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Eddie Would Go
The Story of Eddie Aikau, Hawaiian Hero and Pioneer of Big Wave Surfing
By Stuart Holmes Coleman
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2001 Stuart Holmes Coleman
All rights reserved.
The Life of the Land
"Man is merely the caretakeer of the land that maintains his life and nourishes his soul. Therefore, the 'aina is sacred. The church of life is not in a building, it is the open sky, the surrounding ocean, the beautiful soil ..."
— George Helm
With the sun setting over the Wai'anae Mountains, Waimea Bay looks like a blue jewel carved into the jagged coastline of O'ahu's North Shore. Looking down from the heiau on the cliffs above the Bay, you can see a crescent moon of white sand encircling its darkening waters. For most of the year, the Bay is quiet and calm like a sleeping giant, but each winter it awakes in a violent assault of huge waves. Large rock formations stand like warriors at each end of the Bay, clashing with the incoming swells in explosions of whitewater. From the landing of the first Western ships to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the history of Hawai'i is reflected in the water of the Bay and its changing temperament.
Walking among the stone ruins of the heiau above the Bay, you can feel the presence of the people who once worshipped and prepared for war here. Eddie's story is intricately tied to the history of his people and the life of the 'aina or land. He wandered through the same hills where his ancestor Hewahewa once roamed. In the early 1800's, Hewahewa ruled over the entire valley as the chief kahuna, just as Eddie would later watch over the Bay as the head lifeguard. Though generations apart, they both saw Hawai'i go through enormous changes with each new wave of immigrants flooding its shores. One saw the demise of his culture, while the other saw its revival a century and a half later.
In the orange light of late afternoon, the heiau overlooking the Bay and the green valley behind it appear timeless and pristine. Except for a few emblems of modern civilization — the square tower of St. Peter and St. Paul Mission on the eastern cliff, a few houses on the point and a lone lifeguard stand on the beach — you can almost imagine what it looked like more than two hundred years ago when Captain Cook and the first Westerners 'discovered' what they called the Sandwich Islands in 1778. When his ships landed in Hawai'i, Cook marveled at the tropical beauty of this remote island chain in the middle of the Pacific and the thriving civilization he found there. He had heard chants in Tahiti that mentioned these mystical islands, but he didn't know if they really existed. When Cook encountered the native people, he asked for provisions in the language of the Tahitians and was amazed how they welcomed him and understood his requests. Cook was confounded by how many similarities they shared with the natives he had encountered in Tahiti and throughout Polynesia. They were big people, some over seven feet tall, with the same dark features and many of the same words and food staples. The physical, linguistic and cultural similarities led him to believe that these people had migrated across the Pacific and formed the "most extensive nation on earth." But it was unclear to him how they could have traveled such vast distances across the world's largest ocean in their small sailing canoes. It seemed impossible without large ships or Western instruments like the compass, quadrant and timepiece. How did they ever arrive and settle in Hawai'i? It was a mystery he would never solve.
Throughout their travels in the Pacific, Cook and his men were surrounded by thousands of natives who swam, sailed and paddled their canoes to visit the foreign ships. He realized that these people practically lived in the ocean, depending on the sea for their food, transportation and play. Most Europeans of the time could not swim and feared that the ocean was full of dragons, but for these people it was home. He witnessed such rare sights as canoe surfing, but only in Hawai'i did the riders stand up on boards and "walk on water," as the later missionaries would describe it. Watching a native ride the waves in an outrigger canoe, Cook had once written in his journals, "I could not help concluding that this man felt the most supreme pleasure while he was driven on so fast and so smoothly by the sea."
With his pale skin and tall ships, Captain Cook may have been mistaken for the Hawaiian god Lono when he first arrived in Hawai'i, but his divine aura quickly diminished when he began trading and dealing with the locals. After he held a Big Island chief ransom for some items that had been stolen from his ship, the chief's warriors attacked and killed Captain Cook, along with four of his men. Fearful of a native uprising, Cook's badly shaken crew quickly set sail for O'ahu, stopping to rest and recover in Waimea Bay's seemingly tranquil and peaceful waters. Four years later, one of Cook's officers returned to Waimea. When Captain Vancouver's ship, the Daedalus, landed at the Bay in 1793, bringing another wave of haole explorers, a skirmish erupted between the sailors and the natives on the shore. Two crew members were killed and supposedly sacrificed by warriors at the heiau. Having established a more powerful presence in the Islands, Vancouver then demanded the killers be punished. Two Hawaiian natives, most likely not the culprits, were brought on board the ship and immediately shot. After this fateful collision of worlds, Hawai'i would never be the same.
