Most people living in Hawai`i are quite aware of the importance to our island economy of tourism, because more of us work in visitor-related fields than in any other. The draw of visiting tropical islands in the middle of the north Pacific is great, and once people get here the varied landscapes call to many of them to explore the mountains, ridges, valleys, gulches and forests.
Written descriptions of the lands and people of Hawai`i began with the visit of Capt. James Cook in 1778, though he and his crew did not extensively explore on-shore areas and never got so far away from Kealakekua as Hamakua. They did observe it from the sea as they coasted along from west to east, circling the Island in a clock-wise direction. One visitor from a time past who did travel through the lands of Hamakua and wrote of his impressions (Polynesian Researches: Hawaii) was Rev. William Ellis, who came through in 1822.
Ellis was a native of England who had been serving as a missionary in Tahiti. In 1822 the government of England had built a ship as a gift to Kamehameha I (apparently unaware that he had died in 1819). The ship and its escort passed by Huahine, and offered to transport some of the missionaries there to the “Sandwich Islands,” as the Hawaiian Islands were known for a period of time. Ellis and “two pious natives, members of the church, and one of them a chief of some rank in the islands” went along with this small caravan of ships. They anchored off Kealakekua on March 27, immediately meeting Kuakini, serving as governor of the Island. After a few days here, Ellis voyaged to O`ahu, then returned to the Island of Hawai`i to travel its circumference. Some of his travel was by canoe, but much if it was on foot. He went south from Kailua, rounding Kalae (“South Point”), took an inland incursion past Kilauea’s caldera, then came along the coast to Hilo and beyond, to “our” part of the Island.
Though his account of his travels is of great interest — details of the landscapes and conversations with kanaka maoli are interspersed with his ruminations on the geology, language, customs and geography – this article will focus on his rather brief comments about Hamakua. The Ellis party’s entry into our district was not without drama. Ellis describes reaching the “pleasant and verdant valley of Kaura, which separates the divisions of Hiro and Hamakua;” at the bottom, they found a heiau dedicated to Pele, “with several rude stone idols, wrapped in white and yellow cloth, standing in the midst of it.” The people there told them that every passing traveler left an offering of some sort; as Christians, of course, this group was disinclined to follow this practice, but did not diminish the structure, choosing instead to advocate the abandonment of such customs in favor of worship of Jehovah. The kanaka maoli responded that the being represented by the stones was “very powerful, and capable of devouring their land, and destroying the people.” After more give-and-take about worship, “When a drawing had been taken of this beautiful valley, where kukui trees, plantains, bananas and ti plants were growing spontaneously with unusual richness of foliage and flower, we took leave of the people, and, continuing our journey, entered Hamakua.” Ellis comments on the lack of recent volcanic activity, the conspicuousness of “lofty Mouna-Kea,” and the habitations of the natives generally appearing “in clusters at the opening of the valleys, or scattered over the face of the high land.” He speaks, too, of the warm climate and the frequent rains, the fertility of the soil, and the richness of the vegetation. The named places (using Ellis’ spellings) they passed through follow: Kearakaha, Manienie, Toumoarii/Taumoarii (both spellings occur), where they rested overnight; their fatigue was considerable, since they had “crossed nearly twenty ravines, some of which were from three to four hundred feet deep. They continued on the next day, traveling slowly because one of their party, Mr. Goodrich was ill, and passing through Kaahua, Koloaha, Malanahae, and spending the night at Kapulena.
At Kapulena the party divided. Mr. Goodrich and Mr. Bishop went inland to Waimea on their way to “Towaihae” (Kawaihae), where they met and were hosted by John Young. William Ellis and Asa Thurston continued on toward Waipi`o. The latter did not leave Kapulena until about five p.m. on Saturday. Since they wished to spend Sunday in Waipi`o they moved as quickly as they could to get there before the light failed. We get a glimpse of what the area looked like in Ellis’ words: “we travelled fast along the narrow paths bordered with long grass, or through the well-cultivated plantations of the natives.” Perhaps because of his desire to make good time, Ellis complains of the Hawaiian’s lack of interest in straight-line, wide paths: “the paths from one village to another were not more than a foot wide, and very crooked.” He thought the trail from Kapulena to Waipi`o was especially “serpentine.”
Despite their haste, the party arrived at the edge of the Valley after the sun had set behind the pali across from them. There was still light enough to see that, “the charming valley, spread out beneath us like a map, appeared in beautiful miniature. Its numerous inhabitants, cottages, plantations, fish-ponds, and meandering streams, with the light canoe moving to and fro on the surface of the latter, gave an air of animation to the scene, in which the distinct and varied objects were blended with the most delightful harmony.” It was full dark by the time they got to the bottom of the Valley, and Ellis was further delighted by a fish dinner, cooked over a sandalwood fire, the fuel contributing its wonderful scent to the air, and by the moonrise reflecting off the streams and pools. Over the next several days, in their usual busy fashion, Ellis and Thurston surveyed the settlements in the Valley (estimating the population to be “at least 1325,” based on their count of 265 houses), attempted unsuccessfully to gain entrance to the building in Pakalana heiau in which Liloa’s bones were said to be housed, and preached to the people. When they remonstrated with the people about “the folly of deifying and worshipping departed men,” they were answered with, “Pela no i Hawaii nei: so it is in Hawaii here.”
A canoe was provided them for their travel to Waimanu, where they found the chief, Alapa`i, busily engaged in shipping sandalwood to a sloop belonging to governor Kuakini. They thought Waimanu exceptionally beautiful, even compared with Waipi`o, partly because of the numerous waterfalls. Ellis comments here at length about the ease with which Hawaiians in Waimanu and elsewhere took to the powerful waters of the ocean, and provides perhaps the first written description of surfing. In his usual careful way he includes the craft of constructing the surfboard, the kinds of areas favored by surfers, and the means by which they paddled out “perhaps a quarter of a mile or more out to sea.” His astonishment is plain as he tells how they “ride on the crest of the wave, in the midst of the spray and foam, till within a yard or so of the rocks or shore; and when the observers would expect to see them dashed to pieces, they steer with great address between the rocks, or slide off their board in a moment, grasp it by the middle, and dive under water, while the wave rolls on, and breaks among the rocks with a roaring noise, the effect of which is greatly heightened by the shouts and laughter of the natives in the water.”
On leaving Waimanu, they saw a recent landslide at Laupahoehoe, with the remains of houses still visible in the rubble; continuing along the coast, they noted “winding paths” on the faces sea-cliffs 500-600 feet high. They thought they must be goat paths, but later “saw one or two groups of travellers pursuing their steep and rugged way.” At mid-day, they “passed Honokea, a narrow valley which separates the divisions of Hamakua and Kohala,” and thus drew away from our district.
William Ellis left behind not only his detailed descriptions but also a drawing of Waipi`o that is sometimes seen on tee-shirts as well as in history books. Far more than most travelers, he had a deep curiosity about places new to him and a genuine concern for the well-being of the people he met. His facility with the language of the “South Seas” served him well in Hawai`i, allowing him to converse immediately with those he met here. The record he handed on to us is invaluable and has a permanent place in the record of our islands. I think his experiences here, including those in Hamakua, were of great importance to him, and held an enduring place in his mind and heart.