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Mo`olelo O Na Ali`i

Roy Alameida

October 2007


In this issue of NWHT, we continue with the mo‘olelo of Captain James Cook from the Kanaka Maoli point of view as described by Hawaiian historian Samuel Kamakau.

Just as he did a year earlier at Kaua‘i, Cook arrived off the coast of Maui. It was the time of Makahiki. The mo‘olelo indicates that all warfare ceased during the time of makahiki in order to pay homage and collect the yearly taxes for Lono, god of peace and agriculture. It was a time of kapu (sacredness); a time of reflection of the past year’s events. Kealakekua, the home of Lono in his human form, welcomes Lono as he returns from Kahiki annually.

Hikiau, the heiau dedicated to Lono, was close to the beach where Cook lay anchor after sailing along the windward coast of Hawai‘i island and reaching the safety of Kealakekua Bay. The kahuna prepared for the arrival of Lono as the curious onlookers hurried to the shore to see the god with their own eyes. What they saw was a fair complexion man “with bright eyes, a high-bridged nose, light hair, and handsome features. Good looking gods they were! They spoke rapidly. Red was the mouth of the god.” Similar descriptions confirmed in the minds of Hawaiians that he, Cook, was indeed Lono or the resemblance thereof.

When Cook went onshore, he was led to the heiau and presented to the gods. He was seated above the altar where a pua‘a (pig) was placed in preparation for the ceremonial rituals for a god. Several kahuna entered the heiau with a bundle of red cloth and prostrated themselves before Cook. He was then covered with the cloth while lengthy oli (chants) were chanted in honor of Lono. He was then led to the primary idol on the heiau and following the kahuna; he bowed before the image. Cook was then anointed with oil from the coconut chewed by one of the kahuna. The ceremony was completed when he drank the traditionally prepared awa and ate a piece of the sacrificial pua‘a which was first chewed for him. Whether Cook consented to have homage paid to him on the heiau at the level that he received, he may have thought that the ceremonies was a sign of respect for dignitaries similar to the practice in Great Britain and other countries of the world at the time.

On February 4th, Cook prepared to leave Kealakekua. According to Samuel Kamakau, shortly after sailing close to Kawaihae, Cook discovered that one of the mast had decayed and needed repairs. He returned to Kealakekua at which point he was under suspicion by the people on shore. The return raised the question whether or not this was indeed the god Lono or was this person a man. According to the mo‘olelo, Lono leaves and does not return until the following year at the time of makahiki. But this premature return of Lono was cause for scrutiny.

Hawaiians then provoked the wrath of Cook by taking iron and nails from his ship, the Endeavour. They were shot at, resulting in a brief skirmish on board ship. Palea, an ali‘i in Kalani‘ōpu‘u’s court, was hit on the head by a club and quickly taken to shore to avoid certain death.

Palea decided, as revenge, to return to Cook’s ship and secretly take a boat. When it was discovered missing, Cook went ashore to ask about the boat to Kalani‘ōpu‘u, who denied any knowledge of the incident. Cook and his men returned to the ship to assess the situation and decided to take the ali‘i nui, Kalani‘ōpu‘u, hostage until the boat was returned. Upon returning to shore, an ali‘i was shot without provocation by one of Cook’s men which then led to a quick skirmish. As Cook tried to take Kalani‘ōpu‘u into the boat, he was struck by a club which caused him to land among a pile of lava rocks where he groaned with pain. This convinced the Hawaiians that Cook was indeed human. He was struck again with a club and killed along with several of his men. Was that moment of action a result of protection for their ali‘i nui from the foreign intruder or was it anger because their own had been killed by Cook’s men without mercy? The dead bodies of Cook and his men were taken to the heiau and offered as sacrifice to the gods.

As Kamakau points out, “The seeds that he [Cook] planted have sprouted, grown, and become the parents of others that have caused the decrease of the native population of these islands….these things [social diseases, prostitution, the illusion of him being a god, fleas, mosquitoes, epidemics] have led to changes in the air which we breathe; the coming of things which weaken the body; changes in plant life; changes in religion; changes in the art of healing; and changes in the laws by which the land is governed.”

Source: Kamakau, S.M. (1992). Ruling chiefs. Honolulu: Kamehameha Schools/Bishop Estate.


Ua ‘Ike Anei ‘Oe… (Did you know that…)

  • differences between official accounts of Cook’s voyage and the diaries of his men stimulated new interest in him.
  • contrary to the belief that all war ceased during this time, battles continued during makahiki such as the one between Kalani‘ōpu‘u and Kahekili of Maui
  • Hikiau heiau still exist today at Kealakekua.

Hikiau at Kealakekua as it looks today. The heiau is kapu and not open to the public.

Photo by Roy Alameida


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