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A missionary, Christmas and geography lesson

By Staff | Dec 31, 2015

Dating to 1823 when the first missionaries came, Waiola Congregational Church — renamed, relocated and destroyed at least twice by fire and wind — stands proudly on Wainee Street. 

LAHAINA – Mauians who go to church this Christmas season had a wide choice. In 1823, the first Hawaiian Christians could worship at only one place. This is as good a time as any to think about the missionaries and the luck they enjoyed when King Kamehameha II declared worship of the ancient gods over. The void proved a fertile field for the newly arrived Christians from New England.

If you have been wondering lately what the missionaries thought and did (and who hasn’t), a good place to turn is the journal of missionary William Ellis, who toured Hawaii just when Christianity was getting started. His classic journal makes for fascinating reading – not so much on religion, but on what Hawaii was like in those days.

Anyone interested in knowing more about where we live would do well to take a peek at the Hawaiian collections at local libraries or even Maui Friends of the Library bookstores, which also have a rich selection (particularly at Ka’ahumanu Center).

Ellis was obsessed with geography, offering insights few of us know. “Mowee,” he wrote, is 48 miles in length, 29 miles at its widest point, 140 miles in circumference and covers about 600 square miles.

“At a distance it appears like two distinct islands but on nearer approach a low isthmus about nine miles across is seen uniting the two peninsulas,” he wrote. (Today we are almost like two islands, considering how infrequently most people other than workers ever get to this side of the Pali cliffs, while we go over there every week to Costco).

Ellis describes Lahaina as “the most important and populous district in the island. (Missionaries) and native teachers have been attended by the most decisive and extensive success. Public preaching on the Sabbath is regularly attended by numerous audiences and thousands of people are daily receiving instruction on useful knowledge and principles of Christianity in various native schools which are patronized by the principal chiefs of Maui,” he noted.

Ranai (Lanai) “is not more than 10 miles across. A great part of it is barren and suffers from droughts. Many of the residents of Maui repair there for the purpose of cutting posts and rafters for their small houses,” Ellis wrote.

The inhabitants of what became the Pineapple Island “are few, not exceeding two thousand.” (Many place names adapted by the missionaries are different than what we are accustomed to today because of changes involving the newly created Hawaiian alphabet. Today we substitute a “K” for what used to be written “T.”)

“Morokai (Molokai) is a long irregular island forty miles in length and seven miles in breadth. The population does not usually exceed 3,000 persons,” Ellis explained.

“Oahu, the most romantic and fertile of these Sandwich Islands (so named by Captain Cook to honor the Earl of Sandwich), lies nearly west northwest of Morokai and is twenty to thirty miles distant. The beautiful island is about 46 miles long and twenty-three wide. Honolulu usually contains 6,000 to 7,000 inhabitants and is the frequent residence of kings and chiefs who are much engaged for purposes of trade Several thousand are under religious instruction. Several have forsaken grass huts and have erected comfortable stone or wooden houses.”

“Tauka (Kauai) is forty-six miles in length and twenty-three in breadth and covers a surface of 520 square miles. The population probably amounts to 10,000. Hawaii (Island) resembles in shape an equilateral triangle 300 miles in circumference, seventy-eight miles in breadth and ninety-seven miles in length covering a surface of 4,000 square miles,” he wrote

“Hawaii is by far the largest, most populous and important island and was the usual residence of the king. Foreigners (have) found the harbors of some of the leeward islands more secure. This has led the king to forsake the favorite residence of his ancestors and to spend the greater part of the time in the outer islands.”

Hawaii “does not exceed 130,000 or 150,000, of which 85,000 inhabit the island of Hawaii.” (These numbers vastly underestimated the total population, scholars say.)

Like any geography lesson, this one must come to an end. A hui ho until the next installment.