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


G. Kona District

1. Pre-European Contact Period

The Kona District, significant in Hawai'i's development during both prehistoric and historic times, includes most of the western coast of the island of Hawai'i. Dormant Hualalai volcano towers above the shoreline in North Kona, while South Kona includes the still-active Mauna Loa. The Kona Coast is covered with barren lava flows broken only occasionally by fertile patches of land. These successive streams of lava, which have cascaded over the cliffs into the sea and then solidified, contain numerous caves. The coast's warm, dry climate and fertility made it a favorite residential area of Hawai'i's chiefs. And wherever the ruling chief had his home, a large group of houses for the commoners and members of the royal entourage could also be found. Because the high chiefs of Kona lived at Kailua, it became a thriving settlement. [27] As mentioned, when foreign visitation began, the Kona District was probably the most densely populated area in the Hawaiian Islands. [28] Many ancient traditions and mythological personnages were associated with Kona, such as the god Lono, who supposedly introduced the primary plant foods such as taro, sweet potato, yams, sugarcane, and bananas to the Hawaiians. In addition, the Makahiki festival and other rituals for invoking rain and fertility centered in Kona, [29]

2. European Contact Period

The death in 1782 of the chief of Hawai'i, Kalani'opu'u, who had greeted Captain Cook at Kealakekua Bay, left his son Kiwala'o and his nephew Kamehameha in competition for control of the western half of the island. The battle of Moku'ohai in Kona decided the contest for Kamehameha, who then had to fight his cousin Keoua for control of the entire island in 1791. Kamehameha finally became chief of Hawai'i Island after the death of Keoua at Kawaihae. Four years later Kamehameha conquered Maui, Moloka'i, Lana'i, and O'ahu, and ultimately received Kaua'i by cession in 1810. [30]

The changing political situation and the growth of international trade in the years following Cook's arrival somewhat changed the status of the Kona Coast in terms of its political and social role in Hawaiian life. As stability gradually returned to political affairs, the king and his chiefs began concentrating more on interaction with trading and whaling vessels and foreign emissaries, which was easier in the better harbors of Honolulu (O'ahu) and Lahaina (Maui). [31]

In addition, with the overthrow of the ancient kapu system in 1819, the Hawaiian people as a whole, and their government, began a course of rapid change. Although deregulation and lack of guidance characterized most of Hawaiian society at that time, the Kona Coast remained relatively stable, socially and economically, from the 1820s to about 1852, despite the fact it had been the scene of the kapu abolition.

Several factors contributed to this condition: first, King Kamehameha II and his court moved their place of residence to Honolulu shortly after the abolition; second, the many chiefs who continued to live along the coast near Kailua provided some leadership for the population there, which resulted in continuous immigration from other districts by people seeking the security offered by the presence of these chiefs and the pleasures and amenities of urban life stimulated by the presence of a continuing throng of foreign visitors; third, the agricultural importance of the area, which possessed two good harbors and a productive inland region, and the influx of trading and whaling ships seeking fruit, vegetables, and meat in addition to firewood and fresh water, provided an impetus for the continuation of planting and harvesting despite the lack of the former religious cycles; and fourth, the arrival of the missionaries at Kailua and the spread of their teachings provided a steadying influence on Kona Coast society. [32]

3. North and South Kona

     a) Historical Descriptions

The Kona District comprises two subdivisions, North and South Kona. The first stretches from just north of Kealakekua Bay to 'Anaeho'omalu, while the second includes the lands from the bay south to Kamoi Point. In 1823 the Reverend Ellis described Kona as

the most populous of the six great divisions of Hawaii, and being situated on the leeward side, would probably have been the most fertile and beautiful part of the island, had it not been overflowed by floods of lava. It is joined to Kohala, a short distance to the southward of Towaihae [Kawaihae] bay, and extends along the western shore between seventy and eighty miles, including the irregularities of the coast.

The northern part, including Kairua [Kailua], Kearake'kua [Kealakekua], and Honaunau, contains a dense population; and the sides of the mountains are cultivated to a considerable extent; but the south part presents a most inhospitable aspect. The population is thin, consisting principally of fishermen, who cultivate but little land, and that at the distance of from five to seven miles from the shore. [33]

Traveling along the coast, Ellis

passed through the villages thickly scattered along the shore to the southward. The country around looked unusually green and cheerful, owing to the frequent rains, which for some months past have fallen on this side of the island. Even the barren lava, over which we travelled, seemed to veil its sterility beneath frequent tufts of tall waving grass, or spreading shrubs and flowers.

