First contact

When the two great canoes with masts like tall trees and sails like billowing
white clouds appeared off the northeast coast of Maui, where Kalani‘ōpu‘u was once again laying waste to the countryside, he was not in the least surprised. He had already heard stories of a “moving island” inhabited by strange creatures, which had visited Kaua‘i the previous Makahiki season. Now Kalani‘ōpu‘u stood with a number of his people, including Puna, Kiwala‘ō, Holo‘ae, Kamehameha, and my father at the edge of a cliff at Wailua Bay, pondering this strange sight. “So, Puna,” he said, turning to his trusted lieutenant, “it seems that the god ‘Lono’ has come to see me now.”

Once There Was Fire copyright 2016, Stephen Shender

When I began writing Once There Was Fire, I wanted to describe the world of the old Hawaiians and the events of that time as Kamehameha and his contemporaries would have seen and experienced them. Certainly, no event of that period was more profound in its impact on Hawaiian society than Capt. James Cook’s “discovery” of the “Sandwich Islands” in 1778-79.

(Cook named the islands after his patron, the Earl of Sandwich, who is best remembered today—if at all—as the inventor of, you guessed it, the sandwich. During his three Pacific voyages, Cook presumed the right to name every island, bay, and inlet from the northwestern coast of North America to the distant islands of Polynesia previously uncharted by Europeans. Many of the names he gave these places are in use today. Fortunately, “Sandwich Islands” didn’t stick.)

We know from their journals how Cook and his subalterns saw the Hawaiians, but how did the Hawaiians see them? Imagine yourself in their place. You live in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, in one of the most isolated spots on the globe. Your people lost touch with their ancestors’ home islands in Polynesia hundreds of years ago. To you they are only a myth—far-off “Kahiki.” You have never seen a white person before, and now, seemingly out of nowhere, they are among you. What would you have made of them?

Thanks to native-Hawaiian historians, I didn’t have to imagine the answer to this question. Mid-19th century historian S.M. Kamakau drew on living memories of Cook’s arrival, or at least, on memories of people only once removed from those events. Here is Kamakau’s description of Cook’s first landfall in the Islands, at Waimea, Kaua’i in January, 1778, from Ruling Chiefs of Hawaii (Kamehameha Schools Press):

Chiefs and commoners saw the wonderful sight and marveled at it. Some were terrified and shrieked with fear. The valley of Waimea rang with the shouts of the excited people as they saw the boat with its masts and its sails shaped like a gigantic sting ray. One asked another, “What are those branching things?” and another answered, “They are trees moving on the sea.”

…. The chief sent some men…to see what the wonderful thing was. …. One of them went on board and saw many men on the ship with white foreheads, sparkling eyes, wrinkled skins, and angular heads, who spoke a strange language and breathed fire from their mouths.

Kamakau credits this story to a man named Moho, who he says spread word of Cook’s appearance at Kaua’i to the other islands.

Writing at the turn of the 20th century, Stephen L. Desha cites Moho’s description of these strange newcomers in his Hawaiian-language newspaper columns, later collated in Kamehameha and His Warrior Kekuhaupi’o (Kamehameha Schools Press):

“The men on board that ship sailing in the sea have white wrinkled skins, their heads have corners and they are like gods. Fire comes from their mouths and they have a hole in their sides for … things which they might wish. They are able to thrust down and get fire from their sides, and light the fire in their mouths. It is clear that those people with cornered heads are gods.”

English officers’ bi-cornered hats mistaken for “cornered heads,” clothing for “wrinkled skin,” pockets for a “hole in their sides,” pipes for “fire in their mouths”—the Hawaiians’ own descriptions of Cook and his men became the basis for my own story of this first contact between Hawaiians and haoles in Once There Was Fire. Imaginatively, it really wasn’t much of a stretch.

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