Life in Hawaii, by Titus Coan
Copyright ©1882, 1997 (electronic edition by Edward J. Coan)

Chapter III.

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The Field The People Hilo District Crossing the Torrents Perils of a Canoe Voyage Puna District.

THE field in which I was called to labor is a belt of land extending by the coast-line 100 miles on the north-east, east, and south-east shore of Hawaii, including the districts of Hilo and Puna, and a part of Kau.

The inhabited belt is one to three miles wide, and in a few places there were hamlets and scattering villages five to ten miles inland. Beyond this narrow shore belt there is a zone of forest trees with a tropical jungle from ten to twenty-five miles wide, almost impenetrable by man or beast. Still higher is another zone of open country girdling the bases of the mountains, with a rough surface of hill, dale, ravine, scoriaceous lava fields, rocky ridges, and plains and hills of pasture land. Here wild goats, wild cattle, wild hogs and wild geese feed. Still higher up tower Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, nearly 14,000 feet above the sea, the former being a pile of extinct craters, often crowned with snow, and the latter a mountain of fire, where for unknown ages earthquakes that rock the group and convulse the ocean have been born, and where volcanoes burst out with awful roar, and rush in fiery rivers down the mountain sides, across the open plains, through the blazing forest jungle and into the sea. All but the narrow shore belt is left to untamed bird and beast, and to the wild winds and raging fires of the mountains, except when bird-catchers, canoemakers, cattle-hunters, or volcano visitors are drawn thither by their several interests from the shore.

The population of this shore belt was probably at that time about 15,000 to 16,000, almost exclusively natives. Very few foreigners had then come here to live. Several missionaries had resided in Hilo for short periods, but none had settled here permanently except Mr. and Mrs. Lyman. Occasional tours had been made through Hilo and Puna, and the Gospel had been preached in most of the villages. Schools had also been established through the districts and a goodly number could read and write. Some pupils were in the elements of arithmetic, and many committed lessons in the Scriptures to memory.

Forms of idolatry were kept out of sight, but superstition and ignorance, hypocrisy and most of the lower vices prevailed. The people were all slaves to their chiefs, and no man but a chief owned a foot of land, a tree, a pig, a fowl, his wife, children, or himself. All belonged to his chief and could be taken at will, if anger or covetousness or lust called for them. I have seen families by the score turned out of their dwellings, all their effects seized, and they sent off wailing, to seek shelter and food where they could. "On the side of the oppressor there was power, but the poor man had no comforter."

Hilo, the northern wing of this field, is a district including about thirty miles of its shore line. It is covered with a deep rich soil, clothed with perennial green of every shade, watered with the rain of heaven and grooved by about eighty water channels that run on an angle of some three degrees, leaping over hundreds of precipices of varied heights, from three or four feet to 500, and plunging into the sea over a cliff rising in height, from the sand beach of the town, to 700 or 800 feet along the northern coast-line.

For many years after our arrival there were no roads, no bridges, and no horses in Hilo, and all my tours were made on foot. These were three or four annually through Hilo, and as many in Puna; the time occupied in making them was usually ten to twenty days for each trip.

In passing through the district of Hilo, the weather was sometimes fine and the rivers low, so that there was little difficulty in traveling. The path was a simple trail, winding in a serpentine line, going down and up precipices, some of which could only be descended and ascended by grasping the shrubs and grasses; and with no little weariness and difficulty and some danger.

But the streams were the most formidable obstacles. In great rains, which often occurred on my tours, when the winds rolled in the heavy clouds from the sea, and massed them in dark banks on the side of the mountain, the waters would fall in torrents at the head of the streams and along their channels, and the rush and the roar as the floods came down were like the thunder of an army charging upon the foe.

I have sometimes sat on the high bank of a streamlet, not more than fifteen to twenty feet wide, conversing with natives in the bright sunshine, when suddenly a portentous roaring, "Like the sound of many waters, or like the noise of the sea when the waves thereof roar," fell upon my ears, and looking up-stream, I have seen a column of turbid waters six feet deep coming down like the flood from a broken mill-dam. The natives would say to me, "Awiwi! awiwi! o pea oe i ka wai" "Quick! quick! or the waters will stop you."

Rushing down the bank I would cross over, dryshod, where in two minutes more there was no longer any passage for man or beast. But I rarely waited for the rivers to run by. My appointments for preaching were all sent forward in a line for thirty or sixty miles, designating the day, and usually the hours, when I would be at a given station, and by breaking one of these links the whole chain would be disturbed. It therefore seemed important that every appointment should be kept, whatever the inconvenience might be to me. In traveling, my change of raiment was all packed in one calabash, or large gourd, covered by the half of another; a little food was in a second calabash. With these gourds one may travel indefinitely in the heaviest rains while all is dry within. Faithful natives carried my little supplies.

