Tracing the Colonial Causes of Maui’s Wildfires Through 19th-Century Engravings

Lahaina, which means “cruel sun” in the Hawaiian language, was the sacred home of the goddess Kihawahine for 400 years and the capital of the Hawaiian kingdom in the early and mid-19th century. At once a seaport where the New England whaling fleet spent winters, and the reckoning site between the American colonial and Native Hawaiian civilizations, Lahaina later became a sugar mill town and finally a tourist attraction. 

Tragically, along with the unspeakable human toll, most of the physical vestiges of this rich history have been erased by widespread fires in August this year. The terrible, swift flattening of this historical and cultural patchwork robbed the world of the story it told. Many of Maui’s most important cultural institutions have been reduced to ashes and dust, including Baldwin Home, a 200-year-old house belonging to an American missionary from Upstate New York; old Lahaina prison; a few significant Christian churches; the Lahaina Hongwanji Mission; Punana Leo o Lahaina, a Hawaiian language immersion school; and Na ‘Aikane o Maui Cultural and Research Center, an education hub for Hawaiian tradition and customs.

Unknown artist, “Kamamalu” (c. 1840–42), copperplate engraving, image size 7 3/4 x 7 5/8 inches (image courtesy the Honolulu Museum of Art)

More than any locale in the Hawaiian Islands, Lahaina was where the twinned brands of American Calvinist evangelism and rapacious capitalism commingled for a generation or so with the thriving, independent host society of Hawai′i post-Western contact. Missionaries and ships’ captains freely interacted and collaborated with Hawaiian royalty. Symbolic of this relationship, in the graveyard of the now-destroyed Waiola Church, lie the earthly remains of Hawai′i’s most exalted aristocracy (aliʻi) side by side with foreigners (haole) of this epoch: Keopuolani, the highest ranked chiefess in the islands, is interred near Douglass Hoapili Baldwin, the infant son of an American missionary. 

Perhaps the most important coalescence between haole and Hawaiians, however, is in work produced at the printing press at the American Protestant seminary built in the hills above Lahaina called Lahainaluna. A rare body of copperplate engravings made between 1834 and 1844 were executed there by Native Hawaiian (Kanaka Maoli) students from drawings made by haole men and women, the images range from majestic land and seascapes to portraits of Hawaiian notables, as well as atlas maps and animals for Hawaiian language primers. The etchings struck in the Hale Pa’i (printing house) were used in schools across the islands attended by Native Hawaiian adults and children, operated by the network of mission stations. Today, they survive as engrossing renderings of scenery and an environment long ago supplanted by agribusiness, unbridled development, and ecological collapse, their simple visual allure loaded with nostalgia and romance.  

Mauna from HoMA 1200x901 1
Unknown artist, “Mauna” (1836–7), copperplate engraving, 13 3/4 x 21 1/4 inches (image courtesy the Honolulu Museum of Art)

One of the most mesmerizing of the dozens of extant images is a panorama looking down from the seminary to Lahaina town and beyond to the island of Lanai. The work was a collaboration between Persis Thurston, a missionary’s daughter teaching art at Lahainaluna, and a Hawaiian student named Kepohoni. He used one of her paintings to make this sweeping aspect, interpreting Hawaiian and foreign vernacular structures, palm groves, fish ponds, and whale ships moored in the distant harbor. The countless, painstaking marks of a nimble engraver pull the eye further and further into the picture details, often more than in paintings or photographs, holding the viewer spellbound. Today, there’s a horrific new layer of meaning to this image; the terrain Kepohoni captured is exactly where the winds from Hurricane Dora, whipped up by the West Maui Mountains and the overheated, dry earth scorched everything in its path at a rate of a mile a minute.

The tireless handiwork in the large, unattributed engraving of Kealakekua Bay from 1840 represents the enormous cliffs and bluffs and a long shoreline hyphenated by gangly coconut palms at the site of Captain James Cook’s historic contact with Hawaiians in 1778 and his subsequent death. The breathtaking grandness of the bay’s natural perspective has none of the overt Orientalism from the more skilled and artfully produced 1780s version of the same scene made in London from John Webber’s drawing; Webber was the artist accompanying Cook’s third and final discovery voyage. A dry account, the Lahainaluna print is also missing the exuberant throng of Hawaiian warriors paddling and sailing through the water in their traditional outrigger vessels that surrounded the Englishman’s ships 60 years before.  

