See this story in Hawaii Business Magazine.
Category Archives: Culture
The other day, I was scrolling absently through the abstracts in a recent issue of Pacific Science, when a paper by Hiroshi Kudoh made me do a double-take. Its subject was the typically modest question of modern evolutionary biology: how to explain the loss of seed buoyancy in Hibiscus glaber, a species of hibiscus found in the subtropical Ogasawara Islands, a Japanese owned archipelago about 1,000 kilometers south of Tokyo. The paper compares H. glaber with H. tiliaceus, its pan-tropic progenitor, and finds that the air spaces in the seeds of H. glaber are smaller than those in the seeds of H. tiliaceus. Kudoh et al. attribute this to a shift in habitat as H. glaber moved inland. Presumably, seed buoyancy becomes less valuable the farther a plant gets from the sea.
But it wasn’t the paper’s science that got my attention. It was the title of the paper: “Loss of Seed Buoyancy in Hibiscus glaber on the Oceanic Bonin Islands.”
The Bonin Islands–another name for the Ogasawara Islands–share a largely forgotten connection with Hawaii, one that has fascinated me since I chanced upon fragmentary memoir of the lonely archipelago. Here it is, in brief:
Although the Bonin Islands are well served with the basic necessities of life–abundant fish, arable soil, reliable sources of water–they were situated far from traditional sailing routes in the Pacific. Consequently, even though they were claimed at various times by Spanish, English and American explorers, and apparently visited by a Japanese expeditionary force as early as 1670, the islands had no permanent inhabitants until well into the 19th Century–just the occasional shipwrecked sailor anxiously awaiting rescue. The word “bonin,” in fact, is an archaic version of “bunin”, meaning “no people,” or “uninhabited.”
That changed in 1830, when a group of colonists arrived by sloop from Honolulu. Honolulu was already common port of call for whalers, and apparently,there was quite a bit of talk among the sailors and merchants about the “newly discovered islands” ever since the uninhabited archipelago was claimed by the British explorer Captain Beechey three years earlier. With the support of the British Consul to Hawaii, a group of Western adventurers, included two Americans, a Dane, and a man variously listed as Italian or Croatian, set sail for Bonin in early May, arriving a month later. Most accounts of the Bonin Islands add, almost as an afterthought, that these Westerners were accompanied by as many as 25 Native Hawaiians, or Kanaka, including seven women. These 30 to 35 settlers, (accounts vary as to the exact number), along with an assortment of castaways and beachcombers who joined them over the next two or three decades, became the progenitors of what ethnologists call the Bonin Islanders. Their story is an interesting one.
Much of what we know about the settlers and their heirs comes from The History of the Bonin Islanders, an account by Lionel Cholmondelely, the Anglican chaplain to the British Embassy in Tokyo, who visited the islands sixteen times between 1894 and 1922. According to Cholmondeley, the longtime leader of the Bonin colony was a former American sailor named Nathaniel Savory. Savory, who, despite his nationality, spent most of his early life working on British ships, apparent became stranded in Honolulu, in 1829, after being injured in a shipboard accident. While recovering from surgery, he joined in with a group of Westerners that were trying to get the British consul to support an expedition to the newly discovered islands. Surprisingly, the Consul agreed–maybe because of Bonin’s strategic location close to the then mysterious country of Japan–and helped provide for and provision a ship.
Once they arrived, there were conflicts between the colonists. The ostensible leader of the group, Matteo Mazzaro, the Italian (or Croat) fought with Savory. There were arguments about property and leadership and personal conflicts as well. Nevertheless, Mazzaro remained the titular leader of the colony for several years. But when Mazzaro died in 1848, Savory married his widow, and became the undisputed leader of the Islanders until his death in 1874 at the age of 80. Much of the history of the island is tied up in his interactions with the ships that visited the port, especially the incursions by pirates and marauding crews of some whalers. There also continued to be conflict among the islanders themselves.
But the biggest challenge for the original Bonin Islanders and their descendants came with the arrival of Japanese colonists, beginning with a failed expedition in 1861, and followed by a more successful waves of settlers starting in 1875. Japan’s claim on the islands was tenuous, but dated back more than 200 years. Nevertheless, their proximity made them much more likely colonizers than Spain or England, both of which may have had prior claim to the islands. In time, the growing number of Japanese settlers would swamp the small population of Bonin Islanders. Eventually, the Bonin Islands were subsumed into the Japanese Empire (despite a visit from Commodore Perry, who even bought a stretch of land along the harbor to help insure American title) and the Islanders were made citizens of Japan.Gradually, they intermarried with the Japanese population, and, bit by bit, the culture and language of the Bonin Islanders changed. But it’s fascinating to reflect on the little we now know about it.
First, in this polyglot group of early settlers, Native Hawaiians predominated. As a consequence, the Bonin Islander culture seems to have had a distinctly Hawaiian flavor, including a taste for lei and a kind of local version of hula. Maybe more interesting is the lingua franca of the Islands, a kind of English dominated pidgin that shared a lot of the features of Hawaiian pidgin. That may also be partly because of the predominance of the descendants of Savory, who, like the early missionaries in Hawaii, was a New Englander. Finally, it’s intriguing to find that the Hawaii connection didn’t end with Bonin’s colonization. There seems to have been a steady (well, as steady as the Age of Sail allowed) correspondence between the two archipelagos. In fact, Mazzaro made at least two separate trips back to Honolulu to try to secure more support from the English Consul, and at least two more Native Hawaiians made the trip to Bonin. Savory also maintained contact with some of the merchants in Hawaii. (He also kept of a lengthy and fascinating correspondence with his relatives in New England.)
