Captain James Cook
Written by Stan Griffin
The Hawaiian Islands are located in the Pacific Ocean, more than 2,000 miles southwest of the U. S. mainland and 3,500 miles southeast of Japan.
Hawaii is actually one long, partially submerged mountain range rising up from the ocean floor. It was created by the eruption of underwater volcanoes, a process that started millions of years ago (and still continues). Lava poured out of those volcanoes, piling up higher and higher and then cooling. This process kept repeating; and as it did, the islands were built and shaped in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. (The mountain tops actually became the islands.)
The first residents of Hawaii were the Polynesians. About 2,000 years ago they sailed north from their homes on other Pacific islands in giant canoes, some as long as 100 feet. They came from places like Tahiti, Samoa, and the Marquesas Islands. (The Marquesan language has been linked to that of the Maori people of New Zealand.) Hawaiian legends describe those people as dwarfish, playful, and shy.
Hawaii's name might have evolved in one of these ways from a Polynesian chief--Hawaii-loa; or from the ancient name of the Polynesians' homeland--Hawaiki.
Early Hawaiians brought a religious framework with them. It centered around the worship of nature. They believed that all living things possessed "mana" (divine power), so people respected and took away from nature only what was needed. This very likely made them the first conservationists!
They had many gods those in the sea, in rocks, in trees, in volcanoes, etc. The four MAJOR gods were (1) Kukailimoku who was the patron god of war; (2) Kane, the lord of sunlight, fresh water, the ancestor of all chiefs, and the god of creation; (3) Lono, the god of peace, fertility, and agriculture; and (4) Kanaloa, who was the god of the ocean and patron god of healing. Then there was Pele, the goddess of fire.
Hawaiian chiefs claim to be descended from a Polynesian demigod (a human with powers of a god) named Maui. Legend says he pushed the sky high up in the air to give people living space between heaven and earth. He also learned how to make fire, and he roped the sun and made it move more slowly across the sky.
The early residents had their own version of how their land was created. Their story went like this the god (or demigod) Maui dropped a line into the ocean and "hooked" Hawaii, pulling the islands up from the ocean floor with a magic fishhook.
Hawaiians would ask the gods for help in all activities such as fishing, building homes, making things, and battling enemies. Before beginning a task, they would offer a prayer and some food to a god; and when the work was finished, there would be more of the same.
The first King of Hawaii was Kamehameha I. He united all of the Hawaiian Islands under his rule. Kamehameha once defeated an enemy army when a volcano (Kiluea) erupted and killed many of those enemies. People believed this proved that Pele was on the King's side.
Religious ceremonies were colorful and ritualistic. Human sacrifice and idol worship were facets of their religious practice. The people built temples in honor of their gods.
When Captain James Cook landed in Hawaii (1778), the natives believed he was a god, a great chief with divine power. In spite of this, Cook was murdered the following year when he became involved in a quarrel between crewmen and natives. Cook's bones, along with some of his possessions, were placed in a temple; all were treated with extreme reverence.
At the center of early Hawaiian life was a complicated set of rules called "kapus." These laws were meant to maintain religious and social order and were often based on sheer logic. (Kapu means "forbidden," as does a Polynesian word "taboo.")
Those who broke a kapu were punished, sometimes with violent death. Here are a few examples
(1) A commoner was required to keep his shadow from falling across the path of a chief.
(2) Men and women were forbidden to eat meals together.
(3) Fishing was to be done in silence because "the fish have ears."
The kapu system, along with much of the native religion, was renounced by King Kamehameha II around 1825. People were still allowed their personal religious beliefs, however.
The early Hawaiians had a "caste system" (a social plan) which determined a person's standing in society. Those castes were as follows
(1) Alii-nui chiefs or nobles; earthly representatives and relatives of the gods
(2) Kahuna priests, teachers, wise men, and medicine men
(3) Maka-ainana the common folks
The first Christian missionaries arrived in Hawaii from Boston on a ship named "Thaddeus." The date was April 4, 1820. There were 14 men and women (seven married couples) sponsored by New England's Protestant "American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions." Their leader was Rev. Hiram Bingham; his wife was Sybil Moseley Bingham. The Board previously had sent missions to Burma (1812), Ceylon and India (1816), and Palestine (1819).
These evangelists were allowed by the King to preach their religion to the Hawaiian people, and they did so with great success. A large percentage of the natives converted to the new faith. Within 10 years, Protestantism was proclaimed to be the official religion of Hawaii.
Besides their preaching, the missionaries became active in other areas. They healed the sick, and they built churches and schools. They taught natives to read and write, even creating a written alphabet for the Hawaiian language. They translated the Bible and published them along with hymnbooks and textbooks.
