WE KNOW that once, indeed, in historic times, the god Lono's looked-for return seemed to have become a reality. The British officer Captain James Cook, sailing north under orders to explore the Pacific Coast of North America for a northwest passage to the Atlantic, touched upon a hitherto uncharted island, northernmost of the Hawaiian group, and on, his return, on January 17, 1779, anchored off Kealakekua, "Pathway-of-the-gods," on the larger island of Hawaii. The wondering multitude crowding the shore to witness this marvel were easily persuaded by their priests of the Lono cult that the prophesied day was at hand.
The story is told circumstantially by Cook's underofficer, Captain James King, who often accompanied Cook on his visits to shore and was taken by the natives for his son. Upon first landing, King writes that they "were received by four men, who carried wands tipped with dog's hair, and marched before us, pronouncing with a loud voice a short sentence, in which we could only distinguish the word Orono.... The crowd, which had been collected on the shore, retired at our approach; and not a person was to be seen, except a few lying prostrate on the ground, near the huts of the adjoining village." The account tallies well with what we know of the prostrating taboo in the presence of deity and of the identification of the visitor with the god of the Makahiki, about the time of which festival Cook's arrival
[1. King, III, 4 ff.; Fornander, Polynesian Race, II, 157-65, 167-79.
2. King, III, 5-6.]
took place. Hence the invocation to "O Rono" (Lono), as a note adds: "Captain Cook generally went by this name among the natives of Owhyee [Hawaii]; but we could never learn its direct meaning. Sometimes they applied it to an in visible being, who, they said, lived in the heavens. We also found that it was a title belonging to a person of great rank and power in the island, who resembles pretty much the Delai Lama of the Tartars, and the celestial emperor of Japan."
The stone platform is still standing that marks the site of the heiau to which the priests of Lono conducted Cook and his companion for the ceremony of chanting and offerings appropriate to the welcome of a god. The prose note asserts that at this time the Kumulipo prayer chant was recited, with "Puou" as the officiating priest. Unfortunately King's full description of the occasion neither confirms nor disproves the tradition. Puou is easily to be identified with the old chief called "Koah" in King's account, who seems to have taken the lead throughout in the reception of the visitors. He had been a great warrior but at this time is described as "a little old man, of an emaciated figure; his eyes exceedingly sore and red, and his body covered with a white leprous scurf." Another priest, described by King as "a tall young man with a long beard," also took part in the chanting. King writes the name as "Kairekeekeea," possibly to be identified with Pailili or Pailiki, who, according to Fornander, substituted at this time for his absent father.
This younger priest chanted "a kind of hymn ... in which he was joined by Koah." Of their manner of chanting King writes: "Their speeches, or prayers, were delivered ... with a readiness and volubility that indicated them to be according to some formulary." At the presentation of a dressed hog to the captain, Koah "addressed him in a long speech, pronounced with much vehemence and rapidity." With Cook
[3. Fornander, Polynesian Race, II, 173 n.]
perched on a kind of scaffolding, the two priests further delivered a chant "sometimes in concert, and sometimes alternately" and lasting "a considerable time." Finally, before the guests were fed, the younger priest "began the same kind of chant as before, his companion making regular responses." These diminished to a single "Orono," an invocation plainly addressed to the god Lono, believed to be there present in the person of the distinguished stranger.
It is not surprising that during the days that followed the successful attack against a god who had proved fallible to weapons, the old warrior advised putting to rout the whole expedition, while the young chief, who had acted as political head during the absence of his superior, remained friendly. The matter-of-fact way in which the multitude regarded the death of a god has curious confirmation in King's statement that after Cook's death the people inquired anxiously of King when "the Orono" would come again.'
[4. King, p. 69.]