The sides of the hills, laid out for a considerable extent in gardens and fields, and generally cultivated with potatoes, and other vegetables, were beautiful.

The number of heiaus, and depositories of the dead, which we passed, convinced us that this part of the island must formerly have been populous. The latter were built with fragments of lava, laid up evenly on the outside, generally about eight feet long, from four to six broad, and about four feet high. Some appeared very ancient, others had evidently been standing but a few years. [34]

William Bryan also commented on the numerous stone heiau worthy of notice along the Kona Coast. He observed that these temples, usually located near the shore, were numerous in densely populated regions on all the islands; on Hawai'i, however, the region between Kailua and Kealakekua had a particularly heavy concentration of them. [35] Early explorers, traders, and visitors described some of the temples around Kailua, while investigation by a variety of scholars has turned up the sites of many others. Notable among the Kona heiau are Hikiau, the temple at Kealakekua Bay where Captain Cook was worshipped as the god Lono, and 'Ahu'ena, adjacent to Kamehameha I's royal residence at Kailua. Hale-o-Keawe, the ancestral heiau and mausoleum of the Kamehameha dynasty, is located in Pu'uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park.

Commodore Charles Wilkes of the 1838-42 U.S. Exploring Expedition states that the inhabitants of the Kona Coast in 1840 planted sweet potatoes, melons, and pineapples among the lava rocks during the rainy season. Staple foods there consisted of sweet potatoes and upland taro, while yams were raised to supply ships in port. People also cultivated sugarcane, bananas, breadfruit, and coconuts. Irish potatoes, Indian corn, beans, coffee, cotton, figs, oranges, and grapes had been introduced from the West but were not grown in any quantity. Breadfruit grew two miles inland, and taro above that. A lively trade flourished between the southern and northern ends of the district, with those residing in the less fertile northern portion bartering fish and manufactured salt for food and clothing from the south. [36]

     b) Settlement Patterns

Archeologist Paul Rosendahl states that most of the ethnohistorical data pertaining to North Kona available today references the lands between Kailua and Honaunau. North of Kailua-Kona, inland to Napu'u and along the coast to 'Anaeho'omalu, lies an area of broad lava fields called Kekaha, a word that describes a dry, sunbaked land. This area is veined with both recent (1800-1, 1859) and ancient rugged lava flows that restrict foot travel to laboriously built trails. Because travel north between Kailua and the important port of Kawaihae in the Kohala District appears to have been mainly by canoe rather than along these coastal trails during both the prehistoric and historic periods, there are few descriptions available of this northern coast area. [37] However, some assumptions can be made concerning settlement patterns in the area between Kailua and 'Anaeho'omalu.

According to Rosendahl, ancient occupation of North Kona took place in three main zones: the narrow, arid coastal strip; the sloping, barren middle zone composed of volcanic materials; and the upland zone utilized for agricultural purposes. The probable pattern of aboriginal settlement between Kailua and Anaehoomalu consisted of small fishing hamlets located along the shore, often near fishponds and around bays. Their inhabitants were involved in deep-water and in-shore fishing and the gathering of other marine resources. In addition, they produced salt and raised fish in ponds. Agricultural pursuits involved only small coconut groves planted around villages and fishponds and limited raising of sweet potatoes and bananas in small, sandy beach areas and in whatever tiny patches of soil could be found on the surface of the lava flows.

More people lived in scattered hamlets in the uplands, where they extensively cultivated dryland taro and sweet potatoes. Other crops included breadfruit, bananas, paper mulberry, ti, and sugarcane. The middle barren zone, Rosendahl suggests, supported temporary use by travellers between the uplands and the coast. In addition, natural caves in the zone might have been used as residences by those engaged in longer-term marine exploitation activities or other specialized pursuits such as hunting. They might also have been utilized for refuge or as burial sites. [38] Devastating measles, whooping cough, diarrhea, and flu epidemics in the mid-nineteenth century drastically affected the population of North Kona. [39]

