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Polynesia then & now: a family visit to the Big Island of Hawaii

When we recently traveled to the Big Island of Hawaii, the biggest and least populated by locals and tourists among the main islands in the archipelago and US State, we found much more than the comfort of landing in yet another US State, with similar comforts and safety standards.

We approached the Big Island from the Southeast, flying over the huge vulcanoes on that part of the island. From the vantage point of modern travel, it’s easier to picture how the archipelago arose from the sea floor after successive, still ongoing massive vulcano eruptions —like Yellowstone or the Canary Islands, Hawaii sits atop a supervolcano.

Representation of Native Hawaiian deity Pele, the goddess of volcanoes and fire and the creator of the Hawaiian Islands, according to Hawaiian mythology; painting by David Howard Hitchcock, 1929

From the plane, we were glad that the native Hawaiian goddess Pele, maker of the world through volcanic eruptions, had entered a period of lethargy. Until when?

We were landing in Kailua-Kona, the main city on the drier western part of the island, which contrasts, and we would soon know, with the persistent tropical rain that makes Hilo on the East side, the other city with an airport connecting the island to “The Mainland” (like Hawaiians call the continental US), a very wet, Monsoonish alternative.

A melody of invasive frogs

The Big Island is a place of contrasts —and trivia: altitude and lack of pollution make the summit of Mauna Loa, one of the two volcanoes on the island surpassing 13,000 feet, the best place in the Northern Hemisphere to observe the stars. If measured from its base under the sea, Mauna Kea (the other volcano above 13,000 feet) is the highest mountain on Earth. The island’s Eastern coast experiences the biggest average rainfall in the entire US. Also, the Island of Hawaii isn’t only the southernmost island of the archipelago, but its southern tip is the southernmost point in all of the US.

We had planned to meet with several people we were lucky to meet thanks to Kirsten’s channel, which gave us a fascinating insider-outsider perspective of Big Island culture. The first impressions barely reminisced with the few recalls I retained from the only other trip we ever made to the archipelago—to Hanalei Bay in Kauai to attend a relative’s wedding fourteen years ago. It took me a few hours to recall some of these memories, among them the tropical dampness and fauna sounds, more intense and amplified.

Not surprisingly, most of the unescapable sounds that take over the dark night in the Big Island (the telescopes’ operation forbids any significant source of luminous pollution, bight public lights included) have been perfected by invasive species —the repetitive melody of coqui frogs, brought unintentionally by freight from Puerto Rico and now so pervasive that it feels like a rave of minimalist Philip Glass scales; followed by the cacophony of the pervasive feral roosters that one can see (and hear) anywhere but in the driest lava landscapes.

When spam isn’t derogatory

The success of invasive species in Hawaii is due to several factors. As the most isolated important land mass in the world, the archipelago developed very pronounced endemism in flora and fauna: there’s a reason why ornithology is a priority for the State. Since the arrival of the first human populations 1,200 to 1,600 years ago, invasive species adapted rapidly to the natural environment at the expense of local species. Some of these species, like taro, sugarcane, coconut palm, feral pigs, or feral chickens, are a part of the local culture and collective imagination as Hawaiian as taro chips or musubi, the local snack made of spam (yep), rice, and nori.

Tropical fruits, from mangos to the versatile breadfruit, eaten either green (starchy as a potato substitute) or ripe (as a sweet, soft fruit), are also widely available in the island’s lowest, warmer areas. We stopped by the road a few times to wait for mango trees to drop ripe fruits next to us. We wouldn’t need to wait much each time.

Some other species were introduced to fight other invasive species, only to become a nuisance themselves. The mongoose was introduced to control the rat population. The cane toad from Central America was brought to Hawaii to control agricultural pests in the 19th-century sugar cane plantations, displacing native animals.

We didn’t see most of such transformations but could feel or, better, either listen to them (the symphony of frogs and roosters) or see their effects on gardens and plants (the people we met were eager to show us how pigs enter enclosed properties and bulldoze gardens, leaving messy craters behind). The first two days, we were ready to find affordable BnB’s, which were dated though comfortable, displaying the kitsch Hawaiian motives as seen through the lens of American pop culture, blending surf, traditional ideograms, exotic flowers, ceiling fans and cross ventilation, and the dream of momentarily turning into either beach Elvis, Jimmy Buffet, or Jack Johnson (depending on the cohort).

