The Hawaiian Archipelago, by Isabella L. Bird

Letter XX.

Koloa, Kauai, March 23rd.

I am spending a few days on some quaint old mission premises, and the “guest house,” where I am lodged, is a dobe house, with walls two feet thick, and a very thick grass roof comes down six feet all round to shade the windows. It is itself shaded by date palms and algarobas, and is surrounded by hibiscus, oleanders, and the datura arborea(?), which at night fill the air with sweetness. I am the only guest, and the solitude of the guest house in which I am writing is most refreshing to tired nerves. There is not a sound but the rustling of trees.

The first event to record is that the trade winds have set in, and though they may yet yield once or twice to the kona, they will soon be firmly established for nine months. They are not soft airs as I supposed, but riotous, rollicking breezes, which keep up a constant clamour, blowing the trees about, slamming doors, taking liberties with papers, making themselves heard and felt everywhere, flecking the blue Pacific with foam, lowering the mercury three degrees, bringing new health and vigour with them — wholesome, cheery, frolicsome north-easters. They brought me here from Oahu in eighteen hours, for which I thank them heartily.

You will think me a Sybarite for howling about those eighteen hours of running to leeward, when the residents of Kauai, if they have to go to Honolulu in the intervals between the quarterly trips of the Kilauea, have to spend from three to nine days in beating to windward. These inter-island voyages of extreme detention, rolling on a lazy swell in tropical heat, or beating for days against the strong trades without shelter from the sun, and without anything that could be called accommodation, were among the inevitable hardships to which the missionaries’ wives and children were exposed in every migration for nearly forty years.

When I reached the wharf at Honolulu the sight of the Jenny, the small sixty-ton schooner by which I was to travel, nearly made me give up this pleasant plan, so small she looked, and so cumbered with natives and their accompaniments of mats, dogs, and calabashes of poi. But she is clean, and as sweet as a boat can be which carries through the tropics cattle, hides, sugar, and molasses. She is very low in the water, her deck is the real “fisherman’s walk, two steps and overboard;” and on this occasion was occupied solely by natives. The Attorney General and Mrs. Judd were to have been my fellow voyagers, but my disappointment at their non-appearance was considerably mitigated by the fact that there was not stowage room for more than one white passenger! Mrs. Dexter pitied me heartily, for it made her quite ill to look down the cabin hatch; but I convinced her that no inconveniences are legitimate subjects for sympathy which are endured in the pursuit of pleasure. There was just room on deck for me to sit on a box, and the obliging, gentlemanly master, who, with his son and myself, were the only whites on board, sat on the taffrail.

The Jenny spread her white duck sails, glided gracefully away from the wharf, and bounded through the coral reef; the red sunlight faded, the stars came out, the Honolulu light went down in the distance, and in two hours the little craft was out of sight of land on the broad, crisp Pacific. It was so chilly, that after admiring as long as I could, I dived into the cabin, a mere den, with a table, and a berth on each side, in one of which I lay down, and the other was alternately occupied by the captain and his son. But limited as I thought it, boards have been placed across on some occasions, and eleven whites have been packed into a space six feet by eight! The heat and suffocation were nearly intolerable, the black flies swarming, the mosquitos countless and vicious, the fleas agile beyond anything, and the cockroaches gigantic. Some of the finer cargo was in the cabin, and large rats, only too visible by the light of a swinging lamp, were assailing it, and one with a portentous tail ran over my berth more than once, producing a stampede among the cockroaches each time. I have seldom spent a more miserable night, though there was the extreme satisfaction of knowing that every inch of canvas was drawing.

Towards morning the short jerking motion of a ship close hauled, made me know that we were standing in for the land, and at daylight we anchored in Koloa Roads. The view is a pleasant one. The rains have been abundant, and the land, which here rises rather gradually from the sea, is dotted with houses, abounds in signs of cultivation, and then spreads up into a rolling country between precipitous ranges of mountains. The hills look something like those of Oahu, but their wonderful greenness denotes a cooler climate and more copious rains, also their slopes and valleys are densely wooded, and Kauai obviously has its characteristic features, one of which must certainly be a superabundance of that most unsightly cactus, the prickly pear, to which the motto nemo me impune lacessit most literally applies.