The tail end of the Bonin story is also fascinating. Bonin would play an important role in WWII. At the outset of the war, the Japanese removed all the Bonin Islanders back to Japan and fortified the Islands as a supply base. In fact, the larger geographic entity, the Ogasawara Islands, include the famous Iwo Jima. When George Bush was shot down as a Navy pilot, it was within sight of Chichi-jima, the largest of the Bonin Islands, which was also the site of one of the most notorious Japanese prisoner of war camps. War crimes trials, after the war, led to the hanging of several Japanese officers on Chichi-jima.
Amazingly, though, many of the Bonin Islanders were rounded up after the war and returned to Bonin, which, like many Pacific Islands post WWII, fell under the administration of the U.S. Navy. This was a kind of hey-day for the Bonin Islanders, who, for the first time in nearly a century, once again predominated in the local population. It was a time of interest, among ethnographers and linguists, in their unique heritage. But it wouldn’t last.
In 1963, without consulting the Bonin Islanders, the Navy restored ownership of the archipelago to Japan. Not surprisingly, many of the former inhabitants and their children began to return. Quickly, the population of ethnic Japanese once again overwhelmed that of the Bonin Islanders, and, over the ensuing five decades, the unique island language and culture has begun to vanish. Travelers say you can still find a few of the old-timers who, despite the dilutions of intermarriage and the dominance of Japanese culture, still maintain a bit of their peculiar, and ever so slightly Hawaiian, heritage. Just not for much longer.
I see in the latest Hana Hou, Michael Shapiro took the left turn off Mamalahoa Highway on the Big Island, and “went down Milolii”. This hard scrabble community, which many bill as “the last traditional fishing village in Hawaii,” really is a piece of the past. For example, there’s no electricity. That, as Shapiro notes, is largely by choice–the village elders trying vainly to hold onto their heritage. But, once you make the trek down Milolii Road to the seaside, it’s pretty clear you’re far away from anywhere else. 220 volts wouldn’t change that.
Shapiro made the trip, it seems, to check out the Milolii Lawaia Ohana Camp, a sort of summer camp intended to help sustain traditional fishing practices. This year, more than fifty kids and their families attended. It’s a big celebration for a community that practically exists because of traditional fishing.
Missing from Shapiro’s piece is a detail that makes remote Milolii part of a vast and growing world community. In 2006, the Hawaii State Legislature approved a bill that made the waters off this scruffy fishing village one of the first Marine Managed Areas in the state. Since then, the community has been working with nonprofit groups, like the Community Conservation Network (now, the Hawaii Community Stewardship Network) and the community’s own Paa Pono Milolii, to draft the rules and principles for a community managed marine area–one in which near shore marine resources are protected through traditional management techniques.
Milolii is just one of nearly two dozen Hawaii communities, on all the major islands, that are trying to bring marine conservation to a local level. For mostly Native Hawaiian communities, like Milolii, fishing and access to fish is a key part of sustaining traditional culture. But this isn’t just a local issue. Community-base marine protected areas are now scattered across the Pacific. This controversial model of conservation is intended to revive and sustain reef fisheries by establishing no-take zones where fish populations can recover from the pressure of over-fishing. They take many forms. One vision of the Milolii community managed marine area would require all fishermen within its bounds to use traditional fishing techniques. That would mean fishing for opelu, the main fishery for the village, from wooden outrigger canoes, which would essentially mean only locals could fish there–sport fishermen in their big fiberglass boats with powerful outboards would be banned. Other communities use different strategies: complete take-free zones, seasonal fishing restrictions, community member fishing only etc.
As remote coastal communities in the Pacific compete for fewer and fewer fish, these types of arrangements will likely become even more common. Just along the Kona Coast of the Big Island, Milolii, Honokaa and Honaunau all are seeking some kind of community control of their near shore marine resources. And if traditional fishermen in other communities want have a nearshore fishery in the future, they’ll be trying to do the same thing soon.
I’ve always been a binge reader. Sometimes people mistake that for erudition, but if you pay close attention to my ranting, you’ll notice I repeat myself a lot. Not that I say the same things over and over (although my wife may disagree), but I definitely quote the same people with distressing frequency. That’s because, when I decide I like a particular writer, I read everything that writer ever wrote.
By the time I was 10 years old, I had read all the short stories of Edgar Allen Poe and committed to memory every insipid line of his poetry. By 12, I read all the short fiction of Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling. By 14, all the lyrical nonsense of Jack London and Robert Louis Stevenson. The usual bibliography of a young boy, in other words. As an adult, my tastes have been maybe a little more eclectic, but no less monomaniacal. In school, I underwent sequential obsessions with Lawrence Durrell, Samuel Beckett, Peter Mattheissen, Milan Kundera, Jorge Luis Borges, and Roddy Doyle.
But my biggest obsessions have always been nonfiction. While in school, I discovered essayists like Steven Jay Gould, Lewis Thomas, and Loren Eisley. I gorged myself on the grandees of the New Yorker, E. B. White, Joseph Mitchell and John McPhee. And it’s not just individual authors that pinion me; my bookshelves are knotted with clusters of books on surprisingly few, if diverse, themes. There are dozens of books on sailing and the maritime arts. I have a library of dictionaries and grammars in foreign languages I barely speak. I seem drawn to revisionist histories of single subjects: cod, coffee, poison, lobsters etc. And every trip I’ve ever taken has apparently encumbered me with a new manual of birds or flowers or insects. In short, the obsessions of my old age are no less limited than those of my youth.
