The Hawaiian Archipelago, by Isabella L. Bird

Letter XV.

Waimea. Hawaii.

There is no limit to the oddities of the steam-ship “Kilauea.” She lay rolling on the Hilo swell for two hours, and two hours after we sailed her machinery broke down, and we lay-to for five hours, in what they here call a heavy gale and sea. It was a miserable night. No privacy: the saloon both hot and wet, almost every one sick. I lay in my berth in my soaked clothes watching the proceedings of a gigantic cockroach, and listening, not without amusement, to the awful groans of a Chinaman, and a “rough customer” from California, who occupied the next berths.

In the middle of the night the water came in great dashes through the skylight upon the table, and soon the saloon was afloat to the depth of from four to six inches. When the “Kilauea” rolled, and the water splashed in simultaneously, we were treated to vigorous “douches” in our berths, which soon saturated the pillows, mattresses, and our clothing. One sea put out the lamp, and a ship’s lantern, making “darkness visible,” was swung in its stead. In an English ship there would have been a great fuss and a great flying about of stewards, or pretence of mending matters, but when the passengers shouted for our good steward, the serene creature came in with a melancholy smile on his face, said nothing, but quietly sat down on the transom, with his bare feet in the water, contemplating it with a comic air of helplessness. Breakfast, of course, could not be served, but a plate was put at one end of the table for the silent old Scotch captain, who tucked up his feet and sat with his oilskins and sou’-wester on, while the charming steward, with trousers rolled up to his knees, waded about, pacifying us by bringing us excellent curry as we sat on the edges of our berths, and putting on a sweetly apologetic manner, as if penitent for the gross misbehaviour of the ship. Such a man would reconcile me to far greater discomfort than that of the “Kilauea.” I wonder if he is ever unamiable, or tired, or perturbed?

The next day was fine, and we were all much on deck to dry our clothes in the sun. The southern and leeward coasts of Hawaii as far as Kawaaloa are not much more attractive than coal-fields. Contrasted with the shining shores of Hilo, they are as dust and ashes; long reaches of black lava and miles of clinkers marking the courses of lava-flows, whose black desolation and deformity nature, as yet, has done almost nothing to clothe. Cocoa-nut trees usually, however, fringe the shore, but were it not for the wonderful colour of the ocean, like liquid transparent turquoise, revealing the coral forests shelving down into purple depths, and the exciting proximity of sharks, it would have been wearisome. After leaving the bay where Captain Cook met his death, we passed through a fleet of twenty-seven canoes, each one hollowed out of the trunk of a single tree, from fifteen to twenty-five feet long, about twenty inches deep, hardly wide enough for a fat man, and high and pointed at both ends. On one side there is an outrigger formed of two long bent sticks, to the outer ends of which is bound a curved beam of light wood, which skims along the surface of the water, rendering the canoe secure from an upset on that side, while the weight of the outrigger makes an upset on the other very unlikely. In calms they are paddled, and shoot over the water with great rapidity, but whenever there is any breeze a small sprit-sail is used. They are said to be able to stand very rough water, but they are singularly precarious and irresponsible looking contrivances, and for these, as well as for all other seas, I should much prefer a staunch whale-boat. We sailed for some hours along a lava coast, streamless, rainless, verdureless, blazing under the fierce light of a tropical sun, and some time after noon anchored in the scorching bay of Kawaihae.

A foreign store, a number of native houses, a great heiau, or heathen temple on a height, a fringe of cocoa-nut palms, and a background of blazing hills, flaring with varieties of red, hardly toned down by any attempt at vegetation, a crystalline atmosphere palpitating with heat, deep, rippleless, clear water, with coral groves below, and a view of the three great Hawaiian mountains, are the salient features of this outlet of Hawaiian commerce. But ah! how soft and mild and blue the sky was, looking inland, where, for the first time, I saw far aloft, above solid masses of white cloud, sky hung, strangely uplifted, the great volcanic domes of Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa, and Hualalai, looking as if they had all passed into an endless repose.

