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



Windward Hawaii—"Gulches" — The Mexican Saddle— Onornea— A Sugar Plantation— Sugar Making—The Ruling Interest

Onomea, Hawai`i, Judge Austin's

Mrs. A. has been ill for some time, and Mrs. S. her sister, and another friend "plotted" in a very clandestine manner that I should come here for a few days in order to give her "a little change of society," but I am quite sure that under this they only veil a kind wish that I should see something of plantation life. There is a plan, too, that I should take a five days' trip to a remarkable valley called Waipio, but this is only a "castle in the air."

Mr. A. sent in for me a capital little lean rat of a horse which by dint of spirit and activity managed to keep within sight of two large horses, ridden by Mr. Thompson, and a very handsome young lady riding "cavalier fashion," who convoyed me out. Borrowed saddle-bags, and a couple of shingles for carrying ferns formed my outfit, and were carried behind my saddle. It is a magnificent ride here. The track crosses the deep, still, Wailuku River on a wooden bridge, and then, after winding up a steep hill, among native houses fantastically situated, hangs on the verge of the lofty precipices which descend perpendicularly to the sea, dips into tremendous gulches, loses itself in the bright fern-fringed torrents which have cleft their way down from the mountains, and at last emerges on the delicious height on which this house is built.

This coast looked beautiful from the deck of the Kilaueay but I am now convinced that I have never seen anything so perfectly lovely as it is when one is actually among its details. Onomea is 600 feet high, and every yard of the ascent from Hilo brings one into a fresher and purer air. One looks up the wooded, broken slopes to a wild volcanic wilderness and the snowy peaks of Mauna Kea on one side, and on the other down upon the calm, blue Pacific, wrinkled by the sweet trade-wind, till it blends in far-off loveliness with the still, blue sky; and heavy surges break on the reefs, and fritter themselves away on the rocks, tossing their pure foam over ti and lauhala trees, and exquisite ferns and trailers mantle the cliffs down to the water's edge. Here a native house stands, with passion-flowers clustering round its verandah, and the great, solitary, red blossoms of the hibiscus flame out from dark surrounding leafage, and women in rose and green holokus, weaving garlands, greet us with "Aloha" as we pass. Then we come upon a whole cluster of grass houses under lauhalas and bananas. Then there is the sugar-plantation of Kaiwiki, with its patches of bright green cane, its flumes crossing the track above our heads, bringing the cane down from the upland cane-fields to the crushing-mill, and the shifting, busy scenes of the sugar-boiling season.

Then the track goes down with a great dip, along which we slip and slide in the mud to a deep broad stream. This is a most picturesque spot, the junction of two bright rivers, and a few native houses and a Chinaman's store are grouped close by under some palms, with the customary loungers on horseback, asking and receiving nuhou, or news, at the doors. Our accustomed horses leaped into a ferry-scow provided by Government, worked by a bearded female of hideous aspect, and leaped out on the other side to climb a track cut on the side of a precipice, which would be steep to mount on one's own feet. There we met parties of natives, all flower-wreathed, talking and singing, coming gaily down on their sure-footed horses, saluting us with the invariable "Aloha." Every now and then we passed native churches, with spires painted white, or a native school-house, or a group of scholars all ferns and flowers. The greenness of the vegetation merits the term "dazzling." We think England green, but its colour is poor and pale as compared with that of tropical Hawaii. Palms, candlenuts, ohias, hibiscus, were it not for their exceeding beauty, would almost pall upon one from their abundance, and each gulch has its glorious entanglement of breadfruit, the large-leaved ohia or native apple, a species of Eugenia {Eugenia Malaccensis) , and the pandanus, with its aerial roots, all looped together by large sky-blue convolvuli and the running fern, and is marvelous with parasitic growths.

The unique beauty of this roast is what is called gulches—narrow, deep ravines or gorges, from 100 to 2000 feet in depth, each with a series of cascades from 10 to 800 feet in height. I dislike reducing their glories to the baldness of figures, but the depth of these clefts (originally, probably, the seams caused by fire torrents), cut and worn by the fierce streams fed by the snows of Mauna Kea, and the rains of the forest belt, cannot otherwise be expressed. The cascades are most truly beautiful, gleaming white among the dark depths of foliage far away, and falling into deep limpid basins, festooned and overhung with the richest and greenest vegetation of this prolific climate, from the huge-leaved banana and shining breadfruit to the most feathery of ferns and lycopodiums. Each gulch opens on a velvet lawn close to the sea, and most of them have space for a few grass houses, with cocoanut trees, bananas and kalo patches. There are sixty-nine of these extraordinary chasms within a distance of thirty miles!

