Moku Hawai`i, Kona – Now one of the four national parks located on the Island of Hawai`i, Pu`uhonua o Hōnaunau has been a special place for hundreds of years.
Around the middle of the 1200s, the great migrations between Hawai`i and the southern Pacific islands stopped. No one knows why. Perhaps the last people who knew the way grew old and died. Perhaps war broke out and the Hawaiian people did not want it to follow them, so they made a secret of their islands. Perhaps they ran out of the huge trees needed for the great voyaging canoes.
Or perhaps it was a combination of reasons.
As the years passed in isolation, and generations were born and died, these people who became the Hawaiians developed a unique society adapted to their hidden world. Included in this was the kapu system of laws designed to protect the delicate harmony of Man, Nature, and Gods.
The kapu, the sacred laws, were strict, and obedience was mandatory for men, women, and children. Even animals were sometimes expected to obey the kapu. To disobey was death.
Retribution came either from the direct vengeance of the gods themselves – floods, tidal waves, drought, lava flows, illness, or other disasters – or from those who tried to appease the gods by executing the law breaker.
To balance such a strict system, the pu`uhonua, or “place of refuge,” developed. Knowledge of the first pu`uhonua is lost in antiquity, but by the 1400s, pu`uhonua were well established and a vital part of Hawaiian society.
Each island was divided into districts, and each district contained everything, from the top of the mountain to the edge of the sea, which the people who lived there needed. This included a pu`uhonua. On the island of Hawai`i there were six, one each in the districts of Kona, Kohala, Hamakua, Hilo, Puna, and Ka`u.
When people broke the kapu, they could flee to the pu`uhonua of their district. Once they crossed the boundary of that sacred site, they were under the protection of the gods, and could no longer be pursued. Once there, the priest gave prayers of thanks for the law breaker’s deliverance and they were forgiven their wrongdoing, whatever it was. Within a few days, they could return to their normal lives, the protection of the gods going with them. Pu`uhonua also provided refuge for non-combatants in time of war, and sanctuary for vanquished warriors who could escape there.
To reach the pu`uhonua, however, was no easy task. Today, visitors can reach the Pu`uhonua o Hōnaunau by driving down a wide, smooth federal highway and walking down a paved ramp to the ancient palace grounds where the chiefs of Kona once relaxed.
In ancient times, anyone of common ancestry would be executed for setting foot on the royal grounds. Most people could enter the pu`uhonua only by sea, swimming across the bay – about a half mile. And, they had to leave in the way they had arrived.
Only in wartime could people enter easily along a special path marked with white flags.
Sometime during the 1400s, the pu`uhonua for the Kona district, which had been in Keauhou, was re-established at Hōnaunau. Pu`uhonua o Hōnaunau became the largest, most complex place of refuge in the Hawaiian islands. The Hōnaunau complex comprises a stone wall over 1,000 feet long, 17 feet thick, and 12 feet high, two temple platforms and the ruin of a more ancient temple platform, and what may be a women’s house for use during menses.
Throughout its history, the Pu`uhonua o Hōnaunau has gone through many phases of reconstruction and change. Much was done at the behest of the priest Pa`ao in the 1200s. Chief `Ehukaimalino in the 1400s, and High Chief Liloa in the latter 1400s also made changes. Other work was undertaken in the early 1600s by Keawekuikea`ai, who directed renovations to the interior of the complex.
The last major changes to Pu`uhonua o Hōnaunau were undertaken by High Chief Keawe`ikekahiali`iokamoku. In the last half of the 1600s he had constructed the platform and structure of the heiau known as the Hale o Keawe (House of Keawe). At his death, he was deified and his bones were interred in the heiau, adding to its sanctity – much in the same way the bones of European saints and royalty were sanctified and interred in cathedrals.
As his spear had protected his people in life, High Chief Keawe’s mana, his spiritual strength, protected his people in death. Over generations, bones of the descendants of High Chief Keawe were interred in the Hale o Keawe. In 1818 the last chief interred there was Ka`oleioku, a son of Kamehameha I.
Twenty three chiefs of the line of Keawe rested in the heiau, guarding the inviolability of the sanctuary and adding to its mana, its spiritual power. But the very next year, after the death of Kamehameha Pai`ea (Kamehameha I), everything changed.
In 1819, Liholiho, a son of Kamehameha Pai`ea, and his successor, abolished the kapu system. The Pu`uhonua o Hōnaunau, and all of the other pu`uhonua which had provided sanctuary for their people, were no longer sacred.
But although it no longer functioned as a sanctuary for those under threat of death, it was protected by the respect people had for its function as a royal mausoleum. Although stripped of its sacred accoutrement – images, drums, spears, and ornaments used in the ancient ceremonies – the bones of the chiefs and their warriors remained in the Hale o Keawe, still protecting this final place of refuge.
In 1829, even the bones of the chiefs were removed. Queen Ka`ahumanu, one of the widows of Kamehameha I and regent for Liholiho, his heir, had the remains of the deified chiefs removed to a burial cave, and the bones of their warriors which had rested beside them were burned. Visitors to the islands took what souvenirs remained and the wooden temple structure moldered away.
In 1919, John F.G. Stokes of the Bishop Museum studied the pu`uhonua and collected information from people who lived in the area. The museum did more studies in 1956 and 1957.
The pu`uhonua later was operated as a park by the County of Hawai`i, and was known as the City of Refuge. In 1961, the National Park Service, Department of the Interior acquired the land and it became the City of Refuge National Park. Finally, on November 10, 1978, an act of Congress restored the site’s ancient name of Pu`uhonua o Hōnaunau, making the official name Pu`uhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park.