This bay, which affords excellent holding ground, and is screened by highlands from the sudden and violent gusts of wind, called “mumuku,” which sweep down between the mountains with almost irresistible fury, used to be a great place of call for whalers, who purchased large quantities of “recruits” here; yams in the earlier days, and more lately Irish potatoes, which flourish in the thirsty soil. But whaling in the North Pacific seems to be nearly “played out,” and the arrival of a whaler is not a common occurrence.

Shortly before we arrived I found that the sailing of the San Francisco steamer is put off for a week, so I took advantage of a kind invitation I received some time ago to visit Waimea, and go from thence to Waimanu, a wonderful valley beyond Waipio, very little visited by foreigners. A gentleman and lady rode up here with me, and I got a horse on the beach with a native bullock saddle on him, an uncouth contrivance of wood not covered with hide, and a strong lassoing horn. The great wooden stirrups could not be shortened, but I soon found myself able, in true savage fashion, to gallop up and down hill without any.

The chief object of interest on this ride is the great heiau, which stands on a bare steep hill above the sea, not easy of access. It was the last heathen temple built on Hawaii. On entering the huge pile, which stood gaunt and desolate in the thin red air, the story of the old bloody heathenism of the islands flashed upon my memory. The entrance is by a narrow passage between two high walls, and it was by this that the sacrificing priests dragged the human victims into the presence of Tairi, a hideous wooden idol, crowned with a helmet, and covered with red feathers, the favourite war-god of Kamehameha the Great, by whom this temple was built, before he proceeded to the conquest of Oahu.

The shape is an irregular parallelogram, 224 feet long, and 100 wide. At each end, and on the mauka side, the walls, which are very solid and compact, though built of lava stones without mortar, are twenty feet high, and twelve feet wide at the bottom, but narrow gradually towards the top, where they are finished with a course of smooth stones six feet broad. On the sea side, the wall, which has been partly thrown down, was not more than six or seven feet high, and there were paved platforms for the accommodation of the alii, or chiefs, and the people in their orders. The upper terrace is spacious, and paved with flat smooth stones which were brought from a considerable distance, the greater part of the population of the island having been employed on the building. At the south end there was an inner court, where the principal idol stood, surrounded by a number of inferior deities, for the Hawaiians had “gods many, and lords many.” Here also was the anu, a lofty frame of wickerwork, shaped like an obelisk, hollow, and five feet square at its base. Within this, the priest, who was the oracle of the god, stood, and of him the king used to inquire concerning war or peace, or any affair of national importance. It appears that the tones of the oracular voice were more distinct than the meaning of the utterances. However, the supposed answers were generally acted upon.

On the outside of this inner court was the lele, or altar, on which human and other sacrifices were offered. On the day of the dedication of the temple to Tairi, vast offerings of fruit, dogs, and hogs were presented, and eleven human beings were immolated on the altar. These victims were taken from among captives, or those who had broken Tabu, or had rendered themselves obnoxious to the chiefs, and were often blind, maimed, or crippled persons. Sometimes they were dispatched at a distance with a stone or club, and their bodies were dragged along the narrow passage up which I walked shuddering; but oftener they were bound and taken alive into the heiau to be slain in the outer court. The priests, in slaying these sacrifices, were careful to mangle the bodies as little as possible. From two to twenty were offered at once. They were laid in a row with their faces downwards on the altar before the idol, to whom they were presented in a kind of prayer by the priest, and, if offerings of hogs were presented at the same time, these were piled upon them, and the whole mass was left to putrify.

The only dwellings within the heiau were those of the priests, and the “sacred house” of the king, in which he resided during the seasons of strict Tabu. A doleful place this heiau is, haunted not only by the memories of almost unimaginable terrors, but by the sore thought that generations of Hawaiians lived and died in the unutterable darkness of this ignorant worship, passing in long procession from these grim rites into the presence of the Father whose infinite compassions they had never known.

