Story by Lynn Cook
Photo courtesy George Kanahu, Sr.
By day the blazing glare of the equatorial sun baked the treeless island. By night beetles and Polynesian rats crawled over everything, including the newest island inhabitants: young Hawaiian men. The year was 1935. The island, one hundred miles south of the equator, was named Jarvis. It sat only twenty feet above sea level—hardly visible over the surf—and had no water and no shelter. Its only food source was the ocean that surrounded it.
Kamehameha Schools students and alumni head for the Line Islands aboard the USCG cutter Itasca in January 1936. Filmmaker Noelle Kahanu's grandfather George Kahanu is in the front row, second from right.
How and why were the Hawaiian men there? That story lived only in their memories and logbooks for nearly seventy years … until one day in 2002 a Bishop Museum archivist asked the museum’s project manager, Noelle Kahanu, whether she were related to a George Kahanu. “Yes,” Noelle replied, “he’s my grandfather.” The archivist handed her a faded green logbook dated 1936. “There was my grandfather’s handwriting,” remembers Noelle. “He was 17 and giving a report on wind and clouds and cooking and fishing on an island far, far away, across the equator. I just never knew!”
The moment was an epiphany for Kahanu. “Growing up, my grandpa was simply my grandpa,” she recalls. “He never talked about the days of his youth.” In her initial research, she found that her grandfather was among the first of 130 young Hawaiian men, most Kamehameha Schools students, who were recruited to occupy a trio of deserted islands called the Line Islands: Jarvis, Baker and Howland. The young men were called panala‘au, colonists.
Here, Kahanu began to realize, was an epic story nearly lost to time. She would wake up in the middle of the night, wondering where the real story was hidden and how it could be saved. She began combing Hawai‘i for all of the surviving panala‘au she could find and collected oral histories from each. She pored over documents. Her research became a passion that became a Bishop Museum exhibit called “Hui Panala‘au” and a documentary film, Under a Jarvis Moon, which will premiere at the Hawai‘i International Film Festival this October. Almost all of the colonists she interviewed have now passed on, but her grandfather George, 92, is still here and so too is Paul Phillips, who today is 88.
“Some projects take on a life of their own, unfolding of their own accord,” Kahanu says. “Sometimes we just bear witness.”