On the evening of Feb. 26, 2000, 21 days after leaving Tahiti, a crew of 15 women and men sailing on board Hawaii’s iconic deep-sea voyaging canoe Hokulea, arrived off Hawaii island. As the island loomed large in the foreground, a colleague and I were in deep conversation. On the horizon the slopes of Maunakea rose out of the sea, its summit silhouetted by the fabric of stars that circled overhead.
The conversation quieted as we stared toward that immense sight. As we looked west from the port hull, the wind gently pulling us along, I stared at the majesty unfolding before me, the star field circling overhead and arcing toward Maunakea, welcoming the night sky. In that moment I realized that Maunakea and the universe were one, and that Maunakea was truly a portal to the universe.
Since that moment I have been an advocate for astronomy in Hawaii.
My realization that astronomy needs to be an integral part of Hawaii’s community is steeped in the tradition of the oceanic explorers who discovered these islands. By sailing away from the safety of distant shores they discovered the stars. The first example we have of observational astronomy conducted on Hawaiian shores, comes with the arrival of Captain James Cook. On Jan. 19, 1779, in Kealakekua Bay, after receiving permission from the local chief, Cook established Hawaii’s first observatory in a sweet potato field adjacent to Hikiau Heiau. The field was used another two times for observatories between 1779 and 1793. Within this period, Kamehameha, ascended to power.
Captain George Vancouver, returning to Hawaii in 1794, once again requests to Kamehameha to use the same field but is denied access by the wife of the former kahuna of Hikiau Heiau.
Kamehameha asked Vancouver to consider using another part of the bay for his observatory but the sweet potato field was the best location. Kamehameha assembled his priests and after serious discussion Vancouver was granted permission to again use the field to locate his observatory. Here is Hawaii’s first example of a contested case hearing, the ranking alii, Kamehameha, and his priest, vested deeply in their religion and traditions, ruling that science and Hawaiian culture are compatible. It further asserts that Kamehameha and the ranking kahuna did not see the observatory as a desecration by allowing it to be erected within the boundaries of the Hikiau heiau complex.
In 1874, with the permission of King Kalakaua, the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, England, was granted permission to establish three observatory stations in Hawaii to track a very rare transit of Venus. The team was spread across three islands: at Apua in Honolulu, Kona on Hawaii Island and Waimea on Kauai.
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. The new king, Kamehameha II, Liholiho, instituted a new policy called Ai Noa, “Free Eating,” 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.
Kekuaokalani, nephew of Kamehameha, rebelled against the decision of the chiefs, along with his wife Manono, he marches his army north from Kaawaloa peninsula. Liholiho appoints Kalanimoku leader of his army and they are sent south from Kona.
Both armies are armed with muskets and familiar with each others tactics from serving on previous campaigns under Kamehameha. They face off with each other on the Lekeleke battlefield at Kuamoo Bay, by afternoon Kekuaokalani is dead, his wife Manono, the sister of Kalanimoku, lies beside him, both victims of musket fire.
The religious order was dead.
Hawaii has once again arrived at a historic inflection point. We have a choice, to repeat history or use its example, Kamehameha’s and Kalakaua’s willingness to allow astronomy a place in Hawaii, and an openness to share Hawaii’s landscape. As witnessed on that February 2000 evening, watching the night sky dive toward the summit of Maunakea, this special mountain, a deeply spiritual environment, is the best place in the northern hemisphere for observational astronomy and is a portal to the universe.
I hold out hope that we can all find the will to share the Mauna.
Chad Kalepa Baybayan is a Kona resident and an employee of the University of Hawaii at Hilo. He has served as captain and navigator aboard Hawaii’s voyaging canoes.