. They’d order lawbreakers put to death in fearsome ritualized killings that took place in a heiau, accompanied by beating drums and chants. Carved wooden statues of Kû, the god of war, bore silent witness to strangulations, followed by their practice of scorching the human skins over fire.
Afterward, these fierce people would pile coconuts and bananas next to the blackened skins of the victims—the stink of burned human flesh mingling with the sweet fragrance of fruit.
Perhaps because they lived with the unpredictability of the earth and the seas, the ancient Hawaiians adopted strict rules governing nearly every aspect of life. Their world was hierarchical and status depended on blood rank. At the top were the high chiefs, or ali’i nui, who were treated like gods but, in turn, had obligations to the commoners. Below them were the lesser chiefs, known simply as the ali’i, followed by such honored posts as the haku mele, or master of song, who composed and memorized the long genealogical chants by which a family would extol its nobility. At the bottom were a small group of slaves and outcasts.
The high chiefs literally towered above the commoners: tall in stature and with majestic physical prowess, the ali’i almost seemed like a distinct race. They commanded absolute obeisance. Commoners who failed to heed the cry of “E noho e!” or “squat down!” as chiefs walked past risked instant death. Anyone who allowed his shadow to cross over that of the very highest chief faced having his throat slashed with a shark-toothed knife.
Is it any surprise that the Hawaiian creation chant, the Kumulipo, expresses awe at the world’s beginnings as well as a deep sense of dread and fear? The life of the ancient Hawaiian, particularly among commoners and slaves, was one of strict rules, harsh punishments, and the volatile uncertainty of life on a volcanic island. Chant seven begins,
O kau ke anoano, ia‘u kualono Fear falls upon me on the mountaintop
He ano no ka po hane’e aku Fear of the passing night
He ano no ka po hane’e mai Fear of the night approaching
He ano no ka po pihapiha Fear of the pregnant night
He ano no ka ha’iha’i Fear of the breach of law
The lives and livelihoods of the commoners depended on the ali’i.
The lives and livelihoods of the commoners depended on the ali’i. Each of the eight populated islands was ruled by one or more chiefs. The ruling chief controlled the land, allocating arable sections to his followers, who, in turn, owed the chief his due, in the form of his share of their crops. In that sense, it was feudal. The chiefs also conscripted the commoners into armies and for countless years, warfare periodically erupted among rival ali’i, who fought over land, fishing rights, and perceived insults. But much of their time was spent in peaceful pursuits.
The ancient Hawaiians were ingenious in finding ways to use stones, plants, and bounty from the sea. They had no metal and had not discovered the wheel; instead, they used stone, shells, and hardened lava for tools. For this reason, later visitors would describe them as living in the Stone Age and in a sense they were.
With great care they cultivated taro, yams, and sweet potatoes planted in wedge-shaped sections of land that stretched from the mountains to the sea at their widest. Known as ahupua’a, these parcels of land often followed the paths of streams, giving each family group that worked them access to fish, arable land, timber, and fresh water.
To irrigate their fields, the Hawaiians built intricate stone aqueducts, some soaring twenty feet tall. They also dug extensive fish ponds, which allowed them to stockpile food. With limited resources, they found ways to make beautiful things, such as by weaving blades of dried grass into intricately patterned mats and dying them subtle shades of red from dyes derived from plants. They lived in framed houses lashed together with fiber and thatched with pili grass and covered their floors with finely woven sleeping mats.
Because commoners worked in the fields and tended the fish ponds, the ali’i could devote themselves to sports. Their favorite pastime was surfing and they rode the waves on enormous, carved wood boards—some more than eighteen feet long and weighing 150 pounds. Both male and female chiefs also excelled at related sports such as canoe-leaping, in which the surfer would jump from a canoe carrying his or her board into a cresting ocean swell, and then ride the wave to the shore.
When the surf was high, entire villages rushed to the beach. Men, women, and children would paddle out to ride the rolling waves. While Tahitians and other Pacific Islanders also surfed, the Hawaiians took the sport to a higher level—standing fearlessly on their massive boards, often three times as long as those used elsewhere in Polynesia.
The Hawaiians were magnificent athletes. Some excelled at cliff-diving into the sea, from heights of many hundreds of feet. Even young women would strip naked and leap from the summit of high cliffs, diving headlong into the foaming water and bobbing up afterward. One can only imagine their dark hair streaming down their shoulders and their faces beaming with delight.
Then came Captain Cook. Two ships, the Discovery and the Resolution, sailed into Kealakekua Bay on the island of Hawai’i in January, 1778, two years after Britain lost its American colonies. The Hawaiians first spotted Cook arriving on what they believed was a floating heiau, or temple.
