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Hawaii: Our Most Foreign Place

May 2024
6min read

Driving around the island of Hawaii, I got a strange feeling that I was driving through all of time. At the famous Kilauea volcano I could watch the creation of theEearth (the volcano adds to the island’s size every year); farther along, I saw the vivid remains of a civilization that barely two hundred years ago got along without the wheel, the written word, or the notion that anyone else existed; I visited the spot where that society first collided with the modern West; and I ended up in a town where the Hawaiian people plunged from prehistory into the nineteenth century. The abruptness of that leap can still be felt.

I started out at Hilo, the island’s largest town and principal port of entry. An old-fashioned fishing town on the island’s quieter eastern coast, Hilo gives you a strong feeling that you’re in the real Hawaii—the one you’re not in when you’re at Waikiki. Behind the peaceful main streets, a long, lush plain rises gradually toward Mauna Kea, the highest peak in the state.

The thirty-mile drive to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park passes through gentle, tropically shrubby country and hardwood forest, past anthurium and orchid farms, and into noticeably cooler air 4000 feet up. At the park, I checked into a room at the hotel on the rim of the big Kilauea Crater and spent the afternoon poking around among the walk-through lava tubes, the sulfurous steam vents (Mark Twain remarked, “The smell of sulphur is strong, but not unpleasant to a sinner"), and the various moonlike debris that littered the place. The main crater, enjoying a quiet spell, looked like a deep, empty pit two miles wide, its bottom lined with caked, cracked, steaming gray mud.

Heading south and downhill in the morning, I was soon beyond the utterly barren fields of rubble that mark old lava flows, but I did not quickly re-enter tropical paradise. Rather, I found myself in a scrubby plain where cattle grazed. The climate in Hawaii seems to change every mile; the mountains constantly build rain clouds, but the sunny coastlines can be arid. As the road approached the shore, I passed some fields of sugarcane and a resort hotel or two, and sped right by the turnoff for Kalae, the southernmost tip of the United States. There, some mooring holes that had been drilled into coastal rock offer sparse, early evidence of the Polynesian navigators who first hauled up here sometime between 200 and 700 A.D. and made the islands their own.

I continued on and followed the road as it turned north to head up the island’s western coast. This is where the human history of the island comes alive. The land, spotted with macadamia groves and coffee plantations, seems to make one long sweep, from the smooth, brown 13,000-foot cone way off to the right to the sea several miles away to the left. At the sign for Pu’uhonua o Hõnaunau, I turned left.

This is a seaside spot to which, until 1819, Hawaiians fled for absolution when they broke any of the many holy kapus, or taboos, punishable by instant death. Kapus were the glue of the authoritarian society. It was kapu to rise from prostration in view of a king, or for a woman to prepare food for a man. Refuges like this one were attached to royal grounds; since setting foot on royal earth was kapu, you could reach it only by swimming across the bay or running in, just ahead of your pursuers, beyond the edge of the royal compound.

Pu’uhonua o Hõnaunau is now fully restored as a national historic park, and it gives a strong feeling of what royalty and refuges were and weren’t in old Hawaii. Royalty was utterly feared, but was hardly grandiose; the chiefly grounds and the holy grounds each take up just a few acres, and a high chief slept in a grass hut the size of a large closet. The refuge is pretty, set on a point surrounded by a calm turquoise sea and shaded by palms, but it's also a hard place. The ground is all lava rock, and is enclosed by a ten-foot-high lava-rock wall from the 1500s. Once a kapu-breaker arrived, he had only to receive absolution from the resident kahuna, or priest, and he could leave to begin a new life.

Standing there by a reconstructed temple, I thought I must be in the most foreign place in the United States. These islands are the most geographically isolated in the world and were a kingdom from the 1790s until 1893, a republic from 1894 until 1898, and a United States territory from 1900 until statehood in 1959.

Leaving, I did not return to the main road, but drove four miles along the shore to a small town behind a local beach on a wide, peaceful cove named Kealakekua Bay. This is where Captain James Cook, “discoverer” of the islands, met his bizarre death. These islands were the only major landmass unknown to Europeans when Cook landed on the island of Kauai in January 1778. He was on his way north, to seek a passage between the Atlantic and Pacific. His men spent several weeks exploring and provisioning in Kauai and Niihau, and then headed on toward the Bering Strait. After a frustrating summer amid the ice, they returned, this time first reaching a different island, Maui. Cook knew the people there “were of the same Nation,” for they had already “got a mongst the veneral distemper” left by his men in January. Thus began the long decimation of Hawaiians by foreign disease.

