SOME of the Hawaiian trees have beautifully grained wood, and at the present time are very valuable for furniture and interior decoration. The koa is probably the best of the trees of this class. It is known as the Hawaiian mahogany. The grain is very fine and curly and wavy, and is capable of a very high polish. The koa still grows luxuriantly on the steep sides and along the ridges of the high mountains of all the islands of the Hawaiian group. It has great powers of endurance. It is not easily worn by the pebbles and sand of the beach, nor is it readily split or broken by the tempestuous waves of the ocean, therefore from time immemorial the koa has been the tree for the canoe and surf-board of the Hawaiians. Long and large have been the canoes hewn from the massive tree trunks by the aid of the koi-pohaku, the cutting stone, or adze, of ancient Hawaii. Sometimes these canoes were given miraculous powers of motion so that they swept through the seas more rapidly than the swiftest shark. Often the god of the winds, who had special care
[1. Acacia koa.]
over some one of the high chiefs, would carry him from island to island in a canoe which never rested when calms prevailed or stopped when fierce waves wrenched, but bore the chief swiftly and unfailingly to the desired haven.
There is a delightful little story about a chief who visited the most northerly island, Kauai. He found the natives of that island feasting and revelling in all the abandon of savage life. Sports and games innumerable were enjoyed. Thus day and night passed until, as the morning of a new day dawned, an unwonted stir along the beach made manifest some event of very great importance. The new chief apparently cared but little for all the excitement. The king of the island had sent one of his royal ornaments to a small island some miles distant from the Kauai shores. He was blessed with a daughter so beautiful that all the available chiefs desired her for wife. The father, hoping to avoid the complications which threatened to involve his household with the households of the jealous suitors, announced that he would give his daughter to the man who secured the ornament from the far-away island. It was to be a canoe race with a wife for the prize.
The young chiefs waited for the hour appointed. Their well-polished koa canoes lined the beach. The stranger chief made no preparation, Quietly
he enjoyed the gibes and taunts hurled from one to another by the young chiefs. Laughingly he requested permission to join in the contest, receiving as the reward for his request a look of approbation from the handsome chiefess.
The word was given. The well-manned canoes were pushed from the shore and forced out through the inrolling surf. In the rush some of the boats were interlocked with others, some filled with water, while others safely broke away from the rest and passed out of sight toward the coveted island. Still the stranger seemed to be in no haste to win the prize. The face of the chiefess grew dark with disappointment.
At last the stranger launched his finely polished canoe and called one of his followers to sail with him. It seemed to be utterly impossible for him to even dream of securing the prize, but the canoe began to move as if it had the wings of a swift bird or the fins of fleetest fish. He had taken for his companion in his magic canoe one of the gods controlling the ocean winds. He was first to reach the island. Then he came swiftly back for his bride. He made his home among his new friends.
The Hawaiians had many interesting ceremonies in connection with the process of securing the tree and fashioning it into a canoe.
David Malo, a Hawaiian writer of about the
year 1840, says, "The building of a canoe was a religious matter." When a man found a fine koa tree he went to the priest whose province was canoe-making and said, "I have found a koa-tree, a fine large tree." On receiving this information the priest went at night to sleep before his shrine. If in his sleep he had a vision of some one standing naked before him, he knew that the koa-tree was rotten, and would not go up into the woods to cut that tree. If another tree was found and he dreamed of a handsome well-dressed man or woman standing before him, when he awoke he felt sure that the tree would make a good canoe. Preparations were made accordingly to go into the mountains and hew the koa into a canoe. They took with them as offerings a pig, coconuts, red fish, and awa. Having come to the place they rested for the night, sacrificing these things to the gods.
Sometimes, when a royal canoe was to be prepared, it seems as if human beings were also brought and slain at the root of the tree. There is no record of cannibalism connected with these sacrifices, and yet when the pig and fish had been offered before the tree, usually a hole was dug close to the tree and an oven prepared in which the meat and vegetables were cooked for the morning feast of the canoe-makers. The tree was carefully examined and the signs and portents
noted. The song of a little bird would frequently cause an entire change in the enterprise.
When the time came to cut down the tree the priest would take his stone axe and offer prayer to the male and female deities who were supposed to be the special patrons of canoe-building, showing them the axe, and saying: "Listen now to the axe. This is the axe which is to cut down the tree for the canoe."
David Malo says: "When the tree began to crack, ready to fall, they lowered their voices and allowed no one to make a disturbance. When the tree had fallen, the head priest mounted the trunk and called out, 'Smite with the axe, and hollow the canoe.' This was repeated again and again as he walked along the fallen tree, marking the full length of the desired canoe."
Dr. Emerson gives the following as one of the prayers sometimes used by the priest when passing along the trunk of the tree:
"Grant a canoe which shall be swift as a fish
To sail in stormy seas
When the storm tosses on all sides."
After the canoe had been roughly shaped, the ends pointed, the bottom rounded, and perhaps a portion of the inside of the log removed, the people fastened lines to the canoe to haul it down to the beach. When they were ready for the
work the priest again prayed: "Oh, canoe gods, look you after this canoe. Guard it from stem to stern, until it is placed in the canoe-house."
Then the canoe was hauled by the people in front, or held back by those who were in the rear, until it had passed all the hard and steep places along the mountain-side and been put in place for the finishing touches. When completed, pig and fish and fruits were again offered to the gods. Sometimes human beings were again a part of the sacrifice.
Prayers and incantations were part of the ceremony. There was to be no disturbance or noise, or else it would be dangerous for its owner to go out in his new canoe. If all the people except the priest had been quiet, the canoe was pronounced safe.
It is said that the ceremony of lashing the outrigger to the canoe was of very great solemnity, probably because the ability to pass through the high surf waves depended so much upon the outrigger as a balance which kept the canoe from being overturned.
The story of Laka and the fairies is told to illustrate the difficulties surrounding canoe-making. Laka desired to make a fine canoe, and sought through the forests for the best tree available. Taking his stone axe he toiled all day until the tree was felled. Then he went home
to rest. On the morrow he could not find the log. The trees of the forest had been apparently undisturbed. Again he cut a tree, and once more could not find the log. At last he cut a tree and watched in the night. Then he saw in the night shadows a host of the little people who toil with miraculous powers to support them. They raised the tree and set it in its place and restored it to its wonted appearance among its fellows. But Laka caught the king of the gnomes and from him learned how to gain the aid rather than the opposition of the little people. By their help his canoe was taken to the shore and fashioned into beautiful shape for wonderful and successful voyages.