I had not time to tell you before that this trip to Kauai was hastily arranged for me by several of my Honolulu friends, some of whom gave me letters of introduction, while others wrote forewarning their friends of my arrival. I am often reminded of Hazael’s question, “Is thy servant a dog that he should do this thing?” There is no inn or boarding house on the island, and I had hitherto believed that I could not be concussed into following the usual custom whereby a traveller throws himself on the hospitality of the residents. Yet, under the influence of Honolulu persuasions, I am doing this very thing, but with an amount of mauvaise honte and trepidation, which I will not voluntarily undergo again.

My first introduction was to Mrs. Smith, wife of a secular member of the Mission, and it requested her to find means of forwarding me a distance of twenty-three miles. Her son was at the landing with a buggy, a most unpleasant index of the existence of carriage roads, and brought me here; and Mrs. Smith most courteously met me at the door. When I presented my letter I felt like a thief detected in a first offence, but I was at once made welcome, and my kind hosts insist on my remaining with them for some days. Their house is a pretty old-fashioned looking tropical dwelling, much shaded by exotics, and the parlour is homelike with new books. There are two sons and two daughters at home, all, as well as their parents, interesting themselves assiduously in the welfare of the natives. Six bright-looking native girls are receiving an industrial training in the house. Yesterday being Sunday, the young people taught a Sunday school twice, besides attending the native church, an act of respect to Divine service in Hawaiian which always has an influence on the native attendance.

We have had some beautiful rides in the neighbourhood. It is a wild, lonely, picturesque coast, and the Pacific moans along it, casting itself on it in heavy surges, with a singularly dreary sound. There are some very fine specimens of the phenomena called “blow-holes” on the shore, not like the “spouting cave” at Iona, however. We spent a long time in watching the action of one, though not the finest. At half tide this “spouting horn” throws up a column of water over sixty feet in height from a very small orifice, and the effect of the compressed air rushing through a crevice near it, sometimes with groans and shrieks, and at others with a hollow roar like the warning fog-horn on a coast, is magnificent, when, as today, there is a heavy swell on the coast.

Kauai is much out of the island world, owing to the infrequent visits of the Kilauea, but really it is only twelve hours by steam from the capital. Strangers visit it seldom, as it has no active volcano like Hawaii, or colossal crater like Maui, or anything sensational of any kind. It is called the “Garden Island,” and has no great wastes of black lava and red ash like its neighbours. It is queerly shaped, almost circular, with a diameter of from twenty-eight to thirty miles, and its area is about 500 square miles. Waialeale, its highest mountain, is 4,800 feet high, but little is known of it, for it is swampy and dangerous, and a part of it is a forest-covered and little explored tableland, terminating on the sea in a range of perpendicular precipices 2,000 feet in depth, so steep it is said, that a wild cat could not get round them. Owing to these, and the virtual inaccessibility of a large region behind them, no one can travel round the island by land, and small as it is, very little seems to be known of portions of its area.

Kauai has apparently two centres of formation, and its mountains are thickly dotted with craters. The age and density of the vegetation within and without those in this Koloa district, indicate a very long cessation from volcanic action. It is truly an oddly contrived island. An elevated rolling region, park-like, liberally ornamented with clumps of ohia, lauhala, hau, (hibiscus) and koa, and intersected with gullies full of large eugenias, lies outside the mountain spurs behind Koloa. It is only the tropical trees, specially the lauhala or “screw pine,” the whimsical shapes of outlying ridges, which now and then lie like the leaves in a book, and the strange forms of extinct craters, which distinguish it from some of our most beautiful park scenery, such as Windsor Great Park or Belvoir. It is a soft tranquil beauty, and a tolerable road which owes little enough to art, increases the likeness to the sweet home scenery of England. In this part of the island the ground seems devoid of stones, and the grass is as fine and smooth as a race course.

The latest traces of volcanic action are found here. From the Koloa Ridge to, and into the sea, a barren uneven surface of pahoehoe extends, often bulged up in immense bubbles, some of which have partially burst, leaving caverns, one of which, near the shore, is paved with the ancient coral reef!