South Kona exhibits the same three types of habitation zones: coastal (maritime activity, limited agriculture); transitional, or middle (temporary habitation); and inland (large-scale agriculture). [40] Early visitors to the islands frequently mentioned the coastal area south of Kealakekua Bay down to Honaunau. Members of Capt. James Cook's expedition mentioned sweet potatoes growing in small enclosures protected by low stone walls and additional cultivation of sugarcane, bananas, and breadfruit trees. Archibald Menzies, visiting the area between 1792 and 1794 with Capt. George Vancouver, described the stretch of coastline south of Kealakekua Bay as "a dreary naked barren waste" broken only by a few coconut groves near the villages. He noted, however, small fields higher up on the plains near the woods that were heavily cultivated with taro and ti. The Reverend William Ellis commented that about two miles inland from Honaunau, population was dense and fields well cultivated. All these accounts seem to agree that the mauka (toward the mountains) lands were primarily agricultural and heavily occupied. A trail system linked the coast and the uplands. One author states that land utilization in this area "had to be efficient enough to support the many high chiefs, their retainers, priests and craftsmen who resided at Kaawaloa, Napoopoo, Ke'ei and Honaunau at the time of Cook's arrival." [41]

     c) Towns and Sites

The town of Kailua, Kona, is one of the most historically significant areas in Hawai'i. Long the residence of Hawaiian chiefs, it is also the site of Kamakahonu, the parcel of land containing King Kamehameha's principal residence and court. This was the king's home during the last years of his life; this is where, following his death, his successor Liholiho overthrew the kapu system. And this is the point where the missionaries landed, pleased to find that their work of abolishing the old religion had been accomplished for them. Kamehameha returned here in 1812 from Honolulu, O'ahu, where he had spent the previous few years, accompanied by his family and a vast array of chiefs and retainers. [42] This area has been described in great detail by visitors and explorers to the island who stopped here to pay their respects to the Hawaiian ruler. The Reverend William Ellis described Kailua in 1823:

The houses, which are neat, are generally built on the sea-shore, shaded with cocoa-nut and kou trees. . . . The environs were cultivated to a considerable extent; small gardens were seen among the barren rocks on which the houses are built, wherever soil could be found sufficient to nourish the sweet potato, the water melon, or even a few plants of tobacco. . . . [43]

Honaunau, a land division south of Kailua, is another very famous spot, containing within its boundaries a place of refuge, and Hale-o-Keawe, where twenty-three of Kamehameha's family were interred, including a son. William Bryan also visited that site; by the time he saw it, a portion of the structure, which occupied six or seven acres of a low, rocky point on the south side of the bay, had been destroyed some years previously by tidal waves. At Kealakekua Bay, another famous locale in South Kona, Bryan noted the monument to Captain Cook. [44] That harbor supported two settlements — Ka'awaloa on the north side, the scene of Captain Cook's death, and Kealakekua (Napo'opo'o) on the south. The cliffs above Ka'awaloa contain numerous burial caves. Hikiau Heiau, on which Cook established his observatories, is on the shore of Kealakekua Bay. These were good-sized settlements, Kealakekua containing more than one thousand structures by the late 1700s. [45] Kalani'opu'u, king of Hawai'i Island at the time of Cook's arrival, lived in this area. In ancient times, local chiefs travelled along the coasts by canoe and established temporary residences at certain sites for purposes of business or pleasure. Kealakekua Bay supported many temporary shelters erected by the residents for visiting chiefs. [46] Temporary structures were also needed for storage of utensils and tools, for shelter during rains, and for security during kapu periods. Additional shelters were also needed by those attracted to the village by the presence of foreign ships and by those serving the high chiefs and their foreign guests. Thus both Ka'awaloa and Napo'opo'o by 1779 held not only permanent structures for the king and those who came to visit or to serve him, but also temporary complexes for visiting chiefs and structures for their supporters. [47]

After the government moved to Honolulu, it sent monthly vessels to the ports of Kailua and Kealakekua Bay to acquire the produce of their upland fields. [48] According to Anthropologist Dorothy Barrère, most foreign ships arriving at Hawai'i Island moored in the better-protected Kealakekua Bay. Only a few traders and whalers anchored at Kawaihae in Kohala or at Kailua. Wherever they landed, however, all captains had to obtain Kamehameha's permission to supply or refit their ships. [49]

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Last Updated: 15-Nov-2001