So you won’t be surprised to learn that, after reading Nathaniel Philbrick’s “In the Heart of the Sea, The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex”, I immediately went out and got “Sea of Glory, America’s Voyage of Discovery”, his epic description of the U.S. Exploring Expedition, a four-year odyssey involving six ships, hundreds of sailors, and a squadron of botanists, geologists, linguists and cartographers. The Ex Ex, as it came to be called, also turned out to be the last voyage of discovery completed entirely under sail.
The goals of the Ex Ex were ambitious ones. They were to confirm the existence of the continent of Antarctica, which neither Cook nor Tasman ever got close enough to see, due to the threat of sea ice and bad weather. They were to chart and explore the great Northwest coast of North American, the Columbia River basin, and the islands of Fiji, all crucial to the continued commercial success of the country’s far-flung whaling and sealing fleets. Most importantly, the Ex Ex was to serve as symbol of America’s growing power as an industrial and scientific nation.
But this 19th Century voyage of discovery was in many ways benighted. The leader of the expedition, Lt. Charles Wilkes, who in many ways seemed like the ideal captain for such an enterprise–a meticulous and inventive cartographer and apparently a beloved mentor to his young crew–turned out to be an insecure and paranoid martinet. The Ex Ex had barely left the country before the sailors and scientists began to lament his leadership. As was the custom for these kinds of voyages, most of the crew kept official journals, which they had to surrender at the end of the expedition. These diaries are catalogs of hate for the young Lt. Wilkes, and an obsessive tabulation of his perceived (and all too real) sins. This virulent loathing would later play a large part in obscuring the success of the expedition.
And yet, the Ex Ex was an astonishingly successful expedition. In addition to discovering Antarctica, the Ex Ex mapped hundreds of miles of coastline and charted the shipwreck-strewn islands of Fiji. Many of the maps created by Wilkes and his crew were still in use at the outbreak of World War II. Maybe most important, the scientists of the Ex Ex collected hundreds of barrels of cultural artifacts, biological specimens, and scientific observations. They conducted some of the earliest ethnological studies of the peoples of the Pacific, and visited and charted dozens of previously unknown islands. The Ex Ex put an American stamp on the largest ocean on the planet, setting the stage for the country’s quiet colonization of the Pacific Basin.
But perhaps the most fascinating part of the story happened after their return. Wilkes and his crew became embroiled in a string of lawsuits and courts martial that threatened to overshadow the discoveries of the expedition. Indeed, who among us have ever heard of Charles Wilkes. And yet, the accomplishments of the Ex Ex were, in many ways, more substantial than those of the earlier Lewis and Clark Expedition.
But Wilkes, for all his flaws as a captain and a leader, proved a much better self-promoter and a politician. In the years following the return of the Ex Ex, he jealously guarded the collections of the expedition, even to the point of perjuring himself in court to maintain control. And here’s the kicker: In 1843, five years after the Ex Ex set sail from Norfolk, custody for the collections of the expedition was awarded to the new National Institution for the Promotion of Science, with Wilkes at the helm. The National Institution was a kind of political end-around the ongoing arguments about what the country should do with a half-million dollar (about $11 million in today’s dollars) bequest to the nation from a wealthy Englishman named James Smithson. Ultimately, the National Institution and the thousands of artifacts, biological collections, and ethnographic materials from the Ex Ex would become the Smithsonian Institution.
So it’s not too far-fetched to say that the seeds for the greatest museum complex in the world weren’t planted in the country’s dismal capital, but in the wide expanse of the Pacific.
I recently–and belatedly–read “In the Heart of the Sea, The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex”, Nathaniel Philbrick’s award-winning account of the shipwreck that inspired Melville’s Moby Dick. A fascinating story for any sailor who’s ever known the nagging anxiety of being to sea in a small boat. In this case, the captain and crew are set adrift when their ship is stove in by an angry sperm whale and sinks. Left to their three open, light-weight whaleboats, they begin a 4,000-mile journey upwind from the waters northeast of the Marquesas toward what they hope is salvation in Chile. Only 8 of the 20 stranded sailors survive. Several of those that perish are eaten by the others. Bad things happen.
The survival-at-sea-story is a genre, of course. This one is richer than most because it’s larded with so much history and industry backstory. There’s all the fabulous detail about Nantucket and its brief moment as an industrial powerhouse during the heydays of whaling, when the island whale oil barons were the John D. Rockefellers of their era. And there’s the fine description of the dirty business of whaling–harpooning the harmless (usually) beasts, spearing them to death, then hauling them ship-side and laboriously flencing them of their blubber and beheading them and emptying their great heads of hundreds of gallons of spermaceti, the high quality oil that whalers mistook for semen and that give the sperm whale its name. The whole ghastly business was concluded in the conflagration of the trying pots, where the thick sheets of blubber were rendered into oil before being packed in barrels and stowed in the hold. A successful whaling expedition might bring in between 2,000 and 3,000 barrels of oil and take two to three years.
But for a writer, maybe the best parts of the book are the artifacts of its research. Philbrick lards his tale with descriptions of the first-hand sources that he used to write it: local histories, private journals, company correspondence, ship’s logs, personal letters, business documents et al. He also itemizes the historians (and one novelist) that came before him, and hints at their strengths and weaknesses. And, as a historian, he concludes with a hell of an index. It was all so fascinating, that I promptly returned to the library and checked out Philbrick’s follow-up work, “Sea of Glory, America’s Voyage of Discovery”. Perhaps another time, I’ll talk about that one.
