Paradise of the Pacific: Approaching Hawaii

Paradise of the Pacific: Approaching Hawaii

by Susanna Moore


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The dramatic history of America's tropical paradise

The history of Hawaii may be said to be the story of arrivals—from the eruption of volcanoes on the ocean floor 18,000 feet below, the first hardy seeds that over millennia found their way to the islands, and the confused birds blown from their migratory routes, to the early Polynesian adventurers who sailed across the Pacific in double canoes, the Spanish galleons en route to the Philippines, and the British navigators in search of a Northwest Passage, soon followed by pious Protestant missionaries, shipwrecked sailors, and rowdy Irish poachers escaped from Botany Bay—all wanderers washed ashore, sometimes by accident. This is true of many cultures, but in Hawaii, no one seems to have left. And in Hawaii, a set of myths accompanied each of these migrants—legends that shape our understanding of this mysterious place.

In Paradise of the Pacific, Susanna Moore, the award-winning author of In the Cut and The Life of Objects, pieces together the elusive, dramatic story of late-eighteenth-century Hawaii—its kings and queens, gods and goddesses, missionaries, migrants, and explorers—a not-so-distant time of abrupt transition, in which an isolated pagan world of human sacrifice and strict taboo, without a currency or a written language, was confronted with the equally ritualized world of capitalism, Western education, and Christian values.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374536176
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 08/02/2016
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 762,943
Product dimensions: 5.44(w) x 8.31(h) x 0.91(d)

About the Author

Susanna Moore is the author of the novels The Life of Objects, The Big Girls, One Last Look, In the Cut, Sleeping Beauties, The Whiteness of Bones, and My Old Sweetheart, and two books of nonfiction, Light Years: A Girlhood in Hawai'i and I Myself Have Seen It: The Myth of Hawai'i. She is from Hawaii.

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Paradise of the Pacific

Approaching Hawai'i

By Susanna Moore

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2015 Susanna Moore
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-4496-0


This Realm of Chaos and Old Night

Five hundred thousand years ago, the great volcanoes of the easternmost island of Hawai'i, among them Mauna Loa, Mauna Kea, and Hualalai, rose eighteen thousand feet above the floor of the northern Pacific Ocean, breaking the surface in successive eruptions and outpourings of lava. Volcanoes still remain active on the Big Island, the last of the eight major Hawaiian Islands to rise from the bottom of the ocean (the islands of Kaua'i and O'ahu are thought to have been formed ten million years ago). Moving from west to east, we find Ni'ihau and Kaua'i; O'ahu, the capital island; Moloka'i; Lana'i; Kaho'olawe; Maui; and Hawai'i, with a combined area of 6,424 square miles (including the numerous uninhabited Leeward Islands, submerged seamounts, and atolls stretching 1,600 miles to Kure Atoll in the northwest).

At first and for a very long time, there was nothing but lava. The following was told to the anthropologist Martha Beckwith in the early twentieth century by J. M. Poepoe, a lawyer, legislator, and editor of the Hawaiian-language newspaper Ka Na'i Aupini:

This was the beginning of the earth ... It was an insect that made the coral and all things in the sea. This was the beginning of the period called the first interval of time. During this time grew the coral, the shellfish (such as the sea cucumber, the small sea urchin, the flat sea urchin, tiny mussels, the oysterlike mussel, the mussels of the sea, the clam, the barnacle, the dark sea snail, the cowry and so forth) ... The water was made to be a nest that gave birth and bore all things in the womb of the deep.

Over millennia, plants and seeds found their way to the Islands, washed ashore with the spring tide of a full moon, blown by trade winds, carried inside birds or in their feathers, in the trunks and branches of trees, and floating in the jetsam of sunken ships. The chance of a seed or sapling reaching an island as isolated as one of the Hawaiian chain (a combined area of 6,424 square miles, including the numerous uninhabited Leeward Islands, and atolls stretching 1,600 miles to the northwest) is infinitesimal. If it managed to survive its unlikely journey, there remained the still greater difficulty of finding what biologists call a niche. A prerequisite of its survival (and the same would be true for some of the first human settlers) would have been the ability to survive on hard, dry lava or in sand. With time, those species that managed to grow were able to provide shade and food to less vigorous species that followed them.