Like the huge swells that roll into Waimea Bay each winter, waves of Westerners began landing on Hawai'i's shores. With the help of haole advisors and their guns, the great warrior chief Kamehameha I conquered O'ahu and united the Hawaiian Islands in 1795. Pleased by his conquest, the new King gave his kahuna nui (chief advisor) Hewahewa dominion over the Waimea heiau and the lush valley that stretched from the mountains to the sea. Hewahewa had been in charge of honoring and appeasing the war god Ku and enforcing the kapu system, the set of ancient laws and taboos that governed Hawai'i's people. But with each wave of haole sailors and merchants from America and Europe, the infusion of alcohol, guns and germs violently transformed Hawaiian culture. The ruling chiefs began to question the old ways and structure of their society. After the death of King Kamehameha, his widow Ka'ahumanu, his favorite of 21 wives, and his son Liholiho took control and decided to abandon the old gods and social kapus. They had seen how the Westerners were not affected by their kapus, like those that forbade men and women from eating together or restricted their interaction with the ali'i. In one of the most incredible coincidences of Hawaiian history, they ordered the kahunas to destroy the heiaus and burn all the wooden idols, just months before the first Christian missionaries arrived. This created a spiritual void that the new religion would soon fill. It is said that Hewahewa complied because he could foresee the coming of the missionaries. He even sent a messenger to the royal family's home near the shore, saying, "O heavenly one, the new God will soon land yonder."
Supposedly gifted with the power to see the future, Hewahewa believed it would be useless to fight the onslaught of Western forces and the white man's God; so he embraced the new ways and shunned the practice of most ancient rituals. The powerful kahuna even tried to become a Christian and wrote a chant in honor of the missionaries when their ship, the Thaddeus, arrived in 1820. In the chant, he told his people, "Pray, with reverence to Jehovah,/ As a mighty kahuna of the island." When Ka'ahumanu and many of the ruling chiefs converted to Christianity not long after, the kapu system and the kahunas eventually gave way to Western laws and missionary influence. But Hewahewa later became disillusioned with the Christian priests and their lack of magic, apparently disappointed the missionaries could not cure the sick or raise the dead. He saw his people embracing the new religion and the Western ways while losing their land and customs. This was the twilight hour of Hawaiian culture, and legend says Hewahewa predicted the dawn of a new age when a renaissance of traditional values and culture would awaken in his people. When he died, his bones were hidden deep in the valley where no one would disturb them.
During the 1800's, O'ahu and the other Hawaiian Islands were overrun with foreigners from all over the world, including sailors, merchants, whalers, missionaries, businessmen and migrant field hands. During the Great Mahele of 1848, King Kamehameha III was persuaded by haole advisors to let the Islands be divided and sold into private ownership, a concept that was completely foreign to most Hawaiians. In their culture, there was no such thing as ownership of any part of nature because it was sacred — people could live on the land and take care of it, but they could not own it. That would be like claiming the sky or the ocean. The kingdom was divided among the monarchy, the ali'i and the common people. But eventually wealthy businessmen and planters bought most of the land at dirt-cheap prices, and the natives were often evicted from their native soil. Many Hawaiians became homeless in their own homeland, forced to eke out a living on plantations, settlements or in the city. Sugar and pineapples became the cash crops, as plantations spread across the Islands like a dark shadow.
As the haole planters and businessmen gained more power, they began exerting increasing influence over the Hawaiian monarchy, while pushing for American annexation of the Islands. King Kalakaua decided to reassert his royal powers by building the costly 'Iolani Palace, where he held Hawai'i's first coronation, which was followed by two weeks of elaborate celebrations. Known for his lavish style and love of the arts, King Kalakaua was called the "Merry Monarch" because he helped start a revival of Hawaiian music and dance. He and his sister Princess Lydia Lili'uokalani were talented musicians and songwriters, and her song "Aloha 'Oe" became Hawai'i's most popular anthem. Both were loved by the Hawaiian people but resented by the Western establishment of educators, missionaries and powerful planters. In 1887, an armed insurrection led by a haole political group forced the King to sign what came to be called the "Bayonet Constitution," severely limiting the monarch's powers and the rights of the Hawaiian people. He lived for a few more years as a royal figurehead, hosting grand balls and parties, and then died on a trip to San Francisco. Hawai'i's last king was followed by his sister, who became the kingdom's last monarch.
When Queen Lili'uokalani came into power, she was committed to restoring the power of the monarchy and the rights of the Hawaiian people. The Queen tried to regain political control of the Islands by creating a new constitution, but she was soon overthrown by a group of wealthy, American businessmen, many of whom were descendants of the original missionaries. Backed by 160 U.S. Marines, the anti-royalist and pro-annexation forces launched a bloodless coup in 1898. They established a provisional government and later formed a Republic, with planter and missionary son Sanford Dole as its president. Hawai'i's last Queen was forced to abdicate her throne and later put under house arrest at 'Iolani Palace, where she wrote, "I yield to the superior force of the United States of America to avoid any collision of armed forces and perhaps the loss of life." Her later attempts to convince Washington to return her kingdom proved futile.