What stands out about both books, though, is how intimately the small island of Nantucket and the remote Kingdom of Hawaii were tied together in the 19th Century. Whaling was part of it, albeit mostly after the sinking of the Essex. By 1846, more than 700 whaling ships a year visited Honolulu and Lahaina, most of them from either Nantucket or New Bedford. George Pollard, the unfortunate captain of the Essex, would get another ship when he finally returned to Nantucket. That ship would run aground on the unmarked reefs of French Frigate Shoals in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, and Pollard and his mostly Nantucket crew would be rescued and carried to Honolulu to try to find passage home. (Pollard never got another berth; he finished his life as a nightwatchman in Nantucket.) Even today, curators at Honolulu’s Mission House Museum communicate regularly with their peers at the Nantucket Historical Association and its Whaling Museum. Several so-called Kanaka crewmen from the whalers lived in Nantucket boarding houses, and thousands of Nantucket crewmen caroused in the ports of Honolulu, Lahaina and Kealakekua. At the peak of the whale oil boom, whaling was the main engine of the Hawaii economy, and Hawaii was the most important port of call for the Nantucket whalers.
Pretty cool stuff for a sailor living in Hawaii.
“Na Hulu Al’i”
“Said of the adornment of a chief, or of an elderly
chief himself who is one of a few survivors of his
generation and therefore precious.”
—‘ Ōlelo No‘eau
A million tiny feathers. Brilliant red ones from the
‘i‘iwi bird. Pale yellow ones, sometimes plucked just six
or seven at a time from under the wings, tail or thighs
of endemic forest birds like the ‘ō‘ō and mamo. Miles of
fine olonā cordage, spun by hand and knotted a million
times into a lacy filigree. And the nimble fingers of
old Hawaiian haku hulu, deftly plying their dazzling
craft. These are the basic elements of Nahi‘ena‘ena’s
Pā‘ū, a feather skirt of almost unbelievable luxury and
beauty, and one of the showpieces of Bishop Museum’s
outstanding new exhibit on the Hawaiian art of
The exhibit is the source of much excitement
among museum staff. Betty Lou Kam, Vice President
for Cultural Resources, breathlessly describes Nā Hulu
Ali’i as “absolutely the best exhibit at the Museum this year.” And with good reason. Although Bishop Museum has the world’s largest collection of
Hawaiian featherwork, many of the most outstanding
pieces have seldom been displayed to the public. This
will be the most extensive exhibit of featherwork ever,
with over 40 early pieces on display, including several
of spectacular beauty and historic significance.
Līloa’s Sash, one of the earliest pieces of
featherwork known to exist, is a pre-contact item
that is the earliest representation of the ali’i dates back as early as the 15th century. The sash has played an important role in the history of Hawai‘i. Passed down through the Kamehameha dynasty, this is
the ceremonial sash depicted on the Kamehameha
Statue. Līloa’s Sash was found at an estate sale by King
Kalākaua who assumed control of it. This amazing
10 ft. piece is extremely delicate and will only be on
display for the first 6 weeks of the exhibit.
Nahi‘ena‘ena’s Pā‘ū is the largest piece of
Hawaiian featherwork known to exist. In its original
form it measured 20 feet long by 2½ feet wide.
Featherwork was considered kapu, and normally
restricted to men. This pā‘u was one of the only large
pieces made specifically for a female. Nahi‘ena‘ena,
the daughter of Kamehameha I and Keopuolani, was
asked to wear the pā‘u for a formal reception with the
English representative who returned the bodies of her
brother, Kamehameha II, and his wife Kamāmalu from
England. Under the influence of her mother, Keōpūolani
Ka‘ahumanu, another of Kamehameha’s wives,
Nahi‘ena‘ena had converted to Christianity after the
death of Kamehameha I, and the abolishment of the old
religion. Only with great difficulty was she persuaded
to wear the ceremonial skirt. Much later, Nahi‘ena‘ena’s
Pā‘ū was cut in half and the two pieces joined to form a wide funeral pall, which was used at the funerals of both her brother,
Kamehameha III, and, much later, of King Kalākaua.
Two remarkable feather images thought to
represent the war god Kūkā‘ilimoku will also be on
display. One of these is said to have been passed down
from Kamehameha the Great, and represented his status
and authority during his unification of the Hawaiian
Islands. There are only 19 of these images known to exist, and this will be the first time Bishop Museum. Artistically, they epitomize the high technical achievement of Hawaiian craftsmen in both featherwork and basketry. Culturally, they are almost without parallel in representing the Kamehameha era.
Several traditional forms of featherwork will also be on display. Long capes and short cloaks were both called ‘ahu‘ula. Mahiole were the iconic feathered and crested helmets worn into battle by high chiefs. Sashes, sometimes of remarkable length, were called kā’ei. Lesser pieces included feather lei (lei hulu) and head lei (lei po’o.)
Because of the tremendous labor and resources required to produce it, featherwork was always reserved for the ali’i. Its cost made feathers a real part of the economy. Every community had its kia manu – its bird catchers – who knew intimately the habits of their prey. The dearest feathers, the pale yellow ones of the ‘ō‘ō and the mamo, were taken from birds captured live.
Such a bird may only have six or seven useful feathers.
