The Hawaiian Archipelago:
Six months amongst the palm groves, coral reefs, and volcanoes of the Sandwich Islands
By Isabella L. Bird, 1875



“The High Priest of Pele"—Missionary Hardships—A Renowned Baptism—The “Revival”—A Tidal Wave—Kapiolani's Heroism—Lava Flows and Earthquakes

Hilo, February 22nd

My sojourn here is very pleasant, owing to the kindness and sociability of the people. 1 think that so much culture and such a variety of refined tastes can seldom be found in so small a community. There have been pleasant little gatherings for sewing, while some gentlemen read aloud, fern-printing in the verandah, microscopic and musical evenings, little social luncheons, and on Sunday evenings what is colloquially termed “a sing,” at this most social house. One of the things I have specially enjoyed has been spending an afternoon at the Rev. Titus Coan's. He is not only one of the most venerable of the remaining missionaries, but such an authority on the Hawaiian volcanoes as to entitle him to be designated “the high-priest of Pele!” In his modest, quiet way he told thrilling stories of the old missionary days.

As you know, the islands cast off idolatry in 1819, but it was not till 1835 that Mr. and Mrs. Coan arrived in Hilo, where Mr. and Mrs. Lyman had been toiling for some time, and had produced a marked change on the social condition of the people. Mr. C. was a fervid speaker, and physically very robust, and when he had mastered the language, he undertook much of the travelling and touring, and Mr. Lyman took charge of the home mission station, and the boarding and industrial school which he still indefatigably superintends. There were 15,000 natives then in the district, and its extremes were 100 miles apart. Portions of it could only be reached with peril to limbs and even life. Horses were only regarded as wild animals in those days, and Mr. C. traversed on foot the district I have just returned from, not lazily riding down the gulch sides, but climbing, or being let down by ropes from tree to tree, and from crag to crag. In times of rain like last week, when it was impossible to ford the rivers, he sometimes swam across, with a rope to prevent him from being carried away, through others he rode on the broad shoulders of a willing native, while a company of strong men locked hands and stretched themselves across the torrent, between him and the cataract, to prevent him from being carried over in case his bearer should fall. This experience was often repeated three or four times a day. His smallest weekly number of sermons was six or seven, and die largest from twenty-five to thirty. He often travelled in drowning rain, crossed dangerous streams, climbed slippery precipices, and frequently preached in wind and rain with all his garments saturated. On every occasion he received aid from the natives, who were so kind and friendly, that when he used to sleep in the woods at night, he hung his watch on a tree, knowing that it was perfectly safe from pilfering or curious touch. Indeed the Christian teachers seem to have been regarded as tabu.

 Before the end of that year, Mr. Coan had made the circuit of Hawaii, a foot and canoe trip of 300 miles, in which he nearly suffered canoe-wreck twice. In all, he has admitted into the Christian church by baptism, 12,000 persons, besides 4,000 infants. He gave a most interesting account of one great baptism. The greatest care was previously taken in selecting, teaching, watching, and examining the candidates. Those from the distant villages came and spent several months here for preliminary instruction. Many of these were converts of two years' standing, a larger class had been on the list for more than a year, and a smaller one for a lesser period. The accepted candidates were announced by name several weeks previously, and friends and enemies everywhere were called upon to testify all that they knew about them. On the first Sunday in July, 1838, 1705 persons, formerly heathens, were baptised. They were seated close together on the earth-floor in rows, with just space between for one to walk, and Mr. Lyman and Mr. Coan, passing through them, sprinkled every bowed head, after which Mr. C. admitted the weeping hundreds into the fellowship of the Universal Church by pronouncing the words, “I baptise you all in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” After this, 2400 converts received the Holy Communion. I give Mr. C.'s own words concerning those who partook of it, “who truly and earnestly repented of their sins, and steadfastly purposed to lead new lives. “The old and decrepit, the lame, the blind, the maimed, the withered, the paralytic, and those afflicted with divers diseases and torments; those with eyes, noses, lips, and limbs consumed; with features distorted, and figures depraved and loathsome: these came hobbling upon their staves, or led and borne by others to the table of the Lord. Among the throng you would have seen the hoary priest of idolatry, with hands but recently washed from the blood of human victims, together with thieves, adulterers, highway robbers, murderers, and mothers whose hands reeked with the blood of their own children. It seemed like one of the crowds the Saviour gathered, and over which he pronounced the words of healing."