In one of the extremes of an ancient human Odyssey

Given the decor in which I awoke the first morning, I somehow imagined myself like a Joseph Conrad character, perhaps some sort of Spanish outcast with a blurry past stranded in the Pacific like a contemporary Lord Jim.

Kona keeps enough vestiges of the era of King Kamehameha I to imagine the moment in which Hawaii was set to change forever. The arrival of Puritan missioners from Massachusetts signaled big changes to come to the island —and the archipelago as a whole. In a few decades, the “paniolo” or local cowboys would dominate the areas at ideal altitudes and enough rain to sustain rich pastures.

John Palmer Parker, a local rancher, owned so much land on the Big Island that his ranch became one of the biggest in the whole of the US. From those milestones to statehood, Native Hawaiians often struggled to prosper in their own land.

Though it didn’t happen in the Big Island, the tragedy of Lahaina resonates with Hawaiians; whether it could have been prevented or not, the real questions that keep people uneasy are still unanswered, among them an apparent lack of resilience and basic preparation against natural disasters in a place that always coexisted with them.

The epics we choose to tell

Our acquired perception of the world makes us think that history began when written accounts emerged in several locations sometime after the Neolithic. But the way we see the world delays this real beginning with the rise of Ancient Greece and monotheism in the stretch of land between the Fertile Crescent and the Eastern Mediterranean Basin.

But not everything is held between the value we give to the profane and the sacred (to Athens and Jerusalem) in the West. Another foundational moment associated with the space exploration that humankind could begin in the coming decades is the so-called Age of Discovery, which led several European kingdoms —sparsely populated and relatively marginal in comparison with Eastern Civilizations in the Indian subcontinent and China— to search for safe routes to “the Indies” and, as a byproduct, to “discover” the Northern Hemisphere.

Before the Age of Discovery, Empires and buffer States in Central Asia played the role of intermediaries between the two extremes of Eurasia, as Peter Frankopan explains in his two essays about the Silk Roads —and their true importance to creating the world we inhabit. Some of his accounts, however scientific and historically factual, never made it to the collective unconscious of the Western World.

The European voyages of the Age of Discovery aren’t the first accounts of the emergence of a new sense of the world, one of commercial interdependence (forced or not upon people) and cultural syncretism, a process we know as the Columbian Exchange, which led Europeans to explore and establish colonies virtually in the whole world.

James Cook landing in Hawaii (1778)

This narrative of the rise of modernity needs to remember all the nuances of a complex reality. When Europeans set to sail the seas and circumnavigate Africa, “discover” the Western Hemisphere and also circumnavigate its southernmost tip, then compete to find a nonexistent Northwest Pass a ship could sail (and hence connecting Europe and Asia through a new route), they had the incentives to do so: with the fall of Byzantium to the Ottomans, Venice and other intermediaries lost their advantageous connection to India and China, giving sense to riskier commercial routes.

Modern vessels and navigation tools allowed Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch parties to race for the best ways to bypass the trading lockdown in the Middle East by reaching Eastern harbors by sea. Such State-promoted companies were established to bring spices and other precious products to Europe thanks to the hustle of adventurous characters in search of fame and fortune.

So when, for example, the Catholic Kings promoted the rogue trips of Columbus by sailing West to reach the harbors of the Far East, the Spanish crown was promoting a venture capital vet no less risky than moonshot investments today.

When Magellan and Elcano visited the Pacific Ocean for the first time and encountered Polynesian populations for the first time, they were opening a new era in world history that would lead other explorers centuries after to discover and claim the old conjecture of a Terra Australis, a big landmass in the remotest part of the Southern Hemisphere.

After Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch early contacts with Polynesians, the English expeditions led by James Cook brought him to remote populated islands in the Pacific Ocean, the Hawaiian archipelago among them. These explorers of the Pacific failed to find a plausible explanation for the arrival of Pacific islanders to their remote, self-enclosed experiments of paradise on Earth.

Vikings and Polynesians

Polynesians were seen as innocent and primitive, a perfect image of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “noble savages.” Little did explorers imagine that, sailing from Southeast Asia original outposts, Polynesians had found the incentives (war, famine, an ancient belief, the work of some pioneer explorer capable of establishing a multigenerational culture of travel?) to sail to the East and successfully create remote and mostly self-sufficient settlements across the sparse, mostly small by landmass archipelagos of the Pacific.