Sometimes taxes were collected in feathers. Even as late as 1876, a kapu was placed on yellow feathers while a cloak was being made for Princess Ruth Ke‘elikōlani.
Featherwork sashes, cloaks and helmets have been historically been considered the sacred insignia for the highest chiefs of Hawaii. These beautiful works carry a freight artistic, cultural and historic significance. One look is enough to understand their artistic significance. Early European visitors to the Islands were astounded by the opulence of Hawaiian featherwork. Captain Cook compared the brilliant cloaks to “the thickest and richest velvet.” Remarking on the feather regalia of the Kamehameha Era, Captain James King wrote in 1779 that their “beauty and magnificence” were “equal to that of any nation.”
Culturally and historically, featherwork continued to serve as the badge of nobility throughout the monarchy. The exhibit will include several important kāhili, the feather standards of royalty that were borne in the processions of chiefs, such as at funerals, or set up ceremonially at royal residences. In addition, visitors can see the cloaks and lei po‘o (head lei) belonging to Kapi‘olani Nui, Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop and Queen Emma.
When the ali’i traveled, they often bore gifts of featherwork, a tremendous show of generosity in light of their value. The exhibit will also feature some non-traditional pieces that tell of the impact of featherwork in other places. These include featherwork capes made in England after Kamehameha II and Kamāmalu traveled there in the 1820s. A number of these pieces, often
in green or blue feathers, have made their way back to Hawai‘i and into the Bishop Museum’s collections. These, along with some more contemporary works, will also be on display.
Feather cloaks and capes ceased being made toward the end of the 19th century, when the art of bird catching and featherworking skills largely disappeared. Featherwork might have died out completely if not for the work of kupuna such as Johanna Cluney, Marie McDonald and especially Mary Louise Kaleonahenahe (Peck) Kekuewa. Featherwork today consists mostly of lei po‘o and lei hulu, but recent visitors to Bishop Museum might remember Aunty Mary Lou’s beautiful ‘Ahu‘ula O Mailelani, which was a part of the Ku I Ka Ni’o exhibit and recalled the glorious days of old Hawai‘i.
The birds of featherwork — the ‘i‘iwi, the ‘apapane, the ‘ō‘ō, and the mamo—are all either endangered or extinct. It is said that Kamehameha himself supported their conservation, saying: “The feathers belong to me, but the birds themselves belong to my heirs.” It was not to be. The heirs of Kamehameha did not get the birds. But, through the collections of Bishop Museum, at least they can still say, “The feathers belong to me.”
Just about everything in your life—food, cars, building materials—comes to Hawaii via the waterfront. We went inside the world of the longshoremen, who load and unload all that cargo, and found that centuries of muscle and sweat have given way to skilled labor and powerful machines.
Story by DENNIS HOLLIER
Photos by LUCY PEMONI
Nate Lum and his gang of linemen spread out along the wharf, watching impassively as the Lihue lumbers into dock beneath the gantry cranes at the Matson yard at Honolulu Harbor. The linemen are here to secure the vessel—the first of several gangs of longshoremen who will handle the ship while it’s in port. They’re a motley group, mostly older and thick around the middle; except for their hard hats and orange vests, they’re dressed haphazardly in street clothes.
But linemen are among the most experienced longshoremen; the members of this gang have spent decades in the shadow of ships like this one. And the Lihue is a behemoth: a 787-foot containership, crammed stem to stern with that ubiquitous beast of modern freight, the ocean container. These “cans,” as the longshoremen call them, are stacked as many as 12 abreast and 11 deep and tower more than seven stories over the water. And yet, despite its ungainly load, the Lihue docks gracefully. As the harbor tug slowly nudges the stern the last few feet toward the pier, the crew begins to send the dock lines ashore. The linemen collect them methodically, hitching the hawsers—thick as a man’s thigh—to a forklift and snaking them to bollards down the pier. The whole operation takes place almost wordlessly.
Containerships like the Lihue have come to dominate ocean freight, accounting for more than 80 percent of the household goods coming into Hawaii. Most of the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the furniture in our homes and, indeed, most of the material in the homes themselves, arrive in containers. The Matson yard teems with the massive machinery needed to manage the endless stream of cans: gantry cranes and jack cranes, top-picks and side-picks, bomb carts and forklifts. But these are all just tools. It’s still the longshoremen themselves who make the docks work. The waterfront is a world where centuries of muscle and sweat have given way to skilled labor and powerful machines, and I’ve come down to the Matson yard for a glimpse at how things have changed. Nate Lum, foreman of the lineman gang and chairman of the longshoremen’s union, has agreed to be my guide.
Lum is a second-generation longshoreman. He’s been on the docks for more than 30 years and embodies many of the contradictions in the modern stevedore. He’s a sober, burly man; but he laughs easily and carries himself with a self-assured grace. Like many accustomed to hard, physical work, he’s taciturn; but he’s passionate about the union and articulate in defense of its traditions.Lum’s career has coincided with the great technological changes that have transformed life on the docks—changes about which he’s ambivalent. When he began, much of stevedoring was still backbreaking grunt work. Today, although most of the heavy lifting is done with powerful machinery, old-timers like Lum still remember the personal cost of hard, physical labor. The containerization of modern shipping is a conundrum; although it’s made the life of the longshoreman less backbreaking, it’s also reduced work opportunities. Still, Lum is a realist. “We can’t fight technology,” he says. “We have to embrace it to survive.”