Though the people cast off idolatry in 1819 before the arrival of the missionaries, they were very indifferent to Christian teaching until 1837, the year before the great baptism, when a great religious stir began, and for four years affected all the islands. I wish you could have heard Mr. C. and Mrs. Lyman tell of that stirring time, when nearly all the large population of the Hilo and Puna districts turned out to hear the Gospel, and how the young people went up into the mountains and carried the news of the love of God and the good life to come to the sick and old, who were afterwards baptized, when often the only water which could be obtained for the rite was that which dripped sparingly from the roofs of caves. The Hawaiian notions of a future state, where any existed, were peculiarly vague and dismal, and Mr. Ellis says that the greater part of the people seemed to regard the tidings of ora loa ia Jesu (endless life by Jesus) as the most joyful news they had ever heard, "breaking upon them,” to use their own phrase, “like light in the morning." “Will my spirit never die, and can this poor weak body live again?“ an old chieftess exclaimed, and this delighted surprise seemed the general feeling of the natives. From less difficult distances the sick and lame were brought on litters and on the backs of men, and the infirm often crawled to the trail by which the missionary was to pass, that they might hear of this good news which had come to Hawaii-nei.

There were but these two preachers for the 15,000 people scattered for 100 miles, who were all ravenous to hear, and impatient of the tardy modes of evangelization. “If we die," said they, “let us die in the light.” So this strange thing fell out, that whole villages from miles away gathered to the mission station. Two-thirds of the population of the district came in, and within the radius of a mile the grass and banana houses clustered as thick as they could stand. Beautiful Hilo in a short time swelled from a population of 1000 to 10,000; and at any hour of the day or night the sound of the conch shell brought together from 3000 to 6000 worshippers. This vast camp-meeting continued for two years, but there was no disorder, and a decent quiet ruled throughout the strangely extemporized city. A new morality, a new social order, new notions on nearly all subjects, had to be inculcated as well as a new religion. Mrs. C. and Mrs. L. daily assembled the women and children, and taught them the habits and industries of civilization, to attend to their persons, to braid hats, and to wear and make clothes.

During this time, on November 7, 1837, one of the striking phenomena which make the islands remarkable occurred. The crescent sand-beach, said to be the most beautiful in the Pacific, the fringe of palms, the far-reaching groves behind, and the great ocean, slept in summer calm, as they sleep to-day. Four sermons, as usual, had been preached to audiences of 6000 people. There had been a funeral, the natives say, though Mr. C. does not remember it, and his text had been “Be ye also ready,” and larger throngs than usual had followed the preachers to their homes. The fatiguing day was over, the natives were singing hymns in the still evening air, and Mr. C. "had gathered his family for prayers” in the very room in which he told me this story, when they were startled by “a sound as if a heavy mountain had fallen on the beach.” There was at once a fearful cry, wailing, and indescribable confusion. The quiet ocean had risen in a moment in a gigantic wave, which, rushing in with the speed of a racehorse, and uplifting itself over the shore, swept everything into promiscuous ruin; men, women, children, dogs, houses, food, canoes, clothing, floated wildly on the flood, and hundreds of people were struggling among the billows in the midst of their earthly all. Some were dashed on the shore, some were saved by friends who hurried to their aid, some were carried out to sea by the retiring water, and some stout swimmers sank exhausted; yet the loss of life was not nearly so great as it would have been among a less amphibious people. Mr. C. described the roaring of the ocean, the cries of distress, the shrieks of the perishing, the frantic rush of hundreds to the shore, and the desolation of the whole neighbourhood of the beach, as forming a scene of the most thrilling and awful interest.

You will remember that I wrote from Kilauea regarding the terror which the Goddess of the Crater inspired, and her high priest was necessarily a very awful personage. The particular high-priest of whom Mr. Coan told me was 6 feet 5 inches in height, and his sister, who was co-ordinate with him in authority, had a scarcely inferior altitude. His chief business was to keep Pele appeased. He lived on the shore, but often went up to Kilauea with sacrifices. If a human victim were needed, he had only to point to a native, and the unfortunate wretch was at once strangled. He was not only the embodiment of heathen piety, but of heathen crime. Robbery was his pastime. His temper was so fierce and so uncurbed that no native dared even to tread on his shadow. More than once he had killed a man for the sake of food and clothes not worth fifty cents. He was a thoroughly wicked savage. Curiosity attracted him into one of the Hilo meetings, and the bad giant fell under the resistless, mysterious influence which was metamorphosing thousands of Hawaiians. “I have been deceived,” he said, “I have deceived others, I have lived in darkness, and did not know the true God. I worshipped what was no God. I renounce it all. The true God has come. He speaks. 1 bow down to Him. I wish to be His son.” The priestess, his sister, came soon afterwards, and they remained here several months for instruction. They were then about seventy years old, but they imbibed the New Testament spirit so thoroughly that they became as gentle, loving, and quiet as little children. After a long probationary period they were baptized, and after several years of pious and lowly living, they passed gently and trustfully away.