Cook left Maui after only a few days. Next, he laid anchor in Kealakekua Bay. By weird coincidence, the natives here were celebrating their annual festival of Lono, a god symbolized by white cloth banners held aloft on crossbars. The people assumed that this pale-skinned stranger with the great sails hung out above his two giant ships was Lono. Cook encouraged the mistake, and he and the ruler of the island received each other ceremoniously. Cook’s 180 men enjoyed the Hawaiians’ limitless generosity for two weeks, fully provisioned their ships, and set sail.

After three days, the lead ship broke a mast in a storm. Cook and his men returned to the bay. Now, the holy time was over, Cook looked much less godly with his ship in disrepair, and the Hawaiians began increasing their bothersome petty thievery. When he discovered a large boat missing, he decided to blockade the bay and take the island’s ruler hostage to force its return. He invited the chief to visit his ship; the chief hesitated. Just as a crowd gathered, word came that a lesser chief had been shot trying to run the blockade. Cook prepared to leave, but the crowd turned angry and began throwing stones. Cook ordered his men to open fire. He was stabbed and clubbed to death at the water’s edge.

I drove into the jammed parking lot of the bay’s small, crowded beach. Behind the bay, a wooded slope rose sharply. Cook died on the other side of the bay, a half-mile from the beach, and you can look across to a distant white obelisk there, erected in a clearing in the 1870s. The surrounding shoreline is still unsettled, and you can get there only by boat or by four-wheel drive and a scramble. As I looked across at that isolated spot, it seemed appropriately far from the playful scene around me. Nothing was there to obstruct imagining.

From Kealakekua Bay it’s only a ten-mile drive north to Kailua-Kona, the main resort town of the island’s west coast. There, Hawaii’s first missionaries, Congregationalists from New England, landed in 1820. A lot had happened in forty years. Whalers and merchantmen had begun putting in at the islands, and a warrior chief had arisen who, with the help of Western weapons, had made himself the first ruler of all the Hawaiian Islands—King Kamehanneha the Great. When the missionaries arrived, they learned that Kamehameha had just died, and his son had, at the urging of the king’s widow, struck down the old religious system, which would have kept her from weilding any power.

As the New Englanders saw it, the Lord had cleared a path for his servants. They embarked on a program of uplift and improvement that, among other things, gave Hawaii, by 1850, the highest literacy rate in the world.

I saw the remains of a civilization that, two centuries ago, had neither the wheel nor the written word.

Kailua-Kona’s main street, which runs along the waterfront, is lined with bustling shops selling pearl necklaces, Hawaiian shirts, and beach paraphernalia. The big hotel at one end stands on the grounds where Kamehameha spent his dying days, and the proprietors have reconstructed his grass-roofed temple there. Only yards away is Mokuaikaua Church, the oldest in Hawaii. It was dedicated in 1837 (two thatched churches that preceded it burned). With its 112-foot-high steeple, it looks like the church in a large New England town. It was monumental for its time and place; no sawmills yet existed. The walls were built of blocks of lava cemented with mortar that had been made from sand and lime. Natives made the lime by gathering coral underwater and burning and crushing it. The posts and beams inside are all of ohia hardwood, pulled down by natives from high mountain slopes and joined by ohia pegs.

With its burnished-wooded interior, the church has a refined beauty. A six-foot model of the little brig Thaddeus, which brought the ministers from Boston, underlines the adventure of the parish’s beginnings. At a table and bulletin board by the door, I got a sense of the congregation today. A leaflet advised, “Our fellowship is very active in its ministry for Christ, even though small in number.” A display of Polaroid snapshots depicted an aloha party for seniors, with young people, hats, and cake. Nearby a poster headed “What the Missionaries Wrought” cataloged the "blessings" the church’s austere work had brought to nineteenth-century Hawaii, and a book for sale, Hawaii: Truth Stranger Than Fiction, offered to "correct" the unflattering picture of missionary zeal painted in the novel and movie Hawaii. The way the world turned over here a century and a half ago is still a deep-felt presence today.

—Frederick Allen 

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