The Hawaiian Archipelago, by Isabella L. Bird

Letter VII.

Hilo. Hawaii.

The white population here, which constitutes “society,” is very small. There are two venerable missionaries “Father Coan” and “Father Lyman,” the former pastor of a large native congregation, which, though much shrunken, is not only self-sustaining, but contributes $1200 a year to foreign missions, and the latter, though very old and frail, the indefatigable head of an industrial school for native young men. Their houses combine the trimness of New England, with the luxuriance of the tropics; they are cool retreats, embowered among breadfruit, tamarind, and bamboo, through whose graceful leafage the blue waters of the bay are visible. Innumerable exotics are domesticated round these fair homesteads. Two of “Father Lyman’s” sons are influential residents, one being the Lieutenant–Governor of the island. Other sons of former missionaries are settled here in business, and there are a few strangers who have been attracted hither. Dr. Wetmore, formerly of the mission, is a typical New Englander of the old orthodox school. It is pleasant to see him brighten into almost youthful enthusiasm on the subject of Hawaiian ferns. My host, a genial, social, intelligent American, is sheriff of Hawaii, postmaster, etc., and with his charming wife (a missionary’s daughter), and some friends who live with them, make their large house a centre of kindliness, friendliness, and hospitality. Mr. Thompson, pastor of the foreign church, is a man of very liberal culture, as well as wide sympathies. The lady principal of the Government school is a handsome, talented Vermont girl, and besides being an immense favourite, well deserves her unusual and lucrative position.

There are hardly any young ladies, and very few young men, but plenty of rosy, blooming children, who run about barefoot all the year. Besides the Hilo residents, there are some planters’ families within seven miles, who come in to sewing circles, church, etc. There is a small class of reprobate white men who have ostracized themselves by means of drink and bad morals, and are a curse to the natives. The half whites, among whom “Bill Ragsdale” is the leading spirit, are not numerous. Hilo has no carriage roads and no carriages: every one must ride or travel in a litter. People are very kind to each other. Horses, dresses, patterns, books, and articles of domestic use, are lent and borrowed continually. The smallness of the society and the close proximity are too much like a ship. People know everything about the details of each other’s daily life, income, and expenditure, and the day’s doings of each member of the little circle are matters for conversation. Indeed, were it not for the volcano and its doings, conversation might degenerate into gossip. There is an immense deal of personal talk; the wonder is that there is so little ill-nature. Not only is what everybody does here common property, but the sayings, doings, goings, comings, and purchases of every one in all the other islands are common property also, made so by letters and oral communication. It is all very amusing, and on the whole very kindly, and human interests are always interesting; but it has its perilous side. They are very kind to each other. There is no distress which is not alleviated. There is no nurse, and in cases of sickness the ladies take it by turns to wait on the sufferer by day and night for weeks, and even months. Such inevitable mutual dependence of course promotes friendliness.

The foreigners live very simply. The eating-rooms are used solely for eating, the “parlours” are always cheerful and tasteful, and the bedrooms very pretty, adorned with all manner of knick-knacks made by the ladies, who are indescribably deft with their fingers. Light Manilla matting is used instead of carpets. A Chinese man-cook, who leaves at seven in the evening, is the only servant, except in one or two cases, where, as here, a native woman condescends to come in during the day as a nurse. In the morning the ladies, in their fresh pretty wrappers and ruffled white aprons, sweep and dust the rooms, and I never saw women look more truly graceful and refined than they do, when engaged in the plain prose of these domestic duties. They make all their own dresses, and when any lady is busy and wants a dress in a hurry, two or three of them meet and make it for her. I never saw people live such easy pleasant lives. They have such good health, for one thing, partly no doubt because their domestic duties give them wholesome exercise without pressing upon them. They have abounding leisure for reading, music, choir practising, drawing, fern-printing, fancy work, picnics, riding parties, and enjoy sociability thoroughly. They usually ride in dainty bloomer costumes, even when they don’t ride astride. All the houses are pretty, and it takes little to make them so in this climate. One novel fashion is to decorate the walls with festoons of the beautiful fern Microlepia tenuifolia, which are renewed as soon as they fade, and every room is adorned with a profusion of bouquets, which are easily obtained where flowers bloom all the year. Many of the residents possess valuable libraries, and these, with cabinets of minerals, volcanic specimens, shells, and coral, with weapons, calabashes, ornaments, and cloth of native manufacture, almost furnish a room in themselves. Some of the volcanic specimens and the coral are of almost inestimable value, as well as of exquisite beauty.