There are little precedents of early exploration and colonization at the scale of the Polynesian epopeï. Perhaps, only the Viking exploration and settlements across the North Atlantic can be compared to the Polynesian feat, albeit the Viking travels covered just a fraction of the distance that humans managed to overcome when settling across the Pacific.

Like Polynesians, Vikings also brought their culture, domestic animals and crops to desolate places, often ill-suited to maintain cows, horses, wheat or hay, achieving precarious self-sufficiency in Iceland but failing to do so In Norse Greenland after several generations of survival. In the Norse Sagas, we learn that Erik the Red may have indeed led a successful party to Vinland, or what may have been a seasonal Viking outpost in North America in which Europeans would have established contacts with Native Americans centuries before Columbus.

In his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Jared Diamond tries to answer why some civilizations fail and others succeed when environmental calamity crosses a threshold, prompting societies to adapt or vanish. We learn about the Norse from Greenland, who, unlike Inuk populations inhabiting the Eastern half of Greenland and successfully adapting to its harsh conditions, couldn’t survive the sudden temperature change of the Little Ice Age.

Humans and their impact

In the Pacific, Jared Diamond focused on the most remote, easternmost island settled by Polynesians, Easter Island. Easter Islanders managed to flourish and create a civilization that, for some reason or belief lost to history, failed to understand that the isolation and environmental constraints of their self-enclosed world in the remote Pacific, so they kept cutting trees and using resources to accomplish a mighty series of giant anthropomorphic sculptures —until the island lacked the trees and resources to sustain the civilization building them. Moai sculptures still fascinate us.

The Polynesian exploration and settlement of the Pacific islands is a unique portal to the human impact when societies arrive in isolated places without human contact. Several theories explain why megafauna survived in regions where early humans and big mammals, reptiles, and birds shared the same ecosystems for long periods. In contrast, megafauna mainly vanished with the different waves of modern human expansion beyond the African continent. The Pacific isn’t an exception, and Polynesians traveled with their domestic animals and crops.

Fossils from the biggest islands settled by Polynesians, like the two islands of New Zealand, show how creatures that evolved without natural predators or human hunters disappeared little time after the arrival of human parties. With humans, islands changed forever, and the process only accelerated with Europeans.

“Not surprisingly, Native Hawaiians and Maoris don’t like paleontologists telling them that their ancestors exterminated half of the bird species that had evolved on Hawaii and New Zealand, nor do Native Americans like archaeologists telling them that the Anasazi deforested parts of the southwestern US. The supposed discoveries by paleontologists and archaeologists sound to some listeners like just one more racist pretext advanced by whites for dispossessing indigenous peoples. It’s as if scientists were saying, ‘Your ancestors were bad stewards of their lands, so they deserved to be dispossessed.’ Some American and Australian whites, resentful of government payments and land retribution to Native Americans and Aboriginal Australians, do indeed seize on the discoveries to advance that argument today. Not only indigenous peoples but also some anthropologists and archaeologists who study them and identify with them, view the recent supposed discoveries as racist lies.”

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Jared Diamond, page 8

A big(ish) island

Unlike other islands in the region, the Archipelago of Hawaii stayed out of commercial routes and interests, linking the Far East with the Americas and the European metropolis competing for world dominance. When James Cook landed on the shores of the Big Island (the biggest, geologically the youngest, and most active in vulcano eruptions, and the one holding the most diverse landscapes and microclimates), Hawaii wasn’t yet a politically unified kingdom.

Hawaiians got the memo somehow, and after Cook’s visit, they began to think of themselves as inhabitants of remote enclaves with a culture in common. The third biggest Polynesian island after the two islands of New Zealand, the Big Island of Hawaii would end up unifying the archipelago under King Kamehameha, though only decades before European and American settlers took interest in replicating models of agrarian exploitation successfully applied in the Caribbean and Southeast Asia.

Hawaii attracted Portuguese settlers from Madeira and the Açores, who were already used to the insularity, isolation, and climate adaptation of European crops. Other immigrants from China, Japan, British colonies, and the United States followed, so when the US annexed Hawaii after the Spanish-American war in which Spain lost its last colonies in the Caribbean and the Pacific, the landscape in the archipelago was already being transformed into farmland to raise cattle and grow crops like sugarcane.