I think we came through eleven, fording the streams in all but two. The descent into some of them is quite alarming. You go down almost standing in your stirrups, at a right angle with the horse's head, and up, grasping his mane to prevent the saddle slipping. He goes down like a goat, with his bare feet, looking cautiously at each step, sometimes putting out a foot and withdrawing it again in favour of better footing, and sometimes gathering his four feet under him and sliding or jumping. The Mexican saddle has great advantages on these tracks, which are nothing better than ledges cut on the sides of precipices, for one goes up and down not only in perfect security but without fatigue. I am beginning to hope that I am not too old, as I feared I was, to learn a new mode of riding, for my companions rode at full speed over places where I should have picked my way carefully at a foot-pace; and my horse followed them, galloping and stopping short at their pleasure, and I successfully kept my seat, though not without occasional fears of an ignominious downfall. I even wish that you could see me in my Rob Roy riding dress, with leather belt and pouch, a lei of the orange seeds of the pandanus round my throat, jingling Mexican spurs, blue saddle blanket, and Rob Roy blanket strapped on behind the saddle!

This place is grandly situated 600 feet above a deep cove, into which two beautiful gulches of great size run, with heavy cascades, finer than Foyers at its best, and a native village is picturesquely situated between the two. The great white rollers, whiter by contrast with the dark deep water, come into the gulch just where we forded the river, and from the ford a passable road made for hauling sugar ascends to the house. The air is something absolutely delicious; and the murmur of the rollers and the deep boom of the cascades are very soothing There is little rise or fall in the cadence of the surf anywhere on the windward coast, but one even sound, loud or soft, like that made by a train in a tunnel.

We were kindly welcomed, and were at once " made at home." Delicious phrase ! the full meaning of which I am learning in Hawaii, where, though everything has the fascination of novelty, I have ceased to feel myself a stranger. This is a roomy, rambling frame-house, with a verandah, and the door, as is usual here, opens directly into the sitting-room. The stair by which I go to my room suggests possibilities, for it has been removed three inches from the wall by an earthquake, which also brought down the tall chimney of the boiling-house. Close by there are small, pretty frame-houses for the overseer, bookkeeper, sugar boiler, and machinist; a store, the factory, a pretty native church near the edge of the cliff, and quite a large native village below. It looks green and bright, and the atmosphere is perfect, with the cool air coming down from the mountains, and a soft breeze coming up from the blue dreamy ocean. Behind the house the uplands slope away to the colossal Mauna Kea. The actual, dense, impenetrable forest does not begin for a mile and a half from the coast, and its broad dark belt, extending to a height of 4000 feet, and beautifully broken, throws out into greater brightness the upward glades of grass and the fields of sugar-cane.

This is a very busy season, and as this is a large plantation there is an appearance of great animation. There are five or six saddled horses usually tethered below the house; and with overseers, white and coloured, natives riding at full gallop, and people coming on all sorts of errands, the hum of the crushing-mill, the rush of water in the flumes, and the grind of the waggons carrying cane, there is no end of stir.

The plantations in the Hilo district enjoy special advantages, for by turning some of the innumerable mountain streams into flumes the owners can bring a great part of their cane and all their wood for fuel down to the mills without other expense than the original cost of the woodwork. Mr. A. has 100 mules, but the greater part of their work is ploughing and hauling the kegs of sugar down to the cove, where in favourable weather they are put on board a schooner for Honolulu. This plantation employs 185 hands, native and Chinese, and turns out 600 tons of sugar a year. The natives are much liked as labourers, being docile and on the whole willing; but native labour is hard to get, as the natives do not like to work for a term unless obliged, and a pernicious system of "advances" is practised. The labourers hire themselves to the planters, in the case of natives usually for a year, by a contract which has to be signed before a notary public. The wages are about eight dollars a month with food, or eleven dollars without food, and the planters supply houses and medical attendance. The Chinese are imported as coolies, and usually contract to work for five years. As a matter of policy no less than of humanity the "hands" are well treated; for if a single instance of injustice were perpetrated on a plantation the factory might stand still the next year, for hardly a native would contract to serve again.

The Chinese are quiet and industrious, but smoke opium, and are much addicted to gaming. Many of them save money, and, when their term of service is over, set up stores, or grow vegetables for money. Each man employed has his horse, and on Saturday the hands form quite a cavalcade. Great tact, firmness, and knowledge of human nature are required in the manager of a plantation. The natives are at times disposed to shirk work without sufficient cause; the native lunas, or overseers, are not always reasonable, the Chinamen and natives do not always agree, and quarrels and entanglements arise, and everything is referred to the decision of the manager, who, besides all things else, must know the exact amount of work which ought to be performed, both in the fields and factory, and see that it is done. Mr. A. is a keen, shrewd man of business, kind without being weak, and with an eye on every detail of his plantations. The requirements are endless. It reminds me very much of plantation life in Georgia in the old days of slavery. I never elsewhere heard of so many headaches, sore hands, and other trifling ailments. It is very amusing to see the attempts which the would-be invalids make to lengthen their brief, smiling faces into lugubriousness, and the sudden relaxation into naturalness when they are allowed a holiday. Mr. A. comes into the house constantly to consult his wife regarding the treatment of different ailments.