The gentlemen don’t seem to have near so much occupation as the ladies. There are two stores on the beach, and at these and at the Court-house they aggregate, for lack of club-house and exchange. Business is not here a synonym for hurry, and official duties are light; so light, that in these morning hours I see the governor, the sheriff, and the judge, with three other gentlemen, playing an interminable croquet game on the Court-house lawn. They purvey gossip for the ladies, and how much they invent, and how much they only circulate can never be known!

There is a large native population in the village, along the beach, and on the heights above the Wailuku River. Frame houses with lattices, and grass houses with deep verandahs, peep out everywhere from among the mangoes and bananas. The governess of Hawaii, the Princess Keelikalani, has a house on the beach shaded by a large umbrella-tree and a magnificent clump of bamboos, 70 feet in height. The native life with which one comes constantly in contact, is very interesting.

The men do whatever hard work is done in cultivating the kalo patches and pounding the kalo. Thus kalo, the Arum esculentum, forms the national diet. A Hawaiian could not exist without his calabash of poi. The root is an object of the tenderest solicitude, from the day it is planted until the hour when it is lovingly eaten. The eating of poi seems a ceremony of profound meaning; it is like the eating salt with an Arab, or a Masonic sign. The kalo root is an ovate oblong, as bulky as a Californian beet, and it has large leaves, shaped like a broad arrow, of a singularly bright green. The best kinds grow entirely in water. The patch is embanked and frequently inundated, and each plant grows on a small hillock of puddled earth. The cutting from which it grows is simply the top of the plant, with a little of the tuber. The men stand up to their knees in water while cultivating the root. It is excellent when boiled and sliced; but the preparation of poi is an elaborate process. The roots are baked in an underground oven, and are then laid on a slightly hollowed board, and beaten with a stone pestle. It is hard work, and the men don’t wear any clothes while engaged in it. It is not a pleasant-looking operation. They often dip their hands in a calabash of water to aid them in removing the sticky mass, and they always look hot and tired. When it is removed from the board into large calabashes, it is reduced to paste by the addition of water, and set aside for two or three days to ferment. When ready for use it is either lilac or pink, and tastes like sour bookbinders’ paste. Before water is added, when it is in its dry state, it is called paiai, or hard food, and is then packed in ti leaves in 20 lb. bundles for inland carriage, and is exported to the Guano Islands. It is a prolific and nutritious plant. It is estimated that forty square feet will support an Hawaiian for a year.

The melon and kalo patches represent a certain amount of spasmodic industry, but in most other things the natives take no thought for the morrow. Why should they indeed? For while they lie basking in the sun, without care of theirs, the cocoanut, the breadfruit, the yam, the guava, the banana, and the delicious papaya, which is a compound of a ripe apricot with a Cantaloupe melon, grow and ripen perpetually. Men and women are always amusing themselves, the men with surf-bathing, the women with making leis — both sexes with riding, gossiping, and singing. Every man and woman, almost every child, has a horse. There is a perfect plague of badly bred, badly developed, weedy looking animals. The beach and the pleasant lawn above it are always covered with men and women riding at a gallop, with bare feet, and stirrups tucked between the toes. To walk even 200 yards seems considered a degradation. The people meet outside each others’ houses all day long, and sit in picturesque groups on their mats, singing, laughing, talking, and quizzing the haoles, as if the primal curse had never fallen. Pleasant sights of out-door cooking gregariously carried on greet one everywhere. This style of cooking prevails all over Polynesia. A hole in the ground is lined with stones, wood is burned within it, and when the rude oven has been sufficiently heated, the pig, chicken, breadfruit, or kalo, wrapped in ti leaves is put in, a little water is thrown on, and the whole is covered up. It is a slow but sure process.

