The Hawaiian Archipelago, by Isabella L. Bird

Letter XXX. 34

Ridge House, Kona, Hawaii. June 12.

I landed in Kealakakua Bay on a black lava block, on which tradition says that Captain Cook fell, struck with his death-wound, a century ago. The morning sun was flaming above the walls of lava 1,000 feet in height which curve round the dark bay, the green deep water rolled shorewards in lazy undulations, canoes piled full of pineapples poised themselves on the swell, ancient cocopalms glassed themselves in still waters — it was hot, silent, tropical.

The disturbance which made the bay famous is known to every schoolboy; how the great explorer, long supposed by the natives to be their vanished god Lono, betrayed his earthly lineage by groaning when he was wounded, and was then dispatched outright. A cocoanut stump, faced by a sheet of copper recording the circumstance, is the great circumnavigator’s monument. A few miles beyond, is the enclosure of Haunaunau, the City of Refuge for western Hawaii. In this district there is a lava road ascribed to Umi, a legendary king, who is said to have lived 500 years ago. It is very perfect, well defined on both sides with kerb-stones, and greatly resembles the chariot ways in Pompeii. Near it are several structures formed of four stones, three being set upright, and the fourth forming the roof. In a northerly direction is the place where Liholiho, the king who died in England, excited by drink and the persuasions of Kaahumanu, broke tabu, and made an end of the superstitions of heathenism. Not far off is the battle field on which the adherents of the idols rallied their forces against the iconoclasts, and were miserably and finally defeated. Recent lava streams have descended on each side of the bay, and from the bare black rock of the landing a flow may be traced up the steep ascent as far as a precipice, over which it falls in waves and twists, a cataract of stone. A late lava river passed through the magnificent forest on the southerly slope, and the impressions of the stems of coco and fan palms are stamped clearly on the smooth rock. The rainfall in Kona is heavy, but there is no standing water, and only one stream in a distance of 100 miles.

This district is famous for oranges, coffee, pineapples, and silence. A flaming palm-fringed shore with a prolific strip of table land 1,500 feet above it, a dense timber belt eight miles in breadth, and a volcano smoking somewhere between that and the heavens, and glaring through the trees at night, are the salient points of Kona if anything about it be salient. It is a region where falls not

“ . . . Hail or any snow,

Or ever wind blows loudly.”

Wind indeed, is a thing unknown. The scarcely audible whisper of soft airs through the trees morning and evening, rain drops falling gently, and the murmur of drowsy surges far below, alone break the stillness. No ripple ever disturbs the great expanse of ocean which gleams through the still, thick trees. Rose in the sweet cool morning, gold in the sweet cool evening, but always dreaming; and white sails come and go, no larger than a butterfly’s wing on the horizon, of ships drifting on ocean currents, dreaming too! Nothing surely can ever happen here: it is so dumb and quiet, and people speak in hushed thin voices, and move as in a lethargy, dreaming too! No heat, cold, or wind, nothing emphasised or italicised, it is truly a region of endless afternoons, “a land where all things always seem the same.” Life is dead, and existence is a languid swoon.

This is the only regular boarding house on Hawaii. The company is accidental and promiscuous. The conversation consists of speculations, varied and repeated with the hours, as to the arrivals and departures of the Honolulu schooners Uilama and Prince, who they will bring, who they will take, and how long their respective passages will be. A certain amount of local gossip is also hashed up at each meal, and every stranger who has travelled through Hawaii for the last ten years is picked to pieces and worn threadbare, and his purse, weight, entertainers, and habits are thoroughly canvassed. On whatever subject the conversation begins it always ends in dollars; but even that most stimulating of all topics only arouses a languid interest among my fellow dreamers. I spend most of my time in riding in the forests, or along the bridle path which trails along the height, among grass and frame-houses, almost smothered by trees and trailers.

Many of these are inhabited by white men, who, having drifted to these shores, have married native women, and are rearing a dusky race, of children who speak the maternal tongue only, and grow up with native habits. Some of these men came for health, others landed from whalers, but of all it is true that infatuated by the ease and lusciousness of this languid region,

“They sat them down upon the yellow sand,

Between the sun and moon upon the shore;

And sweet it was to dream of Fatherland,

. . . .; but evermore

Most weary seem’d the sea, weary the oar,

Weary the wandering fields of barren foam.

Then some one said, “We will return no more.”

