Tuesday, December 30, 2008


There are many important historical sites along the Kona coast, in among the coffee and macadamia nut groves. Two of the most important (particularly for a student of Marshall Sahlins) are the heiau complex at Pu'uhonua o Honaunau, and the nearby Kealakekua Bay. We visited both Saturday morning, driving the coastal loop of Route 160. I wish I'd thought to take a picture of the road itself, which is a good paved route with nice shoulders up to Pu'uhonua, but which reverts to a single-lane road (that's one lane for BOTH directions) for the four-mile stretch between the two sites. It passes over a deserted coastal flat of grass and brush, beneath looming cliffs (the tops of which are populated). However, I was too busy attempting to squeeze an oversized Ford sedan safely past cars coming in the other direction.

The first site we saw on Saturday morning was a refuge of the post-contact type, one of the Big Island's famous painted churches. A number of the European missionaries who worked on the Big Island brought with them the sense that churches should be decorated on the inside, and with varying degrees of skill, they painted the interiors of the wooden churches where they served. St. Benedict's Painted Church in Honaunau was both built and decorated by Father John Velghe, a Belgian missionary priest. It is a white Gothic Revival saltbox on the outside:


but inside the walls are entirely painted with Biblical scenes and mottoes in Hawaiian. This was my favorite scene, depicting Belshazzar's Feast and the handwriting on the wall:


The writing itself is in Hawaiian, and reads "Ua emi loa oe Ua pau kou aupuni Make no ka pono," meaning basically "You are found wanting; your kingdom will fall; you shall die." It's an interesting image, especially because Fr. John seems to have taken pains to make the text on the wall legible to his congregants; of course, the point of the handwriting on the wall was that neither King Belshazzar nor any of his advisors were able to interpret the words "Mene, mene, tekel, u-pharsin," and that it was necessary to call in the Jewish prophet Daniel to explain the meaning of the text. Daniel is there in the image, pointing to the words, but the words themselves are clear rather than mysterious.

We drove down the hill to Pu'uhonua o Honaunau, a site famous as the location of a heiau of refuge (pu'uhonua) where kapu-breakers could seek expiation and avoid the usual death penalty - assuming they could reach the site ahead of pursuing justice. The heiau is located on a flat lava-flow forming a point that extends out into the sea. For ordinary people, it would effectively have been accessible only from the water, since the point is cut off from the main part of the island by a residential site for members of the ali'i class, entry into which would likely have been kapu for the maka'ainana (ordinary people). A legend says that Ka'ahumanu, the famously intractable wife of Kamehameha I, fled here once at the age of 17, after her early unfaithfulness came to light. (She later became his famous wife and the politically powerful kuhina nui of three successive reigns.)

Visiting the site, you come to the ali'i village first, which contains several reconstructed hale of various types, along with other features such as a canoe landing (once reserved for the ali'i and now roped off for the endangered honu, or green sea turtle, which likes to come and bask on its sheltered sandy shore). There are even kanoa (bowls, probably used to prepare 'awa for drinking) carved into the lava flows which jut up through the sand here and there.

From the village, you approach the thick lava-rock wall that marks the boundary of the refuge (this photograph is taken looking across the inlet of the canoe landing toward the boundary wall):


The wall is eight or ten feet high, at least that thick, and was apparently built around 1550. The angles of the corners and edges are still acute. As a transplanted New Englander, I have a certain appreciation for dry-stone masonry and the skill it takes to lay a really good dry-stone wall (i.e., without mortar), and the fact that this one is still in such good shape after 500 years on the shoulder of an active volcano is really impressive. Though there are no frost heaves on the Kona coast to throw down these walls, regular and sometimes catastrophic earthquakes (most recently on Oct. 15, 2006) can potentially do much worse; but here they have not.

The hale in the picture was reconstructed in the modern era, the original (or at least older) one having been dismantled as a "pagan" monument by Lord Byron in 1825. It is called Hale o Keawe, the original structure having been built around 1650 to house the iwi (bones) of Keawe and other important ali'i. The mana of Keawe is thought to protect the site. Beyond it is a high stone platform of about the same date as the wall, and a much older (and more or less ruined) rectangular platform whose use is no longer remembered. The modern Hale o Keawe is surrounded by ki'i (wooden images of the akua, or gods):



In the second picture, you can see an elevated scaffolding platform on the right, for the depositing of offerings.

The word ki'i has come into English not from Hawaiian but from the southwestern Polynesian languages such as Maori, in which the word is "tiki." This is true of other borrowings such as taboo (Hawaiian kapu) and ti (Hawaiian ki), the name of a plant. The function of ki'i is different in different parts of Oceania (sometimes they represent gods, sometimes ancestors, and of course sometimes both), but one thing they have in common is their use to mark the boundaries of sacred or significant sites. Obviously there is very little connection to fruity rum drinks with an umbrella in them, which is the first thing some people think of when they hear "tiki."

The kapu system was broken in 1819, but Pu'uhonua still serves as a refuge for one kind of wanderer:


The honu still grazes on limu (seaweed) in the tidepools of the site, and when we were there it was attracting as much interest as the rest of the site, to say the least.

The last refuge we visited on Saturday was Kealakekua Bay, a deep natural harbor four miles north of Pu'uhonua, famous as the site of Captain Cook's encounter with the Hawaiians in 1779, during his third voyage, at the height of the makahiki season, and of his subsequent death several weeks later. When Cook entered the bay, the locals were observing the makahiki at Hikiau heiau in the bay, which was dedicated to the god Lono. Here is the heiau today:


Here is how the heiau appeared to William Ellis, an artist aboard Cook's vessel. Interestingly, when one of Cook's sailors died, he read the funeral service inside the heiau, making it the site of the first Christian service in the islands. The lava-rock obelisk behind the red truck was set up in the 1920s to commemorate this fact. There has been some suggestion that the Hawaiians took Cook's arrival as a manifestation of Lono's presence or power (or indeed that they saw him as an incarnation of Lono, sculptures of whom are hung with white kapa cloth in a way that resembles a square-rigged sail), and that this was somehow connected with the misunderstandings that led to the battle in which he was killed several weeks later. The site of Cook's death is marked by an obelisk set up on the shore in the 1790s by later British explorers; the site where it stands has been deeded to the United Kingdom. The obelisk, being white, is visible across the bay from the heiau site:


(You can see it in the center of this picture, behind a sailboat.) St. Benedict's church is still a refuge, for its parishioners at least, and for those who rest in its graveyard; Pu'uhonua o Honaunau no longer serves to protect kapu-breakers, but only sea turtles; and while Kealakekua Bay is no longer an anchorage for sea-going ships, its reef is a protected wildlife reserve. The snorkels and sea kayaks bobbing across its surface are signs of its new status, and the informational placards posted on the shore, which identify the reef fish and corals, serve the same purpose as the lava-rock walls once did: to mark the entry into a place of refuge.

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