Manly W. Mumford
THE CHICAGO LITERARY CLUB
January 11, 1988
Copyright 1988 by Manly W. Mumford
Did the Menehunes really exist? You will see examples of very sophisticated fitted stone on Kauai which are found nowhere else in the Islands. And even the journals of Captain James Cook tell of a servant class on Kauai -- men and women he saw who were shorter and light skinned.One guidebook legend avers that the King of Kauai, for a service I'll mention later, rewarded the Menehunes with a great feast and the Hawaiians had not seen them since.
For more than 150 years the Hawaiians have been telling us that the Menehunes simply went away one day. According to legends, they pulled up stakes and disappeared into one of the valleys along the Na Pali Coast. The Hawaiians say they may be living there still.
The Hawaiian Club, Boston, having Proposed publication of various material relating to the country from which it derives its name appointed, in the summer of 1868, an Editing Committee . . . and this Committee, allowed to furnish most of the contents, Prepared and published 'The Hawaiian Club Papers, October, 1868.' (124 pages octavo.) ...`A Catalogue of Works published at, or relating to, the Hawaiian Islands,' formed one of these Papers.'I concluded that such a bibliography, published almost 120 years ago would not refer me to any recently contrived interpretations of Hawaiian history. By now any such contrivances will have received a patina of respectable age.
The discovery of the Hawaiian Islands by civilized people is commonly considered an achievement by the British Captain James Cook, in 1789, and his visit, indeed, practically introduced them to the knowledge of the world. But the bold explorers and agents of a power that in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries made the wide Pacific, "from Borneo to California, but a Spanish lake," had, long before 1778, learned their existence and chief natural characteristics . . .While on a voyage as supercargo of a sealing ship in 1786, one Ebenezer Townsend, Jr. visited Hawaii and entered the following in his diary:(3)
By all the documents that have been examined, it is demonstrated that the discovery dates from the year 1555, or two hundred and twenty-three years before Captain Cook surveyed those islands; and that the discoverer was Juan Gaetano, or Gaytan, who gave names to the principal islands of that archipelago.
It is very much doubted whether Capt. Cook was the first discoverer of these islands; it in fact appears pretty evident that he was not; however, he may be entitled to the credit of it, provided he received no aid in the discovery and the Spaniards from policy obliterated the discovery of their own navigators. I presume Cook knew nothing of them before he saw them, but as the Spaniards had laid down a group of islands in the same latitude, a few degrees eastward of the Sandwich Islands, where there are none, it is likely to be the same, for at that time they could not be supposed to be very correct in their longitude. There is at Mowee (Maui) the ring and part of the shank of an anchor of about seven hundred weight which was not long ago hooked up there, where there is no recollection of there ever having been a vessel, and from the appearance it must have been there a great many years. Mr. Young says they have a tradition that a couple of white men came on shore and remained there about one hundred and fifty years ago. They landed in a small vessell covered over with skins and he had seen their descendants which satisfied him of the truth of the story, and that they were white.The comment about obliteration by the Spaniards of the discovery of their own navigators probably refers to the fact that the islands appeared at the right latitude but the wrong longitude on Spanish charts shortly after Gaetano's voyage but then were dropped from later charts.
The Hawaiian people, as a whole, never felt particularly grateful to Captain Cook for discovering them to the European civilized world, nor do they hold his memory in any very great esteem.In short, the Spanish may have discovered Hawaii, but maybe they didn't; and if they did it doesn't count because they later undiscovered it; besides, the Hawaiians should have been left undiscovered.
"Pioneer explorers called Lapita from Southeast island Asia (specifically off the eastern tip of New Guinea), reached both Tonga and Samoa by 1000 B.C. The first eastward movement farther into the Pacific is recorded for the Marquesas by A.D. 300. Thence went two groups, one to Easter Island by A.D. 400 and the other to Hawaii by A.D. 500. It is possible that another group went to the Societies shortly after arrival in the Marquesas, but that thrust has not been proved. Certainly, a second movement to Tahiti (the Societies) occurred by A.D. 600 and from there to New Zealand by A.D. 800."Secondary dispersals from Tahiti are believed to have occurred to Hawaii and New Zealand after A.D. 1000. According to linguistic studies, Hawaiian is most closely related to the language spoken by the natives of the Marquesas Islands, but there are several terms that are clearly Tahitian in origin. This and other evidence suggest that the Tahitian influence on the old Hawaiians was modest but noticeable. Recent writers that I've read have not speculated about the theory that the Tahitians came as conquerors and that the large size of individual members of the chiefly families was thus inherited.
The chief was supreme ruler over his people; they lived by his tolerance, for they owned absolutely nothing, neither land, nor house, nor food, nor wife, nor child. A high chief was approached only with abject gestures, and no one dared resist his acts or dispute his will.