After getting me a hard hat and an orange vest, Lum and I hop into his truck for a tour of the waterfront. As we drive through the shipyards of Honolulu Harbor, he explains the organization of the longshoremen. In the old days, when the workers were predominately Native Hawaiians, the wharves were lined with great warehouses. Some longshoremen worked the wharf, sorting cargo in the warehouses and carting it back and forth to the ships. Others worked aboard the ships, loading and unloading cargo and securing it for passage down in the hold. Although containers have changed much of the work, longshoremen still operate within the old structure.
“Longshoremen are organized into gangs,” Lum explains. “Ship gang. Wharf gang. Machine operators. Crane operators. Linemen.” The modern wharf gang, they move the cans around the yard and man the “puddle”—the loading zone beneath the gantry cranes. The ship gang handles the difficult manual work aboard a ship, locking and unlocking the cans from one another, and lashing and unlashing the stacks. In the early days of container use, workers used chains to lash the stacks against ocean storms. Today, the lashing is done with 20-foot steel rods secured with turnbuckles. The awkward task of scampering between the stacks, balanced on temporary walkways called duckboards, is still considered one of the longshoremen’s most dangerous jobs. “The meat and potatoes of longshore work is this ship gang,” says Lum.
Out on the edge of the apron—the broad tarmac that runs along the pier—several members of the wharf gang sit in the shade of the container yard tower, waiting for the unloading of the Lihue to begin. Lum drops me off there to find out how technology has affected regular stevedores. Even here, though, longshoremen often have years of experience. Some, like machine operator Kahea Sanborn, have been on the docks more than 20 years. But the experience runs deeper than that. Carlton Cortez, the gang foreman, is a third-generation longshoreman.
A basic “can,” or container, is 40 feet long, eight feet wide and eight feet high. Locking mechanisms at the corners allow them to be securely stacked and moved around by the machinery in the yard. There are variations, specialized containers such as refrigerated cans for food, flat racks for lumber and cattle cans with slatted sides—but they still fit together like Tinker Toys. Containers are also standardized across freight platforms, so the cans from the containerships can be loaded onto semitrailers or stacked two deep on railroad cars. Within the past five years, the cans have also become GPS-equipped; their locations are monitored and recorded on computers in a Matson control room in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Machine operators also use increasingly sophisticated machines to move the cans. Little cabs, called UTCs, shuttle the cans between the cranes and the container yard, hauling them around on yellow utility trailers, nicknamed “bomb carts.”
Powerful vehicles, called top-picks and side-picks, lift the containers on and off the bomb carts. Like giant forklifts, they can hoist a 20-ton can onto a stack four stories high. The sheer mass of the loads and the gear makes this an especially dangerous job. Kahea puts the risks in perspective: “You don’t get injured. You die.”
Being a machine operator is considered a talent position, and the first advancement of most basic longshoremen is to get qualified to fill in as a substitute machine operator. “Used to be all labor,” Lum says. “Now it’s all skill jobs.”
The most easily recognized feature of the Matson yard is the rank of huge, yellow gantry cranes along the pier. They tower over the docks like the robots in War of the Worlds, their legs spread far enough apart that four lanes of traffic can pass under them. They load and unload the cans from the containerships. High above even the largest containership, the crane’s boom juts out over the water, cantilevered by the weight of its massive machine house. The cab, instead of being fixed, is attached to a trolley that runs on tracks beneath the boom. Shuttling in and out in his cab, the crane operator is always directly over his load. The entire crane rides on railroad tracks along the dock, so it can be moved fore and aft along the ship. Sometimes as many as four cranes work a single ship. A good crane operator can move more than 30 cans an hour in a precise ballet.
Lum takes me up to the break room in the back of the Matson yard to meet a handful of crane operators waiting for their shifts to begin. Like the linemen, crane operators have decades of experience—and, in the union, where seniority is paramount, they’re at the top pay grade. It’s a position for which longshoremen have to wait years.
“When I got in [to the union], back in 1970,” Lum says, “my goal was to be a crane operator. Took me five years to get there.” Now, it might take twice that long. Richard Rees, a 25-year veteran of the docks, puts the wait in perspective. “I’ve been driving a crane about five years,” he says. “At Matson, we have seven gantry cranes. Crane operators work in pairs; two guys share a 10-hour shift, five [hours] on, five off. There are only 21 crane operators.”
I glance at the other crane operators milling around the break room. None of them look like they’re ready to give up their privileged positions, though it can be a lonesome job. Later, each of them will head out to his crane, climb the 10 flights of stairs inside one of the crane’s legs, then spend five hours in his cab, moving cans. They carry a lunch with them, and an old jug usually serves as the latrine.
Lum takes me up in the control tower to meet Rusty Leonard, Matson’s general manager for stevedore operations. Leonard has been on the docks for 30 years, five of them at Matson. Within the industry, he says, the big changes started in the early 1970s. “Before, there used to be mostly break bulk carriers like the old Maunalani and the Manukai and the Moanalei.”
Before the use of cans, cargo was loaded into the ships piecemeal, and stevedores climbed right down into the hold to do it. Cargo was segregated according to its destination port, and the ship gang had to serve as carpenters, too, building bulkheads and frameworks in the ’tween decks to shore up the cargo. Later, surveyors passed through, checking to make sure the shoring would hold.
Older stevedores talk about those times with dark humor. “The worst was getting on the tuna boats,” said Leon Camara, a winch man. “Got all the frozen tuna piled up inside. Frozen, but still stink though. Used to have to throw away our clothes.”