Bright dresses, bright eyes, bright sunshine, music, dancing, a life without care, and a climate without asperities, make up the sunny side of native life as pictured at Hilo. But there are dark moral shadows, the population is shrinking away, and rumours of leprosy are afloat, so that some of these fair homes may be desolate ere long. However many causes for regret exist, one must not forget that only forty years ago the people inhabiting this strip of land between the volcanic wilderness and the sea were a vicious, sensual, shameless herd, that no man among them, except their chiefs, had any rights, that they were harried and oppressed almost to death, and had no consciousness of any moral obligations. Now, order and external decorum at least, prevail. There is not a locked door in Hilo, and nobody makes anybody else afraid.

The people of Hawaii-nei are clothed and civilized in their habits; they have equal rights; 6,500 of them have kuleanas or freeholds, equable and enlightened laws are impartially administered; wrong and oppression are unknown; they enjoy one of the best administered governments in the world; education is universal, and the throne is occupied by a liberal sovereign of their own race and election.

Few of them speak English. Their language is so easy that most of the foreigners acquire it readily. You know how stupid I am about languages, yet I have already picked up the names of most common things. There are only twelve letters, but some of these are made to do double duty, as K is also T, and L is also R. The most northern island of the group, Kauai, is as often pronounced as if it began with a T, and Kalo is usually Taro. It is a very musical language. Each syllable and word ends with a vowel, and there are none of our rasping and sibilant consonants. In their soft phraseology our hard rough surnames undergo a metamorphosis, as Fisk into Filikina, Wilson into Wilikina. Each vowel is distinctly pronounced, and usually with the Italian sound. The volcano is pronounced as if spelt Keel-ah-wee-ah, and Kauai as if Kah-wye-ee. The name Owhyhee for Hawaii had its origin in a mistake, for the island was never anything but Hawaii, pronounced Hah-wye-ee, but Captain Cook mistook the prefix O, which is the sign of the nominative case, for a part of the word. Many of the names of places, specially of those compounded with wai, water, are very musical; Wailuku, “water of destruction;” Waialeale, “rippling water;” Waioli, “singing water;” Waipio, “vanquished water;” Kaiwaihae, “torn water.” Mauna, “mountain,” is a mere prefix, and though always used in naming the two giants of the Pacific, Mauna Kea, and Mauna Loa, is hardly ever applied to Hualalai, “the offspring of the shining sun;” or to Haleakala on Maui, “the house of the sun.”

I notice that the foreigners never use the English or botanical names of trees or plants, but speak of ohias, ohelos, kukui (candle-nut), lauhala (pandanus), pulu (tree fern), mamane, koa, etc. There is one native word in such universal use that I already find I cannot get on without it, pilikia. It means anything, from a downright trouble to a slight difficulty or entanglement. “I’m in a pilikia,” or “very pilikia,” or “pilikia!” A revolution would be “a pilikia.” The fact of the late king dying without naming a successor was pre-eminently a pilikia, and it would be a serious pilikia if a horse were to lose a shoe on the way to Kilauea. Hou-hou, meaning “in a huff,” I hear on all sides; and two words, makai, signifying “on the sea-side,” and mauka, “on the mountain side.” These terms are perfectly intelligible out of doors, but it is puzzling when one is asked to sit on “the mauka side of the table.” The word aloha, in foreign use, has taken the place of every English equivalent. It is a greeting, a farewell, thanks, love, goodwill. Aloha looks at you from tidies and illuminations, it meets you on the roads and at house-doors, it is conveyed to you in letters, the air is full of it. “My aloha to you,” “he sends you his aloha,” “they desire their aloha.” It already represents to me all of kindness and goodwill that language can express, and the convenience of it as compared with other phrases is, that it means exactly what the receiver understands it to mean, and consequently, in all cases can be conveyed by a third person. There is no word for “thank you.” Maikai “good,” is often useful in its place, and smiles supply the rest. There are no words which express “gratitude” or “chastity,” or some others of the virtues; and they have no word for “weather,” that which we understand by “weather” being absolutely unknown.