Every hundred feet of ascent from the rainless, fervid beach of Kawaihae increased the freshness of the temperature, and rendered exercise more delightful. From the fringe of palms along the coast to the damp hills north of Waimea, a distance of ten miles, there is not a tree or stream, though the scorched earth is deeply scored by the rush of fierce temporary torrents. Hitherto, I have only travelled over the green coast which faces the trade winds, where clouds gather and shed their rains, and this desert, which occupies a great part of leeward Hawaii, displeases me. It lies burning in the fierce splendours of a zone, which, until now, I had forgotten was the torrid zone, unwatered and unfruitful, red and desolate under the sun. The island is here only twenty-two miles wide, and strong winds sweep across it, whirling up its surface in great brown clouds, so that the uplands in part appear a smoking plain, backed by naked volcanic cones. No water, no grass, no ferns. Some thornless thistles, a little brush of sapless-looking indigo, and some species of compositae struggle for a doleful existence. There is nothing tropical about it but the intense heat. The red soil becomes suffused with a green tinge ten miles from the beach, and at the summit of the ascent the desert blends with this beautiful Waimea plain, one of the most marked features of Hawaii. The air became damp and cool; miles of fine smooth green grass stretched out before us; high hills, broken, pinnacled, wooded, and cleft with deep ravines, rose on our left; we heard the clash and music of falling water: to the north it was like the Munster Thal, to the south altogether volcanic. The tropics had vanished. There were frame houses sheltered from the winds by artificial screens of mulberry trees, and from the incursions of cattle by rough walls of lava stones five feet high; a mission and court house, a native church, much too large for the shrunken population, and other indications of an inhabited region. Except for the woods which clothe the hills, the characteristic of the scenery is baldness.

On clambering over the wall which surrounds my host’s kraal of dwellings, I heard in the dusk strange sweet voices crying rudely and emphatically, “Who are you? What do you want?” and was relieved to find that the somewhat inhospitable interrogation only proceeded from two Australian magpies. Mr. S—— is a Tasmanian, married to a young half-white lady: and her native mother and seven or eight dark girls are here, besides a number of natives and Chinese, and half Chinese, who are employed about the place. Sheep are the source of my host’s wealth. He has 25,000 at three stations on Mauna Kea, and, at an altitude of 6000 feet they flourish, and are free from some of the maladies to which they are liable elsewhere. Though there are only three or four sheep owners on the islands, they exported 288,526 lbs. of wool last year. 22 Mr. S—— has also 1000 head of cattle and 50 horses.

The industry of Waimea is cattle raising, and some feeble attempts are being made to improve the degenerate island breed by the importation of a few short-horn cows from New Zealand. These plains afford magnificent pasturage as well as galloping ground. They are a very great thoroughfare. The island, which is an equilateral triangle, about 300 miles in “circuit,” can only be crossed here. Elsewhere, an impenetrable forest belt, and an impassable volcanic wilderness, compel travellers to take the burning track of adamant which snakes round the southern coast, when they are minded to go from one side of Hawaii to the other. Waimea also has the singular distinction of a road from the beach, which is traversed on great occasions by two or three oxen and mule teams, and very rarely by a more ambitious conveyance. There are few hours of day or night in which the tremulous thud of shoeless horses galloping on grass is not heard in Waimea.

The altitude of this great table-land is 2500 feet, and the air is never too hot, the temperature averaging 64 degrees Fahrenheit. There is mist or rain on most days of the year for a short time, and the mornings and evenings are clear and cool. The long sweeping curves of the three great Hawaiian mountains spring from this level. The huge bulk of Mauna Kea without shoulders or spurs, rises directly from the Waimea level on the south to the altitude of 14,000 feet, and his base is thickly clustered with tufa-cones of a bright red colour, from 300 to 1000 feet in height. Considerably further back, indeed forty miles away, the smooth dome of Mauna Loa appears very serene now, but only thirteen years ago the light was so brilliant, from one of its tremendous eruptions, that here it was possible to read a newspaper by it, and during its height candles were unnecessary in the evenings! Nearer the coast, and about thirty miles from here, is the less conspicuous dome of the dead volcano of Hualalai. If all Hawaii, south of Waimea, were submerged to a depth of 8000 feet, three nearly equi-distant, dome-shaped volcanic islands would remain, the highest of which would have an altitude of 6000 feet. To the south of these plains violent volcanic action is everywhere apparent, not only in tufa cones, but in tracts of ashes, scoriae, and volcanic sand. Near the centre there are some very curious caves, possibly “lava bubbles,” which were used by the natives as places of sepulture. The Kohala hills, picturesque, wooded, and abrupt, bound Waimea on the north, with their exquisite grassy slopes, and bring down an abundance of water to the plain, but owing to the lightness of the soil and the evaporation produced by the tremendous winds, the moisture disappears within two miles of the hills, and an area of rich soil, ten miles by twelve, which, if irrigated, would be invaluable, is nothing but a worthless dusty desert, perpetually encroaching on the grass. As soon as the plains slope towards the east, the vegetation of the tropics reappears, and the face of the country is densely covered with a swampy and impenetrable bush hardly at all explored, which shades the sources of the streams which fall into the Waipio and Waimanu Valleys, and is supposed to contain water enough to irrigate the Saharas of leeward Hawaii.