Kamehameha from HoMA
Kepohoni, “Kamehameha” (1840), copperplate engraving from a drawing by Louis Choris, 7 1/2 x 7 5/8 inches (image courtesy the Honolulu Museum of Art)

While the Hawaiian engravers excelled with panoramas, the smaller-scale engravings, including flat portraits of Kamehameha and Queen consort Kamamalu, botanical prints, renderings of the various mission buildings on Maui, Oahu, Hawai′i Island, and Kauai, were ruder. The atlas prints on the other hand are remarkably accurate for their day, all copied or traced from existing sources in the missionaries’ personal libraries. The oddest picture in the body is the “Temperance Map” (1843), an imaginary land composed of Whiskey Lake, Delirium Tremens Island, and the Bay of Remorse south of a demarcation, with the territories of Enjoyment, Improvement, and Industry to the north. The printers at Lahainaluna were also commissioned to make currency, a practice that lasted until two students were caught counterfeiting bills and expelled from the seminary.

Temperance Map 1843 by C. Wilthberger 1
C. Wilthberger Jr., “Temperance Map” (1843), copperplate engraving, 12 1/4 x 14 inches, published by Lorrin Andrews (image via Wikimedia Commons)

Along with their appeal, it’s impossible not to overlook that the Native Hawaiian leadership permitted the colonial imprint of their young men when sanctioning the ambitions of missionaries to mold these Kanaka Maoli into ideal New England Christians at the school. But it’s just as easy to recognize the foresightedness of these same ali’i, in particular King Kamehameha III in attempting to prepare and animate the next generation for the inevitable tidal wave of Westerners. For that matter, we must also consider the often naive, albeit paternalistic, intentions of these haole from Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New York State. The same press that printed the images was also used to ink tens of thousands of pages of Hawaiian language newspapers. The broadsheets were a valuable source of information for all Hawaiian people, not just the elite. In a very short time, the wider Hawaiian population became one of the most literate on earth, with a literacy rate far higher than the United States or any European country. The press also became a tool of resistance for Native Hawaiians in staving off efforts to relegate their customs and language to irrelevance by foreigners. These pages are now an inestimable record of the past for contemporary Kanaka Maoli, a wellspring of ancient understanding in chants and stories (mele) saturated with ancient wisdom, retrieved before the beginning of colonization when the Kingdom of Hawai′i was moving from an oral tradition to a written one. 

In the engravings depicting Lahainaluna itself, the point of view is flipped to look up from Lahaina town, revealing a charming campus nestled in front of layered hills and promontories. Walls and paths zigzag along steeply sloped pastures, the rushing freshets and waterfalls in the high altitudes hover over the image like a distant storm. If you didn’t know better, the ribbon of clapboard houses and dormitories in the foreground could be mistaken for an early New England village or college instead of a Pacific island. However, those simple, quiet little structures shout loudly of the slow, insidious spread of American presence in the islands, like a blight on a piece of ripe fruit, and the first blushes of an effort to turn Kanaka Maoli people into a labor force for foreigner-owned businesses. At the same time, the Lahainaluna curriculum did offer a kind of advancement for the people of Hawai′i through the political and individual empowerment of written literacy and, theoretically, the possibility of stepping onto the world’s stage as equals. The historians David Malo and Samuel Kamakau were both early graduates of Lahainaluna and central to the collection, preservation, and interpretation of ancient Hawaiian life and traditions.   

Miss Thurston Lahaina as seen from Lahainaluna
Kepohoni, “Lahaina as seen from Lahainaluna” (c. 1840), copperplate engraving from a painting by Persis Goodale Thurston, 16 1/2 x 23 1/2 inches (image via Wikimedia Commons)

But it’s a catastrophe that we’ll never know what might have happened if Hawaiians were left to advance without the influence of American and European colonialism. It remains undeniable that ongoing global superheating is the root cause of the recent fires and subsequent erasure of a precious town and so many people. Added to the international crisis are localized malfeasances, including a century and a half of land management based on profits rather than informed planning, much of it executed before a real understanding of known consequences but continuing nevertheless right up to today. This began with the draining of wetlands, including the goddess Kihawahine’s pond, the appropriation of upland streams for sugar and pineapple plantations in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and the elimination of age-old sustainable agricultural practices of Native Hawaiians. It persists currently with the diverting of water for new residential developments and tourist destinations. This path towards the destruction of Indigenous ecology and culture all began in earnest in Lahaina while the printing press in the Hale Pa’i was putting out these lovely pictures, images in which we see much of what has been lost.

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