In 1778, Captain Cook and his crew were the first white
men to arrive on the island playground of
rushed to greet them, and feted Cook as a god. But then it all began to go
wrong. Jeremy Atiyah visits the spot where Hawaii 's
great seafarer was murdered England
28 September 2002
Who would fly all the way to
, 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 Hawaii Waikiki, on the . 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. island of Oahu
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
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
Which is why I am now in central
"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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.