Culture & Tradition: Recent History

by Terry Wallace

na wahine

After the overthrow of the Kapu system by Liholiho (urged on by Ka‘ahumanu and Keopuolani), chaos ensued. It was if the Pope and President declared that religion and government was all rubbish. Ka‘ahumanu declared herself Kahina Nui, effectively Prime Minister, and no one resisted that strong-willed woman. She effectively controlled Liholiho (Kamehameha II) who was only about 21 years old.

Ten months later, the 1st company of Calvinist missionaries arrived in Kailua-Kona. The Thurstons with Dr. Holman and wife were the only members allowed to land and were appalled at the dry conditions. (I imagine the Hawaiians were appalled by the missionaries smell after six months at sea!) The rest of the company was sent on to O‘ahu. Eventually, and after much hard work and resistance, the missionaries got control of the Royalty. Ka‘ahumanu banned canoe racing before 1830 and the sport died out. In fact, anything equated with fun was banned. There was intermittant racing of whale boats, shells and other vessels in the mid-1800’s, but not until Kalakaua was elected king did boat racing become a regular event.

Kalakaua revived shell regatta racing in Honolulu Harbor. Outrigger canoe racing followed, using any kind of canoe available. In Tommy Holmes’s book The Hawaiian Canoe, photos show crews of 5 and 6 paddlers racing against each other.

In 1906, Prince Kuhio had the racing canoe, A or A‘a (pronounced AH or AH‘AH, this word has many meanings from “fiery” to “giving” and probably only Kuhio and Moku‘ohai really knew what it meant). The canoe was built in Kona by Kahuna Kalaiwa‘a Moku‘ohai (Master Canoe Builder Moku‘ohai came from a family of canoe builders whose descendants still live in the Kealakekua Bay area). This hei‘hei wa‘a had a long and successful carreer and is now housed in Bishop Museum.

In my opinion, Prince Kuhio is the father of International Hawaiian Canoe racing as Duke Kahanamoku is the father of Surfing. If Hawaiian Canoe racing is included as a demonstration sport in the next Olympics, Prince Kuhio should get recognition!

War, politics and social conditions caused interest in the sport to wax and wane. The late 1920’s and up until WWII was a good time for racing. Some of the women’s teams were strong with competition including swimming races before and after canoe events. Especially for the Kealakekua and Honaunau teams. These teams were mostly fishermen before outboard motors. All they did was paddle. Then, after fishing all night, they would train! Needless to say, Honaunau won almost every race. If they didn’t win, it was because they hadn't entered.

After WWII, interest revived when the men came home. During the war, canoe surfing continued along Waikiki, taking the canoes out through the openings in the barbed wire strung along the beach.

When paddling started up again, racing equipment had not changed. Nor had techniques. Canoes were wood, mostly koa hulls with hau wood ‘iako and wiliwili wood ama. Most of these canoes were survivors of the resurging interest of the early 1900’s. Paddles were made from whatever wood was available. Like the old “plank” surfboards with no fin, one time out in the water and your equipment had to dry for a couple of days. Imagine a 3 to 5 pound paddle with a lau (blade) 13 X 21 inches. The shaft was straight with no grip. There were generally two sizes, child and adult.

Paddle shape created paddling technique. Really slow! But with that big blade, paddlers could generate power. Try it sometime, that big paddle will make a believer out of you!

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