The valleys of Kauai are long, and widen to the sea, and their dark rich soil is often ten feet deep. On the windward side the rivers are very numerous and picturesque. Between the strong winds and the lightness of the soil, I should think that like some parts of the Highlands, “it would take a shower every day.” The leeward side, quite close to the sea, is flushed and nearly barren, but there is very little of this desert region. Kauai is less legible in its formation than the other islands. Its mountains, from their impenetrable forests, dangerous breaks, and swampiness, are difficult of access, and its ridges are said to be more utterly irregular, its lavas more decomposed, and its natural sections more completely smothered under a profuse vegetation than those of any other island in the tropical Pacific. Geologists suppose, from the degradation of its ridges, and the absence of any recent volcanic products, that it is the oldest of the group, but so far as I have read, none of them venture to conjecture how many ages it has taken to convert its hard basalt into the rich soil which now sustains trees of enormous size. If this theory be correct, the volcanoes must have gone on dying out from west to east, from north to south, till only Kilauea remains, and its energies appear to be declining. The central mountain of this island is built of a heavy ferruginous basalt, but the shore ridges contain less iron, are more porous, and vary in their structure from a compact phonolite, to a ponderous basalt.

The population of Kauai is a widely scattered one of 4,900, and as it is an out of the world region the people are probably better, and less sophisticated. They are accounted rustics, or “pagans,” in the classical sense, elsewhere. Horses are good and very cheap, and the natives of both sexes are most expert riders. Among their feats, are picking up small coins from the ground while going at full gallop, or while riding at the same speed wringing off the heads of unfortunate fowls, whose bodies are buried in the earth.

There are very few foreigners, and they appear on the whole a good set, and very friendly among each other. Many of them are actively interested in promoting the improvement of the natives, but it is uphill work, and ill-rewarded, at least on earth. The four sugar plantations employ a good deal of Chinese labour, and I fear that the Chinamen are stealthily tempting the Hawaiians to smoke opium.

All the world over, however far behind aborigines are in the useful arts, they exercise a singular ingenuity in devising means for intoxicating and stupifying themselves. On these islands distillation is illegal, and a foreigner is liable to conviction and punishment for giving spirits to a native Hawaiian, yet the natives contrive to distil very intoxicating drinks, specially from the root of the ti tree, and as the spirit is unrectified it is both fiery and unwholesome. Licences to sell spirits are confined to the capital. In spite of the notoriously bad effect of alcohol in the tropics, people drink hard, and the number of deaths which can be distinctly traced to spirit drinking is quite startling.

The prohibition on selling liquor to natives is the subject of incessant discussions and “interpellations” in the national legislature. Probably all the natives agree in regarding it as a badge of the “inferiority of colour;” but I have been told generally that the most intelligent and thoughtful among them are in favour of its continuance, on the ground that if additional facilities for drinking were afforded, the decrease in the population would be accelerated. In the printed “Parliamentary Proceedings,” I see that petitions are constantly presented praying that the distillation of spirits may be declared free, while a few are in favour of “total prohibition.” Another prayer is “that Hawaiians may have the same privileges as white people in buying and drinking spirituous liquors.”

A bill to repeal the invidious distinction was brought into the legislature not long since; but the influence of the descendants of the missionaries and of an influential part of the white community is so strongly against spirit drinking, as well as against the sale of drink to the natives, that the law remains on the Statute-book.

The tone in which it was discussed is well indicated by the language of Kalakaua, the present king’s rival: “The restrictions imposed by this law do the people no good, but rather harm; for instead of inculcating the principles of honour, they teach them to steal behind the bar, the stable, and the closet, where they may be sheltered from the eyes of the law. The heavy licence imposed on the liquor dealers, and the prohibition against selling to the natives are an infringement of our civil rights, binding not only the purchaser but the dealer against acquiring and possessing property. Then, Mr. President, I ask, where lies virtue, where lies justice? Not in those that bind the liberty of this people, by refusing them the privilege that they now crave, of drinking spirituous liquors without restriction. Will you by persisting that this law remain in force make us a nation of hypocrites? or will you repeal it, that honour and virtue may for once be yours, O Hawaii.” A committee of the Assembly, in reporting on the question of the prohibition of the sale of intoxicants to anybody, through its chairman, Mr. Carter, stated, “Experience teaches that such prohibition could not be enforced without a strong public sentiment to indorse it, and such a sentiment does not prevail in this community, as is evidenced by the fact that the sale of intoxicating drinks to natives is largely practised in defiance of law and the executive, and that the manufacture of intoxicating drinks, though prohibited, is carried on in every district of the kingdom.” So the question which is rising in every country ruled or colonised by Anglo–Saxons, is also agitated here with very strong feeling on both sides.

