My Turn: Hawaii should learn from its rich history

The stars have been a constant companion to oceanic explorers since they left their island homeland in Taiwan 3,000 years ago. Searching for new island homes, they used their location within the tropics to devise a star compass to orientate their canoes while they sailed and an immense vault of stored memory to document orally the direction in which discoveries lay.

Armed with the knowledge of how stars move between eastern and western horizons, they explored with confidence the uncharted waters of Oceania and mentally recorded the many locations of habitable islands throughout the Pacific. It is undeniable that these intrepid oceanic explorers were some of the world’s best navigators. Their discoveries ranged from Madagascar in the west and Chile in the east, some 17,000 miles, 220˚ in longitude, and all this taking place 4,000 years before the magnetic compass was first employed by Chinese navigators.


Observational astronomy led oceanic canoe explorers to Hawaii’s shores, a tradition which continued on through the arrival of Captain James Cook. On Jan. 19, 1779, in Kealakekua Bay, after receiving permission from the local chief, Cook establishes Hawaii’s first observatory in a sweet potato field adjacent to Hikiau Heiau. This event allows him to astronomically locate Hawaii on a map by pinpointing its exact latitude and longitude.

The sweet potato field was used another two times for observatories between 1779 and 1793. Within this period of history, Kamehameha the Great, ascends to power. In his log book, Captain George Vancouver, returning to Hawaii on his third and final voyage in 1794, again requests to use the same property but is denied access by the wife of Koa, the former kahuna of Hikiau Heiau.

Kamehameha asks Vancouver to consider using another part of the bay for his observatory but the sweet potato field is the best location. Kamehameha assembles his priests and after serious discussion Vancouver is granted permission to once again use the sweet potato field to locate his observatory. Here is Hawaii’s first example of a ranking alii, vested deeply in his religion and traditions, siding with the cause of science. For the next 100 years Hawaiians would be introduced to astronomy and take part in a scientific project to scale the solar system.

In 1831, with approval of the government, Lahainaluna Seminary was established, becoming the first school west of the Rockies. The Reverend Lorrin Andrews, Lahainaluna’s first educator, establishes a curriculum of arithmetic, writing, geography, and natural history. Later, advanced math, scriptural history, theology, and astronomy is added.

From 1846 through 1874 there were two other observatories on Oahu. In 1846, Chester Lyman, a Yale professor, arrives from Connecticut with observational equipment. The equipment eventually exchanges hands with David Flitner and a Mr. Boardman, both having familiarity with instrumentation as chronometer and watch makers. They establish the Boardman-Flitner Observatory on Union Street near Hotel. The second observatory is erected by French Naval Lieutenant M. Fleuriais, who uses the observatory to determine Honolulu’s longitudinal distance from Paris.

In 1874, with the permission of King Kalakaua, the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, England, is granted permission to establish three stations in Hawaii to observe a very rare transit of Venus for the purpose of determining the Astronomical Unit (AU). The AU will become the unit of measure for the Earth-sun distance and will provide an absolute scale for measuring our solar system. The seven-member team is spread across three islands, the main station at Apua in Honolulu, and auxiliary stations in Kona on Hawaii Island and Waimea on Kauai. This is the second example of a ranking alii, vested in the culture and traditions of the islands, siding with science.

Wednesday marked 200 years since the death of Kamehameha the Great in Kona. The year 1819 brought about irreversible change to Hawaiian society, culture, and religion. After the death of Kamehameha, a new societal order was recommended that would abolish the Hawaiian kapu system, the strict order of rules that regulated the daily life of Hawaiians, under which infractions were punishable by death.

In Kona, a coalition made up of two of Kamehameha’s wives, Queen Kaahumanu and Queen Keopuolani, high priest Hewahewa, and senior counselors, recommended and convinced the new king, Kamehameha II, Liholiho, to institute a new policy called Ai Noa, “free eating.” Until that time, a every day eating policy was enforced, men and women could not take their meals together. This simple act of allowing men and women to take their meals together signaled the abolishment of the kapu system. At heiau around the islands, idols were ordered to be burned or toppled and personal family gods were hidden away.

However, change was not accepted by everyone.

High Chief Kekuaokalani of Kaawaloa, nephew of Kamehameha, would not accept change. A revolt broke out in Hamakua by individuals who are against the abolishment of the kapu system and when Liholiho sent counselors to investigate, three of the party are killed. Rather than deal with the Hamakua revolt Liholiho decided to send a negotiating party directly to Kaawaloa and invite Kekuaokalani to Kona for talks. After an evening of meetings in Kaawaloa, Kekuaokalani, in the morning and dressed for war, announces to the negotiating party that he is marching his warriors north to Kona to engage in open warfare.

Liholiho appoints Kalanimoku as his general, he assembles his forces in Kona and marches his army south to confront Kekuaokalani. This is modern warfare, warriors on both sides are armed with muskets. All combatants were familiar with each other, they were family and friends, many serving as former warrior companions in campaigns under the leadership of Kamehameha. Accompanying Kekuaokalani into battle is his wife, Manono, the sister of opposing general, Kalanimoku. The two armies of Kekuaokalani and Kalanimoku meet on the aa battlefield at Lekeleke at Kuamoo Bay. The battle went the way of Kekuaokalani in the morning but by afternoon Kekuaokalani succumbs to musket wounds, his wife Manono lay beside him. The revolt in Hamakua is addressed with more Hawaiian lives lost. Today, burial cairns mark the locations on Lekeleke Battlefield where hundreds of Hawaiian warriors lost their lives over social change that was inevitable.

In a recent reenactment of the Battle of Kuamoo by the Kamehameha Schools Keaau campus, a student was asked, who do you think had the more just cause, those who wanted to protect the ancient religion or those who wanted to institute a new social order?

In an answer that demonstrated wisdom beyond the student’s young age, the student replied “neither.” Both sides had relevant beliefs and an appropriate answer could have evolved out of dialogue and not warfare, but inevitable change had arrived and it was time to institute a new policy of governance and not one enforced by human sacrifice upon the heiau.

So what lessons can be learned from history that can solve the complex issues that Hawaiian society is confronted with today? Can we use examples from history to address Maunakea, its observatories, and TMT?


Are we not a wiser society, choosing dialogue and compromise or are we committed to relive another Battle of Kuamoo? Or, can we use the example of Kamehameha the Great and Kalakaua, both vested in their religion, traditions, and culture, yet found a way to accept and accommodate science.

Chad Kalepa Baybayan is the Navigator in Residence at the Imiloa Astronomy Center, a unit of the University of Hawaii at Hilo. He has served as captain and navigator aboard the sailing canoes Hokulea, Hawaiiloa, Hokualakai, Hikianalia, and Faafaite.