Hawaii: Our Most Foreign Place

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Cook left Maui after only a few days. Next he laid anchor in Kealakekua Bay. By weird coincidence, the natives here were celebrating their annual festival of Lono, a god symbolized by white cloth banners held aloft on crossbars. The people assumed this pale-skinned stranger with the great sails hung out above his two giant ships was Lono. Cook encouraged the mistake, and he and the ruler of the island received each other ceremoniously. Cook’s 180 men enjoyed the Hawaiians’ limitless generosity for two weeks, fully provisioned their ships, and set sail.

After three days the lead ship broke a mast in a storm. Cook and his men returned to the bay. Now the holy time was over, Cook looked much less godly with his ship in disrepair, and the Hawaiians began increasing their bothersome petty thievery. When Cook discovered a large boat missing, he decided to blockade the bay and take the island’s ruler hostage to force its return. He invited the chief to visit his ship; the chief hesitated. Just as a crowd gathered, word came that a lesser chief had been shot trying to run the blockade. Cook prepared to leave, but the crowd turned angry and began throwing stones. Cook ordered his men to open fire. He was stabbed and clubbed to death at the water’s edge.

I drove into the jammed parking lot of the bay’s small, crowded beach. Behind the bay a wooded slope rose sharply; Cook died on the other side of the bay, a half-mile from the beach, and you can look across to a distant white obelisk there, erected in a clearing in the 1870s. The surrounding shoreline is still unsettled, and you can get there only by boat or by four-wheel drive and a scramble. As I looked across at that isolated spot, it seemed appropriately far from the playful scene around me. Nothing was there to obstruct imagining.

From Kealakekua Bay it’s only a ten-mile drive north to Kailua-Kona, the main resort town of the island’s west coast. There Hawaii’s first missionaries, Congregationalists from New England, landed in 1820. A lot had happened in forty years. Whalers and merchantmen had begun putting in at the islands, and a warrior chief had arisen who with the help of Western weapons had made himself the first ruler of all the Hawaiian Islands—King Kamehanneha the Great. When the missionaries arrived, they learned that Kamehameha had just died and his son had, at the urging of the king’s widow, struck down the old religious system, which would have kept her from any power. The Lord had cleared a path for His servants. They embarked on a program of uplift and improvement that, among other things, gave Hawaii by 1850 the highest literacy rate in the world.

I saw the remains of a civilization that two centuries ago had neither the wheel nor the written word.

Kailua-Kona’s main street, which runs along the waterfront, is lined with bustling shops selling pearl necklaces, Hawaiian shirts, and beach paraphernalia. The big hotel at one end stands on the grounds where Kamehameha spent his dying days, and the proprietors have reconstructed his grass-roofed temple there. Only yards away is Mokuaikaua Church, the oldest in Hawaii. It was dedicated in 1837 (two thatched churches that preceded it burned). With its 112-foot steeple it looks like the church in a large New England town. It was monumental for its time and place; no sawmills yet existed. The walls were built of blocks of lava cemented with mortar made from sand and lime. Natives made the lime by gathering coral underwater and burning and crushing it. The posts and beams inside are all of ohia hardwood, pulled down by natives from high mountain slopes and joined by ohia pegs.

With its burnished wood interior the church has a refined beauty. A six-foot model of the little brig Thaddeus, which brought the fathers from Boston, underlines the adventure of the parish’s beginnings. At a table and bulletin board by the door, I got a sense of the congregation today. A leaflet advised, “Our fellowship is very active in its ministry for Christ, even though small in number.” A display of Polaroid snapshots depicted an aloha party for seniors, with young people, hats, and cake. Nearby a poster headed “What the Missionaries Wrought” cataloged the blessings the church’s austere work had brought to nineteenth-century Hawaii, and a book for sale, Hawaii: Truth Stranger Than Fiction, offered to correct the unflattering picture of missionary zeal painted in the novel and movie Hawaii. The way the world turned over here a century and a half ago is still a deep-felt presence today.

—Frederick Allen