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



Puna, the Home of the Coco-palm—A Magical Spring— A Leper Exodus —“Bill Ragsdale"—Self-sacrifice of Father Damiens


Hilo, June 1st


Mr. and Mrs. Severance and I have just returned from a three days' expedition to Puna in the south of Hawaii, and I preferred their agreeable company even to solitude! My sociable Kahele was also pleased, and consequently behaved very well. We were compelled to ride for twenty-three miles in single file, owing to the extreme narrowness of the lava track, which has been literally hammered down in some places to make it passable even for shod horses. We were a party of four, and a very fat policeman on a very fat horse brought up the rear.


At some distance from Hilo there is a glorious burst of tropical forest, and then the track passes into green grass dotted over with clumps of the pandanus and the beautiful eugenia. In that hot, dry district the fruit was already ripe, and we quenched our thirst with it. The ”native apple,” as it is called, is of such a brilliant crimson colour as to be hardly less beautiful than the flowers. The rind is very thin, and the inside is white, juicy, and very slightly acidulated. We were always near the sea, and the surf kept bursting up behind the trees in great snowy drifts, and every opening gave us a glimpse of deep blue water. The coast the whole way is composed of great blocks of very hard, black lava, more or less elevated, upon which the surges break in perpetual thunder.


Suddenly the verdure ceased, and we emerged upon a hideous scene, one of the many lava flows from Kilauea, an irregular branching stream, about a mile broad. It is suggestive of fearful work on the part of nature, for here the volcano has not created but destroyed. The black, tumbled sea mocked the bright sunshine, all tossed, jagged, spiked, twirled, thrown heap on heap, broken, rifted, upheaved in great masses, burrowing in ravines of its own making, full of broken bubble caves, and torn by a-a streams. Close to the track, crystals of olivine lie in great profusion, and in a few of the crevices there are young plants of a fern which everywhere has the audacity to act as the herald of vegetation.


Beyond this desert the country is different in its features from the rest of the island, a green, smiling land of Beulah, varied by lines of craters covered within and without with vegetation. For thirty miles the track passes under the deep shade of coco palms, of which Puna is the true home; and from under their feathery shadow, and from amidst the dark leafage of the breadfruit, gleamed the rose-crimson apples of the eugenia, and the golden balls of the guava. I have not before seen this exquisite palm to advantage, for those which fringe the coast have, as compared with these, a look of tattered, sombre, harassed antiquity. Here they stood in thousands, young as well as old, their fronds gigantic, their stems curving every way, and the golden light, which is peculiar to them, toned into a golden green. They were loaded with fruit in all stages, indeed it is produced in such abundance that thousands of nuts lie unheeded on the ground. Animals, including dogs and cats, revel in the meat, and in the scarcity of good water the milk is a useful substitute.


Late in the afternoon we reached our destination, a comfortable frame house, on one of those fine natural lawns in which Hawaii abounds. A shower at seven each morning keeps Puna always green. Our kind host, a German, married to a native woman, served our meals in a house made of grass and bamboo; but the wife and children, as is usual in these cases, never appeared at table, and contented themselves with contemplating us at a great distance.


The next afternoon we rode to one of the natural curiosities of Puna, which gave me intense pleasure. It lies at the base of a cone crowned with a heiau and a clump of coco palms. Passing among bread-fruit and guavas into a palm grove of exquisite beauty, we came suddenly upon a lofty, wooded cliff of hard basalt, with ferns growing out of every crevice in its ragged but perpendicular sides. At its feet is a cleft about 60 feet long, 16 wide, and 18 deep, full of water at a temperature of 90°. This has an absolute transparency of a singular kind, and perpetrates wonderful optical illusions. Every thing put into it is transformed. The rocks, broken timber, and old cocoa-nuts which lie below it, are a frosted blue; the dusky skins of natives are changed to alabaster; and as my companion, in a light print holoku, swam to and fro, her feet and hands became like polished marble tinged with blue, and her dress floated through the water as if woven of blue light. Everything about this spring is far more striking and beautiful than the colour in the Blue Grotto. It is heaven in the water, a jewelled floor of marvels, ”a sea of glass,” “like unto sapphire,” a type, perhaps, of that on which the blessed stand before the throne of God. Above, the feathery palms rose into the crystalline blue, and made an amber light below, and all fair and lovely things were mirrored in the wonderful waters. The specific gravity must be much greater that that of ordinary water, for it did not seem possible to sink, or even be thoroughly immersed in it. The mercury in the air was 79°, but on coming out of the water we felt quite chilly.