There were no gantry cranes back then. Instead, shipboard jack-cranes crowded the vessel’s deck—sometimes as many as seven to a ship, one for each hold. Cargo—the small stuff packed in bales and boxes and crates, the large stuff left loose—was hoisted in and out of the hold on pallets. Stevedores loaded and unloaded the pallets one by one, using handcarts to push freight around the enormous dockside warehouses. This called for a lot of labor, and, at its height, the longshoremen’s union had more than 4,000 members in Hawaii.
Modernization took a bite out of the union, and by the late ’50s and early ’60s, more than 2,000 stevedores were laid off. As Lum points out, “When I got hired in 1970, there were only about 400 longshoremen.” As harbor operations have grown, that number has gradually increased, and today there are about 1,000 longshoremen in the local of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU).
A visit to a monthly meeting at the union hall reveals a surprisingly diverse group. Most of the longshoremen had to wait a long time before they got their opportunity to join, even starting longshore work as a second career. “We’ve got a lot of athletes,” Lum says. “Got Jesus Salude, the former world flyweight champion. Got football players, too: Elvis Satele, Karl Lorch, Levi Stanley.” And it’s not just athletes who gravitate to the docks; there are also former policemen and ex-firefighters.
I look over the meeting hall. It’s a serious day for the union—they’re debating some of the details for their upcoming contract negotiations—and many of the stevedores have crowded their folding chairs toward the front of the room to listen to what the leadership has to say. But there’s also an air of conviviality in the room, and I’m struck by the sense of brotherhood there. During the union meeting, stevedores move in and out of the room, greeting each other with warm embraces. There are still a lot of Native Hawaiians among the longshoremen, and they often pause to honi in the old-fashioned way.
I head downstairs to the parking lot where some of the stevedores are preparing food. I find Ward Mariani there behind a grill, carefully tending the shoyu chicken and teriyaki steak. Mariani spent 34 years as a cop, but he’s been a longshoreman for seven years, three of them as foreman on a wharf gang. He points out that, even with all the machinery, the docks can be hard on a middle-age man. “I wish I was a little bit younger when I got in,” Mariani says. “What helped me was I stayed in shape. Lashing is hard work. It takes a lot out of you.”
When the meeting upstairs finally ends, Lum comes down and introduces me to Karl Lorch, one of the most famous stevedores. He joined the longshoremen after more than a decade as a professional football player with the Miami Dolphins and the Washington Redskins.
Lorch knew people at Hawaii Stevedores Inc., one of the two big stevedore companies, so when his football career ended, becoming a longshoreman seemed like a good option. “It’s a hard job,” Lorch says. “But I went to school just to get by and to play football. This is a good job.” The ILWU is still a powerful union in Hawaii, so the wages and benefits are good for the stevedores. Although it’s dangerous work done in all weather, the basic laborer makes $31 an hour. Longshoremen often endure criticism for being overpaid, but, with the hours they work, they don’t make much more than other skilled blue-collar workers, like electricians and plumbers. Still, the longshoremen are sensitive about the subject.
Lorch also talks about the air of brotherhood I had noticed. “This is my first experience with a union—a real union,” he says. “Everybody’s like cousins, a big family.”
Lorch has been a stevedore for 18 years now. Normally, that would be enough time for a longshoreman to become a machine operator or a winchman, but Lorch remains happy on the wharf gang. “I started here when I was 40 years old,” he says. “I figured by the time I became a crane operator I’d be an old man. So, I just let the young guys go by.”
I ask Lorch what surprised him the most when he became a longshoreman. He thinks for a moment. “The first thing I noticed,” he tells me, “the pier is running 24 hours a day. With the lights on and the whole pier lit up, you’d think it was daylight. At 10 p.m., you’re just as awake as you are at noon.”
Listening to Lorch describe his early days on the docks, I think of something that a foreman on the wharf gang told me: “Just remember, at 2 a.m., when you’re home in bed dreaming, we’re down here. Moving cans.”
Dennis Hollier is a freelance writer with a real fascination for the hubbub of the waterfront. He writes about business, culture, science and the environment, but he can usually be seen staring wistfully out to sea.
Can community land trusts provide affordable housing? Maui is set to find out.
Maui may be the center of Hawai‘i’s crisis in affordable housing. With the average home price approaching $700,000, working families there are increasingly excluded from home ownership. And Maui is only the worst example. Affordable housing is in short supply throughout the state. But Maui is also at the forefront in the search for solutions. Recently, affordable-housing advocates, the Realtors Association of Maui and the county government collaborated to create Na HALE o Maui, a community land trust (CLT).
Na HALE o Maui is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to acquire land and develop affordable housing. Although it plans to sell homes, the organization will never sell the land, instead remaining the permanent landowner. By definition, CLTs like this offer long-term, renewable leases—a concept familiar to Hawai‘i homeowners. In addition, when the owner decides to resell his home, a CLT will typically retain the option to buy at a specified price. The price is fixed by a formula that gives the seller a fair profit. These rules ensure that the homes remain affordable for future buyers.
CLTs aren’t new; more than 30 states have them. For example, BCLT, of Burlington, Vt., has provided affordable housing for more than 20 years. Recently, BCLT merged with another organization to become the Champlain Housing Trust and now oversees around 2,000 homes.
Here in Hawai‘i, the CLT model enjoys bipartisan political support, including that of state Sen. Robert Bunda (D). Last year, Bunda introduced legislation making certain state lands available to CLTs. According to Bunda, “We have lots of land currently zoned for agriculture that would be appropriate for this kind of development.” This year, Bunda expects to introduce legislation authorizing private developers to build homes on state land leased to CLTs.