The old church which was the scene of these earlier assemblages came down with a crash after a night of heavy rain, the large timbers, which were planted in the moist earth after the fashion of the country to support the framework, having become too rotten to bear the weight of the saturated thatch. Without a day's loss of time the people began a new church. All were volunteers, some to remove from the wreck of the old building such timbers as might still be of service; some to quarry stone for a foundation, an extravagance never before dreamed of by an islander; some to bring sand in gourd-shells upon their heads, or laboriously gathered in the folds of bark-cloth aprons; some to bring lime from the coral reefs 20 feet underwater; whilst the majority hurried to the forest belt, miles away on the mountain side, to fell the straightest and tallest trees. Then 50 or 100 men (for in that day horses and oxen were known only as wild beasts of the wilderness) attached hawsers to the butt ends of logs, and dragged them away through bush and brake, through broken ground and river beds, till they deposited them on the site of the new church. The wild, monotonous chant, as the men hauled in the timber, lives in the memories of the missionaries' children, who say that it seemed to them as if the preparations for Solomon's temple could not have exceeded the accumulations of the islanders!

I think that the greater number of the converts of those four years must have died ere this. In 1867 the old church at Hilo was divided into seven congregations, six of them with native pastors. To meet the wants of the widely-scattered people fifteen churches have been built, holding from 500 up to 1000. The present Hilo church, a very pretty wooden one, cost about $14,000. All these have been erected mainly by native money and labour. Probably the native Christians on Hawaii are not much better or worse than Christian communities elsewhere, but they seem a singularly generous people. Besides liberally sustaining their own clergy, the Hilo Christians have contributed altogether $100,000 for religious purposes. Mr. Coan's native congregation, sorely dwindled as it is, raises over $1200 annually for foreign missions; and twelve of its members have gone as missionaries to the islands of Southern Polynesia.

Poor people! It would be unfair to judge of them as we may legitimately be judged of, who inherit the influences of ten centuries of Christianity. They have only just emerged from a bloody and sensual heathenism, and to the instincts and volatility of these dark Polynesian races, the restraining influences of the Gospel are far more severe than to our cold, unimpulsive northern natures. The greatest of their disadvantages has been that some of the vilest of the whites who roam the Pacific had settled on the islands before the arrival of the Christian teachers, dragging the people down to even lower depths of depravity than those of heathenism, and that there are still resident foreigners who corrupt and destroy them.

I must tell you a story which the venerable Mrs. Lyman told me yesterday. In 1825, five years after the first missionaries landed, Kapiolani, a female alii of high rank, while living at Kaiwaaloa (where Captain Cook was murdered), became a Christian. Grieving for her people, most of whom still feared to anger Pele", she announced that it was her intention to visit Kilauea, and dare the fearful goddess to do her worst. Her husband and many others tried to dissuade her, but she was resolute, and taking with her a large retinue, she took a journey of one hundred miles, mostly on foot, over the rugged lava, till she arrived near the crater. There a priestess of Pele met her, threatened her with the displeasure of the goddess if she persisted in her hostile errand, and prophesied that she and her followers would perish miserably. Then, as now, ohelo berries grew profusely round the terminal wall of Kilauea, and there, as elsewhere, were sacred to Pele, no one daring to eat of them till he had first offered some of them to the divinity. It was usual on arriving at the crater to break a branch covered with berries, and turning the face to the pit of fire, to throw half the branch over the precipice, saying, "Pele, here are your ohelos. I offer some to you, some I also eat,” after which the natives partook of them freely. Kapiolani gathered and eat them without this formula, after which she and her company of eighty persons descended to the black edge of Hale-mau-mau. There, in full view of the fiery pit, she thus addressed her followers.—"Jehovah is my God. He kindled these fires. I fear not Pele. If I perish by the anger of Pele, then you may fear the power of Pele; but if I trust in Jehovah, and he should save me from the wrath of Pele, when I break through her tabus, then you must fear and serve the Lord Jehovah. All the gods of Hawaii are vain! Great is Jehovah's goodness in sending teachers to turn us from these vanities to the living God and the way of righteousness!“ Then they sang a hymn. I can fancy the strange procession winding its backward way over the cracked, hot, lava sea, the robust belief of the princess hardly sustaining the limping faith of her followers, whose fears would not be laid to rest until they reached the crater's rim without any signs of the pursuit of an avenging deity. It was more sublime than Elijah's appeal on the soft, green slopes of Carmel, but the popular belief in the Goddess of the Volcano survived this flagrant instance of her incapacity, and only died out many years afterwards. 