They have enough and more, and a life free from toil, but the obvious tendency of these marriages is to sink the white man to the level of native feelings and habits.

There are two or three educated residents, and there is a small English church with daily service, conducted by a resident clergyman.

The beauty of this part of Kona is wonderful. The interminable forest is richer and greener than anything I have yet seen, but penetrable only by narrow tracks which have been made for hauling timber. The trees are so dense, and so matted together with trailers, that no ray of noon-day sun brightens the moist tangle of exquisite mosses and ferns which covers the ground. Yams with their burnished leaves, and the Polypodium spectrum, wind round every tree stem, and the heavy ie, which here attains gigantic proportions, links the tops of the tallest trees together by its stout knotted coils. Hothouse flowers grow in rank profusion round every house, and tea-roses, fuchsias, geraniums fifteen feet high, Nile lilies, Chinese lantern plants, begonias, lantanas, hibiscus, passion-flowers, Cape jasmine, the hoya, the tuberose, the beautiful but overpoweringly sweet ginger plant, and a hundred others: while the whole district is overrun with the Datura brugmansia (?) here an arborescent shrub fourteen feet high, bearing seventy great trumpet-shaped white blossoms at a time, which at night vie with those of the night-blowing Cereus in filling the air with odours.

Pineapples and melons grow like weeds among the grass, and everything that is good for food flourishes. Nothing can keep under the redundancy of nature in Kona; everything is profuse, fervid, passionate, vivified and pervaded by sunshine. The earth is restless in her productiveness, and forces up her hothouse growth perpetually, so that the miracle of Jonah’s gourd is almost repeated nightly. All decay is hurried out of sight, and through the glowing year flowers blossom and fruits ripen; ferns are always uncurling their young fronds and bananas unfolding their great shining leaves, and spring blends her everlasting youth and promise with the fulfilment and maturity of summer.

“Never comes the trader, never floats a European flag,

Slides the bird o’er lustrous woodland, swings the trailer from the crag:

Droops the heavy-blossom’d bower, hangs the heavy-fruited tree —

Summer isles of Eden lying in dark purple spheres of sea.”

HUALALAI. July 28th.

I very soon left the languid life of Kona for this sheep station, 6000 feet high on the desolate slope of the dead volcano of Hualalai, (“offspring of the shining sun,”) on the invitation of its hospitable owner, who said if I “could eat his rough fare, and live his rough life, his house and horses were at my disposal.” He is married to a very attractive native woman who eats at his table, but does not know a word of English, but they are both away at a wool-shed eight miles off, shearing sheep.

This house is in the great volcanic wilderness of which I wrote from Kalaieha, a desert of drouth and barrenness. There is no permanent track, and on the occasions when I have ridden up here alone, the directions given me have been to steer for an ox bone, and from that to a dwarf ohia. There is no coming or going; it is seventeen miles from the nearest settlement, and looks across a desert valley to Mauna Loa. Woody trailers, harsh hard grass in tufts, the Asplenium trichomanes in rifts, the Pellea ternifolia in sand, and some ohia and mamane scrub in hollow places sheltered from the wind, all hard, crisp, unlovely growths, contrast with the lavish greenery below. A brisk cool wind blows all day; every afternoon a dense fog brings the horizon within 200 feet, but it clears off with frost at dark, and the flames of the volcano light the whole southern sky.

My companions are an amiable rheumatic native woman, and a crone who must have lived a century, much shrivelled and tattooed, and nearly childish. She talks to herself in weird tones, stretches her lean limbs by the fire most of the day, and in common with most of the old people has a prejudice against clothes, and prefers huddling herself up in a blanket to wearing the ordinary dress of her sex. There is also a dog, but he does not understand English, and for some time I have not spoken any but Hawaiian words. I have plenty to do, and find this a very satisfactory life.

I came up to within eight miles of this house with a laughing, holiday-making rout of twelve natives, who rode madly along the narrow forest trail at full gallop, up and down the hills, through mire and over stones, leaping over the trunks of prostrate trees, and stooping under branches with loud laughter, challenging me to reckless races over difficult ground, and when they found that the wahine haole was not to be thrown from her horse they patted me approvingly, and crowned me with leis of maile. I became acquainted with some of these at Kilauea in the winter, and since I came to Kona they have been very kind to me.