I have made a second tour through the factory, and am rather disgusted with sugar making. "All's well that ends well," however, and the delicate crystalline result makes one forget the initial stages of the manufacture. The cane, stripped of its leaves, passes from the flumes under the rollers of the crushing mill, where it is subjected to a pressure of five or six tons. One hundred pounds of cane under this process yield up from sixty-five to seventy-five pounds of juice. This juice passes, as a pale green cataract, into a trough, which conducts it into a vat, where it is dosed with lime to neutralize its acid, and is then run off into heated metal vessels. At this stage the smell is abominable, and the turbid fluid with a thick scum upon it is simply disgusting. After a preliminary heating and skimming it is passed off into iron pans, several in a row, and boiled and skimmed, and ladled from one to the other till it reaches the last, which is nearest to the fire, and there it boils with the greatest violence, seething and foaming, bringing all the remaining scum to the surface. After the concentration has proceeded far enough, the action of the heat is suspended, and the reddish-brown, oily-looking liquid is drawn into the vacuum-pan till it is about a third full; the concentration is completed by boiling the juice in vacuum at a temperature of 150 , and even lower. As the boiling proceeds, the sugarboiler tests the contents of the pan by withdrawing a few drops, and holding them up to the light on his finger; and, by certain minute changes in their condition, he judges when it is time to add an additional quantity. When the pan is full, the contents have thickened into the consistency of thick gruel by the formation of minute crystals, and are then allowed to descend into a heater, where they are kept warm till they can be run into " forms " or tanks, where they are allowed to granulate. The liquid, or molasses, which remains after the first crystallization is returned to the vacuum pan and reboiled, and this reboiling of the drainings is repeated two or three times, with a gradually decreasing result in the quality and quantity of the sugar. The last process, which is used to get rid of the treacle, is a most beautiful one. The mass of sugar and treacle is put into what are called "centrifugal pans," which are drums about three feet in diameter and two feet high, which make about 1000 revolutions a minute. These have false interiors of wire gauze, and the mass is forced violently against their sides by centrifugal action, and they let the treacle whirl through, and retain the sugar crystals, which lie in a dry heap in the centre.

The cane is being flumed in with great rapidity, and the factory is working till late at night. The cane from which the juice has been expressed, called "trash," is dried and used as fuel for the furnace which supplies the steam power. The sugar is packed in kegs, and a cooper and carpenter, as well as other mechanics, are employed.

Sugar is now the great interest of the islands Christian missions and whaling have had their day, and now people talk sugar. Hawaii thrills to the news of a cent up or a cent down in the American market. All the interests of the kingdom are threatened by this one, which, because it is grievously depressed and staggers under a heavy import duty in the American market, is now clamorous in some quarters for "annexation," and in others for a "reciprocity treaty," which last means the cession of the Pearl River lagoon on Oahu, with its adjacent shores, to America, for a Pacific naval station. There are 200,000 acres of productive soil on the islands, of which only a fifteenth is under cultivation, and of this large area 150,000 is said to be specially adapted for sugar culture. Hitherto, sugar growing has been a very disastrous speculation, and few of the planters at present do more than keep their heads above water.

Were labour plentiful and the duties removed, fortunes might be made, for the soil yields on an average about three times as much as that of the State of Louisiana. Two and a half tons to the acre is a common yield, five tons a frequent one, and instances are known of the slowly matured cane of a high altitude yielding as much as seven tons ! The magnificent climate makes it a very easy crop to grow. There is no brief harvest time with its rush, hurry, and frantic demand for labour, nor frost to render necessary the hasty cutting of an immature crop. The same number of hands is kept on all the year round. The planters can plant pretty much when they please, or not plant at all for two or three years, the only difference in the latter case being that the rattoons which spring up after the cutting of the former crop are smaller in bulk. They can cut when they please, whether the cane be tasselled or not, and they can plant, cut, and grind at one time!

It is a beautiful crop in any stage of growth, especially in the tasselled stage. Every part of it is useful—the cane preeminently —the leaves as food for horses and mules, and the tassels for making hats. Here and elsewhere there is a plate of cut cane always within reach, and the children chew it incessantly. I fear you will be tired of sugar, but I find it more interesting than the wool and mutton of Victoria and New Zealand, and it is a most important item of the wealth of this toy kingdom, which last year exported 16,995,402 lbs. of sugar and 192,105 gallons of molasses. It is really difficult to tear myself from the subject, for I see the cane waving in the sun while I write, and hear the busy hum of the crushing-mill.

I. L. B.


Letter 9: Diet and Dress, and a Primeval Forest


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