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VOL. V NOVEMBER 1953 No. 2

From Where?

The origin of the Polynesian branch of the human family is nebulous. Analogies have been traced to Egypt, India, Persia, and South America, but no evidence has been uncovered to lend conclusive credence to these theories. Affinities with the Egyptians and Indonesians give weight to the belief that the Polynesians may have had their beginnings in Egypt, so journed in Indonesia for a time, and then made their way east into the Pacific. As to anthropological characteristics, they are probably a composite of the main divisions of the human race but do not constitute a race in their own right.

In his An Account of the Polynesian Race, Abraham Fornander summarizes the migrations of the Polynesians as follows:

"At the close of the first and during the second century of the present era the Polynesians left the Asiatic Archipelago and entered the Pacific, establishing themselves on the Fiji group, and thence spreading to the Samoa, Tonga and other groups eastward and northward.

"During the fifth century A. D., Polynesians settled on the Hawaiian Islands, and remained there, comparatively unknown, until:

"The eleventh century A. D., when several parties of fresh emigrants from the Marquesas, Society and Samoan groups arrived at the Hawaiian Islands, and, for the space of five or six generations, revived and maintained an active intercourse with the first named groups; and

"From the close of the above migratory era, which may be roughly fixed . . . about twenty-one generations ago, Hawaiian history runs isolated from the other Polynesian groups, until their rediscovery by Captain Cook in 1778."

Fornander's assertions are based on exhaustive research into Polynesian legends and traditions and reasonable confirmation with established historical events.


The conquest of the Pacific by the Europeans began with Magellan, who discovered a western passage to the east in 1520. Sailing under the Spanish flag, he set the course for subsequent discoveries and explorations by the Spanish, French, Dutch, and English. Mendana, Torres, Schouten, Bougainville, Tasman, La Perouse, and Cook—these are some of the discoverers who brought the beginning of the end to centuries of myth and legend and conjecture. A sense of duty to save souls from purgatory, lures of fabulous wealth, colonial expansion, and searches for new trade routes and sources were the motivating factors behind these explorations.

Most illustrious among the many explorers of the Pacific was Captain James Cook of the British Royal Navy. Born in 1728, he went to sea early in his youth and quickly established a reputation as an outstanding astronomer and mariner. He made three voyages into the Pacific between 1768 and 1779, discovering many new lands and changing many geographical concepts. The new knowledge that he gave to the world made him immortal.

The third and last of Cook's voyages resulted in his discovery of the Hawaiian Islands on January 18, 1778. Of this momentous feat he recorded a simple entry in his journal: "An island appeared, bearing north east-by east. Not long after, more land was seen, which bore north, and was totally detached from the former."

Oahu, Kauai, and Niihau are the islands which Cook and his men had seen. They were unaware of the existence of the other islands in the archipelago. After provisioning his ships, Cook sailed into the North Pacific in search of the legendary Northwest Passage. In February 1779 he returned to Hawaii and discovered the other islands in the group.

Cook had a fondness for the Hawaiians, writing of them: "We met with less reserve and suspicion in our intercourse with the people of this island than we had ever experienced among any tribe of savages. The inhabitants of Tahiti have not that confidence in our integrity. Whence it may be inferred that those of Hawaii are more faithful in their dealings with others than the Tahitians."

It is an irony of fate that these hospitable people, of whom he thought so much, brought the end to his brilliant career in 1779. In a skirmish precipitated over the loss of one of his ship's small boats, Cook was stabbed to death at Kealakekua Bay. By this time, the path had been prepared for the traders, missionaries, and whalers who were to follow.

The Hawaiian Islands were consolidated into a kingdom by Kamehameha I, who abolished the ancient system of government by district chieftains and appointed governors over the principal islands. The Hawaiian monarchy lasted until the reign of Queen Liliuokalani, whose government was overthrown in 1893. The Republic of Hawaii succeeded the provisional government established after the deposal of Liliuokalani, and in 1898 the islands were annexed by the United States. Two years later, Congress passed the organic act establishing a territorial form of government for Hawaii.

The influences that the white man brought to Hawaii were many, but none was more penetrating than that of the missionaries, who arrived in 1820. Along with converting the Hawaiians to Christianity, they taught them the three R's and crafts and founded for them a written language. Eventually the missionaries branched out into the kingdom's affairs of state, and through their influence a constitutional form of government was established in 1840.

The Volcano Goddess

The Hawaiian mythological characters are many, among them the goddess of volcanoes—Pele—who is all at once a beautiful maiden and an unsightly hag, a mighty builder and a devastating destroyer. Although Pele ranks as a minor deity in Hawaiian mythology, the legends which have been handed down through the generations about her are numerous. Not even the simplest of them makes mention of the place from which the goddess began. A wanderer, she went from land to land in a large canoe prepared for her by her oldest brother, the god of sharks, until at last she landed on the Island of Niihau, in the Hawaiian Archipelago.

Niihau did not hold sufficient attraction for her and after a time she left for Kauai where she met her future husband in a dream. Pele was restless on this island, too, and left to look for a place to build a permanent home for herself and all who belonged to her.

Pele struck into the earth with her magic paoa (spade) and made a fire pit on Kauai, but the water from the ocean drowned the fires she kindled. She went from island to island digging fire pits with her magic spade, but all of them were extinguished by the sea. At last, she found Kilauea, on the Island of Hawaii, where she built an enduring palace of fire, Halemaumau.

The ancient Hawaiians were apparently sufficiently good geologists to recognize the age succession of the islands, for the Pele tradition sustains remarkably the geological concepts regarding the progression of volcanic activity from Niihau to Kauai to Oahu to Molokai to Maui to Hawaii. To the Hawaiians of old and to some of the present day who cling to the traditions of their forefathers, the home of Pele was and is hallowed ground, for it was there that they humbled themselves before the mighty goddess to seek her favor and appease her wrath, which took the form of volcanic eruptions that destroyed their lands and villages.

The High Chiefess Kapiolani challenged the existence of the goddess in 1824 by coming to Pele's ground and eating the sacred ohelo berries growing in Kilauea Crater without first offering some to the deity and intoning the first Christian prayer said there by an Hawaiian. This historic act of defiance was immortalized by Alfred Lord Tennyson in his poem "Kapiolani" with these lines:

"Island heroine, Kapiolani,
Clomb the mountain, and flung the berries,
And dared the Goddess, and freed the people of Hawaii!"

Kapiolani's defiance of Pele followed by five years the abolition of the ancient idolatrous system and its many restrictions and prohibitions by which the common people were oppressed.

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