I had several ways of crossing the streams.

1st. When the waters were low, large rocks and boulders, common in all the water-channels, were left bare, so that with a stick or pole eight or ten feet long, I leaped from rock to rock over the giddy streams and crossed dry-shod: these same poles helping me to climb up, and to let myself down steep precipices, and to leap ditches six to eight feet wide. 2nd. When the streams were not too deep and too swift I waded them; and 3rd, when not too deep, but too swift, I mounted upon the shoulders of a sturdy aquatic native, holding on to his bushy hair, when he mowed carefully down the slippery bank of the river, leaning up-stream against a current of ten knots, and moving one foot at a time, sideways among the slimy boulders in the bottom, and then bringing the other foot carefully up. Thus slowly feeling his way across, he would land me safe with a shout and a laugh on the opposite bank. But this is a fearful way of crossing, for the cataracts are so numerous, the waters so rapid, and the uneven bottom so slippery, that the danger of falling is imminent, and the recovery from a fall often impossible, the current hurrying one swiftly over a precipice into certain destruction. Both natives and foreigners have thus lost their lives in these streams, and among them three of the members of the Hilo church who have traveled and labored and prayed with me.

I once crossed a full and powerful river in this way, not more than fifty feet above a cataract of 426 feet in height, with a basin forty feet deep below, where this little Niagara has thundered for ages. A missionary brother of another station seeing me landed safely, and knowing that this crossing would save about six miles of hard and muddy walking, followed me on the shoulders of the same bold native that took me over. But before he had reached the middle of the rushing flood, he trembled and cried out with fear. The bearer said, "Hush! hush! be still, or we perish together." The brother still trembling, the native with great difficulty managed to reach a rock in the center of the river, and on this he seated his burden, commanding him to be quiet and sit there until he was cool (he was already drenched with rain and river-spray), when he would take him off, which he did in about ten minutes and landed him safely by my side.

This mode of crossing the streams, however, was too dangerous, and I soon abandoned it.

A fourth mode was for a sufficient number of strong men to form a chain across the river. They made a line, locking hands on the bank; with heads bending up-stream entering the water carefully, and moving slowly until the head of the line reached good foothold near the opposite bank. With my hands upon the shoulders of the men I passed along this chain of bones, sinews, and muscles and arrived in safety on the other side.

The fifth and safest, and in fact the only possible way to cross some of these rivers when swollen and raging, was to throw a rope across the stream, and fasten it to trees or rocks on either side; grasping it firmly with both hands, my feet thrown down-stream, I drew myself along the line and gained the opposite bank. This I sometimes did without removing shoes or garments, then walked on to my next station, and preached in wet clothes, continuing my travels and labors until night; when in dry wrappings I slept well, and was all ready for work the next day.

I was once three hours in crossing one river. The day was cold and rainy, and I was soaked before I entered the stream. This was so wide at the only possible crossing point, that we were unable to throw a line across, even with a weight attached to the end of it. The raging roaring, and tossing of the waters were fearful, and the sight of it made me shudder. Kind natives collected on both banks by scores, with ropes and courage to help. The fearful rapids, running probably twenty miles an hour, were before us. Fifty feet below us was a fall of some twenty feet, and about 100 yards further down was a thundering cataract, where the river was compressed within a narrow gorge with a clear plunge of about eighty feet.

Our natives tried all their skill and strength, but could not throw the line across. At length a daring man went up-stream close to a waterfall, took the end of the rope in his teeth, mounted a rock, calculated his chances of escape from the cataracts below, and leaped into the flood; down, down he went quivering and struggling till he reached the opposite shore only a few feet above the fall, over which it must have been a fatal plunge had he gone. But by his temerity, which I should have forbidden, had I known it in season, a passage was provided for me.

After years had passed, and a little had been done toward making roads, I purchased a horse, and tried to get him over these streams by swimming or hauling him over with ropes. Twice when I attempted to go over in the saddle, his foot caught between two rocks in the middle of the stream, and horse and rider were saved only by the energy and fidelity of the natives.

Once in going up a steep precipice in a narrow pass between a rocky height on one hand and a stream close on the other, my horse fell over backward and lay with his head down and his feet in the air, so wedged and so wounded that he could never have escaped from his position, had not a company of natives for whom I sent came to the rescue and extricated the poor, faithful animal from his rocky bed. I escaped instant death by sliding out of the saddle upon the narrow bank of the stream, before the back of my horse struck between the rocks. He was so hurt that I was obliged to leave him to recover.

