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Once upon a time, there was an island

By Staff | Aug 6, 2009

On the former site of the king’s taro patch adjoining Lahaina Harbor sits Lahaina Public Library, repository of a two-shelf Hawaiiana section with books replete with tales of captains, kings, missionaries and creators of mischief. 

One book of note is “Hawaii: Return to Nationwide” published in, of all places, Denmark. The book draws a clear portrait of the tumultuous Hawaiian history of the last 250 years that still reverberates to this day.

In a move symbolic of the sensitivity of some issues, a library clerk even changed the book title, adding an identification sticker on the first page labeled  “Return to Statehood” instead of the true title, “Return to Nationhood.” A careful reading nevertheless inspired the  story below written as a children’s bedtime fable… except it was no fable.

Once upon a time — the year was 1778 — a British sea captain named Cook landed on a majestic set of islands. Polynesians discovered them thousands of years ago. The people he found were ruled by ali‘i nui. The entire population believed in the philosophy known as pono, or righteousness — doing the right thing by caring for the land and its people, and living in perfect harmony with the universe.

The people, as stewards of the land, knew that if they would malama (care for the land) and its kalo (taro), the land would care for them and feed them. At a later time, this concept of pono was turned into a motto: “Ua Mau Ke Ea O Ka Aina I Ka Pono,” or the life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness. Even now, this remains the official motto of the place called Hawaii.

Many moons after Cook died at the hands of natives on the shores of Kealakekua Bay on Hawaii Island, another sailing ship arrived carrying people known as Calvinists from a place called New England.

Cook, from England, viewed the natives as “a handsome people, hospitable, friendly and cheerful people living in a beautiful land.” Another observer noted of those times, “these were a strong and hardworking people skilled in crafts and possessing much learning.”

The Calvinist leader from New England, however, described a different people — a people he viewed as naked savages.

The Calvinist missionaries arrived shortly after a great king named Kamehameha died. Death had become, and would continue to be, a frequent visitor.  From the beginning, the men who came in sailing ships after Captain Cook brought with them diseases. Early records are scarce, but typhoid fever arrived in 1804.  Other visitors known as epidemics followed.

Influenza in 1826; whooping cough in 1832; mumps in 1839; leprosy in 1840; measles, more whooping cough and more influenza in 1848; smallpox in 1853; diphtheria in 1890; cholera in 1895; and even Bubonic Plague in 1899-1900 — the epidemics attacked a susceptible native people, reducing their numbers. An estimated 1,000,000 native people dwindled to 200,000 by 1820, 40,000 by 1893, and fewer and fewer in the early 20th century.

The missionaries brought with them wives and children and settled on coastal lands to preach the good news to the heathen natives. These Kanaka Maoli in many respects were as spiritual in their own way as their new teachers. And thus, they became willing converts to the new religion. Missionaries told the natives that the tremendous loss of life from disease resulted from natives worshiping the wrong God. The natives believed, and the kings and queens led the way by converting to Christianity.

The missionaries also concluded that the Hawaiians needed a written language. They created an alphabet of 12 letters. The industrious Hawaiians, seekers of enlightenment, soon became the most literate people in the world, as they read newly printed Bibles rendered in the new Hawaiian language.

 Almost two decades after the missionaries first arrived, a minister named William Richards, who lived on King’s Way in Lahaina across from the king’s taro patch, declared that Hawaiians should abandon the concept of pono and make Christianity the cornerstone of their existence. He said old Hawaiian customs had to be abandoned. Christianity and capitalism, including private ownership of the land, would be what was pono.

A few years before, a William Ladd and Co. planted a promising new crop: sugar cane. What the new sugar cane growers needed more than anything was land. New arrivals viewed land not as Hawaiians did — as a shared community resource — but as a commodity to be  bought and sold…..

(The children grew sleepy, and this night, they would not know whether the people lived happily ever after or not. The end will have to wait for another telling.)