Indeed it is hypothesized that such an event occurred nearly 300 times during the history of the archipelago. Dividing this number into the number of years available in which such natural introductions could have occurred ... leads to the conclusion that, on average, one successful introduction need have occurred once every 20,000–30,000 years ... If one takes 70 million years as the life of the entire archipelago ... such an event need not have occurred more than once every 250,000 years.

In other words, not very often.

The first stanza of a birth chant for Kauikeaouli, who would become King Kamehameha III in 1824, refers to the spreading of the powerful Kamehameha dynasty, but also serves as a description of the birth of the Islands:

Born was the earth, rooted the earth.
The root crept forth, rootlets of the earth.
Royal rootlets spread their way through the earth to hold firm.
Down too went the taproot, creaking
like the mainpost of a house, and the earth moved.
Cliffs rose upon the earth, the earth lay widespread:
a standing earth, a sitting earth was the earth,
a swaying earth, a solid earth was the earth.
The earth lay below, from below the earth rose.

* * *

In the spring of 1823, after a journey from New Haven of 158 days, the Reverend Charles Stewart, his wife, and their companion, the black missionary Betsy Stockton (who had once been a servant in the household of the president of Princeton University), along with fellow Congregationalist missionaries in the Second Company from Boston, watched from the brig Thames as it tacked along the north coast of the island of Hawai'i. "The broad base ... covered with Egyptian darkness, came peering through the gloom," wrote Stewart in his journal. "The reality was too certain to admit a moment's question; and was accompanied by sensations never known before ... The first tumult ... quickly succeeded by something that insensibly led to solemnity and silence."

Canoes of natives pulled alongside the brig, and the excited Stewart, who would become an astute and even sympathetic observer, had his first view of the men he and his brother ministers and lay teachers had come to baptize in the name of the Lord:

Their naked figures, and wild expression of countenance, their black hair streaming in the wind as they hurried the canoe over the water with all the eager action and muscular power of savages, their rapid and unintelligible exclamations, and whole exhibition of uncivilized character, gave to them the appearance of being half-man and half-beast.

A boat was sent ashore, and, when it returned, a ship's officer sternly advised the missionaries to remain on board the Thames. "If I never before saw brutes in the shape of men, I have seen them this morning. You can never live among such a people as this, we shall be obliged to take you back with us!"

Stewart was alarmed. He wrote, "Can they be men — can they be women? — do they not form a link in creation, connecting man with the brute?" The missionaries did not heed the officer's warning — how could they, after the great distance they had traveled and the avowals they had made? — but instead disembarked, confused and alarmed. Stewart was to remain so for some time.

* * *

There is still dispute and controversy as to the identity and origin of the first human settlers in the Hawaiian Islands, although most scholars agree that the initial voyagers sailed from distant islands, known by Polynesians as Kahiki, in the South Pacific, most likely the Marquesas. Around 1200 B.C., the farmers and fishermen who had migrated over centuries from Asia to Australia, Indonesia, and New Guinea began to move slowly across the Pacific, sailing to Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa, which lie only a few days' sail from one another, where they became the ancestors of present-day Polynesians. After almost two thousand years, the islanders began to venture farther, eventually reaching Hawai'i to the north, New Zealand to the southwest, and remote Easter Island to the east.

Historians once believed that many of the islands in the Pacific were discovered by fishermen who had been blown off course, although the fact that the first voyagers to Hawai'i carried with them crops, seeds, and animals, as well as women and children, suggests that some of the journeys were deliberate and well-prepared. Abraham Fornander, a historian who was a circuit judge on the island of Maui in the late nineteenth century, believed that the first settlers arrived in the sixth century A.D. in what would become the Hawaiian Islands, and lived secluded and isolated for twelve to fourteen generations until the beginning of the eleventh century, when Polynesian folklore, legends, and chants attest a second migration of voyagers who made the journey north from Tahiti, a distance of 2,626 miles.

The double-hulled canoes of the settlers were eighty to one hundred feet long, rigged with masts, and triangular sails woven of lau hala (the dried leaf of the hala, or pandanus tree). A raised platform, screened and roofed with mats, was lashed across the hulls for the women, children, animals, plants, and, not least of all, the images of the gods that the travelers carried with them. When there was no wind, men sitting two to a bench would paddle with the guidance of a master steersman, who, trained since childhood, used his deep knowledge of the sky, wind, clouds, ocean currents, temperatures, and the habits of sea creatures and birds to guide them across the ocean.

