Moku‘ula: The King’s Island
In 1992, a team from Honolulu’s Bishop Museum located a historic Maui site that had literally disappeared from view and into the realm of legend. Dr. Paul Christiaan Klieger, now at the California Academy of Sciences, led the team that made this discovery. He is the author of Moku‘ula: Maui’s Sacred Island, published in 1998 by the Bishop Museum Press.
The ball games have been moved now, and the site will soon be excavated. Looking at the towering fan palms on the edge of the field, one can already envision the restoration of the 17-acre fishpond Mokuhinia, and plot its original shoreline.
The moated palace of Moku‘ula, was the secluded seat of King Kamehameha III during the middle of the 19th century (1837-1845). It was a place of the “Sacred Red Mists,” an oasis of rest and calm during the raucous, rollicking days of Pacific whaling.
Moku‘ula, or Sacred Island, was a symbolic piko, or umbilicus, in Hawaiian tradition—Lahaina is roughly in the center of the island chain. Entrance to the residential complex along a narrow causeway was strictly kapu, forbidden to all except the king’s chosen guests. The restriction was enforced by the Hawaiian belief in the supernatural guardian spirit of the lake, the powerful lizard goddess Kihawahine. Still the mascot of Maui and seen on T-shirts and key rings everywhere, Kihawahine was no garden-variety gecko, however. She was the great royal mo‘o, a giant, black monitor lizard who would flash through the waters and devour any uninvited visitors to Moku‘ula.
The symbolism of Moku‘ula mirrors the history of the ruling dynasty. When Kamehameha I finally unified the Hawaiian Islands in 1810, he was careful to consolidate his rule by marrying into the families of his former enemies. On Maui he took for a wife the high chiefess Keopuolani, descended from the kings of Maui and one of the highest ranking women in all the Islands—a living goddess of great power. Merely touching her shadow could result in death for a commoner. Fortunately she was kindhearted and never enforced this particular prerogative. But even the warrior king Kamehameha had to grovel before her, naked, in recognition of her rank.
Despite this hindrance, Keopuolani bore Kamehameha three children: Liholiho (who would become Kamehameha II), Kauikeaouli (Kamehameha III), and the Princess Nahi‘ena‘ena. Importantly, the sacred children were legitimate heirs not only of the unified Hawaiian kingdom, but of the ancient Maui kingdom, too—something their father was not. Their particular guardian deity was Kihawahine, the lizard goddess of Mokuhinia. It was natural, then, for the three children to live at Kihawahine’s home.
Although there are indications that earlier royalty lived on Moku‘ula, the first solid evidence comes from 1836, when King Kamehameha III’s beloved sister, Nahi‘ena‘ena, died. After a state funeral, the king had her interred on the tiny island, and in what seems to the western mind a rather macabre move, set about making her tomb the center of his world. He built a stone mausoleum, designed as a European-style residence complete with pipe organ. In the living room he buried his sister, mother, and other members of the royal family. He then built adjacent grass buildings, where he lived with Queen Kalama. The royal court quickly established their residences along the shoreline of Mokuhinia. For the king, Moku‘ula provided a cool, secure retreat from the cataclysmic changes besieging the kingdom in the mid-19th century, as foreign diseases decimated the native population, and the refutation of old gods left surviving Hawaiians bereft of traditional customs and culturally adrift.
There were numerous reported sightings of Kihawahine at the royal pond, most notably in 1837, when the mo‘o nearly overturned Dowager Queen Keka‘uluohi’s canoe as she head for the Christian church across Mokuhinia. One of King Kamehameha III’s stepmothers and soon-to-be prime minister, Kekauluohi was a devout Christian and vigorous supporter of the Protestant mission. She hadn’t been getting along with the king, who was more traditional and generally opposed to the rising power of the missionaries. The awestruck crowds gathered along the shoreline that day might have thought the mo‘o was siding with their king. Kihawahine did have a particular fondness for men, especially those who, like the king, enjoyed drinking.
In time, the superiority of the harbor at Honolulu, took commerce away from Lahaina, and with it, political power. By 1845, the legislature, king, and court had left Lahaina. But whenever he had a chance, Kamehameha III would return to his beloved Moku‘ula, and to the royal mausoleum.
With the death of the king in 1854, succeeding monarchs seldom visited the island. Moku‘ula and the tomb/residence became dilapidated. In respect for the dead, Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop had the royal remains removed to a churchyard nearby in the 1880s. Later, when the sugar plantations diverted its water sources, Loko o Mokuhinia became a mosquito-infested, stagnant marsh. Around 1914, most of the pond was filled in and made a public park.
Only a few remembered the glories of Moku‘ula. The island’s story passed quietly from hereditary caretakers to the outspoken county historian Inez Ashdown, who lobbied fruitlessly in the 1960s for its restoration. Finally, decades later, the social environment has changed. Now archaeologists are slowly rediscovering the buried features of the royal residence with the help of community organizations (see sidebar). In 1992, a team from the Bishop Museum surveyed the site in an attempt to locate Moku‘ula and ascertain its condition. We found island retaining walls, stone foundations, a wooden plank dock, and many artifacts from Kamehameha III’s era. In 1995 the royal residential complex was listed in the National Register of Historic Places. In 1999, Dr. Susan A. Lebo of Bishop Museum and I performed an electromagnetic survey at Moku‘ula in order to better locate buried features. Plans for permanent excavation and restoration are now under way.
It may take 20 years to restore the fishpond of Mokuhinia and uncover the island. But one day the cool, deep waters and lush green foliage of Moku‘ula will again crown the old capital of the Hawaiian Islands, becoming a visible tribute to the life and legacy of one of Hawaii’s most beloved rulers.
The Island of Maui, and Lahaina in particular, are blessed with dynamic organizations and individuals dedicated to historic preservation. They contribute to a sensitive portrayal of a fascinating past, and help build pride among Hawaii’s kama‘aina.
With the decline of the plantation life style after World War II, regional planners and farsighted Lahainans developed long-range plans for the restoration of the town. The Lahaina Historic District was created and is now administered by the County of Maui Cultural Resources Commission. Since then, the restoration of Lahaina has been linked to a healthy growth of tourism. Among the first nongovernmental agencies dedicated to historic preservation, Lahaina Restoration Foundation spearheaded the restoration of the Baldwin missionary house, the old Lahaina prison, the print shop at Lahainaluna School, and the replicated sailing ship Carthaginian.
By the 1980s, recognizing that the environs of Lahaina had not just been a home to Puritan missionaries, rowdy sailors, and sugar barons, but had a glorious pre-Western past, Ka‘anapali Beach Hotel, under the leadership of Mike White and Lori Sablas, established Po‘okela to provide authentic Native Hawaiian cultural experiences for visitors. Among Po‘okela and the Lahaina Restoration Foundation’s burning ambitions was to rediscover the lost royal residence of Moku‘ula. The Friends of Moku‘ula, Inc., was founded in the mid-1990s by Sablas and Akoni Akana. It has dedicated itself to the restoration of this important site.
The revival of Lahaina as a cultural capital of Hawai‘i continues with the establishment of the watchdog Lahaina Town Action Committee, and the Hale Wa‘a o Kauaula that promotes the construction and maintenance of traditional Polynesian sailing vessels. A wonderful innovation in visitor services is provided by the award-winning Maui Nei, a walking cultural tour of Lahaina led by learned local guides. In partnership with Friends of Moku‘ula, Maui Nei proceeds benefit the restoration of the royal island complex of King Kamehameha III.