Besides these interesting reminiscences, I have been hearing most thrilling stories from Mrs. Lyman and Mr. Coan of volcanoes, earthquakes, and tidal waves. Told by eye-witnesses, and on the very spot where the incidents occurred, they make a profound, and, I fear, an incommunicable impression. I look on these venerable people as I should on people who had seen the Deluge, or the burial of Pompeii, and wonder that they eat and dress and live like other mortals! For they have felt the perpetual shudder of earthquakes, and their eyes, which look so calm and kind, have seen the inflowing of huge tidal waves, the dull red glow of lava streams, arid the leaping of fire cataracts into deep-lying pools, burning them dry in a night time. There were years in which there was no day in which the smoke of underground furnaces was out of their sight, or night which was not lurid with flames. Once they traced a river of lava burrowing its way 1500 feet below the surface, and saw it emerge, break over a precipice, and fall hissing into the ocean. Once from their highest mountain a pillar of fire 200 feet in diameter lifted itself for three weeks 1000 feet into the air, making night day, for a hundred miles round, and leaving as its monument a cone a mile in circumference. We see a clothed and finished earth; they see the building of an island, layer on layer, hill on hill, the naked and deformed product of the melting, forging, and welding, which go on perpetually in the crater of Kilauea.

I could fill many sheets with what I have heard, but must content myself with telling you very little. . In 1855 the fourth recorded eruption of Mauna Loa occurred. The lava flowed directly Hilo-wards, and for several months, spreading through the dense forests which belt the mountain, crept slowly shorewards, threatening this beautiful portion of Hawaii with the fate of the Cities of the Plain. Mr. C. made several visits to the eruption, and on each return the simple people asked him how much longer it would last. For five months they watched the inundation, which came a little nearer every day. Should they fly or not? Would their beautiful homes become a waste of jagged lava and black sand, like the neighbouring district of Puna, once as fair as Hilo?“ Such questions suggested themselves as they nightly watched the nearing glare, till the fiery waves met with obstacles which piled them up in hillocks, eight miles from Hilo, and the suspense was over. Only gigantic causes can account for the gigantic phenomena of this lava-flow. The eruption travelled forty miles in a straight line, or sixty, including sinuosities. It was from one to three miles broad, and from five to two hundred feet deep, according to the contours of the mountain slopes over which it flowed. It lasted for thirteen months, pouring out a. torrent of lava which covered nearly 300 square miles of land, and whose volume was estimated at thirty-eight thousand millions of cubic feet! In 1859 lava fountains 400 feet in height, and with a nearly equal diameter, played on the summit of Mauna Loa. This eruption ran fifty miles to the sea in eight days, but the flow lasted much longer, and added a new promontory to Hawaii.

These magnificent overflows, however threatening, had done little damage to cultivated regions, and none to human life; and people began to think that the volcano was reformed. But in 1868 terrors occurred which are without precedent in island history. While Mrs. L. was giving me the narrative in her graphic but simple way, and the sweet wind rustled through the palms, and brought the rich scent of the ginger plant into the shaded room, she seemed to be telling me a tale of another world. On March 27, five years ago, a series of earthquakes began, and became more startling from day to day; until their succession became so rapid that “the island quivered like the lid of a boiling pot nearly all the time between the heavier shocks. The trembling was like that of a ship struck by a heavy wave.” Then the terminal crater of Mauna Loa (Mokuaweoweo) sent up columns of smoke, steam, and red light, and it was shortly seen that the southern slope of its dome had been rent, and that four separate rivers of molten stone were pouring out of as many rents, and were flowing down the mountain sides in diverging lines. Suddenly the rivers were arrested, and the blue mountain dome appeared against the still, blue sky without an indication of fire, steam, or smoke. Hilo was much agitated by the sudden lull. No one was deceived into security, for it was certain that the fires must make themselves felt.