The Americans had an influence on the way the natives dressed, especially the women. Before the coming of the missionaries, women generally wore several layers of cloth wrapped around the waist, barely reaching below the knees, and with little or nothing above the waist. Once the newcomers made their objections known, the Hawaiians changed their fashions with little complaint.
With the influence of the missionaries, the Hawaiians learned to sew their own clothes from cotton cloth or Oriental silks and fabrics. The new fashions were floor-length dresses that were loose-fitting and had long sleeves. They were easy to put together and satisfied the more modest Americans. They were described as "very feminine" and "drawn close around the neck." By 1826 it was "rare" to see a woman with uncovered breasts.
This new style of dress became known as a "muumuu" (MOO-moo). A century later the Hawaiian muumuu became fashionable in the United States. Besides the original design, there were also "holomuus," a fitted version of the muumuu, and "holoku," a holomuu with a train.
Interests of the missionaries were not limited to religion and social reforms. They became involved in internal politics and were informal advisors to kings and other members of the Hawaiian government. They even influenced passage of new laws two of those were ordinances which made adultery illegal and another enforcing observation of the Sabbath. In addition, they encouraged the King to turn his government into a democracy. One reason was that they feared the country would be exploited by foreign businesses. A Constitution was written which created a legislature and a court system.
When the Board of Missions cut back on its financial support, the missionaries and their descendants began to invest in local industry, especially sugar cane mills.
The total number of missionaries sent to Hawaii by the ABCFM was 153. The last ones arrived in 1848. The Board dissolved the mission in 1853, declaring the country "Christianized." By that time, over one-fourth of the natives were church members, and many others attended regularly; most could read and write.
The first Catholic missionaries came to Hawaii in 1826 (or 1827), well after the Protestants had become entrenched. Soon (1831) the Hawaiian King ordered all of the foreign Catholics to leave the islands.. Some of the natives who had been converted to the Catholic faith were imprisoned, and eventually the teaching of that religion was outlawed. Chiefs did their best to keep the islands free of Roman Catholics.
But in 1839 the French warship "L'Artemise" blockaded Honolulu harbor. Its captain issued an ultimatum to the native rulers. He threatened to destroy the town with his guns unless (1) all imprisoned Catholics were released; and (2) religious freedom was granted to the Roman Catholic Church. The Hawaiians gave in, and the King issued a decree of complete religious toleration. Currently, Catholic Church members outnumber all other religions in the Hawaiian Islands.
It was 1850 when the first Mormon missionaries came to Hawaii and settled the northwest coast of Oahu. A temple was built near the village of Laie. In 1955 a branch campus of Brigham Young University was founded there. (It is affiliated with the Mormon Church.) BYU students provide most of the services at the Polynesian Cultural Center located nearby. Students from the seven areas of Polynesia demonstrate crafts and customs and take part in pageants with native music and dancing. Those seven areas are (1) Hawaii; (2) Tahiti; (3) Samoa; (4) Fiji; (5) Tonga; (6) Maori (New Zealand); (7) Marquesas.
Other religions spread to Hawaii. Episcopalian missionaries came in the 1860s. Japanese immigrants brought in Buddhism and Shintoism. (Today they rank second and third in the number of Hawaiian members.) In addition, Judaism, Hinduism, and Islam are represented in the islands.
One part of the early Hawaiian religion was the "hula." The word itself means "dance," and that's exactly what the hula is. With musical accompaniment (a chant or a song), the dancer moves the arms, hands, and the hips. The hand gestures tell a story.
The movements of the hula praised gods or chiefs, described long canoe voyages, described forces of nature or the scenery of Hawaii, for example.
Both men and women performed this dance until it was time for temple services. At that point, it was "men only." There the hula dancer would act out events they hoped would happen in the future. In that context it would be a prayer, speaking to the gods through the dance.
The hula was described as "creating beauty" and "combining poetry of the chant and dance movements into a great artistic experience."
When the elements of the old religion were outlawed in the 1820s, the hula was included. Missionaries believed the dance was a form of idolatry and lobbied the king to prohibit its practice. Around 1890, it made a comeback.
Then in 1915, a group of Hawaiian dancers performed the hula in San Francisco. People in the audience liked it, and soon it was popular all through North America. During the Great Depression, several movies featured the dance.
After World War II, Hawaiian resort hotels began using a version of the hula to entertain tourists. Soon it was an important symbol of the Islands, and it remains. The hula also continues to be studied seriously and performed by scholars of art and national culture. An annual "Hula Festival" is held every August in Honolulu.