I was led to this digression by seeing, for the first time, some very fine plants of the Piper methysticum. This is awa, truly a “plant of renown” throughout Polynesia. Strange tales are told of it. It is said to produce profound sleep, with visions more enchanting than those of opium or hasheesh, and that its repetition, instead of being deleterious, is harmless and even wholesome. Its sale is prohibited, except on the production of evidence that it has been prescribed as a drug. Nevertheless no law on the islands is so grossly violated. It is easy to GIVE it, and easy to grow it, or dig it up in the woods, so that, in spite of the legal restrictions, it is used to an enormous extent. It was proposed absolutely to prohibit the sale of it, though the sum paid for the licence is no inconsiderable item in the revenue of a kingdom, which, like many others, is experiencing the difficulty of “making both ends meet;” but the committee which sat upon the subject reported “that such prohibition is not practicable, unless its growth and cultivation are prevented. So long as public sentiment permits the open violation of the existing laws regulating its sale without rebuke, so long will it be of little use to attempt prohibition.” One cannot be a day on the islands without hearing wonderful stories about awa; and its use is defended by some who are strongly opposed to the use as well as abuse of intoxicants. People who like “The Earl and the Doctor” delight themselves in the strongly sensuous element which pervades Polynesian life, delight themselves too, in contemplating the preparation and results of the awa beverage; but both are to me extremely disgusting, and I cannot believe that a drink, which stupifies the senses, and deprives a human being of the power to exercise reason and will, is anything but hurtful to the moral nature.

While passing the Navigator group, one of my fellow-passengers, who had been for some time in Tutuila, described the preparation of awa poetically, the root “being masticated by the pearly teeth of dusky flower-clad maidens;” but I was an accidental witness of a nocturnal “awa drinking” on Hawaii, and saw nothing but very plain prose. I feel as if I must approach the subject mysteriously. I had no time to tell you of the circumstance when it occurred, when also I was completely ignorant that it was an illegal affair; and, now with a sort of “guilty knowledge” I tremble to relate what I saw, and to divulge that though I could not touch the beverage, I tasted the root, which has an acrid pungent taste, something like horse-radish, with an aromatic flavour in addition, and I can imagine that the acquired taste for it must, like other acquired tastes, be perfectly irresistible, even without the additional gratification of the results which follow its exercise.

In the particular instance which I saw, two girls who were not beautiful, and an old man who would have been hideous but for a set of sound regular teeth, were sitting on the ground masticating the awa root, the process being contemplated with extreme interest by a number of adults. When, by careful chewing, they had reduced the root to a pulpy consistence, they tossed it into a large calabash, and relieved their mouths of superfluous saliva before preparing a fresh mouthful. This went on till a considerable quantity was provided, and then water was added, and the mass was kneaded and stirred with the hands till it looked like soap suds. It was then strained; and after more water had been added it was poured into cocoa-nut calabashes, and handed round. Its appearance eventually was like weak, frothy coffee and milk. The appearance of purely animal gratification on the faces of those who drank it, instead of being poetic, was of the low gross earth. Heads thrown back, lips parted with a feeble sensual smile, eyes hazy and unfocussed, arms folded on the breast, and the mental faculties numbed and sliding out of reach.

Those who drink it pass through the stage of idiocy into a deep sleep, which it is said can be reproduced once without an extra dose, by bathing in cold water. Confirmed awa drinkers might be mistaken for lepers, for they are covered with whitish scales, and have inflamed eyes and a leathery skin, for the epidermis is thickened and whitened, and eventually peels off. The habit has been adopted by not a few whites, specially on Hawaii, though, of course, to a certain extent clandestinely. Awa is taken also as a medicine, and was supposed to be a certain cure for corpulence.

