Captain Cook and Kealakekua Bay

kealakekua bay, sunset

Today's excerpt --from The Wide Wide Sea by Hampton Sides. The stunning Kealakekua Bay, found on the big island of Hawai’i, and the very place where explorer Captain James Cook was greeted—and later killed:

“A sparkling bay, sheltered from the wind. A volcanic cliff, hundreds of feet high, rising over the shores, its layered rock pitted with dreads of feet high, rising over the shores, its layered rock pitted with secret caves. The water a crystalline blue-green, so clear one could see far into its depths. Moray eels and parrotfish slipping through the coral crevices. Spinner dolphins at play on the swells. 

“The place was called Kealakekua– the Pathway of the Gods. Approaching it from the ocean, the bay, with its massive stone walls, had the feel of a grand arena and amphitheater. It was a place of deep mama. Mark Twain, who visited Kealakekua a little over a century later, would describe it as ‘a little curve like the last kink of a snail – shell, winding deep into the land.’ Over the millennia, rivers of molten lava had glopped down the flanks of the Mauna Loa volcano, depositing tongue upon tongue of sloping dark rock at the water’s edge. One day approximately 120,000 years ago, a massive expanse of the Big Island collapsed into the sea here, leaving this considerable notch in the coastline unleashing a tsunami that barreled across the channel, sweeping shards of coral more than a thousand feet up into the high country on the island of Lāna’i, which lies 120 miles away. 

“Kealakekua had long been the place of royal authority on Hawai’i, the residence of the god-kings. The pockmarked cliff face here was a mausoleum where many generations of the island’s leaders had been entombed. When an important dignitary died, priests would conduct ceremonies to bake the body and remove the flesh from the bones; a commoner would be sent down the cliff by ropes to hide baskets filled with the late chief’s skeletal remains, along with relics, deep within one of the many alcoves. After he had safely stashed the bones in a promising place, the commoner would crane his neck and flash a sign to the priests waiting above, who would sever the taut ropes, dropping the poor burial servant to his immediate death upon the stones below. In this way, the bones were protected from looting or desecration. 

“If Kealakekua was the seat of royal power, it was also a nerve center from Hawaiin religion and cosmology. It was the home of Lono, the god of peace, rain, and fertility. A temple – a heiau – had been built on the shores of the bay to honor this important deity and to offer him tributes, including human sacrifices. 

Kaʻawaloa in 1779 by John Webber, artist aboard Cook's ship

“On January 17, 1779, the Resolution and the Discovery entered this beautiful harbor on the Kona Coast of Hawai’i. A strange and magical serendipity had guided Cook to stop here at this ancient, powerful, and ominous spot. It seemed the people here were already prepared to receive. Cook and his men – that, in fact, they had been waiting in anticipation of his arrival. Vast crowds had assembled on the shore and in the water– as many as ten thousand people. With more than a thousand canoes gathered around. ‘I have nowhere in this sea seen such a number of people assembled at one place,’ Cook wrote, noting that the shore ‘was covered with people and hundreds were swimming around the ships like shoals of fish.’

“What was more, the Hawaiians appeared almost deliriously happy. On land, in the water, and in the canoes, faces shone with a peculiar joy. People were singing, laughing, chanting, and beating drums, creating a din that reverberated off the lava cliffs. The energy was frenetic, ecstatic, Dionysian. Cook could tell that something special and peculiar was going on here, a revel of some kind. But he couldn’t imagine what it was about.

“So many Hawaiians tried to climb aboard the Discovery that it started to heel over from the weight and seemed in danger of capsizing. The islanders wanted the same things they had always wanted, at nearly all of Cook’s stops throughout Polynesia: trade, diversion, spectacle, cultural contact, and, most of all, iron. But it felt as though everything had been ratcheted to a manic level, as though the familiar themes of the voyage had here become strangely amplified.

“John Ledyard, the Connecticut American, tried to capture the wild scene: ‘The shouts of joy and admiration proceeding from the sonorous voices of the men confused with the shriller exclamations of the women dancing and clapping their hands, the cries of children , and hogs that were…squalling,’ he wrote, all mingled to form ‘one of the most tumultuous and most curious prospects that can be imagined.’

“Just like the Native Kuaians of the previous year, the Hawaiians were astounded by the visitors and tried to understand them in terms of the world they knew. According to oral history, when they saw the sailors smoking, they compared them to volcanoes, and were baffled by the vapor that seethed from their mouths. They thought the Englishmen;s speech sounded like the song of the ‘ō‘ō, a beautiful bird native to the island that is now thought to be extinct.

“A special canoe, ornamented and imposing, threaded through the many hundreds of vessels clogging the bay. The canoe carried a kāhuna whose name was Koa. The holy man was very old, shriveled, and shaky, with peeling skin, probably from too much consumption of kava, but the Hawaiians seemed to fear and respect him. Koa boarded the Resolution and introduced himself to Cook with much ceremony, presenting a welcoming gift that included a small pig, some coconuts, and a swath of delicate red cloth, which Koa carefully wrapped around Cook’s shoulders like a cape. Cook’s men noted a quality of reverence that made them uncomfortable. Something in Koa’s demeanor, in his voice and movements, went far beyond hospitality or the mere paying of respect. His chants were more like litanies; the encounter seemed to be invested with deep religious ceremony. 

“Koa invited Cook to come ashore, and the captain accepted. While he got ready, the frenzied songs and shouts of the crowds surrounding the Resolution and the Discovery continued to swell. It was bedlam now. THere was an urgency behind their desires and expectations that seemed to have been building for a long time. If this was true of the Hawaiians, it was also true of Cook’s men, who had endured quite a hard journey to get here from the Arctic and had been waiting for this moment for what had seemed to them like an eternity. 

“Lieutenant James King thought the Hawaiians ‘expressed the greeted joy and satisfaction, by singing and jumping, of our coming to anchor,” but added, “nor was the pleasure less on our side, [for] we were jaded and very heartily tired.’”

Author:  Hampton Sides 
Title: The Wide Wide Sea: Imperial Ambition, First Contact and the Fateful Final Voyage of Captain James Cook
Publisher: Doubleday
Date: Copyright 2024
page(s): 289-292