* * *As an illustration of the power of the old chiefs, as well as of the density of the population in former times, it is related that when the wall inclosing a certain fishpond on the windward side of Oahu was to be built, the chief then ruling over that land gave notice that on a certain day every man, woman, and child within his domain must appear at a designated point, bearing a stone. The wall, which stands yet, is half a mile long, well built, and probably six feet high; and it was begun and completed in that one day.
* * *Their government appears to have been a `despotism tempered by assassination for great as was the respect exacted by a chief, and implicit as was the obedience he commanded, if he pushed his tyranny too far, his people rose and slew him. Thus on Kauai, in the lower part of the Hanapepe Valley, a huge cliff is shown, concerning which the tradition runs that it was once the residence of the chief who ruled this valley. This person, with a Titanic and Rabelaisian humor, was accustomed to descend into the valley in the evening, seize a baby and carry it to his stronghold to serve him as a pillow. Having slept upon it he slew it next morning; and thus with a refinement of luxury he required a fresh baby every evening. When patience had ceased to be a virtue, according to our more modern formula, the people went up one night and knocked his brains out; and there was a change of dynasties.
* * *Other writers as well have contributed to our understanding of ancient Hawaii.
The chiefs -- that is, the aristocracy and the commoners were generally of powerful physique. It is related of the First Kamehameha, that in battle he frequently took hold of an opponent, and, lifting him high over his head, would break him in half.(15)It was in such a civilization, or at least culture, that we must look for the principal topic of this paper, the Menehunes.
* * *There were, however, some restraints on the arbitrary power of the chief. His tenants could leave him and enter the service of a more popular chief, and the frequent wars obliged him to pay some regard to those upon whom he would have to depend in the day of battle.(16)
Crimes such as theft were punished by private revenge, unless the injured party was too weak, when he either had recourse to sorcery or appealed to the chief, who dispensed a rude kind of justice. Executions were generally secret. The chief's ilamuku or executioner often did his work at the dead of night, when his victim was asleep.(17)
A race of mythical dwarfs from two to three feet in height, who were possessed of great strength; a race of pygmies who were squat, tremendously strong, powerfully built, and very ugly of face. They were credited with the building of many temples, roads and other structures. Trades among them were well-systematized, every Menehune being restricted to his own particular craft in which he was a master. It was believed that they would work only one night on a construction and if unable to complete the work, it was left undone.Other parts of the legends suggest that the Menehunes were invisible by day, that they lived in the hills rather than along the shores like the Polynesian Hawaiians, that they had no fire, and that they conversed in a harsh tongue, like the low growl of a dog, that no one else could understand.
Their dwelling place was in the mountains, above Waimea, near, perhaps to a place known as Waineki.(19) There was where this race were frequently seen. Their houses were of banana leaves; their conversation was a kind of murmur, like the low growl of a dog; they were loud-voiced in their laughter, and were in perfect accord in all their undertakings and manner of living. They subsisted on bananas, silversides and shrimps. The Menehunes' hunger was satisfied with one or two bananas, or a single handful of small fish sufficed for each. Thus silversides and shrimps were the feast to supply this people on account of their great number, whereby they were able to perform important tasks in a single night and complete by dawn the work undertaken.Some legends associate the Menehunes with a mysterious floating island that appears and disappears more or less randomly. The following(20) is typical.
Keawe-ahu, a harsh and exacting chief, was taken to sea in a canoe, tricked into jumping overboard, and deserted. He closed his eyes to think for a while and on opening them saw a beautiful floating island to which he swam. On going ashore he found a Menehune maiden whom he married and by whom he begat a son. Only she and her parents lived there and they did not know the use of fire, which he taught them. The island floated about, occasionally coming near Kona, where the chief came from, but he preferred the floating island until he got bored. Then he took his son on his shoulders and swam back to Kona when the island floated near it again.Many ancient stone temples, fish ponds and other works are attributed to the Menehunes. One of the most famous of these works is a water course or aqueduct now generally called the "Menehune Ditch" but also called the Kikiaola watercourse. There are several versions of the legend of its construction; one of them(21) is as follows:
Pi owned the land at Kikialoa on the western side of the river and he wanted to construct a mano or dam across the river, and from the dam a watercourse down to Kikialoa. Having settled upon the location for his proposed work, he went up the mountains and made a contract with the Menehunes that were living near Puu Ka Pole to prepare stones for the dam and the watercourse. The Menehunes were partitioned off for the work, some to gather stones and others to cut them. The cutting of the stones was performed at Mokihana on the top of the ridge and some of the stones were left there, some fully cut and others partly cut. All the material was ready in very little time, and Pi settled upon the night when the work was to be done. When the time came, he went to the point where the dam was to be built and waited. At the dead of the night he hears the noise and hum of the voices of the Menehunes, on their way to Kikiaola, each of whom was carrying a stone. The dam was fully constructed, every stone fitting it its proper place, and also the stone auwai, or watercourse