Maui’s history is pretty cool, except for the battles
When most people think of Maui, they think of that playground of the rich and famous. If Hawaii is the "boutique state" of America, Maui is the "boutique island" of Hawaii. (To digress even further, Wailea is the "boutique region" of Maui, the Grand Wailea Hotel is the "boutique hotel" of Wailea, the Tradewinds Boutique shop is the "boutique boutique" of the Grand Wailea Hotel and the ritzy hat and sandals corner of the Tradewinds Boutique is the "boutique of the boutique boutique." We could keep going, but I believe we will eventually enter the realm of "boutique molecules," which are still largely theoretical.)
Anyway, Maui is a hot, fashionable place. It was dubbed "Maui No Ka Oi," or "Maui Is Best," by a completely neutral yet farsighted public relations guy working for the Maui Convention and Tourist Bureau in, I believe, 1936. There were only four tourists on the island at that time, and the PR guy was holding them at gunpoint to keep them from boarding a boat to the Big Island, screaming, "Maui no ka oi! Maui no ka oi!"
Things have changed. There are thousands of visitors to Maui today, and the only way to get them to leave the island is at gunpoint. Some residents tired of traffic and high prices have suggested changing Maui's motto to "Maui -- No MO' No Ka Oi."
But few visitors realize that behind Maui's glitz is a rich history of, well, history. I particularly like the 19th-century history because up to that time, things were pretty boring. It took 6 million years for the island to even pop above sea level, and then a lot didn't happen for many, many years after that. Legend has it that Maui was named after the demigod Maui, so it was lucky there. It would have been weird if Maui was named after the demigod New Jersey. (A "demigod" is part man, part god, which is different from a Demi Moore, which is part babe, part goddess.) The demigod Maui was known as the "trickster." One of his tricks was to lasso the sun with a rope made of coconut fiber, and if you don't think that's tricky, try it sometime. He was going to kill the sun for moving across the sky too fast but spared his life. So the sun was lucky there.
Polynesians settled on Maui (the island, not the demigod) a way long time ago, and everything was cool except when pitched, bloody battles were fought between the indigenous residents. (Where's the demigod when you need him?) But life was pretty sweet until "Western contact" in the 18th century. In 1778, Capt. Cook sailed by and saw 10,000-foot Mount Haleakala and wasn't impressed. He had just come from the Aleutian Islands and Alaska, where mountains were mountains. He noted "some kind of a hill" on Maui and continued on. A year later he was killed on the Big Island. Too bad he never heard of the whole "Maui No Ka Oi" thing.
But in the 19th century things started happening on Maui. In 1819 the first whaling ships arrived. They were the Equator from Nantucket, the Balaena from New Bedford and, I believe, the Surf and Turf from Atlantic. The first missionaries showed up in 1823, so the whalers had four relatively fun years. The missionaries did everything they could to bring themselves and Maui residents closer to God, mainly by buying up a lot of land and getting rich. But the whalers and sailors held their own, and in the early 1940s a traveling minister named Henry Cheever described Lahaina as a hellhole and "a sight to make a missionary weep." We can only imagine that any sight that would make a missionary weep would make a sailor man jump up in the air and click his heels.
Herman Melville, who would become one of America's premier pains in the butt for high school literature students, arrived in Maui on a whaling ship in 1843. About that same time, Kamehameha III reportedly left Maui for Honolulu because, you know, when Melville shows up someplace, there goes the neighborhood. (Melville later referred to Kamehameha III as a "fat, lazy blockhead and a drunk." I suspect he was not on the same island as Kamehameha III at the time.)
Melville was fashioning his notes on sailing and whaling into books that later would become "Moby Dick" and "Billy Budd" but whose working titles were "Moby Bernard" and "William Buttoutski."
Whaling was Maui's major industry for many years, mainly because whales returned every November to Maui to give birth and were easy to catch. In 1844, 326 whaling ships stopped in Lahaina, causing Hawaii's first aquatic traffic jam. Lahaina was a very happening place, full of drunks and prostitutes and missionaries and drunken missionaries. It was the way spring break in Panama City, Fla., is today. It was then in Lahaina that the first Whale Burger in Paradise restaurant opened and a naughty little pamphlet made the rounds called "Missionaries Gone Wild."
Nearly 4,000 people lived on Maui then. A census showed that of all the houses, 59 were made of rock or wood, 155 were made of adobe and 882 were made of grass. Relatively few wolves were going around blowing down houses back then, so the people living in grass houses were lucky there.
But by the late 1850s the whaling industry collapsed, mainly due to a conspicuous lack of whales. Where did they go? You killed them all you fat, lazy blockheads, said Kamehameha III. Ha, ha, ha. It wasn't just that the most of the whales had been killed, but that the world was turning to the use of coal for lighting and heat and coal was much easier to spear with a harpoon. (Nevertheless, Melville's attempt at a sequel to "Moby Dick," entitled "Moby Charcoal Briquette," never found a publisher.)
Ironically, the economy of Maui was saved by the California gold rush of 1849, which brought business from overeager miners who overshot California. (What are we doing here? Where's the gold?)
The next big thing to happen in the 19th century on Maui was a visit by Mark Twain in 1866. He said nothing but good things about Hawaiian royalty, being a little swifter on the social niceties than Melville. He climbed Haleakala and spent hours pushing large boulders into the crater until someone told him to knock it off.
So that's pretty much the history of Maui in the 19th century. Things have changed so much. Pushing boulders into Haleakala Crater is now a federal offense. But riding a rental bicycle down the flank of the volcano at Mach 4 isn't. If Capt. Cook sailed by Maui now, he might notice all the sophisticated telescopes at the top of Haleakala. Or he might just note, "some kind of a hill with stuff on it." I tell you, between Cook and Melville, I'm surprised any visitors are allowed on Maui at all. So the rich and famous shopping in the Tradewinds Boutique are pretty luck there.
, the National Society of Newspaper Columnists' 2004 First Place Award winner for humor writing, appears Sundays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. E-mail email@example.com