I thoroughly like living among them, taking meals with them on their mats, and eating “two fingered” poi as if I had been used to it all my life. Their mirthfulness and kindliness are most winning; their horses, food, clothes, and time are all bestowed on one so freely, and one lives amongst them with a most restful sense of absolute security. They have many faults, but living alone among them in their houses as I have done so often on Hawaii, I have never seen or encountered a disagreeable thing. But the more I see of them the more impressed I am with their carelessness and love of pleasure, their lack of ambition and a sense of responsibility, and the time which they spend in doing nothing but talking and singing as they bask in the sun, though spasmodically and under excitement they are capable of tremendous exertions in canoeing, surf-riding, and lassoing cattle.

While down below I joined three natives for the purpose of seeing this last sport. They all rode shod horses, and had lassoes of ox hide attached to the horns of their saddles. I sat for an hour on horseback on a rocky hill while they hunted the woods; then I heard the deep voices of bulls, and a great burst of cattle appeared, with hunters in pursuit, but the herd vanished over a dip of the hill side, and the natives joined me. By this time I wished myself safely at home, partly because my unshod horse was not fit for galloping over lava and rough ground, and I asked the men where I should stay to be out of danger. The leader replied, “Oh, just keep close behind me!” I had thought of some safe view-point, not of galloping on an unshod horse with a ruck of half maddened cattle, but it was the safest plan, and there was no time to be lost, for as we rode slowly down, we sighted the herd dodging across the open to regain the shelter of the wood, and much on the alert.

Putting our horses into a gallop we dashed down the hill till we were close up with the chase; then another tremendous gallop, and a brief wild rush, the grass shaking with the surge of cattle and horses. There was much whirling of tails and tearing up of the earth — a lasso spun three or four times round the head of the native who rode in front of me, and almost simultaneously a fine red bullock lay prostrate on the earth, nearly strangled, with his foreleg noosed to his throat. The other natives dismounted, and put two lassoes round his horns, slipping the first into the same position, and vaulted into their saddles before he was on his legs.

He got up, shook himself, put his head down, and made a mad blind rush, but his captors were too dexterous for him, and in that and each succeeding rush he was foiled. As he tore wildly from side to side, the natives dodged under the lasso, slipping it over their heads, and swung themselves over their saddles, hanging in one stirrup, to aid their trained horses to steady themselves as the bullock tugged violently against them. He was escorted thus for a mile, his strength failing with each useless effort, his tongue hanging out, blood and foam dropping from his mouth and nostrils, his flanks covered with foam and sweat, till blind and staggering, he was led to a tree, where he was at once stabbed, and two hours afterwards a part of him was served at table. The natives were surprised that I avoided seeing his death, as the native women greatly enjoy such a spectacle. This mode of killing an animal while heated and terrified, doubtless accounts for the dark colour and hardness of Hawaiian beef.

Numbers of the natives are expert with the lasso, and besides capturing with it wild and half wild cattle, they catch horses with it, and since I came here my host caught a sheep with it, singling out the one he wished to kill, from the rest of the galloping flock with an unerring aim. It takes a whole ox hide cut into strips to make a good lasso.

One of my native friends tells me that a native man who attended on me in one of my earlier expeditions has since been “prayed to death.” One often hears this phrase, and it appears that the superstition which it represents has by no means died out. There are persons who are believed to have the lives of others in their hands, and their services are procured by offerings of white fowls, brown hogs, and awa, as well as money, by any one who has a grudge against another. Several other instances have been told me of persons who have actually died under the influence of the terror and despair produced by being told that the kahuna was “praying them to death.” I cannot learn whether these over-efficacious prayers are supposed to be addressed to the true God, or to the ancient Hawaiian divinities. The natives are very superstitious, and the late king, who was both educated and intelligent, was much under the dominion of a sorceress.

I have made the ascent of Hualalai twice from here, the first time guided by my host and hostess, and the second time rather adventurously alone. Forests of koa, sandal-wood, and ohia, with an undergrowth of raspberries and ferns clothe its base, the fragrant maile, and the graceful sarsaparilla vine, with its clustered coral-coloured buds, nearly smother many of the trees, and in several places the heavy ie forms the semblance of triumphal arches over the track. This forest terminates abruptly on the great volcanic wilderness, with its starved growth of unsightly scrub. But Hualalai, though 10,000 feet in height, is covered with Pteris aquilina, mamane, coarse bunch grass, and pukeave to its very summit, which is crowned by a small, solitary, blossoming ohia.

