Samuel Manaiakalani Kamakau was born on the North Shore of O‘ahu, at Mokulë‘ia, on October 29, 1815. He was 5 years old in 1820, when the first missionaries arrived on Hawai‘i Island. Once settled, the New England evangelists began opening schools. By 1825 the reigning Hawaiian monarch, Kauikeaouli (Kamehameha III), himself one of the first literate Hawaiians, recognized the power of the written word and actively pushed for the education of all of his people. He declared, “O ko‘u aupuni, he aupuni palapala ko‘u.” (“My kingdom is a kingdom of literacy.”) Hawaiians flocked to the mission schools that were opening around the Islands. Demand soon outpaced the supply of teachers, so in 1831 a seminary was opened overlooking Lahaina, Maui, on land granted to the mission by the mo‘i (king). The school was named Lahainaluna (atop Lahaina), and the most skilled students from secondary schools across the Islands were sent there to be trained as kumu (teachers), kahu (ministers) and future leaders. A 17-year-old Samuel Kamakau arrived in 1833 as a member of the school’s second class.
One of Kamakau’s instructors was the Rev. Sheldon Dibble. Tasked with teaching history to his Hawaiian students, it wasn’t long before this New York native noted a troubling irony: While the Hawaiian scholars were learning the history of other nations, they seemed to be losing their own past. Determined to preserve knowledge of Hawai‘i’s history, Dibble brought together the best scholars at Lahainaluna to form a “class of inquiry” that would collect and transcribe native histories. He requested that each student go out among the oldest and most knowing of the chiefs and people and gather as much information as possible. Kamakau, described as an exceptionally bright student with a studious disposition and a remarkable memory, became a central member of this history hui (group).
The monarch took a strong interest in the project, and in 1841 a Royal Historical Society, Ka ‘Ahahui ‘Imi i na Mea Kahiko o Hawai‘i Nei, was formed, with King Kamehameha III as president and the 23- year-old Kamakau as an officer. In an 1865 newspaper column recalling the formation of the society, Kamakau wrote, “Pela ka poe Alebiona, ka poe nona ka aina o Beretania mamua, aka, o ka moolelo o ka poe Saxonia me ka William ka moolelo no Beretania, he poe malihini lakou, he poe puapuakaulei, no hai ka punana.” (“As the people of Albion had their British history yet read about the Saxons and William, so the Hawaiians should read their history.”) The group collected histories over the following few years, but the organization faltered when Dibble died unexpectedly in 1845. Inspired by an increasing urgency, Kamakau nevertheless continued on. He explained that he had gathered histories “mai Hawaii a Kauai” (across the archipelago) from the old and wise, and he encouraged the recruiting of others to do the same.
The 1860s saw the beginnings of a native-owned and operated press in the kingdom, and Hawaiian-language newspapers became a primary vehicle for the writings of Kamakau and many others. While he had been contributing material to newspapers since 1838, the major part of Kamakau’s historical body of writing came in three weekly columns he wrote from 1865 to 1871: “Ka Moolelo o Kamehameha I” (History of Kamehameha I), “Ka Moolelo o na Kamehameha” (History of the Kamehameha Dynasty) and “Ka Moolelo Hawaii” (History of Hawai‘i).
Kamakau enthralled his readers with accounts of the deeds of both gods and mortals. In his May 25, 1867 edition of “Ka Moolelo o Kamehameha I,” he introduced one of the most feared and powerful warrior chiefs of Kamehameha’s era, Kahekili: “He alii kaulana o Kahekili, he alii kapu; … e laa no i kona mau mea pili kino, ua puhiia i ke ahi. He alii puni kakau i ka ili a eleele, a ua poni ia i ka uhi moli a eleele hapalua kona kino, mai ke poo a na wawae; a ua paele ia kona maka a eleele.” (“Kahekili was a famous chief, a tabu chief; … so sacred that whatever had touched his body was burned with fire. One half of his body from head to foot was tattooed black; and his face was tattooed black.”)
Kamakau’s descriptions of Hawaiian deities offer glimpses of once dominant spiritual beliefs, beliefs that by Kamakau’s time were beginning to be viewed as heretical. One of his more famous passages describes the akua mo‘o (lizard goddess) Kihawahine, a human chiefess—Kala‘aiheana, daughter of the famous Maui chief Pi‘ilani—who had been deified and now lived as a tremendous lizard in a Lahaina fishpond. “A o Kihawahine ka moo kaulana, a o ke kumu i kaulana nui ai, no ke alii paha kekahi, a he kupuna maoli no na’lii ma ke kino, ma ka hanau kino kanaka maoli ana, aka, ma ke kakuai maoli ana a lilo i kino eepa, he moo. …” (“Kihawahine was a famous mo‘o, perhaps because she had been a chiefess and an ancestor of chiefs, and had been born a real human being, but when she was transfigured she changed into something extraordinary, a mo‘o.”) Kihawahine made a famous appearance in 1838, explained Kamakau, when she nearly capsized Kekauluohi as the high chiefess was traveling across Mokuhinia pond on her way to pray at Waine‘e, the Christian church. Despite their fickle nature and terrifying appearance, mo‘o were thought to be important to human welfare, Kamakau made clear, as mo‘o were kia‘i (guardians) of fishponds. A well-honored mo‘o would gather fish into the pond, making the area prosperous.
Kamakau filled nearly three hundred columns with information on nearly all aspects of Hawaiian life. Although he was greatly respected for his accumulated knowledge, his writings did not go unchallenged. Some saw his work as dangerous or a violation of kapu (tabu) restrictions. In the newspaper Ka Nonanona, one literary adversary, A. Unauna, questioned the propriety of publishing ali‘i genealogies. Where Kamakau, witnessing the depopulation of his nation from death and disease, was calling for this information to be passed on to a broad audience, Unauna felt that opening family genealogies to the public was wrong: “I ka wa kahiko, he olelo kapu loa keia,” he wrote. (“In ancient times, this was very sacred speech.”) Unauna also challenged the veracity of the genealogies themselves. To this point the ever-confident Kamakau replied, telling Unauna to go and “e hoonui hou” (“increase again”) his knowledge before writing in the papers.