In order to save time and escape the weariness of the road and the dangers of the rivers, I sometimes took a canoe at the end of my tours to return home by the water. This trip required six to eight hours, and was usually made in the night.

On three occasions my peril was great. One description will suffice for all; for although the difficulties and escapes were at different points along a precipitous and lofty sea-wall, yet the causes of danger were the same, viz.: stormy winds, raging billows, and want of landing-places.

About midway between our starting-place and Hilo harbor, we were met by a strong head-wind, with pouring rain and tumultuous waves in a dark midnight. We were half a mile from land, but could hear the roar and see the flashing of the white surf as it dashed against the rocky walls. We could not land, we could not sail, we could not row forward or backward. All we could do was to keep the prow of the canoe to the wind, and bail. Foaming seas dashed against our frail cockleshell, pouring in buckets of brine. Thus we lay about five hours, anxious as they "who watch for the morning." At length it dawned; we looked through the misty twilight to the rock-bound shore where "the waves dashed high." A few doors of native huts opened and men crawled out. We called, but no echo came. We made signals of distress. We were seen and numbers came down to the cliffs and gazed at us. We waved our garments for them to come off to our help. They feared, they hesitated. We were opposite the mouth of a roaring river, where the foam of breakers dashed in wild fury. At last four naked men came down from the cliff, plunged into the sea, dived under one towering wave after another, coming out to breathe between the great rolling billows, and thus reached our canoe. Ordering the crew to swim to the land, they took charge of the canoe themselves because they knew the shore. Meanwhile men stood on the high bluffs with kapa cloth in hand to signal to the boat-men when to strike for the mouth of the river. They waited long and watched the tossing waves as they rolled in and thundered upon the shore, and when at last a less furious wave came behind us, the shore men waved the signals and tried out, "Hoi! hoi!" and as the waves lifted the stern of our canoe, all the paddles struck the water, while the steerer kept the canoe straight on her course, and thus mounted on this crested wave as on an ocean chariot, with the feathery foam flying around us, we rode triumphantly into the mouth of the river, where we were received with shouts of gladness by the throng who had gathered to witness our escape. Then two rows of strong men waded into the surf up to their arm-pits to receive our canoe and bear it in triumph to the shore.

Praising the Lord for His goodness, and thanking the kind natives for their agency in delivering me, I walked the rest of the way home.

The district of Puna lies east and south of Hilo, and its physical features are remarkably different from those of the neighboring district.

Its shore line, including its bends and flexures, is more than seventy miles in extent. For three miles inland from the sea it is almost a dead level, with a surface of pahoehoe or field lava, and a-a or scoriaceous lava, interspersed with more or less rich volcanic soil and tropical verdure, and sprinkled with sand-dunes and a few cone and pit-craters. Throughout its length it is marked with ancient lava streams, coming down from Kilauea and entering the sea at different points along the coast. These lava streams vary in width from half a mile to two or three miles. From one to three miles from the shore the land rises rapidly into the great volcanic dome of Mauna Loa (Long Mountain). The highlands are mostly covered with woods and jungle, and scarred with rents, pits, and volcanic cones. Everywhere the marks of terrible volcanic action are visible. The whole district is so cavernous, so rent with fissures, and so broken by fiery agencies, that not a single stream of water keeps above-ground to reach the sea. All the rain-fall is swallowed by the 10,000 crevices, and disappears, except the little that is held in small pools and basins, waiting for evaporation. The rains are abundant, and subterranean fountains and streams are numerous, carrying the waters down to the sea level, and filling caverns, and bursting up along the shore in springs and rills, even far out under the sea. Some of these waters are very cold, some tepid, and some stand at blood heat, furnishing excellent warm baths. There are large caves near the sea where we enter by dark and crooked passages, and bathe by torchlight, far underground, in deep and limpid water.

Puna has many beautiful groves of the cocoa-palm, also breadfruit, pandanus, and ohia, and where there is soil it produces under cultivation, besides common vegetables, arrowroot, sugar-cane, coffee, cotton, oranges, citrons, limes, grapes, and other fruits. On the highlands, grow wild strawberries, cape gooseberries, and the ohelo, a delicious berry resembling our whortleberry.

On the shore line of the eastern part of Kau, adjoining Puna, were several villages, containing from 500 to 700 inhabitants, separated from the inhabited central and western portions of the district by a desert of unwatered lava about 15 miles wide, without a single house or human being. These villages were occasionally visited by the Rev. Mr. Forbes, then stationed in South Kona; but to reach them required a long, weary walk over the fields of burning lava, and at his request, I took them under my charge, thus extending the shoreline of my parish ten miles westward.


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