and through the same on to the flats at Waimea. When the work was done Pi served out food to the Menehunes, which consisted of one shrimp, (opae), this being the only kind of meat to be had in sufficient quantity to supply each Menehune with one fish or opae . . . They were well supplied and satisfied, and at dawn returned to their home in the mountains rejoicing, and the hum of their voices gave rise to the saying: "Wawa Ka Menehune I Piuukapele ma Kauai, puohu na manu o na loko o Kawainui ma Koolaupoko, Oahu --The hum of the voices of the Menehunes at Puu Ka Pele, Kauai, startled the birds at the pond of Kawainui at Koolaupoko, Oahu."A second version of the tale suggests that Pi was the foreman of Chief Ola, who wanted to have the watercourse completed to irrigate his people's taro patches, but that previous attempts by local labor were unstable and fell down. Pi then imported the Menehunes (who had previously lived in Hawaii but moved to New Zealand) to return to Kauai to do the work. When the work was completed, the chief of the Menehunes found that his men were taking Hawaiian wives and required them and their first born sons to leave and return with him to New Zealand to protect the "purity of the race."(22)
As we proceeded, our attention was arrested by an object that greatly excited our admiration, and at once put an end to all conjecture on the means to which the natives resorted for the watering of their plantations. A lofty perpendicular cliff now presented itself, which, by rising immediately from the river, would effectually have stopped our further progress into the country, had it not been for an exceedingly well constructed wall of stones and clay about twenty-four feet high, raised from the bottom by the side of the cliff, which not only served as a pass into the country, but also as an aqueduct, to convey the water brought thither by great labour from a considerable distance; the place where the river descends from the mountains affording the planters an abundant stream, for the purpose to which it is so advantageously applied. This wall, which did no less credit to the mind of the projector than to the skill of the builder, terminated the extent of our walk.According to Wendell Clark Bennett, the leading archaeologist of Kauai,(25) writing in 1931:
The noted Menehune ditch . . . is the acme of stone-faced ditches. The problem was that of carrying water, at a high level, around the corner of a jutting cliff. An added difficulty was the necessity of placing the base of the causeway in the river itself where it was constantly in danger of being washed away by a freshet.More recent writers report the fate of the watercourse thus:(26)
The area has been changed considerably since the description of Vancouver. In the 1890s a "horse road" was built "on the bank of the Pee Kauai watercourse at Kiki-a-`Ola . . . " Soon afterwards, a government road replaced the "horse road." Sugar plantation construction also changed the aqueduct. Around the turn of the century Waimea Plantation built an irrigation ditch and used a tunnel through the cliff to carry water from the inland area to the lowlands. No evidence of a wall around the cliff face remained. In 1924, more plantation improvement to ditch and road changed the area and destroyed more of the ancient Hawaiian ditch.Alas for the Menehunes! Not only have their works been dismantled and their stones used as the stones of Rome were used by the Vandals, but the substance of their myth has been commercialized so that images, purportedly of Menehunes, have been used in advertising lingerie, candy and automobiles.(27) Under the circumstances, I consider that the kindest thing that can be done for them has been done by an Anthropology professor at the University of Hawaii. In a book with 84 pages of text and two and a half pages of bibliography, entitled, The Menehune of Polynesia and Other Mythical Little People of Oceania, Professor Katharine Luomala has explored the legends and whatever evidence there might be to support them. One paragraph(28) provides the coup de grace, leaving little room for the romantic, sensational or supernatural explanations hinted at by the guidebooks.
Ditch stones from the ancient site have also been said to have been used in and around Waimea. Menehune Ditch stones are said to have been used in the building of the Protestant Church, called the Foreign church, in the Kekaha Plantation Mill and the Waimea Ice works. Other stones were used by a Waimea stone cutter for tombstones, by one of Waimea's sheriffs for a stone wall in front of his home, and the like. Little of the old watercourse is left now; the water to irrigate the high land on the other side of the cliff from the river now flows through a tunnel bored by a sugar company. Much of the old ditch is covered by a road.
Material relating to the physical anthropology of the Menehune leaves much to be desired, because people who profess to have seen Menehune tend to be incoherent and because no Menehune skeletons have been submitted to anthropologists for study. Although Bishop Museum has thousands of ancient Hawaiian skeletons awaiting analysis, no preliminary survey by physical anthropologists has as yet spotted what might be a Menehune skeleton among the bones.It may be that the Menehune didn't leave skeletons for the anthropologists to examine for any of several reasons, of course, and only one of these possible reasons is that they didn't exist. Living in the mountainous jungle of the interior of Kauai, they probably died there where the finding of bones before they decompose would be no easy matter. Or the Menehune may have actually been more nearly the size of normal human beings with skeletons to match and were excessively shortened by legend alone. Or it may be that the leader of the Menehune, on finding that many of his people were marrying Polynesians and fearing for the purity of his race, summoned all the Menehune men and their first born sons and led them onto a three-layered floating island that moved away and disappeared.
FOOTNOTES(1) Feathered Gods and Fishhooks, an Introduction to Hawaiian Archaeology and Prehistory by Patrick Vinton Kirch, University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, 1985, P. 22.