For two hours before reaching the top, the way lies over countless flows and beds of lava, much disintegrated, and almost entirely of the kind called pahoehoe. Countless pit craters extend over the whole mountain, all of them covered outside, and a few inside, with scraggy vegetation. The edges are often very ragged and picturesque. The depth varies from 300 to 700 feet, and the diameter from 700 to 1,200. The walls of some are of a smooth grey stone, the bottoms flat, and very deep in sand, but others resemble the tufa cones of Mauna Kea. They are so crowded together in some places as to be divided only by a ridge so narrow that two mules can scarcely walk abreast upon it. The mountain was split by an earthquake in 1868, and a great fissure, with much treacherous ground about it, extends for some distance across it. It is very striking from every point of view on this side, being a complete wilderness of craters, and over 150 lateral cones have been counted.

The object of my second ascent was to visit one of the grandest of the summit craters, which we had not reached previously owing to fog. This crater is bordered by a narrow and very fantastic ridge of rock, in or on which there is a mound about 60 feet high, formed of fragments of black, orange, blue, red, and golden lava, with a cavity or blow-hole in the centre, estimated by Brigham as having a diameter of 25 feet, and a depth of 1800. The interior is dark brown, much grooved horizontally, and as smooth and regular as if turned. There are no steam cracks or signs of heat anywhere. Superb caves or lava-bubbles abound at a height of 6000 feet. These are moist with ferns, and the drip from their roofs is the water supply of this porous region.

Hualalai, owing to the vegetation sparsely sprinkled over it, looks as if it had been quiet for ages, but it has only slept since 1801, when there was a tremendous eruption from it, which flooded several villages, destroyed many plantations and fishponds, filled up a deep bay 20 miles in extent, and formed the present coast. The terrified inhabitants threw living hogs into the stream, and tried to propitiate the anger of the gods by more costly offerings, but without effect, till King Kamehameha, attended by a large retinue of priests and chiefs, cut off some of his hair, which was considered sacred, and threw it into the torrent, which in two days ceased to run. This circumstance gave him a greatly increased ascendancy, from his supposed influence with the deities of the volcanoes.

I have explored the country pretty thoroughly for many miles round, but have not seen anything striking, except the remains of an immense heiau in the centre of the desert tableland, said to have been built in a day by the compulsory labour of 25,000 people: a lonely white man who lives among the lava, and believes he has discovered the secret of perpetual motion: and the lava-flow from Mauna Loa, which reached the sea 40 miles from its exit from the mountain.

I was riding through the brushwood with a native, and not able to see two yards in any direction, when emerging from the thick scrub, we came upon the torrent of 1859 within six feet of us, a huge, straggling, coal-black river, broken up into streams in our vicinity, but on the whole, presenting an iridescent uphill expanse a mile wide. We had reached one of the divergent streams to which it had been said after its downward course of 9000 feet, “Hitherto shalt thou come and no further,” while the main body had pursued its course to the ocean. Whatever force impelled it had ceased to act, and the last towering wave of fire had halted just there, and lies a black arrested surge 10 feet high, with tender ferns at its feet, and a scarcely singed ohia bending over it. The flow, so far as we scrambled up it, is heaped in great surges of a fierce black, fiercely reflecting the torrid sun, cracked, and stained yellow and white, and its broad glistening surface forms an awful pathway to the dome-like crest of Mauna Loa, now throbbing with internal fires, and crowned with a white smoke wreath, that betokens the action of the same forces which produced this gigantic inundation. Close to us the main river had parted above and united below a small mamane tree with bracken under its shadow, and there are several oases of the same kind.

I have twice been down to the larger world of the wool-shed, when tired of strips of dried mutton and my own society. The hospitality there is as great as the accommodation is small. The first time, I slept on the floor of the shed with some native women who were up there, and was kept awake all night by the magnificence of the light on the volcano. The second time, several of us slept in a small, dark grass-wigwam, only intended as a temporary shelter, the lowliest dwelling in every sense of the word that I ever occupied. That evening was the finest I have seen on the islands; there was a less abrupt transition from day to night, and the three great mountains and the desert were etherealised and glorified by a lingering rose and violet light. When darkness came on, our great camp fire was hardly redder than the glare from the volcano, and its leaping flames illuminated as motley a group as you would wish to see; the native shearers, who, after shearing eighty sheep each in a day, washed, and changed their clothes before eating; a negro goatherd with a native wife and swarthy children, two native women, my host and myself, all engaged in the rough cooking befitting the region, toasting strips of jerked mutton on sticks, broiling wild bullock on the coals, baking kalo under ground, and rolls in a rough stone oven, and all speaking that base mixture of English and Hawaiian which is current coin here. The meal was not less rude than the cookery. We ate it on the floor of the wigwam, with an old tin, with some fat in it, for a lamp, and a bit of rope for a wick, which kept tumbling into the fat and leaving us in darkness.

