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

Site Histories, Resource Descriptions, and Management Recommendations


D. Places of Refuge

1. Types

In ancient Hawai'i, during times of war, old men, women, and children from surrounding districts fled to places of safety, either in the mountains, in caves, or to pu'uhonua to await the outcome of the conflict in safety and to escape reprisal if their warriors met defeat. William Ellis noted that

Each party [involved in battle] usually had a... natural or artificial fortress, where they left their wives and children, and to which they fled if vanquished in the field.

These fortresses were either eminences of difficult ascent, and, by walling up the avenues leading to them, sometimes rendered inaccessible; or they were extensive enclosures, including a cave, or spring, or other natural means of sustenance or security.

The stone walls around the forts were composed of large blocks of lava, laid up solid, but without cement, sometimes eighteen feet high, and nearly twenty feet thick. On the tops of these walls the warriors fought with slings and stones, or with spears and clubs repelled their assailants.

When their pari [fortress] was an eminence, after they had closed the avenues, they collected large stones and fragments of rock on the edges of the precipices overhanging the paths leading to the fortification, which they rolled down on the heads of their enemies. [7]

Pu'uhonua translates literally as pu'u (hill), honua (earth). Possibly the word pertained originally to a fortress on a hill, which is also implied by Ellis's quotation above and one from Samuel Kamakau presented a little later in this section. The term is also applied to cave refuges, which were actually large lava tubes into which small groups of people fled from a pursuing enemy. Sometimes stone walls across the entrances allowed only one person at a time to enter, in a stooped position, providing defensive advantage for those inside. [8] Places of refuge were a necessary adaptation because of the particular culture of the early Hawaiians, regimented as it was by the kapu system of prescribed behavior, and preoccupied as its leaders became in achieving power and authority — pursuits that frequently dictated conflict and wars.

2. Origins

According to the historian Marion Kelly, the Hawaiian concept of asylum and its various elements evolved as a natural outgrowth of institutions and cultural patterns that already formed an established part of Polynesian society. These arrived in Hawai'i as part of the general pool of cultural knowledge and were elaborated upon and refined to conform with evolving Hawaiian beliefs related to the supreme sacredness and inherited power of ruling chiefs. [9] As Kelly states,

It is apparent from the material available that the Polynesian concept of a place of refuge is rooted in the inherited powers of the high chief. This is to be seen in the custom of declaring very high chiefs to be pu'uhonua, of declaring certain lands belonging to chiefs with powerful maria to be pu'uhonua, and of placing the bones of deified ancestors in temples connected with specific sites which were thereby designated pu'uhonua. [10]

Anthropologist Kenneth Emory's views supported this statement. He determined that the sanctity of a place of refuge related directly not only to the inherited sacred power of the chief who established it but also to his ability to maintain political control of the district. [11]

3. Historical Associations with Hebraic Cities of Refuge

Early European visitors to Honaunau, trying to place the Hawaiian term pu'uhonua within a context they could understand, used the term "city of refuge" for this area. Although it little resembled the cities of refuge in Jerusalem, because it was neither a city or even a settlement and because protection was granted to both the innocent and the guilty, the name clung to the site through succeeding generations of visitors and scholars. A "logical" conclusion of this misnomer was that the Hawaiian people must have descended from one of the lost Hebrew tribes. [12] Abraham Fornander dedicated a paragraph in his first volume on the Polynesian race to "Cities of Refuge," sacred areas that he noted had often been discussed as "another instance of Hebraic influence upon the customs and culture of the Hawaiians." [13] Even King Kalakaua, in describing the two Pu'uhonua, or places of refuge, on Hawai'i Island, went so far as to venture that their existence suggested "a Polynesian contact with the descendants of Abraham far back in the past, if not a kinship with one of the scattered tribes of Israel." [14]

4. Use Within Hawaiian Culture

Access to the pu'uhonua o Honaunau would have been gained by land from the south or by swimming into it from the north. The presence of the palace complex just east of the refuge prohibited entry from that side; the kapu system ordered immediate death for a commoner who set foot or cast a shadow on a royal residential area.

The pu'uhonua was a place that was always open, and anyone who reached it was assured of protection no matter their class or type of infraction. A large, enclosed refuge such as the one at Honaunau was considered extremely safe not only because of the physical barrier of the surrounding wall but also because the presence of a heiau within or near the walls assured the protecting influence of guardian deities. Fleeing to one of these places was the only escape from death for a criminal, vanquished warrior, or kapu violator. These designated sacred sites offered the chance to be purified by a kahuna pule for one's sins and to resume life in the community free of the fear of punishment.