The small companies of perhaps fifty men, women, and children brought with them dogs, pigs, and chickens, as well as food and water. They had seedlings of hibiscus, sugarcane, bamboo, mountain apple, coconut, breadfruit, mulberry, and tubers of wild ginger, kalo (taro), yam, and sweet potato, and rhizomes of tumeric. They are thought to have first landed on the desolate southernmost tip of Hawai'i Island, where the land rises gently to the summit of Mauna Loa. The settlers named their new home Ka'u, or "the breast that nursed them," although the leeward coast (facing the direction in which the wind is blowing) would have been dry and hot, with little fresh water. Although parts of Ka'u are now covered with layer upon layer of lava from successive eruptions, at the time of the first settlers it would have been wood and brush land, interspersed with broad prairies of native grass (the now ubiquitous kiawe tree was introduced in 1828 by Father Bachelot, the head of the first Catholic mission; the sugi pine arrived in 1880; the Australian bluegrass gum in 1870; the bagras eucalyptus in 1929).

The settlers would have known at once that their new home would not give them all that they needed. There was no reef and few beaches and coves, which meant that there were insufficient amounts of shellfish and seaweed, foods essential to Polynesians, but they would have seen, too, that it was a safe place in which to live, where they would not be threatened by enemies, human or animal. "Only the sea was treacherous, but only occasionally, and Polynesians are accustomed to the moods of Kanaloa [the god of the sea]."

The environment of Hawai'i Island, owing to trade winds from the northeast, the height of the mountains, and the warmth of the surrounding ocean, can shift within a few miles from bog to rain forest to coastal shrub, all with widely different levels of wind and rainfall. In the north, on the windward (facing into the wind) side, the settlers would find streams and springs, grasses, and trees. Thanks to the lush inland forests, the island would have been less windy than it is now, and there would have been more rainfall (eighteenth-century travelers describe snow on Mauna Loa in July and August). The hills of Kohala in the north would have been rolling grassland, much as they are today, with an occasional grove of native 'ohi'a trees.

In time, the settlers ventured to other islands in the archipelago. Cultivation began in Waialua valley on O'ahu, and Halawa on Moloka'i. On Hawai'i Island, fertile Waipi'o Valley was settled, and the sloping mauka (inland) highlands of Kona, Ka'u, and Kohala, as the settlers sought the verdant valleys where water could be found ("The man with the water gourd, that is a god" is a line in the Kumulipo, the Hawaiian creation chant), spreading across the hills and plains overlooking the ocean to settle on land where soil and rainfall were sufficient for their simple needs. In the beginning, they lived in caves, low rock shelters built on hillsides or near the ocean, and in lava tubes, which are formed when a river of hot lava forces a path under lava that has already cooled and hardened. They built houses of grass in small villages near rich fishing grounds, although bays and inlets amenable to fishing or the use of canoes were few in relation to the length of coastline. To bring their canoes safely ashore, ladders were built with wooden runners or steps to make easier the task of pulling canoes from the rough surf, and over sharp lava. Those living near the shore bartered fish, seaweed, shellfish, and salt for the produce grown by those living in the hills and gulches. The historian Mary Kawena Pukui (1895–1986) described the sharing of food during her childhood in the book The Polynesian Family System in Ka'u:

In the days of the horse-drawn vehicle, [people traveling between Hilo and Ka'u] often stopped at my aunt's to pass the night — usually unexpected. There was no market ... and whatever of fish and meat there was, was salted. The family gave the poi to the guests, and the best salted meat, even if it was the last ... Cowboys came too, tired and hungry, to share the salted fish, or meat with poi. Sometimes, they came with a portion of a wild bullock or pig — then there was fresh meat. But only for that meal.

As the settlers began to clear the endemic vegetation to grow the subsistence plants they brought with them, many native plants disappeared from areas of cultivation. The forest was both altered and exploited as trees were used to make canoes, house posts, religious statues, weapons, and utensils. The bird population, with few if any predators before the arrival of the settlers, was reduced by hunting, both for food and later to make kahili (royal standards) and leis, and the feather helmets and capes worn by the chiefs. More than six hundred species of fish were once found in Hawaiian waters, and fish were farmed in carefully tended ponds built along the shore with sluice gates to allow passage of both fish and clean tidal water. Sweet potato and arrowroot, gourd vines, ki (the small evergreen Cordyline fruticosa), sugarcane, breadfruit, and coconut were planted.

