A Cultural History of Three Traditional Hawaiian Sites
on the West Coast of Hawai'i Island
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West Coast of the Island of Hawai'i


B. Water Resources

In very general terms, West Hawai'i comprises the leeward side of the island, extending from 'Upolu Point on the north to Ka Lae at the southern tip. The rugged volcanic masses of Kohala, Mauna Kea, Hualalai, and Mauna Loa separate this region from the wetter, windward side of the island to the east. Because it seldom rains on the leeward coast, West Hawai'i is characterized by a paucity of stream drainages and a tendency to aridity — any loose water is quickly absorbed in the porous earth. [6]

The Reverend William Ellis observed this water problem, finding on his journey that

Kairua [Kailua], though healthy and populous, is destitute of fresh water, except what is found in pools, or small streams, in the mountains, four or five miles from the shore. . . . The late king Tamehameha used frequently to beg a cask of water from the captains of vessels touching at Kairua; and it is one of the most acceptable presents a captain going to this station could make, either to the chiefs or missionaries. [7]

Missionary Henry Cheever noted wryly that "On that part [leeward coast] of the great Island of Hawaii there is not a brook that runs into the sea for more than a hundred miles of coast. At Kealakekua ships can hardly get a cask of genuine fresh water for fear, love, or money." [8] He noted that Captain Cook had to acquire his supply from natives who brought it in calabashes from the mountains, four miles away. Missionary stations, he said, had to be supplied in the same manner. The natives, however, could drink from the brackish springs on the coast, "the water of which is almost as nauseous and purgative, with a stranger, as a dose of salts." [9]

C. Volcanic Activity

Both North and South Kona show traces of prehistoric and historic lava flows. Cheever described the area from Kealakekua toward the south and middle sections of the island as containing frequent traces of recent volcanic activity. Whether coasting along in a canoe or traveling on foot ashore, he stated, one passed "rugged cones and oven-like blisters, deep-mouthed caves and fissures, enormous gaps and ravines, overhanging arches and natural bridges, great tunnels and blow-holes." [10] Archeological data, however, suggests that the people adjusted well to the topographical changes caused by these eruptions, and today one can find trails and other features constructed on top of the 1859 Mauna Loa flow and the Hualalai flows of 1800-1. [11]Hualalai has not erupted since early historic times (1801), but the land has been subjected to repeated eruptions from Mauna Loa into the historic period.

The earliest volcanic outbreak described historically issued in November 1790 from the caldera of Kilauea on a flank of Mauna Loa. Earthquake shocks accompanied the violent eruption, which included the ejection of large quantities of stone and cinders. This hot base surge composed primarily of superheated steam suffocated soldiers in the army of Keoua, the rival of Kamehameha. In 1801 an eruption from the west side of dormant Hualalai occurred — the first one in the Hawaiian Islands witnessed by Europeans. Lava flowed rapidly to the sea six miles away, covering villages, agricultural plots, and fish ponds. Other eruptions from Mauna Loa occurred in 1823,1832,1840, and 1843. In 1859 two lava streams poured forth from new craters on the north slope of Mauna Loa. Eight days later, the lava began flowing into the sea at a village about fourteen miles from Kawaihae in the Kohala District. This activity continued for three weeks. A worse disaster occurred in 1868 when Mauna Loa erupted, precipitating severe earthquakes and an eruption of mud that extended for three miles, varying from one-half to one mile wide and from two to thirty feet deep. The mudslide swept away houses and stock and took a number of lives. It was followed by an enormous tidal wave that battered the coast, further destroying lives and property. [12]

The abundance of rocks remaining from volcanic activity during prehistoric and historic times supplied the inhabitants of the west coast with building material for house platforms, temples, fences, and agricultural and stock enclosures. (The latter were more common after the introduction of grazing animals by Westerners.) The many crevices and caves created by the numerous lava flows provided both habitation sites and burial places. [13]

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Last Updated: 15-Nov-2001