Kealakekua Hawaii History

A Ruling Center of Kona

Kealakekua translates as pathway of the gods and is one of the most significant cultural and historic places in Hawaii.  Settled more than 1,000 years ago, the bay offered a safe anchorage with an abundance of marine resources.  These early settlers soon began clearing the forests and constructing the extensive upland agricultural fieldsystem of Kona, in which they cultivated crops of uala (sweet potato) and kalo (taro).

As the complex social and political system of Hawaii developed in the 1600's, the alii (chiefs) and kahuna (priests) established Kealakekua as one of the chiefly centers of Kona.  The alii, along with his family and advisors, built their houses at Kaawaaloa.

The kahuna settled along the shoreline and around the pond at Kekua, the area now known as Napoopoo.  It was here that a powerful alii oversaw the building of Hikiau Heiau, the imposing rock platform and religious center of Kealakekua.  Dedicated to the god Ku as  luakini (sacrificial) heiau for success in war, it was also dedicated to the god Lono during the annual Makahiki season with ceremonies conducted to insure the continued fertility of the land.

Between Kaawaloa and Napoopoo is Pali Kapu O Keoua, a 600' pali (cliff).  Named for the alii Keoua, who ruled in the mid 1700's, the pali was kapu (off limits) as a sacred burial area.  At Puhina O Lono Heiau, on the slope above Kaawaloa, the alii were prepared for burial within the rock wall enclosure.  Rocked lined trails over the pali connected the people of Kealakekua with neighboring settlements.

Meeting of Cultures

The British ships, Discovery and Resolution, under the command of Captain James Cook, sailed into Kealakekua Bay on January 17, 1779.  This event was a turning point in Hawaiian history.  During the month long stay in the bay, Cook and his crew documented many aspects of Hawaiian culture at the time of Western caontact in journals and artwork.  The initial encounter was described by Cook:

   The ships were surrounded by a multitude of canoes.  I have nowhere in the sea seen such a number of people assembled at one place.  Besides those in the canoes, all the shore of the bay was covered with people and hundreds were swimming about the ships like shoals of fish.

In their journals, Cook's crew recorded four "villages" of about 80 houses each along the 3 miles of shoreline around Kealakekua Bay.  They estimated that 2,000 people were living at Kealakekua.

Cook arrived during the Makahiki, a time of peace when people gathered at Kealakekua for sporting and religious events.  He was met by Kalaniopuu, the alii nui who ruled the island of Hawaii and resided part time at Kaawaloa.  Cook also met the young alii Kamehameha who was residing at Kekua.  After the death of Kalaniopuu in 1782, Kamehameha would rise to power.  First gaining control over Hawaii Island, he would unify most of the islands by 1795.

After a month of cultural exchange and trading, Cook's ships left Kealakekua Bay.  A broken mast forced Cook to return to Kealakekua for repairs.  Misunderstandings between the Hawaiians and Europeans developed and resulted in Cook's death at Kaawaloa on February 14, 1779.  Cook's body was taken to Puhina O Lono Heiau, located on the slope above Kaawaloa.  The obelisk monument at Kaawaloa was constructed in 1874 near the spot where Cook died.

Historic Firsts

As the West learned of Hawaii, explorers, whalers, and traders soon followed and Kealakekua became one of the first major shipping and provisioning ports.  Kaawaloa was selected as one of the earliest Protestant mission sites with a thatched house of worship and school being built in 1824.  Access to Kaawaloa and Napoopoo was improved with the development of cart roads to transport goods from the bay to the upland communities.

By the 1850's, the population declined and the traditional fishing and farming economy gave way to ranching and coffee.  Cattle were herded down the roads to wharfs at both Napoopoo and Kaawaloa where they were loaded onto ships in the bay.  The Hackfeld Store was built near the Napoopoo pier to buy and sell a wide variety of goods and products in the early 1900's.  Several families remained at Kaawaloa until World War II, but most of the activity had shifted to Napoopoo by this time.  Today, Napoopoo is a small community of families with strong historical ties to the bay.

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Copyright ©1996-2010 Benjamin W. Everly
Kealakekua Kona, Hawaii
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