The Republic was eventually annexed as a territory of the United States. But generations later, Eddie's grandparents and parents would not learn this version of history in school — like most Hawaiians, they were taught that the Queen had voluntarily given up power to the new Republic. By this time, Hawaiians were not allowed to speak their native language in school, and their chants and customs were looked down upon. (Ironically, though the missionaries had helped suppress many native traditions, they also helped preserve much of Hawai'i's oral history by creating a Hawaiian alphabet and recording the people's stories, genealogies and myths.) Many locals were ashamed of their culture and wanted to be American, with all the wealth and rights that entailed. Meanwhile, the number of Native Hawaiians had dwindled to a fraction of their original population, due to the onslaught of foreign diseases and chronic health and social problems. It's estimated that there were more than 800,000 Hawaiians in the Islands when Captain Cook arrived, but by the next century, they had dwindled to less than 40,000. Like many of the indigenous plants and animals that had become extinct, the Hawaiian people seemed to be a dying breed. Waimea's once thriving valley had been almost completely abandoned by the mid-twentieth century.
Because of its strategic location in the middle of the Pacific, Hawai'i became a key military post for the U.S., as well as a playground for the rich and famous. Most of the Pacific naval fleet was stationed at Pearl Harbor, and American G.I.'s and tourists could mingle with movie stars and corporate tycoons down at Waikiki Beach. As battles raged in Europe and Asia, isolationist groups in America were determined to stay out of a world war. But all that was about to change. In their book Waikiki, Paul Berry and Edgy Lee write that "On the evening of Saturday, December 6, 1941, military officers were having a Christmas party at the Royal Hawaiian," the luxurious pink hotel at the center of Waikiki. Meanwhile, "Offshore a Japanese submarine hovered close enough to hear the music." Early the next morning, Japanese planes descended on O'ahu in one of the most devastating surprise attacks in history. With the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Hawai'i suddenly became the center of the Second World War's raging battles in the Pacific Theater. The sleeping giant had awoken, and many Hawaiians like Eddie's father Sol eagerly joined the call to fight for their country — even though they were not considered official U.S. citizens. Struggling with their conflicted identity, they were torn between their Hawaiian roots and American dreams. Into this spiritually divided land, Eddie was born just after the war.
Conceived during the last year of World War II, Edward Ryan Makua Hanai Aikau came into the world during the first year of peace. He was born in Kahului, Maui on May 4, 1946 to Solomon and Henrietta Aikau. His father Sol was a strong Hawaiian man with a husky voice and a commanding presence that made him seem much taller than his 5' 9" frame. Henrietta was shy by nature, but there was a quiet strength beneath her soft, comforting features. Sol had been a private first-class in the Army when he met Henrietta, who said he remained a private because he was always getting into fights. When they first started dating, it caused a rift between the two families because she was a devout Catholic of mixed Hawaiian heritage and he was a Mormon of pure Hawaiian blood. But when Henrietta became pregnant with their first son Freddie, they decided to get married and start their own family. Sol converted to Catholicism, and they were wed by the priest in the local church. They settled down in a small house on a dusty road near the Kahului Railroad Company, where Sol worked as a driver and stevedore. Shortly after their son Frederick was born, he and Henrietta had a girl named Myra. Within six years, they had had four more boys — Edward, Gerald, Solomon III and Clyde. The Aikaus lived on a dirt road in a small compound of houses across from the Kahului Harbor called Rawfish Camp, which has since been replaced by expensive condos. They lived near the ocean and in the shadow of Haleakala, the majestic volcano whose name means "house of the sun." When the sun rose behind the cloud-covered volcanic peak each morning, the Aikau household would erupt with the sounds of six young kids.
Stern at times, "Pops," as he came to be called, raised Eddie and his siblings with all the discipline of his Army days. He marched them to church, inspected their outfits and yelled at the boys if they picked on Myra or fought with each other. But Pops also had a lighter side, and he was passionate about watersports. He loved playing in the ocean with his kids, who learned to swim soon after they could walk. In contrast to her husband, Henrietta hardly ever raised her voice with her kids, but a disapproving look from her kind eyes was enough to set them straight. She enjoyed their outings to the beach, but she was a little afraid of the ocean. Music was her passion, and she would often play the ukulele and sing for her children, lulling them to sleep with old Hawaiian songs.
Excerpted from Eddie Would Go by Stuart Holmes Coleman. Copyright © 2001 Stuart Holmes Coleman. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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