The root and base of the stem are the parts used, and it is best when these are fresh. It seems to exercise a powerful fascination, and to be loved and glorified as whisky is in Scotland, and wine in southern Europe. In some of the other islands of Polynesia, on festive occasions, when the chewed root is placed in the calabash, and the water is poured on, the whole assemblage sings appropriate songs in its praise; and this is kept up until the decoction has been strained to its dregs. But here, as the using it as a beverage is an illicit process, a great mystery attends it. It is said that awa drinking is again on the increase, and with the illicit distillation of unwholesome spirits, and the illicit sale of imported spirits and the opium smoking, the consumption of stimulants and narcotics on the islands is very considerable. 27

To turn from drink to climate. It is strange that with such a heavy rainfall, dwellings built on the ground and never dried by fires should be so perfectly free from damp as they are. On seeing the houses here and in Honolulu, buried away in dense foliage, my first thought was, “how lovely in summer, but how unendurably damp in winter,” forgetting that I arrived in the nominal winter, and that it is really summer all the year. Lest you should think that I am perversely exaggerating the charms of the climate, I copy a sentence from a speech made by Kamehameha IV., at the opening of an Hawaiian agricultural society:—

“Who ever heard of winter on our shores? Where among us shall we find the numberless drawbacks which, in less favoured countries, the labourer has to contend with? They have no place in our beautiful group, which rests like a water lily on the swelling bosom of the Pacific. The heaven is tranquil above our heads, and the sun keeps his jealous eye upon us every day, while his rays are so tempered that they never wither prematurely what they have warmed into life.”28 The kindness of my hosts is quite overwhelming. They will not hear of my buying a horse, but insist on my taking away with me the one which I have been riding since I came, the best I have ridden on the islands, surefooted, fast, easy, and ambitious. I have complete sympathy with the passion which the natives have for riding. Horses are abundant and cheap on Kauai: a fairly good one can be bought for $20. I think every child possesses one. Indeed the horses seem to outnumber the people.

The eight native girls who are being trained and educated here as a “family school” have their horses, and go out to ride as English children go for a romp into a play-ground. Yesterday Mrs. S. said, “Now, girls, get the horses,” and soon two little creatures of eight and ten came galloping up on two spirited animals. They had not only caught and bridled them, but had put on the complicated Mexican saddles as securely as if men had done it; and I got a lesson from them in making the Mexican knot with the thong which secures the cinch, which will make me independent henceforward.

These children can all speak English, and their remarks are most original and amusing. They have not a particle of respect of manner, as we understand it, but seem very docile. They are naive and fascinating in their manners, and the most joyous children I ever saw. When they are not at their lessons, or household occupations, they are dancing on stilts, acting plays of their own invention, riding or bathing, and they laugh all day long. Mrs. S. has trained nearly seventy since she has been here. If there were nothing else they see family life in a pure and happy form, which must in itself be a moral training, and by dint of untiring watchfulness they are kept aloof from the corrupt native associations. Indeed they are not allowed to have any intercourse with natives, for, according to one of the missionaries who has spent many years on the islands: “None know or can conceive without personal observation the nameless taint that pervades the whole garrulous talk and gregarious life of all heathen peoples, and above which our poor Hawaiian friends have not yet risen.” Of this universal impurity of speech every one speaks in the strongest terms, and careful white parents not only seclude their children in early years from unrestrained intercourse with the natives, but prevent them from acquiring the Hawaiian tongue. In this respect the training of native girls involves a degree of patient watchfulness which must at times press heavily on those who undertake it, as the carefulness of years might fail of its result, if it were intermitted for one afternoon.

I.L.B.

27 According to the revenue returns for the biennial period ending March 31, 1874, the revenue derived from awa was over $9000, and that from opium over $46,000.

28 The following paragraph from Dr. Rupert Anderson’s sober-minded book on the Sandwich Islands fully bears out the king’s remarks: “The islands all lie within the range of the trade winds, which blow with great regularity nine months of the year, and on the leeward side, where their course is obstructed by mountains, there are regular land and sea breezes. The weather at all seasons is delightful, the sky usually cloudless, the atmosphere clear and bracing. Nothing can exceed the soft brilliancy of the moonlight nights. Thunderstorms are rare and light in their nature. Hurricanes are unknown. The general temperature is the nearest in the world to that point regarded by physiologists as most conducive to health and longevity. By ascending the mountains any desirable degree of temperature may be obtained.”

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