Translated work adds new life to old Hawaiian king

LIHU’E — An epic account of King Kamehameha I, previously unpublished in

English, breathes new life into the history of Hawai’i’s first monarch and the

times in which he lived.

Much of what is known about Kamehameha has been

taken from journals and manuscripts written by foreign eyewitnesses.

But

the biography by Rev. Stephen Desha, which was largely culled from oral

histories of kapuna at the turn of the 20th century and from writings of

earlier Native Hawaiian historians, is one of the only histories of pre-contact

Hawai’i told from the Native Hawaiian viewpoint.

It is also the first

truly chronological and continuous account of what went on during the time of

Kamehameha, says Desha’s translator, Frances Frazier.

In 1922, Desha, a

Hawaiian minister and publisher in Hilo, began the serialized account in the

Hawaiian language newspaper he published.

Through the retelling of

Kamehameha, Desha was attempting to remind his readers of their great

past.

“He wanted to instill a sense of pride in Hawaiians,” says Frazier,

who is part Hawaiian. “You see, they’d been overtaken and culture was going

fast. It was disappearing overnight and he didn’t want them to forget that they

had a history.”

Desha’s unique history of Kamehameha remained yellowing in

its original form at the Bishop Museum archives until members of the Pacific

Translating Committee of the Hawaiian Historical Society approached Frazier

about doing a translation in 1989.

The result, 11 years later, is a

500-plus page tome entitled “Kamehameha and his Warrior Kekuhaupi’o,” now

available through Kamehameha Schools Press.

“You have to be a reader —

obviously,” Frazier says of the hefty tome. But for those who enjoy their

history fleshed out with dialogue, authentic chants and interesting cultural

digressions, the rewards are well worth all the ocular exercise.

Indeed,

the history reads much like a lyrical epic on the level of the Iliad or Aeneid.

Kaua’i, for example, is described at one point as the “sun-snatching

island to the leeward.”

Frazier says that in doing the translation, she

tried to preserve as much of Desha’s rich descriptive language as possible, but

had to cut out some of the laudatory —and quite lengthy—terms of esteem for

the ali’i mentioned in the biography for the modern reader.

The book starts

out with the birth and rise to fame of Kekuhaupi’o, Kamehameha’s martial arts

trainer and general.

Desha goes on to describe in detail other

significant events in Kamehameha life. For instance, the building of

Pu’ukohola, the massive heiau at Kawaihae on Hawai’i, for Kamehameha’s god, the

war god, Kuka’ilimoku, gave him the power to go on with his conquests.

“A

lot of people would say he was a bully and a brute and he murdered people but

he also ran a very tight ship,” Frazier says.

Another interesting segment

is the possibly spurious account of King Kamehameha’s meeting with Kaumuali’i,

the ruler of Kaua’i, mid-channel, halfway between Kaua’i and O’ahu. Both rulers

do not want to fight, but are pressured by their respective ali’i, who are

clamoring for war.

After Kaumuali’i offers a boat full of powder and

cannons to Kamehameha as a peace offering, the two drink ‘awa and eat sugar

cane from Ni’ihau together. Bonded like brothers, they depart back to their

separate islands peacefully.

Desha is careful to include other not-as-rosy

versions of how Kaua’i was conferred to Kamehameha as well.

Throughout,

Desha peppers his narrative with exhortations to his readers, who were steadily

dwindling in the ’20s, to take interest in their heritage.

“The old people

of our land have passed on, but some of them, however, were just gray-heads who

did not understand their land and the famous chiefs of this archipelago.

Therefore, the writer has taken the history of this famous warrior and his

fearless chiefs, he who was afterwards called the Napoleon of the Pacific and

was so called because, at this same period of time when he lived, Napoleon was

in Europe and Washington was in America fighting for independence,” Desha

wrote.

According to the introduction, Desha may have been influenced by the

prevailing sense of nationalism that rose out of World War I. His descriptions

of Kamehameha’s battles are almost Victorian, writes Don Hibbard of the state

Historic Preservation Division.

When Desha’s newspaper, Ka Hoku O Hawai’i,

folded in 1948, it was the last of the struggling early 20th century Hawaiian

language periodicals to do so.

Frazier says that when she was learning

Hawaiian 40 years ago, there were only a handful of people in her Hawaiian

literature class.

“Now there are hundreds of students of Hawaiian,” she

says.

Many of Desha’s sources for his “Kamehameha,” are Native Hawaiian

historians who, unlike Desha, still are out of print, Frazier

says.

Although she says that she doesn’t know how many more Hawaiian

manuscripts are languishing out-of-print or untranslated in archives, Frazier

does say that with the resurgence of Hawaiian scholarship, those manuscripts

have a good chance of being revisited.

Desha’s “Kamehameha” is available at

Borders Books & Music.

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