I like Puna. It is like nothing else, but something about it made us feel as if we were dwelling in a castle of indolence. I developed a capacity for doing nothing, which horrified me, and except when we energised ourselves to go to the hot spring, my companions and I were content to dream in the verandah, and watch the lengthening shadows, and drink cocoa-nut milk, till the abrupt exit of the sun startled us, and we saw the young moon carrying the old one tenderly, and a fitful glare 60 miles away, where the solemn fires of Mauna Loa are burning at a height of nearly 14,000 feet.




There are many ”littles,” but few ”mickles” here. It is among the last that two foreign gentlemen have successfully accomplished the ascent of Mauna Loa, and the mystery of its fires is solved. I write ”successfully,” as they went up and down in safety, but they were involved in a series of pilikias: girths, stirrup-leathers, and cruppers slipping and breaking, and their sufferings on the summit from cold and mountain sickness appear to have been nearly incapacitating. Although much excited, they are collected enough to pronounce it ”the most sublime sight ever seen.” They, as well as several natives who have passed by Kilauea, report it as in full activity, which bears against the assertion that the flank crater becomes quiet when the summit crater is active.


Another and sadder "mickle” has been the departure of ten lepers for Molokai. The Kilauea, with the Marshal, and Mr. Wilder, who embodies the Board of Health, has just left the bay, taking away forty lepers on this cruise; and the relations of those who have been taken from Hilo are still howling on the beach. When one hears the wailing, and sees the temporary agony of the separated relatives, one longs for ”the days of the Son of Man,” and that his healing touch, as of old in Galilee, might cleanse these unfortunates. Nine of the lepers were sent on board from the temporary pest-house, but their case, though deeply commiserated, has been overshadowed by that of the talented half-white, ”Bill Ragsdale,” whom I mentioned in one of my earlier letters, and who is certainly the most ”notorious” man in Hilo. He has a remarkable gift of eloquence, both in English and Hawaiian: a combination of pathos, invective, and sarcasm; and his manner, though theatrical, is considered perfect by his native admirers. His moral character, however, has been very low, which makes the outburst of feeling at his fate the more remarkable.


Yesterday, he wrote a letter to Sheriff Severance, giving himself up as a leper to be dealt with by the law, expressing himself as ready to be expatriated to-day, but requesting that he might not be put into the leper-house, and that he might go on board the steamer alone. The fact of his giving himself up excited much sympathy, as, in his case, the signs of the malady are hardly apparent, and he might have escaped suspicion for some time.


He was riding about all this morning, taking leave of people, and of the pleasant Hilo lanes, which he will never see again, and just as the steamer was weighing anchor, walked down to the shore as carefully dressed as usual, decorated with lets of ohia and gardenia, and escorted by nearly the whole native population. On my first landing here, the glee-club, singing and flower-clad, went out to meet him;—now tears and sobs accompanied him, and his countrymen and women clung to him, kissing him to the last moment, whilst all the foreigners shook hands as they offered him their good wishes. He made a short speech in native, urging quiet submission to the stringent measures which government is taking in order to stamp out leprosy, and then said a few words in English. His last words, as he stepped into the boat, were to all: ”Aloha, may God bless you, my brothers,” and then the whale boat took him the first stage towards his living grave. He took a horse, a Bible, and some legal books with him; and, doubtless, in consideration of the prominent positions he has filled, specially that of interpreter to the Legislature, unusual indulgence will be granted to him.


At the weekly prayer meeting held this evening, the medical officer gave a very pathetic account of his interview with him this morning, in which he had feelingly requested the prayers of the church. It was with unusual fervour afterwards that prayer was offered, not for him only, but for ”all those who, living, have this day been consigned to the oblivion of the grave, and for the five hundred of our fellow-subjects now suffering on Molokai.” A noble instance of devotion has just been given by Father Damiens, a Belgian priest, who has gone to spend his life amidst the hideous scenes, and the sickness and death of the ghastly valley of Kalawao.



Letter 28: The ”Unexpected” happens, Hilo Kindness, and Preparations for the Ascent of Mauna Loa


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