When the ruler of Hawaii Island Kalani`opu`u died in 1782 his son Kiwalao became the ali`i nui, or high chief over the island. At the same time, his young nephew, Kamehameha, inherited land on the northern part of the island and was given custody of their family’s war god, Kuka`ilimoku. This relationship between Kamehameha and “the feathered war god” would ultimately define his future over the entire Hawaiian archipelago.
Ku, the war god in the Hawaiian religious system, was considered, among other things, the god of war. Different manifestations and designations of the god were manufactured, with Kuka`ilimoku being one important manifestation, especially for Kamehameha. The name Kuka`ilimoku literally translates as “Ku the grabber of islands”. When you understand Kamehameha’s ambitions to conquer all the islands of Hawaii, it is understandable to see why he would be drawn to this particular manifestation of Ku.
His devotion to his family’s war god came to a climax with the construction of the mighty war temple Pu`ukohola Heiau. Kamehameha, seen by some to be the promised “Killer of Chiefs” from an ancient prophecy, dedicated the temple in 1791. Offering his cousin and rival Keoua Kuahu`ula, Kamehameha declared his belief that Kuka`ilimoku would give him the mana or spiritual power necessary to conquer all his enemies. Within a mere 4 years, Kamehameha had successfully conquered all the major islands with the exception of Kauai. Then, a few years later, in 1810, Kamehameha successfully finished his work of uniting all the islands under his control.
Although ceremonies would have continued at his war temple, Pu`ukohola Heiau, in his later years Kamehameha built another temple in Kailua-Kona dedicated to the god Lono. Finally, a few months after his death in 1819, Kamehameha II ended the traditional religious system, destroying all the major temples in Hawaii. It is said that the image of Kuka`ilimoku that is on display in the Bishop Museumon Oahu is the original image that was once on Pu`ukohola Heiau.
What would it be like to be forcefully removed from everything you knew, including your home and your family, and then exiled to spend the rest of your life in an isolated settlement, separated from the outside world? Approximately 8,000 individuals had this experience, when, having contracted Hansen’s Disease (leprosy), they were forced to the Kalaupapa Peninsula on the Island of Moloka`i. Farmers, clergy, Hawaiian royal family members, men, women, the old and the young, no matter what their ethnicity, they lived and often died far from all that they had known because they were “lepers”.
Begun in 1866, the colony on the Kalaupapa Peninsula was where Hansen’s Disease patients were sent in order to limit the spread of the disease. Although the Kingdom of Hawai`i did more to care for Hansen’s Disease patients then all other governments up to that time, the terrible conditions of the settlement have become legendary.
“Deaths occur quite frequently here, almost daily. Napela [Mormon elder and assistant supervisor of the Kalaupapa Settlement] last week rode around the beach to inspect the lepers and came on to one that had no Pai for a week but manage to live on what he could find in his Hut, anything chewable. His legs were so bad that he cannot walk, and few traverse the spot whare his hut stands, but fortunate enough for him that he had sufficient enough water to last him till aid came and that not too late, or else brobably he must have died.”
– Peter Kaeo, cousin of Queen Emma, in a letter to Queen Emma, August 11, 1873
Talking about his arrival to the settlement during the 1900’s, one Kalaupapa patient said,
“One of the worst things about this illness is what was done to me as a young boy. First, I was sent away from my family. That was hard. I was so sad to go to Kalaupapa. They told me right out that I would die here; that I would never see my family again. I heard them say this phrase, something I will never forget. They said, ‘This is your last place. This is where you are going to stay, and die.’ That’s what they told me. I was a thirteen-year-old kid.”
The State of Hawaii did not remove confinement laws until 1969. Now, only a handful of patients choose to remain on the Peninsula. In 1980, Kalaupapa National Historical Park was established to preserve the legacy of the patients’ lives and to tell the stories of those that gave up their lives to help them, including Saint Damien.
When most people think of Hawaii, images of swaying palm trees and lush rainforests are probably the first thoughts to enter their minds. More than likely, very few of the visitors that come to Hawaii Island pack a heavy jacket or winter camping equipment for their time in “Paradise”! If you were a park ranger at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, you would probably hear visitors every day commenting on the constant rain and cloudy skies. On the other extreme, if you were a park ranger at Pu’ukohola Heiau National Historic Site you would hear the visitors’ surprise at finding a hot desert environment instead of the lush rainforest they were expecting.
Hawai’i Island is home to an amazing diversity of climate zones. From the “Polar Tundra” regions of the summits of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa to the “Hot Desert” region along the South Kohala Coast. Because of the Island’s terrain and wind patterns, precipitation can range from a mere 6 inches a year to well over 300 inches (all within a matter of a relatively few miles!). So if you are planning on visiting the National Parks of Hawaii Island, come prepared, whether its for winter camping on Mauna Loa in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park or a mid-day walk in the desert of Pu’ukohola Heiau National Historic Site!