Kelly, in describing the interrelationship in a pu'uhonua between spiritual mana and personal safety, suggested that

Much more important than physical protection was the supernatural protection and sanctity of the surrounding area. Thus, each pu'uhonua site was closely associated with a heiau. The heiau of the pu'uhonua at Honaunau at the time of European contact was Hale o Keawe. This association with religious structures indicates that a pu'uhonua as that at Honaunau was not merely a place of physical refuge, but more specifically a sanctuary. In a thatched house on one of the heiau platforms were kept the bones of deceased high chiefs, now deified. This was not a burial, but rather a deification. Hawaiian burials per se were quite different. The powerful mana of these deified chiefs continued after life to surround the area and to afford protection to anyone entering the enclosure. The sanctuary at Honaunau was under the protection of the deified chief Keawe, and the one at Waipi'o Valley under Liloa. [15]

De Freycinet described Hawaiian pu'uhonua enclosures in 1819 in some detail:

They offer an inviolable refuge to the fugitive culprits who are fortunate enough to attain their limits while fleeing from public persecution or just reprisal. Several large openings, some facing the sea and others facing the mountains, make the entry fast and easy at all hours for all those who get there. There, a murderer, a man who violated the tabou or failed in some of its religious observances, a thief, or even an assassin find protection and security, as soon as he has managed to cross the threshold of one of the gates. In times of war, a white banner, flying at all times from an extended pole at each extremity of the enclosure, informs all combatants — friend or foe — forced to escape the blows of the conquerors that for them the place is an assured port of safety. The priests guarding it and serving the refugees would immediately put to death any desecrating intruder who was daring enough to follow beyond its sacred limits a person under the protection of Keave [Keawe], the tutelary deity of these inviolable retreats. . . .

The enclosure contains houses for the priests and for those who are enjoying the rights of refuge. Some leave after a lapse of time set by custom; others return to their usual domicile after the cessation of hostilities, having nothing to fear from then on. [16]

Constance Cumming had been told that, having crossed the threshold of the refuge and attained sanctuary, "The first act of the fugitive was to give thanks in presence of the image of Keave, and he was then allowed to rest in one of the houses built specially for refugees, within the sanctuary. . . . [17]

This concept of providing places of safety was recognized throughout the Hawaiian Islands, resulting in a functioning pu'uhonua in each district throughout ancient times. Designated pu'uhonua changed over time with changing policies. The refuge at Honaunau was the largest walled one in Hawai'i and is thought to have been the most continuously used. Today it is also the best preserved. Established by the Kona chiefs in prehistoric times, it functioned into the historic period. [18]

5. Use During Reign of Kamehameha

After consolidating his power, Kamehameha abolished most of the old pu'uhonua, distributing them to his war leaders, and established new ones. Only Kaua'i, never the scene of Kamehameha's conflicts, retained all its original refuges. Kamakau states that prior to Kamehameha's rise to power there had been pu'uhonua on Hawai'i Island in Kohala, Hamakua, Hilo, Puna, and Ka'u. But when the Kona chiefs gained ascendancy, only the pu'uhonua at Honaunau was kept, either because the Kona chiefs were supreme or because the land was so dry it was of little other use. [19]

Samuel Kamakau also discussed the fact that not only places but people were considered pu'uhonua:

The king was called a pu'uhonua because a person about to die could run to him and be saved; so also were called his queen (ka Mo'iwahine) and his god. They were sacrosanct, and therefore their lands were sacrosanct, and were 'aina pu'uhonua, lands of refuge. Some fortifications (pu'u kaua) were pu'uhonua, when they were close to those about to be captured in battle. [20]

Designation as a pu'uhonua was applied to high chiefs because of their position as rulers, a position supported by the mana or sacred power they had inherited from their ancestors and that gave them the right to spare lives or extend mercy. [21]

As ruling chief, Kamehameha

converted the lands of his favorite wife [Ka'ahumanu] and of his god into pu'uhonua lands to save persons who had done some wrong [that is, violated some kapu], had shed blood without cause, or who had killed a man unintentionally. Ka'ahumanu herself was at times a pu'uhonua, when a lawbreaker who ran to her was saved from death. Kamehameha was also a pu'uhonua. A lawbreaker who had killed another unintentionally ran straight to Kamehameha, and his pursuers could not shed his blood; the king released the lawbreaker. [22]

<<< Previous <<< Contents >>> Next >>>

Last Updated: 15-Nov-2001