Wailua, Northeast Maui; November, 1778
When the two great canoes with masts like tall trees and sails like billowing white clouds appeared off the northeast coast of Maui, where Kalani‘ōpu‘u was once again laying waste to the countryside, he was not in the least surprised. He had already heard stories of a “moving island” inhabited by strange creatures, which had visited Kaua‘i the previous Makahiki season. Now Kalani‘ōpu‘u stood with a number of his people, including Puna, Kiwala‘ō, Holo‘ae, Kamehameha, and my father at the edge of a cliff at Wailua Bay, pondering this strange sight. “So, Puna,” he said, turning to his trusted lieutenant, “it seems that the god ‘Lono’ has come to see me now.”
The arrival of a god, if a god this truly was, came at an opportune moment for the mō‘ī of the Big Island. Two years previously, Kalani‘ōpu‘u had invaded Maui anew with disastrous results. Over two days of fighting, he had lost thousands of men, including eight hundred warriors in two elite divisions known as the Ālapa and Pi‘ipi‘i. These men had set off early in the morning from Mā‘alaea Bay on Maui’s south shore, boasting that they would “drink the waters of Wailuku” by nightfall, only to be slaughtered to a man by late afternoon. When next day found him hemmed in by Kahekili’s people at Mā‘alaea and cut off from his own fleet down the coast, Kalani‘ōpu‘u was forced to send Kiwala‘ō to sue his uncle, Kahekili, the ruler of Maui, for peace. Kahekili had assented, in return for Kalani‘ōpu‘u’s promise to keep to his own island in the future. Kalani‘ōpu‘u brooded for nearly a year over this latest defeat at the hands of Kahekili and then, despite his pledge, prepared to invade Maui again. Kalani‘ōpu‘u’s decision to attack Kahekili once more had infuriated his favorite wife, Kalola. “You are breaking your promise to my own brother,” she stormed at Kalani‘ōpu‘u, when she learned of his intentions. Kalola had reluctantly accompanied Kalani‘ōpu‘u on his previous expedition to Maui, but she refused to go with him now. “Do not expect me to come with you this time. I will have nothing to do with this,” she cried, “or with you either if you persist!”
“Fine!” Kalani‘ōpu‘u had snapped. “Remain here in Hawai‘i. But our son Kiwala‘ō comes with me again! Kaneikapolei will be happy to accompany me to Maui and comfort me at night and I will surely have no need of you.” This exchange marked the beginning of a permanent estrangement between Kalola and Kalani‘ōpu‘u.
Leaving his embittered senior wife behind, Kalani‘ōpu‘u had crossed the channel to Maui again. Once more unable to defeat Kahekili, he was reduced to raiding coastal villages and visiting a yearlong reign of terror upon the people of Maui and neighboring Lanai. Kamehameha saw no point to any of it. “Our uncle has no plan,” he complained to my father one night. “He strikes here; he strikes there, but what does he have to show for it? He has inflicted much pain and suffering on old men, women, and children, and squandered the lives of our own men, but after all this time, he has not added even one more ahupua‘a to his holdings on this island.”
Now, after another season of disappointment, Kalani‘ōpu‘u welcomed the appearance of “Lono.” “Kalani‘ōpu‘u was already looking for a reason to break off the fighting without acknowledging defeat,” said my father, “and what better justification could he have had than the coming of a ‘god?’”
Kalani‘ōpu‘u had first learned of the “god’s” previous appearance in our islands shortly after his latest landing at Hana, where he was gathering his forces for yet another assault on Kaupō. A Hawai‘ian named Moho had come to Hana from O‘ahu with news of strange happenings on Kaua‘i the previous year.
Moho, who swore he had spoken with people who had witnessed these things, told a story of a floating island with tall trees hung with billowing white clouds, of strange beings with wrinkled white skin, cornered heads, and flashing eyes who spoke in a strange, twittering tongue. They blew smoke from their mouths and had holes in their sides from which they would extract various objects. They carried long, black sticks that roared and belched streams of dirty, gray smoke that looked like Lono’s rain clouds. Moho said the Kaua‘i people called these sticks “water squirters.” These strange beings also had many shiny objects, including long, sharp daggers made of the very same pahoa that Kanaloa sometimes surrendered from the sea. They were happy to trade their pahoa for produce and hogs, but they became angry when one Kaua‘i man tried to take one of these things from their floating island; Moho said that one of the beings pointed a water squirter at this man and killed him.
The Kaua‘i people thought that these beings must be gods. They learned that what they thought was an island was in fact a wa‘a nui, a great canoe. Many of their women swam to the wa‘a nui to have congress with these gods. One of the gods was particularly unhappy about this and sent the women away. He was much taller than the others, who all paid obeisance to him, and because he had come on his great canoe, which looked like a floating island, at the Makahiki time, the people of Kaua‘i believed that the tall one must be the god Lono, returned to them as prophesied of old.
Now, in the new Makahiki season, “Lono” was back. Surveying the two ships from his vantage point on the cliff above the bay, Kalani‘ōpu‘u turned to his people and said, “Come, let us go out to these great canoes and see if Moho spoke the truth.”