Saturday, September 28, 2002

Strangers in Paradise

Strangers in Paradise

In 1778, Captain Cook and his crew were the first white men to arrive on the island playground of Hawaii. Natives rushed to greet them, and feted Cook as a god. But then it all began to go wrong. Jeremy Atiyah visits the spot where England's great seafarer was murdered

Published: 28 September 2002

Who would fly all the way to Hawaii, just for a holiday? You would? But imagine rowing there. No, make it harder. Imagine rowing randomly around the Pacific in the hope of hitting Hawaii, when you didn't know where it was or even if it existed at all... More of those difficulties later. Right now, in the lobby of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, in the year 2002, I am staring through the open hallway on to an electric-blue surf, framed by coconut palms. This is Waikiki, on the island of Oahu. I have finally reached the holiday paradise of the world. Ah yes, surfing. Now there's one thing I do know something about – from the history books, that is. And now I come to think of it, here in my pocket is the journal of David Samwell, the surgeon on Captain Cook's Discovery, describing Hawaii as first witnessed by the white man, 224 years ago.

In fact, Samwell's very sensible response to surfing was to have a panic-attack. He gasped in horror at laughing Hawaiian children carrying boards into "such a tremendous wave that we should have judged it impossible for any human being to live in it". Doubting the evidence of his own eyes, he described their reactions to an approaching wave, how "they get themselves in readiness and... suffer themselves to be involved in it, and then manage so as to get just before it, or rather, on the slant or declivity of the surf...", being driven along, on their boards, "with an incredible swiftness to the shore".

But where was I? Oh, my Waikiki experience. In fact it is turning out surprisingly pleasant. It is basically the beach suburb attached to Honolulu, capital of the state of Hawaii. But contrary to expectations, the place is not roaring with traffic. On one side loom the rainy mountains; on the other, stretches the sunny sea. The streets are clean and leafy. At dusk I sit at outdoor Asian noodle bars to watch free hula performances and listen to the wind in the palm trees. There is no oafish drunkenness.

Perfect cooling showers fall. Pale Japanese couples hold hands in silence, as if grateful to God that their happiness has not yet been terminated by tidal waves. Naked, flower-wreathed maidens smile at me from every corner.

Actually that last item is untrue. But it makes little difference – I am not looking for pleasure anyway. I'm in Hawaii to look for traces of ancient history.

Which is why I am now in central Honolulu in a tropical downpour staring at the statue of a man in a gold coat and the helmet of a Homeric hero. Two hundred years ago there was no man alive like him, except Napoleon Bonaparte. This was a man who emerged from the Stone Age to meet, and perhaps eat parts of, Captain Cook. His name was Kamehameha the Great.

"Of a clownish and blackguard appearance," was how David Samwell recalled him; "as savage a looking face as I ever saw" was the memory of Cook's 2nd lieutenant, James King. But after their visit, this was the man who spent the next 40 years conquering and then ruling Hawaii. And eventually he would metamorphose into the kindly, taciturn old soul who sat on the quayside waiting for foreigners to turn up so that he could be nice to them.

See? How can I lie on a beach, with a character like that to research? And in such a mood, I make my other assignment on this island: driving the Pali highway, into the middle of Oahu.

Up this valley came a bellicose King Kamehameha in 1792, chasing his enemies. Up the baddies came, and over this cliff they plunged. I stand now, looking from the island's central ridge, on to the north shore of Oahu. It's another world down there: dark, glowering and dripping wet. To one side, jagged black mountains and pinnacles disappear into the gloaming. Before me, shafts of light fall through black clouds making luminous green pools on the plain.

What a splendid place to be pursued to one's death, I tell myself, hurrying back to the airport afterwards. My watch has been ticking: my own pursuit of Kamehameha must now fly me east.
The Big Island, they call my next destination, because it's big. And as soon as I land, in what seems to be a volcano-blasted wilderness, I am off again, driving around, looking at half-forgotten ancient platforms of water-worn lava stones on empty coves. My guide here is a Russian naval officer, Otto von Kotzebue, who cruised this coast in the year 1816. The desolate north-eastern part of the island, Kotzebue also noted, was indeed covered in uninviting masses of lava.

But where was Kamehameha? Kotzebue continued south, past better lands which now offered "green fields and many dwellings shaded by banana and palm trees". Eventually he reached Kailua, where he and his crew found themselves "in a small sandy bay on the smoothest water... on the bank was a pleasant wood of palm trees under whose shade were built several straw houses... To the left close to the water stood the temple-platform of the king, surrounded by large wooden statues of the gods..."
This was where Kamehameha often sat in his house of sugarcane thatch, watching the mountain, the sea, and his favourite temple: a temple, which, in the wisdom of age, he had dedicated to peace and prosperity.

Things look vaguely similar today. Driving south, I too pass fields of whorled black lava that remind me of the world's biggest cowpat. Now I'm coming to leafy Kailua, where violent surf is pounding against the seawall, and where the whole world seems to be lying on a slope, tipped from volcano to sea. Kids, as usual, are throwing themselves into the rattling waves.

But here, on the edge of town, a few minutes walk from the centre, is Kamakahonu, the beach beside which Kamehameha lived for the last years of his life. This was where Kotzebue finally found him, sitting beside his warehouse and his fish ponds.

I try to picture this encounter of 186 years ago. As the Russian vessel approached, Kamehameha, sometimes in a loincloth, but today wearing pantaloons, would have stepped on to his platformed canoe. Seated on a gun-chest, with his hand on a silver sword, and surrounded by feather-cloaked chiefs and courtiers, he would have been canoed towards the visitors. Later, his corpulent queens would have lolled on deck, while he got down to business and politics.

The aristocratic Kotzebue seems to have been deeply impressed by Kamehameha in his "straw palace" with its "neatly made" chairs and tables. Great order prevailed around the king, he later recalled, and there was "no noise or importunity". The king may have had a "slovenly" and "disgusting" manner of eating, but he did treat Kotzebue to some good wine. Later he even introduced his guest to the large royal ladies, who were smoking tobacco, combing their hair, driving away the flies with fans, and eating. Naked sentinels stood about, as well as chiefs in ill-fitting black frocks. Meanwhile, Kotzebue's onboard artist, Louis Choris, set to work painting: the result of his day's work shows Kamehameha dignified and intelligent in old age, with a sophisticated streak of white through his hair.

Today, I find the old lava-stone temple being thwacked by massive waves. Visitors are not permitted on the platform, but from the beach I see ominous and grotesque wooden statues reaching for the heavens – less than 20 yards from where Americans are innocently sunbathing.

"These are our gods I worship," Kamehameha told Kotzebue, back then, turning to embrace his statues. "Whether I do right or wrong I do not know; but I follow my faith, which cannot be wicked, as it commands me never to do wrong."

And on that profound note, I decide to get going. The clouds are getting darker, and I still have to get to Kealakekua Bay.

This trip will take me another hour south along the winding coastal road. When I finally make it, I find sinister cliffs, bristling with brown grass. This was the place where Cook and his men spent much of their time during that fateful first encounter between the white man and the native Hawaiians.