Natives have no surnames. Our volcano guide is Upa, or Scissors, but his wife and children are anything else. The late king was Kamehameha, or the “lonely one.” The father of the present king is called Kanaina, but the king’s name is Lunalilo, or “above all.” Nor does it appear that a man is always known by the same name, nor that a name necessarily indicates the sex of its possessor. Thus, in signing a paper the signature would be Hoapili kanaka, or Hoapili wahine, according as the signer was man or woman. I remember that in my first letter I fell into the vulgarism, initiated by the whaling crews, of calling the natives Kanakas. This is universally but very absurdly done, as Kanaka simply means man. If an Hawaiian word is absolutely necessary, we might translate native and have maole, pronounced maori, like that of the New Zealand aborigines. Kanaka is to me decidedly objectionable, as conveying the idea of canaille.

I had written thus far when Mr. Severance came in to say that a grand display of the national sport of surf-bathing was going on, and a large party of us went down to the beach for two hours to enjoy it. It is really a most exciting pastime, and in a rough sea requires immense nerve. The surf-board is a tough plank shaped like a coffin lid, about two feet broad, and from six to nine feet long, well oiled and cared for. It is usually made of the erythrina, or the breadfruit tree. The surf was very heavy and favourable, and legions of natives were swimming and splashing in the sea, though not more than forty had their Papa-he-nalu, or “wave sliding boards,” with them. The men, dressed only in malos, carrying their boards under their arms, waded out from some rocks on which the sea was breaking, and, pushing their boards before them, swam out to the first line of breakers, and then diving down were seen no more till they re-appeared as a number of black heads bobbing about like corks in smooth water half a mile from shore.

What they seek is a very high roller, on the top of which they leap from behind, lying face downwards on their boards. As the wave speeds on, and the bottom strikes the ground, the top breaks into a huge comber. The swimmers but appeared posing themselves on its highest edge by dexterous movements of their hands and feet, keeping just at the top of the curl, but always apparently coming down hill with a slanting motion. So they rode in majestically, always just ahead of the breaker, carried shorewards by its mighty impulse at the rate of forty miles an hour, yet seeming to have a volition of their own, as the more daring riders knelt and even stood on their surf-boards, waving their arms and uttering exultant cries. They were always apparently on the verge of engulfment by the fierce breaker whose towering white crest was ever above and just behind them, but just as one expected to see them dashed to pieces, they either waded quietly ashore, or sliding off their boards, dived under the surf, taking advantage of the undertow, and were next seen far out at sea, preparing for fresh exploits.

The great art seems to be to mount the roller precisely at the right time, and to keep exactly on its curl just before it breaks. Two or three athletes, who stood erect on their boards as they swept exultingly shorewards, were received with ringing cheers by the crowd. Many of the less expert failed to throw themselves on the crest, and slid back into smooth water, or were caught in the combers which were fully ten feet high, and after being rolled over and over, ignominiously disappeared amidst roars of laughter, and shouts from the shore. At first I held my breath in terror, thinking the creatures were smothered or dashed to pieces, and then in a few seconds I saw the dark heads of the objects of my anxiety bobbing about behind the rollers waiting for another chance. The shore was thronged with spectators, and the presence of the elite of Hilo stimulated the swimmers to wonderful exploits.

These people are truly amphibious. Both sexes seem to swim by nature, and the children riot in the waves from their infancy. They dive apparently by a mere effort of the will. In the deep basin of the Wailuku River, a little below the Falls, the maidens swim, float, and dive with garlands of flowers round their heads and throats. The more furious and agitated the water is, the greater the excitement, and the love of these watery exploits is not confined to the young. I saw great fat men with their hair streaked with grey, balancing themselves on their narrow surf-boards, and riding the surges shorewards with as much enjoyment as if they were in their first youth. I enjoyed the afternoon thoroughly.

Is it “always afternoon” here, I wonder? The sea was so blue, the sunlight so soft, the air so sweet. There was no toil, clang, or hurry. People were all holidaymaking (if that can be where there is no work), and enjoying themselves, the surf-bathers in the sea, and hundreds of gaily-dressed men and women galloping on the beach. It was so serene and tropical. I sympathize with those who eat the lotus, and remain for ever on such enchanted shores.

I am gaining health daily, and almost live in the open air. I have hired the native policeman’s horse and saddle, and with a Macgregor flannel riding costume, which my kind friends have made for me, and a pair of jingling Mexican spurs am quite Hawaiianised. I ride alone once or twice a day exploring the neighbourhood, finding some new fern or flower daily, and abandon myself wholly to the fascination of this new existence.

I.L.B.

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