The climate of the plain is most invigorating. If there were waggon roads and obtainable comforts, Waimea, with its cool equable temperature, might become the great health resort of invalids from the Pacific coast. But Hawaii is not a place for the sick or old; for, if people cannot ride on horseback, they can have neither society nor change. Mr. Lyons, one of the most famous of the early missionaries, still clings to this place, where he has worked for forty years. He is an Hawaiian poet; and, besides translating some of our best hymns, has composed enough to make up the greater part of a bulky volume, which is said to be of great merit. He says that the language lends itself very readily to rhythmical expression. He was indefatigable in his youth, and was four times let down the pali by ropes to preach in the Waimanu Valley. Neither he nor his wife can mount a horse now, and it is very dreary for them, as the population has receded and dwindled from about them. Their house is made lively, however, by some bright little native girls, who board with them, and receive an English and industrial education.

The moral atmosphere of Waimea has never been a wholesome one. The region was very early settled by a class of what may be truly termed “mean whites,” the “beach-combers” and riff-raff of the Pacific. They lived infamous lives, and added their own to the indigenous vices of the islands, turning the district into a perfect sink of iniquity, in which they were known by such befitting aliases as “Jake the Devil,” etc. The coming of the missionaries, and the settlement of moral, orderly whites on Hawaii, have slowly created a public opinion averse to flagrant immorality, and the outrageous license of former years would now meet with legal penalties. Many of the old settlers are dead, and others have drifted to regions beyond restraining influences, but still “the Waimea crowd” is not considered up to the mark. Most of the present set of foreigners are Englishmen who have married native women. It was in such quarters as this that the great antagonistic influence to the complete Christianization of the natives was created, and it is from such suspicious sources that the aspersions on missionary work are usually derived.

Waimea has its own beauty — the grand breezy plain, the gigantic sweep of the mountain curves, the incessant changes of colour, and the morning view of Mauna Kea, with the pure snow on its ragged dome, rose-flushed in the early sunlight. I don’t agree with Disraeli that “happiness is atmosphere;” yet constant sunshine, and a climate which never threatens one with discomfort or ills, certainly conduce to equable cheerfulness.

I am quite interested with a native lady here, the first I have met with who has been able to express her ideas in English. She is extremely shrewd and intelligent, very satirical, and a great mimic. She very cleverly burlesques the way in which white people express their admiration of scenery, and, in fact, ridicules admiration of scenery for itself. She evidently thinks us a sour, morose, worrying, forlorn race. “We,” she said, “are always happy; we never grieve long about anything; when any one dies we break our hearts for some days, and then we are happy again. We are happy all day long, not like white people, happy one moment, gloomy another: we’ve no cares, the days are too short. What are haoles always unhappy about?” Perhaps she expresses the general feeling of her careless, pleasure-loving, mirth-loving people, who, whatever commands they disobey, fulfil the one, “Take no thought for the morrow.” The fabrication of the beautiful quilts I before wrote of is a favourite occupation of native women, and they make all their own and their husbands’ clothes; but making leis, going into the woods to collect materials for them, talking, riding, bathing, visiting, and otherwise amusing themselves, take up the greater part of their time. Perhaps if we white women always wore holukus of one shape, we should have fewer gloomy moments!

I.L.B.

22 In 1873 the export of wool had increased to 329,507 lbs.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:41