Issue 15.3: June/July 2012

Peerless and Alone

Story by Ronald Williams Jr. 

Historians tend
to be a pretty inconspicuous bunch. In our celebrity-infatuated culture, rarely do they become famous during their lives. In old Hawai‘i, however, mea kü‘auhau (historians) were highly respected. History for Hawaiians was more than an academic pursuit; it was a matter of survival. When Polynesian voyagers arrived in these Islands nearly two millennia ago, one of the most important tools they carried with them was their knowledge of the past, held in their memories and shared through oral tradition. The accumulated experiences of their küpuna (ancestors) were critical in helping them flourish in new lands. “I ka wä mamua, ka wä mahope,” goes a familiar ‘ölelo no‘eau (proverb): “In the future is the past.” For those first Hawaiians, there would have been no future without the past.


Early Hawaiian historians chronicled the lives of great ali‘i nui (high chiefs) and akua (gods) orally, with oli (chants)— some over two thousand lines long and taking hours to recite––and mo‘olelo (stories, myths, histories). When American Protestant missionaries brought literacy along with the Bible in the early nineteenth century, Native Hawaiians took to the new tool with a passionate enthusiasm. Within two generations the Islands’ native population was almost fully literate. A robust native-language press developed, and the dozens of Hawaiian-language newspapers read throughout the Islands became an invaluable repository of Hawaiian history, culture and knowledge. The writings of authors of this period are responsible for much of what we know today about Hawai‘i’s past. The most prolific and perhaps the greatest of these writers was Samuel Kamakau.


In detailed and riveting accounts, Kamakau set to print many of today’s most well-known stories of old Hawai‘i, including the rise of the great Hawai‘i Island chief Kamehameha and the battles he fought to unify the Hawaiian Kingdom. Kamakau’s historical knowledge was broad, and his writings ran the gamut from ancient medicinal practices—such as ways to induce pregnancy among women who had been unable to conceive (hanau keiki ‘ole)—to descriptions of Milu, the dark, terrifying afterlife devoid of ancestors.


Samuel Manaiakalani Kamakau was born on the North Shore of O‘ahu, at Mokulë‘ia, on October 29, 1815. He was 5 years old in 1820, when the first missionaries arrived on Hawai‘i Island. Once settled, the New England evangelists began opening schools. By 1825 the reigning Hawaiian monarch, Kauikeaouli (Kamehameha III), himself one of the first literate Hawaiians, recognized the power of the written word and actively pushed for the education of all of his people. He declared, “O ko‘u aupuni, he aupuni palapala ko‘u.” (“My kingdom is a kingdom of literacy.”) Hawaiians flocked to the mission schools that were opening around the Islands. Demand soon outpaced the supply of teachers, so in 1831 a seminary was opened overlooking Lahaina, Maui, on land granted to the mission by the mo‘i (king). The school was named Lahainaluna (atop Lahaina), and the most skilled students from secondary schools across the Islands were sent there to be trained as kumu (teachers), kahu (ministers) and future leaders. A 17-year-old Samuel Kamakau arrived in 1833 as a member of the school’s second class.


One of Kamakau’s instructors was the Rev. Sheldon Dibble. Tasked with teaching history to his Hawaiian students, it wasn’t long before this New York native noted a troubling irony: While the Hawaiian scholars were learning the history of other nations, they seemed to be losing their own past. Determined to preserve knowledge of Hawai‘i’s history, Dibble brought together the best scholars at Lahainaluna to form a “class of inquiry” that would collect and transcribe native histories. He requested that each student go out among the oldest and most knowing of the chiefs and people and gather as much information as possible. Kamakau, described as an exceptionally bright student with a studious disposition and a remarkable memory, became a central member of this history hui (group).


The monarch took a strong interest in the project, and in 1841 a Royal Historical Society, Ka ‘Ahahui ‘Imi i na Mea Kahiko o Hawai‘i Nei, was formed, with King Kamehameha III as president and the 23- year-old Kamakau as an officer. In an 1865 newspaper column recalling the formation of the society, Kamakau wrote, “Pela ka poe Alebiona, ka poe nona ka aina o Beretania mamua, aka, o ka moolelo o ka poe Saxonia me ka William ka moolelo no Beretania, he poe malihini lakou, he poe puapuakaulei, no hai ka punana.” (“As the people of Albion had their British history yet read about the Saxons and William, so the Hawaiians should read their history.”) The group collected histories over the following few years, but the organization faltered when Dibble died unexpectedly in 1845. Inspired by an increasing urgency, Kamakau nevertheless continued on. He explained that he had gathered histories “mai Hawaii a Kauai” (across the archipelago) from the old and wise, and he encouraged the recruiting of others to do the same.


The 1860s saw the beginnings of a native-owned and operated press in the kingdom, and Hawaiian-language newspapers became a primary vehicle for the writings of Kamakau and many others. While he had been contributing material to newspapers since 1838, the major part of Kamakau’s historical body of writing came in three weekly columns he wrote from 1865 to 1871: “Ka Moolelo o Kamehameha I” (History of Kamehameha I), “Ka Moolelo o na Kamehameha” (History of the Kamehameha Dynasty) and “Ka Moolelo Hawaii” (History of Hawai‘i).