CLTs have some downsides: Homeowners may not receive the traditional benefits of owning a house. For example, CLTs limit the amount of equity a home can accrue, minimizing one of the primary ways a fee simple home builds a family’s wealth. Some experts are also concerned about the use of state resources for private gain.
But Tom Blackburn-Rodriguez, president of Na HALE o Maui, says support for the CLT is strong. The county council has already appropriated $50,000 for it, and the Realtors Association of Maui chipped in $15,000. “We’re moving ahead,” says Blackburn-Rodriquez. “We’re already in consultation with a number of developers.” Private landowners have offered to donate land. With luck, construction could start within a year. Not a moment too soon for Maui’s strapped homebuyers.
Gary Gill has big plans for the future of Waimea valley. He just doesn’t know exactly what they are yet. It’s not surprising. As executive director of Hiipaka, the nonprofit created by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs to manage the park, he just took charge of the valley on Feb. 1. It’s been a mad rush to get basic systems in place. “Up to now, we haven’t had time to look at long-term planning,” he says.
That’s not to say Gill doesn’t have a vision. The 1,875-acre park will continue popular programs, like its botanical gardens, but he expects a stronger focus on native Hawaiian culture.
“This is a place for local people to come,” says the former city councilman.
“We’d like to see a lot more cultural programs: hula and weaving and Hawaiian language. Over time, we hope to make the valley a living puuhonua (sanctuary).”
Gill believes visitors will also be drawn to authentic Hawaiian culture. That’s an important consideration, because the valley has operated at a loss in recent years. OHA plans to spend millions of dollars to take care of the park’s long-deferred maintenance, but, ultimately, Waimea should be self-sustaining, he says.
“We’ll probably be increasing the business staff,” Gill says. “We have an existing gift shop, which we’ll be redefining, and refocusing on native Hawaiian goods. We’ll also be reopening the Proud Peacock [restaurant] and concentrating on improving facility rental space.”
Butch Helemano is the kahu of Puu o Mahuka, the largest heiau on Oahu, which sits on the bluff overlooking Waimea. “Some people don’t want to see any entertainment in the
valley, but I believe the tour buses belong there,” he says. “You have to have respect for the culture, but it’s possible to have these programs without bastardizing Hawaiian culture. We just need real practitioners.”
Gill knows that, for any of his plans to succeed, he’ll need the support of community members like Helemano. “Everyone loves Waimea,” he says, “and everyone has a stake in it. But if you want people to come, the first thing you have to do is invite them.”
As the state moves toward public/private partnerships, Malaekahana will serve as a test.
The cabins at Malaekahana state Recreation Area in La‘ie are in shambles. The roofs sag, the galvanized plumbing is crumbling and the siding is peeling away. Built in the 1930s, many of the buildings look like they’re one good storm away from demolition.
But changes are in store for Malaekahana. Two years ago, the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) requested private bids to redevelop and manage the park. Now, DLNR is considering a plan that will gut the existing infrastructure at Malaekahana and replace it with new cabins, roads, sewage treatment and a high-tech, off-the-grid electrical system.
Malaekahana Partners, a company affiliated with the nonprofit that currently manages the Kahuku section of the park, will redevelop all of Malaekahana in exchange for a long-term lease. It’s part of DLNR’s strategy to create public/ private partnerships, and may serve as the model for similar programs at other state parks. And it’s making the neighbors nervous.
Much of their concern revolves around Craig Chapman, one of the principals of Malaekahana Partners. He’s managed the park for 12 years, but if you ask him about his status in the community, he’ll tell you, “I’m the haole hotel guy from Vegas.”
“I’m not a spiritual man,” says Chapman, “but if you listen to her [the park], she’ll tell you what she wants.” Chapman thinks she wants to be an eco-resort. He envisions a variety of community and educational activities at the park. And with the new cabins, he believes he can attract both kama‘aina and international visitors.
For the past 12 years, Chapman has operated under a year-to-year lease. Without a long-term lease, he has been unable to raise funds to fix the cabins and other problems in the park. So, when DLNR asked for proposals for Malaekahana, Chapman saw his opportunity. He assembled a group of local partners, persuaded a Canadian friend to finance the project and put together a proposal for DLNR. His was the only qualified bid.
Some have reacted skeptically. DeeDee Letts, a member of the Ko‘olauloa Neighborhood Board, points out that Chapman has been fined for improperly disposing of trash at the park. She’s also concerned that Chapman’s proposal promises more than he can deliver; in particular, that the capabilities of his sewage treatment system are overstated. Chapman counters that the fine was for a single incident many years ago, and that the type of sewage treatment system he’s installing is now required in state parks.
As a part of the approval process for his proposal, DLNR requested that Chapman make presentations to the neighborhood board and local community associations. Dan Quinn, DLNR’s administrator of state parks explains, “This is something we want to do properly. There’s a diversity of opinion about this project.” As for community concerns, DLNR has created a community board that will periodically review activities at the park. Even if DLNR approves his plan, Chapman still has to do an environmental impact statement, obtain permits and negotiate a lease.
Quinn remains confident that this is a good model for other state parks. He says DLNR will continue to expand these public/private partnerships, which range from Adopt-a-Park programs to master leases like the one proposed at Malaekahana. He suggests Hapuna on the Big Island may be a good candidate. But he’s quick to add, “We’d like to get through the process on this one first.”