The earthquakes became nearly continuous; scarcely an appreciable interval occurred between them; “the throbbing, jerking, and quivering motions grew more positive, intense, and sharp; the)' were vertical, rotary, lateral, and undulating," producing nausea, vertigo, and vomiting. Late in the afternoon of a lovely day, April 2, the climax came. “The crust of the earth rose and sank like the sea in a storm." Rocks were rent, mountains fell, buildings and their contents were shattered, trees swayed like reeds, animals were scared, and ran about demented; men thought the judgment had come. The earth opened in thousands of places, the roads in Hilo cracked open, horses and their riders, and people afoot were thrown violently to the ground; "it seemed as if the rocky ribs of the mountains, and the granite walls and pillars of the earth were breaking up.” At Kilauea the shocks were as frequent as the ticking of a watch. In Kau, south of Hilo, they counted 300 shocks on that direful day; and Mrs. L.'s son, who was in that district at the time, says that the earth swayed to and fro, north and south, then east and west, then round and round, up and down, in every imaginable direction, everything crashing about them, “and the trees thrashing as if torn by a strong rushing wind.” He and others sat on the ground bracing themselves with hands and feet to avoid being rolled over. They saw an avalanche of red earth, which the> supposed to be lava, burst from the mountain side, throwing rocks high into the air, swallowing up houses, trees, men, and animals; and travelling three miles in as many minutes, burying a hamlet, with thirty- one inhabitants and 500 head of cattle. The people of the valleys fled to the mountains, which themselves were splitting in all directions, and collecting on an elevated spot, with the earth reeling under them, they spent the night of April 2 in prayer and singing. Looking towards the shore, they saw it sink, and at the same moment, a wave, whose height was estimated at from forty to sixty feet, hurled itself upon the coast, and receded five times, destroying whole villages, and even strong stone houses, with a touch, and engulfing for ever forty-six people who had lingered too near the shore.

Still the earthquakes continued, and still the volcano gave no sign. The nerves of many people gave way in these fearful days. Some tried to get away to Honolulu, others kept horses saddled on which to fly, they knew not whither. The hourly question was, “What of the volcano?" People put their ears to the quivering ground, and heard, or thought they heard, the surgings of the imprisoned lava sea rending its way among the ribs of the earth.

Five days after the destructive earthquake of April 2, the ground south of Hilo burst open with a crash and roar .which at once answered all questions concerning the volcano. The molten river, after travelling underground for twenty miles, emerged through a fissure two miles in length with a tremendous force and volume. It was in a pleasant pastoral region, supposed to be at rest for ever, at the top of a grass-covered plateau sprinkled with native and foreign houses, and rich in herds of cattle. Four huge fountains boiled up with terrific fury, throwing crimson lava, and rocks weighing many tons, to a height of from 500 to 1000 feet. Mr. Whitney, of Honolulu, who was near the spot, says:—”From these great fountains to the sea flowed a rapid stream of red lava, rolling, rushing, and tumbling, like a swollen river, bearing along in its current large rocks that made the lava foam as it dashed down the precipice and through the valley into the sea, surging and roaring throughout its length like a cataract, with a power and fury perfectly indescribable. It was nothing else than a river of fire from 200 to 800 feet wide and twenty deep, with a speed varying from ten to twenty-five miles an hour.

This same intelligent observer noticed as a peculiarity of the spouting that the lava was ejected by a rotary motion, and in the air both lava and stones always rotated towards the south. At Kilauea I noticed that the lava was ejected in a southerly direction. From the scene of these fire fountains, whose united length was about a mile, the river in its rush to the sea divided itself into four streams, between which it shut up men and beasts. One stream hurried to the sea in four hours, but the others took two days to travel ten miles. The aggregate width was a mile and a half. Where it entered the sea it extended the coast-line half a mile, but this worthless accession to Hawaiian acreage was dearly purchased by the loss, for ages at least, of 4000 acres of valuable pasture land, and a much larger quantity of magnificent forest. The whole southeast shore of Hawaii sank from four to six feet, which involved the destruction of several hamlets and the beautiful fringe of cocoa-nut trees. Though the region was very thinly peopled, 200 houses and 100 lives were sacrificed in this week of horrors, and from the reeling mountains, the uplifted ocean, and the fiery inundation, the terrified survivors fled into Hilo, each with a tale of woe and loss. The number of shocks of earthquake counted was 2000 in two weeks, an average of 140 a day; but on the other side of the island the number was incalculable.

I. L. B.


Letter 13: A Royal Landing, Puna Woods, Lunalilo, and The King's Speech


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