Restoration of Moku‘ula will lead to rediscovery

Much has been written about Moku’ula, the sacred royal island once moated by the 17-acre Loko o Mokuhinia freshwater fishpond with its archaeological treasures now buried under a former baseball field in Lahaina.

Meanwhile, the history of Kauikeaouli, who made Moku’ula his private residential complex and became King Kamehameha III, awaits to be unearthed as well. It was buried more than 100 years ago by missionaries whose written accounts were colored by their disdain for him, said anthropologist and ethnohistorian Paul Christiaan Klieger.

The son of Kamehameha I and brother of Liholiho, Kamehameha II, Kauikeaouli was a “traditionalist”; he resisted the missionaries’ and his converted Christian regent Ka’ahumanu’s attempts to displace Hawaiian culture with Western ways, Klieger said.

While the king backed the Christian church, he was not a member himself. “He was kind of an outcast with the missionary establishment,” Klieger said. “That’s one of the reasons we don’t know too much about him.”

Missionary writings about Kauikeaouli amount to “gossiping about him” and “criticizing him for not being a good Christian” or “for doing things traditionally Hawaiian,” he said.

Now writing a biography of Kamehameha III while exploring his own family and ethnic roots in Norway, Klieger visited West Maui last weekend to present a talk and to lead a tour of the Moku’ula restoration site at Malu-ulu-o-Lele Park.

Part of the importance of restoring Moku’ula is remembering why Lahaina became the capital of the Hawaiian kingdom in the first place, from 1837 to 1845, “because the king lived there” and because it was the traditional residence of Maui’s highest alii, Klieger said. It was a sanctuary for alii, a place of kapu and burials; and it was the site of the Lahaina palace of King Pi’ilani, who unified the kingdom of Maui in the 16th century.

The restoration of Moku’ula will lead to its rediscovery, he said.

“You’re recognizing the work of Kamehameha III and his legacy, which is kind of hard to find in Hawaii,” he said.

Kauikeaouli was the longest-reigning king in Hawaii’s history, from 1825 (when he was around 11 years old) to his death in 1854, Klieger said. He established Lahaina as the capital of the kingdom in 1837 until he moved it to Honolulu eight years later.

Returning Moku’ula to its former glory would be a “remembrance of him, and it has to be done here” in Lahaina, he said.

Moku’ula represents a part of Lahaina’s Native Hawaiian history that was obliterated by the whaling and plantation eras, he said.

After Kauikeaouli moved the Hawaiian kingdom’s capital to Honolulu, Moku’ula fell into disrepair, he said. Its waters became stagnant, and mosquitos brought to the islands by whaling ships became a “huge” problem.

“The whole site became a blight in a sense,” he said. “The easiest thing to do was fill it in.”

That happened in 1914.

Klieger is the author of “Moku’ula: Maui’s Sacred Island” (1998, Bishop Museum Press), which also provides numerous insights into the life of Kauikeaouli, whose nearly 30-year reign saw pivotal changes in the islands’ history.

Kauikeaouli was born on the Big Island, the son of King Kamehameha the Great and Queen Keopuolani.

According to Klieger’s book, Kauikeaouli and his sister Nahi’ena’ena came to Maui in 1820 on a trip with Liholiho, their eldest brother. The young prince and his sister established residences in Lahaina while Liholiho continued on to Honolulu. Keopuolani also took up residence in Lahaina.

Klieger’s book says that “compared to the dry, dusty streets of Honolulu, the peaceful, verdant gardens of Lahaina proved a stunning contrast.”

“The thick shade of the breadfruit trees, which surrounded (their hosts’) cottages – the rustling of the breeze through the bananas and sugar cane – the murmurs of the mountain streams encircling the yard – and the coolness and verdure of ever spot around us – seemed . . . like the delights of Eden,” Klieger quotes American preacher C.S. Stewart as writing.

Later, Stewart was less enamored of Lahaina.

“There is no uniformity or neatness to be seen, and almost every thing seems to be growing in the wilderness of nature . . . All these flourish exuberantly from the richness of the soil alone, with but little attention or labour from the hand of man,” he wrote.

One of the questions Klieger wants to answer in his biography of Kauikeaouli is why the king wanted to live in Lahaina and to locate the kingdom’s capital there.

Kauikeaouli’s mother is “closely associated with the area,” he said. Keopuolani was of the “highest possible lineage,” part of a royal dynasty.

“It really was his home. . . . It was his right to live there,” he said. “It was his favorite residence. . . . It was his favorite place to rule (from).”

Also, as the home of the family’s guardian deity, the lizard goddess Kihawahine, the site was religiously significant to Kauikeaouli’s family.

Increasingly, though, the amassed wealth, shipping interests and financial issues of the kingdom were on Oahu, and the pressure became “overwhelming” for Kamehameha III to move the capital to Honolulu, Klieger said.

Nevertheless, he would “always come back” to Lahaina when he had the opportunity to do so, he said.

The “relative sacredness” of Moku’ula is “subject to some interpretations,” Klieger said in a phone interview. Was it sacred because it was the king’s residence? Or was it sacred because alii lived there from ancient times? he asked.

Most likely both aspects contribute to Moku’ula’s “sacredness,” he said.

The man-made island in the center of the Mokuhinia pond was built around 1829 or 1830, he said.

“In a historic sense, it’s fairly new,” said Klieger, considered a leading authority on the site.

For hundreds of years before the island was built, the fishpond was home to the Piilani family, the royal family of Maui, he said.

Klieger was the original director of Bishop Museum’s archaeological research at Moku’ula island and Mokuhinia pond in 1993, along with Boyd Dixon.

Kauikeaouli was king while the sandalwood trade was at a fever pitch, he said.

“It was a crazy time,” he said. “People were chopping down sandalwood forests to exchange for merchant goods (silks and furniture), mostly from China.”

The alii were “crazy about buying things from abroad,” he said.

At the time, the kingdom didn’t have cash reserves, and the economy was only beginning to monetize, he said.

As the kingdom faced debts, more and more sandalwood was cut down, triggering cycles of boom and bust until the plantation period provided the islands with more economic stability, he said.

One of the major historic watersheds during Kauikeaouli’s reign was the “Great Mahele” from 1848 to 1854 when the king redistributed landownership, creating land titles and patents, and for the first time opening landownership to foreigners.

“Foreign investment ultimately takes over sovereignty of the islands,” he said. “You buy land and land leads to power. . . . It drove the independence of the Hawaiian kingdom away.”

Kamehameha III’s reign also saw the rising power of missionaries who came to the islands to spread religion and to provide education. Eventually, they established businesses and took ownership of large tracts of land, he said.

“It had the effect really of destroying the Hawaiian kingdom and the Hawaiian culture,” he said.

When asked if he’s grown impatient with the pace at which restoration efforts of Moku’ula have been ongoing, Klieger said, “We all wish things could happen faster or in a certain direction.”

The county has removed public recreational facilities from the area in anticipation of the restoration; the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is still in the early stages of determining if it can get involved in the restoration of Mokuhinia.

“When you consider the importance of this site, consider its complexity and the technical difficulties of re-creating the fishpond and the original look and feel of the island . . . it’s very complex, and indeed it takes time,” he said. “I really encourage people to be patient in this process. Historic preservation is a very delicate and time-consuming thing, but it will be done. . . . There’s a lot of good people in place to do this work. It’s a wonderful opportunity, and in the next couple of years I think you’ll see some really great progress.”

* Brian Perry can be reached at