Kamakau enthralled his readers with accounts of the deeds of both gods and mortals. In his May 25, 1867 edition of “Ka Moolelo o Kamehameha I,” he introduced one of the most feared and powerful warrior chiefs of Kamehameha’s era, Kahekili: “He alii kaulana o Kahekili, he alii kapu; … e laa no i kona mau mea pili kino, ua puhiia i ke ahi. He alii puni kakau i ka ili a eleele, a ua poni ia i ka uhi moli a eleele hapalua kona kino, mai ke poo a na wawae; a ua paele ia kona maka a eleele.” (“Kahekili was a famous chief, a tabu chief; … so sacred that whatever had touched his body was burned with fire. One half of his body from head to foot was tattooed black; and his face was tattooed black.”)


Kamakau’s descriptions of Hawaiian deities offer glimpses of once dominant spiritual beliefs, beliefs that by Kamakau’s time were beginning to be viewed as heretical. One of his more famous passages describes the akua mo‘o (lizard goddess) Kihawahine, a human chiefess—Kala‘aiheana, daughter of the famous Maui chief Pi‘ilani—who had been deified and now lived as a tremendous lizard in a Lahaina fishpond. “A o Kihawahine ka moo kaulana, a o ke kumu i kaulana nui ai, no ke alii paha kekahi, a he kupuna maoli no na’lii ma ke kino, ma ka hanau kino kanaka maoli ana, aka, ma ke kakuai maoli ana a lilo i kino eepa, he moo. …” (“Kihawahine was a famous mo‘o, perhaps because she had been a chiefess and an ancestor of chiefs, and had been born a real human being, but when she was transfigured she changed into something extraordinary, a mo‘o.”) Kihawahine made a famous appearance in 1838, explained Kamakau, when she nearly capsized Kekauluohi as the high chiefess was traveling across Mokuhinia pond on her way to pray at Waine‘e, the Christian church. Despite their fickle nature and terrifying appearance, mo‘o were thought to be important to human welfare, Kamakau made clear, as mo‘o were kia‘i (guardians) of fishponds. A well-honored mo‘o would gather fish into the pond, making the area prosperous.


Kamakau filled nearly three hundred columns with information on nearly all aspects of Hawaiian life. Although he was greatly respected for his accumulated knowledge, his writings did not go unchallenged. Some saw his work as dangerous or a violation of kapu (tabu) restrictions. In the newspaper Ka Nonanona, one literary adversary, A. Unauna, questioned the propriety of publishing ali‘i genealogies. Where Kamakau, witnessing the depopulation of his nation from death and disease, was calling for this information to be passed on to a broad audience, Unauna felt that opening family genealogies to the public was wrong: “I ka wa kahiko, he olelo kapu loa keia,” he wrote. (“In ancient times, this was very sacred speech.”) Unauna also challenged the veracity of the genealogies themselves. To this point the ever-confident Kamakau replied, telling Unauna to go and “e hoonui hou” (“increase again”) his knowledge before writing in the papers.


Almost a century after his death in 1876, much of Kamakau’s work was collected, edited and translated to produce books that stand today as cornerstones of knowledge about Hawai‘i’s past. In 1961 Ruling Chiefs of Hawai‘i was published, a four hundred-plus-page political history of Hawai‘i beginning with the great fifteenth-century chief, Umi a Liloa, and ending with the death of Kamehameha III in 1854. Over the next three decades, three more collections of Kamakau’s writings were published: Ka Po‘e Kahiko (The People of Old), Na Hana a ka Po‘e Kahiko (The Works of the People of Old) and Na Mo‘olelo a ka Poe Kahiko (Tales and Traditions of the People of Old). These books shared Kamakau’s writings on everything from past methods of agriculture, fishing and warfare to Hawaiian spirituality, medicinal practices and ancient tales.


While modern recognition for Kamakau has been both potent and abundant— Native Hawaiian scholar Lilikala Kame‘eleihiwa, in the introduction to Ruling Chiefs of Hawai‘i, called Kamakau “the greatest Hawaiian historian ever born”— those of his own generation were also aware of the value of his knowledge. When Kamakau fell seriously ill in early 1866, the English-language newspaper Pacific Commercial Advertiser worried, “Next we hear of him may be his obituary or kanikau [funeral dirge], and he who surpasses all living Hawaiians in his knowledge of the ancient traditions and history of his race will have passed away.” He recovered from that illness and began his most productive period of writing.


Kamakau died on Sept. 5, 1876. When the members of the Hawaiian Kingdom’s legislature received the news, they adjourned out of respect. Before leaving, they passed a resolution that read in part: “As a historian and legendary writer he stood peerless and alone among the present sons of Hawaii. The pages written by the lamented deceased would fill many a volume; volumes which would grace the shelves of the proudest libraries.” Those words were prophetic, as Kamakau’s volumes are today ubiquitous on bookshelves throughout Hawai‘i. In 2000, after seeking permission from family descendents including Samuel Manaiakalani Kamakau III, organizers founded a Hawaiian-language charter school in Kane‘ohe, O‘ahu, under the name Ke Kula ‘o Samuel Kamakau. A new generation of students, destined to one day themselves be ka po‘e kahiko (people of old), continue to read, memorize, chant and pass on—in their original language—stories gathered by a forward-thinking and passionate nineteenth-century Hawaiian.