The next day I came up here alone, driving a pack-horse, and with a hind-quarter of sheep tied to my saddle. It is really difficult to find the way over this desert, though I have been several times across. When a breeze ripples the sand between the lava hummocks, the footprints are obliterated, and there are few landmarks except the “ox bone” and the “small ohia.” It is a strange life up here on the mountain side, but I like it, and never yearn after civilization. The one drawback is my ignorance of the language, which not only places me sometimes in grotesque difficulties, but deprives me of much interest. I don’t know what day it is, or how long I have been here, and quite understand how possible it would be to fall into an indolent and aimless life, in which time is of no account.

THE RECTORY, KONA. August 1st.

I left Hualalai yesterday morning, and dined with my kind host and hostess in the wigwam. It was the last taste of the wild Hawaiian life I have learned to love so well, the last meal on a mat, the last exercise of skill in eating “two-fingered” poi. I took leave gratefully of those who had been so truly kind to me, and with the friendly aloha from kindly lips in my ears, regretfully left the purple desert in which I have lived so serenely, and plunged into the forest gloom. Half way down, I met a string of my native acquaintances, who, as the courteous custom is, threw over me leis of maile and roses, and since I arrived here, others have called to wish me goodbye, bringing presents of figs, cocoa-nuts and bananas.

This is one of the stations of the “Honolulu Mission,” and Mr. Davies, the clergyman, has, besides Sunday and daily services, a day-school for boys and girls. The Sunday attendance at church, so far as I have seen, consists of three adults, though the white population within four miles is considerable, and at another station on Maui, the congregation was composed solely of the family of a planter. Clerical reinforcements are expected from England shortly; but from what I have seen and heard everywhere, I do not think that the coming clergy, even if inspired by the same devotion and disinterestedness as Bishop Willis, will make any sensible progress among the people.

In truth, I believe that the “Honolulu Mission,” from the first, has been a mistake. As such, strictly speaking, there is no room for it, for all the natives are nominal Christians, and are connected more or less with the Congregational denomination. To attempt to proselytize them to the English Church, or to unsettle their religious relations in any way, would, on the whole, be a hopeless, as well as an invidious task, and would not improbably result in driving some among them into the greater apparent unity of the Church of Rome. Those who believe in the oneness of the invisible church, and that all who hold “one Lord, one faith, one baptism,” are within the pale of salvation, may well hesitate before expending energy, men, money, and time on proselytizing efforts.

Among the whites who have sunk into the mire of an indolent and godless, if not an openly immoral life, there is an undoubted field for Evangelistic effort; but it is very doubtful, I think, whether this class can be reached by services which appeal to higher culture and instincts than it possesses, and, indeed, generally, the island Episcopalians are not in sympathy with the “symbolism” and “high ritual” which from the first have been outstanding features of this “mission.” The education of the young in the principles of the Prayer Book is aimed at by the Bishop and his coadjutors, but in spite of zeal and devotion, I doubt whether the English Church on these islands can ever be anything but a pining and sickly exotic.

Kona looks supremely beautiful, a languid dream of all fair things. Yet truly my heart warms to nothing so much as to a row of fat English cabbages which grow in the rectory garden, with a complacent, self-asserting John Bullism about them. It is best to leave the islands now. I love them better every day, and dreams of Fatherland are growing fainter in this perfumed air and under this glittering sky. A little longer, and I too should say, like all who have made their homes here under the deep banana shade —

“We will return no more,

. . . . our island home

Is far beyond the wave, we will no longer roam.”


34 Several letters are omitted here, as they contain repetitions of journeys and circumstances which have been amply detailed before. I went to the Kona district for a few days only, intending to return to friends on Kauai and Maui; but owing to an alteration in the sailings of the Kilauea, was detained there for a month, and afterwards, owing to uncertainties connected with the San Francisco steamers, was obliged to leave the Islands abruptly, after a residence of nearly seven months.

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