Was he the god Lono, who was prophesied to return during this season? A chief and a priest rowed out and boarded one of the strange ships. What they saw were men with fair skin, bright eyes, sharp noses, and deep-set eyes. At first, the Hawaiians didn’t recognize what the foreigners were wearing: their odd cocked hats seemed to be part of their heads and their clothing wrinkled skin. Upon reporting back, they concluded “This is indeed Lono, and this is his heiau come across the sea . . . !”
Cook and his men arrived at a time when the vast wealth generated from sugar plantations in the West Indies was fueling the expansion of the British Empire. Yet Cook wasn’t searching for sugarcane: he came in search of the elusive Northwest Passage—a fabled sea route between Europe and Asia.
When they landed, Cook and his men found fields flush with yams and taro nourished from cleverly-constructed aqueducts. They also found sugar—a plant brought to the islands by its original Polynesian settlers, who chewed stalks of cane to release the sweet juices inside. Although estimates vary, the islands supported a large and thriving population of people who farmed the coastal lowlands and fished the abundant sea.
To Cook’s surprise, the Hawaiians welcomed him and his men with lavish hospitality, offering hogs, sweet potatoes, feather capes, and cloth of tapa. They landed during the season when the Hawaiians worshipped the benevolent fertility god Lono and Cook was venerated as the god himself, or at least his emissary.
To honor the Earl of Sandwich, who was then First Lord of Britain’s Admiralty, Cook named the islands after him. For decades afterward, they were known in the English-speaking world as the Sandwich Islands. He never found the Northwest Passage, but his discovery of the islands would open up the Hawaiians—who had remained isolated from the rest of the world for thousands of years—to the expanding economies and empires of the West.
The English sailors also brought fleas, infection, and fearsome new weapons to the islands. When Hawaiians stole metal objects from the foreigners, the English sailors fired muskets to scare them off. Soon, there were other confrontations and the Hawaiians came to learn the power of what they called the “death-dealing thing which the white men used and which squirted out like the gushing forth of water.” Recognizing their value, the Hawaiians avidly sought to trade for weapons by offering the English sailors hogs, chickens, and other items.
One young chief who visited Captain Cook aboard ship was Kamehameha, who was then in his mid-twenties. He approached the British vessel in a large, double canoe, paddled by about twenty-five men. A powerfully built man standing over six feet tall, he wore “a reserved, forbidding countenance” and a “keen, penetrating eye,” according to the ship’s surgeon. Within minutes of climbing aboard, Kamehameha was examining every part of it. The surgeon, who asked Kamehameha if he’d like him to explain how a compass worked, came to regret his offer because the chief questioned him “continually until he learned it.” Two decades later, with the aid of Western advisors and guns, Kamehameha would unite the island and found Hawai’i’s first ruling dynasty.
Although Cook forbade sexual intimacy between the sailors and the Hawaiians, the crews of the Discovery and the Resolution ignored his orders, as did the Hawaiian women, who swam out to the boats, offering themselves up freely in exchange for clothing, mirrors, scissors, knives, and metal hooks they could bend into fishhooks. The fevered pox of venereal disease soon spread rapidly across the islands, eventually leading to infertility and death among Hawaiians.
It wasn’t long before the Hawaiians and English sailors clashed. After sailing more than 200,000 miles and exploring from Newfoundland to the Antarctic, Captain Cook met a swift and bloody end on February 14, 1779. In a dispute over a stolen boat, Cook shot one of the Hawaiians. In turn, a group of them attacked a landing party of Cook’s men at the water’s edge. In the melee, one Hawaiian clubbed Cook, another stabbed him in the back. He fell face-first on a shelf of black lava in knee-deep water, where they continued to pummel him until he died.
The fatal skirmish touched off a burst of violence from the British. They fired the ships’ cannons into the crowd onshore and then shot six dead for throwing stones at a group of sailors who had gone ashore to find fresh water. They then set fire to 150 homes, and shot at the fleeing Hawaiians, bayoneting those who stayed behind.
Yet such bloodshed did not dissuade the Hawaiians that Cook deserved a chief’s deathly due: funeral rites including skinning and disemboweling the corpse. Perhaps as a gesture intended to end the hostilities, the Hawaiians returned a grisly package to the crew of the Discovery. Wrapped in a feather cloak, it contained scorched limbs, a scalp with the ears still attached, and, apparently to preserve them, two hands that had been scored and salted.
The British sailors, more horrified than honored by the return of Cook’s remains, lowered the Union Jack on both ships to half-mast, fired a ten-gun salute from the Resolution and tolled the ship’s bell before committing the great explorer’s remains to the deep. The ships left Kealakekua Bay shortly thereafter.