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The ‘Hawaiian Legends’ of Kaua‘i’s William Hyde Rice

  • Kaua‘i’s William Hyde Rice

Born at Punahou, O‘ahu, the son of missionary parents William Harrison and Mary Sophia Hyde Rice, William Hyde Rice (1846-1924) was a rancher, the last governor of Kaua‘i under Queen Lili‘uokalani, and the author of “Hawaiian Legends,” published in 1923 by the Bernice P. Bishop Museum.

Rice compiled his Hawaiian legends in the Hawaiian language over the course of his lifetime and translated them into English within a few years prior to publication.

He’d first heard the legends of “Kamapua‘a” and “The small, wise boy and the little fool” when he was child.

Later in life, Rice would seek out old Hawaiians who knew legends, and in this way, he acquired the legends of “Makuakaumana” and “Manuwahi.”

A man named Naialau told him the legend of “The rain he‘iau,” and another Hawaiian named Wiu gave him “Pa‘aka‘a and his son Ku-a-pa‘aka‘a.”

The Rev. S.K. Kaulili of Koloa provided him with a complete version of “Uluka‘a, the rolling island.”

From Gay &Robinson co-founder Francis Gay he obtained “The bird man,” “Holua-manu,” “The destruction of the akua on Ni‘ihau,” “The girl and the mo-o,” and “The rainbow princess.”

William Hyde Rice believed that Hawaiian storytellers attached to the courts of chiefs in old Hawai‘i handed down legends through the generations through memorization.

As Edith Rice Plews explained in the preface to “Hawaiian Legends:” “This class of men were skillful in the art of the ‘apo, that is, ‘catching,’ literally, or memorizing instantly at the first hearing.

“One man would recite or chant for two or three hours at a stretch, and when he had finished, his auditor would start at the beginning of the chant and go through the whole of the mele or story without missing or changing a word.

“These trained men received through their ears as we receive through our eyes, and in that way the ancient Hawaiians had a spoken literature, much as we have a written one.

“Mr. Rice has several times seen performances similar to the one described, where the two men were complete strangers to each other.”

6 Comments
  1. Ken Conklin March 28, 2021 6:17 am Reply

    In ancient times there might truly have been a few people capable of reciting exactly what someone else said, including lengthy stories. The existence of such reciters is now used to bolster dubious claims that everything we are told about ancient Hawaii and its culture is true.

    A major difficulty is to be accurate and authentic when passing on knowledge, rather than to embellish or distort things accidentally through simple error or intentionally for personal aggrandizement or political purposes. Did you ever play “telephone”? Ten people (i.e., 10 generations) pass a simple message down the line, each one whispering it into the ear of the next one. What comes out at the end is often very different from the original. Especially if someone along the chain has difficulty hearing or speaking, or has an ax to grind.

    How many things were recited perfectly for generations until it finally happened that writing came to Hawaii and that a writer actually wrote down exactly what the last perfect reciter spoke? There were probably very few such things. Even in the case of the extremely important Kauikeaouli Kamehameha III, a recent scholarly forum was unable to agree with certainty what was his birthdate, despite the fact that his father was Kamehameha The Great and his mother was the highest-mana woman Keopuolani and surely there would have been chants and hulas linking his birth with other events whose dates could be precisely reconstructed after the Western calendar got established in Hawaii.

    Far greater difficulty arises with genealogy traced back before writing came to Hawaii in 1820. First is the problem of accurate oral recitation noted above. But on top of that is the far more severe problem, even today, of not knowing for sure who was someone’s biological father. Women, especially ali’i, often had several official husbands and perhaps numerous unofficial lovers. A woman might not be sure which man actually got her pregnant 2 or 3 months before she became aware of it; or she might choose to lie about it. Perfect recitation does no good when the information being recited was given by someone whose memory was either accidentally inaccurate or intentionally false.


    1. Jk March 29, 2021 7:06 am Reply

      I totally agree with you, we’ve been told that the Queen relinquished her throne but we all know that she was illegally overthrown. But we also know that Hawaiians made vast sea voyages and passed down knowledge of the stars, wind, birds, currents, and lands discovered along the way, so it must’ve been explained and understood with great accuracy. I believe people in general pass information on and most will correct if it was interpretated wrong. To allow someone to continue spreading inaccuracies isn’t condoned today so I’m pretty sure it wasn’t back then, but like everything else nobodys perfect. Aloha


    2. James Naki March 29, 2021 3:08 pm Reply

      Mr. Conklin,
      Using your statement, this could apply to every story ever told on planet earth. Everything could be purported and based on assumption. Writing things down doesn’t make it politically correct or right.


  2. Kauaidoug March 28, 2021 9:51 am Reply

    We need look no further than the words of Jesus Christ to see how oral tradition to writing gets a lot of messy.


  3. MARK G EGAN March 28, 2021 12:04 pm Reply

    GO FOR IT. A GREAT READ.


  4. Tracy Wiley March 29, 2021 4:08 pm Reply

    Oral history in more recent times could be subjected to such things as personal agendas, jealousies or political persuasions. And thus be manipulated for whatever reasons by those attempting such a thing. BUT back in time the importance of sharing information correctly would mean the survival of our people


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