Kalo was tended with reverence, and the preparation and eating of it was an act complex in meaning. A square mile of kalo was capable of feeding fifteen thousand people; forty square feet could support one man for a year. Mary Kawena Pukui remembered that her grandmother would not allow any serious conversation at dinner once a calabash of poi, the paste made from kalo, was placed on the table, as it would offend Haloa, the progenitor of the Hawaiian race, and a poetic name for both kalo and sweet potato. Should anyone disobey, her grandmother would call out in a surprised voice, "Kahaha! ke ho'ole mai ne'i ka 'umeke poi!" "Oh! The poi bowl does not consent to this kind of talk!"

As there were no fireproof cooking utensils or vessels — no iron or clay with which to make them — food, usually eaten cold, was first cooked in lined pits in the ground, or in calabashes into which hot stones had been dropped. Unlike rice, which causes an acid reaction in the body, kalo is full of vitamins A and B. It was early remarked by Europeans that Polynesian chiefs were unusually well developed in contrast to the ethnic stock from which they most likely descended, and it has been suggested that the switch from an acidic starch (rice) to that of poi was responsible for the robust health and beauty of the ali'i, or ruling class. Poi, rich in mineral and organic salts, was largely responsible for the large jaw structure of Hawaiians and their exceptionally fine teeth. The uniformity and strength of their teeth were later to astonish foreign sailors (no difficult task given the teeth of eighteenth-century English- and Irishmen), as was the size of their bodies, particularly those of the ali'i, which in both men and women was frequently more than six feet in height.

Charles Stewart found the ali'i, who were not simply local nobility but thought to be avatars of the gods, superior to commoners in their physical appearance:

They seem indeed in size and stature to be almost a distinct race. They are all large in their frame, and often excessively corpulent; while the common people are scarce of the ordinary heights of Europeans, and of a thin rather than full habit ... although little more than twenty-five years old, [one chief] is so remarkably stout, as to be unequal to any exertion, and scarcely able to walk without difficulty. This immense bulk of person is supposed to arise from the care taken of them from their earliest infancy ... Many of the common people ... have a great beauty of person, though of a less noble scale.

* * *

The later migrations of the eleventh through the fourteenth centuries, originating in Tahiti, are known as the Long Voyages. Like the earlier journeys, they are now thought to have been forays of exploration, rather than a flight from internecine struggle, war, famine, or epidemic. The travelers brought seeds and animals with them, but they also carried new gods, powerful beings who demanded the enactment of a system of strict kapu, or taboo.

This second migration, a period of enterprise and innovation coming after a sleep of fifteen generations, was to alter profoundly the customs, beliefs, and polity of the earlier settlers. Judge Fornander noted that as late as 1830 it was easy to tell where a man lived based on his use of the letters t and r, which had been brought to the Islands by the second migration of settlers from Tahiti. Kaua'i and O'ahu people used the original k and l, while other Hawaiians used the later Tahitian style, substituting t and r for k and l. Foreigners such as Cook and Vancouver often replaced the older k with the then contemporary t, as in "Tamehameha." As there was no written language before 1822, foreigners transcribed Hawaiian words phonetically, which resulted in the varied spelling of Hawaiian words in the writings of early travelers. Captain Cook used the newer Tahitian style when he called the island of Kaua'i "Atooi," as did Charles Stewart when he wrote the name Kamamalu as "Tameha-maru."


Excerpted from Paradise of the Pacific by Susanna Moore. Copyright © 2015 Susanna Moore. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Table of Contents

Map viii

This Realm of Chaos and Old Night 3

Awe of the Night Approaching 31

The Source of the Darkness That Made Darkness 49

The Cloak of Bird Feathers 81

One Great Caravanserai 137

A Pilgrim and a Stranger 147

A Light to My Path 207

Crucified to the World 235

Falling Are the Heavens 241

The Voice of Land Shells 251

Notes 263

Glossary 267

Gods and Personages 273

Bibliography 279

Index 287

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