Maui’s History Along the Road to Hāna
Ancient Hawaiians were a people without writing who preserved their history in chants and legends.
Maui’s ancient history was passed down through the generations by the Kahuna priests (wise men) of old Hawaiʻi. Hāna, on the eastern side of Maui, has some of the richest and most vibrant history of the entire Hawaiian island chain.
Empires were born in Hāna and many battles were fought here, not just for the right to rule Maui but also for the conquest of the entire island chain. Hāna was invaded many times by Alii (Royalty/Rulers) from the Big Island of Hawaiʻi. It was common for kings from both Maui and the Big Island to rule multiple islands from this lush paradise. Unfortunately, only the last few hundred years of history is archived.
What exists today is largely taken from what was chronicled by sea captains in the late 1700’s, missionaries, Hawaiian language newspapers in the 1800’s and later by historians in the 1900’s. Information was gathered from the living descendants who still remembered the ancient stories and chants. Many of these accounts and stories are archived at Bishop Museum in Honolulu.
As you travel along the road to Hāna keep in mind that it is not only a stunningly beautiful drive but that it also has many amazing stories of life in ancient times. The reverence Maui’s locals have for Hāna is anchored in their ancient connection to the land and these stories of their ancestors. It would be a challenge for anyone to learn about the many accounts of Maui’s ancient history on a one day trip to Hāna. It is best to take a Hāna tour with a knowledgeable guide who can point out the places and stories that connect the ancient history of Hāna with modern day Maui.
In ancient Maui, Hāna was an area favored by the Alii (royalty) and became the seat of power for the entire island. Until the 1400s, Maui was divided into three territories with different rulers: Wailuku (West Maui), Lele (East Maui), and Hāna (East Maui). Around 1550, King Pi’ilani married the daughter of Hoolae from Hāna, resulting in the unification of East and West Maui, thereby making a joint royal family ruling Maui. Peace and prosperity was experienced during the family’s reign. The largest Heiau (Hawaiian Temple) ever found in the pacific is located in Hāna. It is called Pi’ilanihale.
Chief Pi’ilani’s greatest accomplishment was that he commissioned many significant “public works” projects. It took Pi’ilani his lifetime and that of his two sons to complete the building of fish ponds, irrigation fields and paved roads, some of which were 4 to 6 feet wide that traveled around the entire island. Amazingly, this includes what we know today as the Road to Hāna. After the completion of this road it united the villages and chiefs of the island and made Maui one of the most powerful of all the islands. So powerful, in fact, it became a major goal of Kamehameha The Great to conquer it.
The first European explorer to see Maui was Captain James Cook on November 26, 1778, but he was not able to land on Maui. On May 29, 1786, it was French Admiral Jean-Francois de Galaup La Perouse who first set foot on Maui by landing on the shores of what is now known as Keone’o’io Bay. He continued around the island to Hāna where he made note of it’s beauty and wild sugar cane.
Soon after the first western contact with Captain James Cook in the Hawaiian islands it is said that King Kamehameha of the Big Island procured canons and armaments by seizing a French frigate. He then built a fleet of war canoes estimated to be 1000 strong that could hold between 20 and 100 men each. His first conquest was Hāna. As you travel the road to Hāna just imagine the scene, estimated to have happened in 1790, of 1000 sailing canoes offshore.
King Kamehameha invaded at points stretching from Hāna Bay to Hamoa Bay along the Hāna coast.* Their arrival was sounded by messengers who ran the foot paths from Kaupo to Hāna Bay and beyond to as far as Honomanu announcing the call to arms. It is said the battle raged throughout the Hāna coast. Maui warriors repelled the invaders several times.
One account speaks of Maui warriors who were skilled in the art of slinging stones. * It was said they could throw stones 100 to 200 yards from shore accurately enough to kill warriors and damage canoes. As you travel through Hāna town look for a steep hill at the south end of Hāna Bay, this is Ka’uiki Hill. In ancient times it was a fortress which was the fall back position for Hāna’s inhabitants and warriors in times of war.
The battle for Maui’s rule ended when the island was conquered by Kamehameha and his huge fleet of warriors. His army chased the Maui warriors into Iao Valley along the eastern shore of the West Maui Mountains. It was such a bloody battle that it is said the bodies damned up Iao Stream!
Kamehameha set up his new Kingdom of Hawaiʻi in the village of Lahaina, known then as Lele. He married into the Maui Alii (royalty) by taking a wife by the name of Kaahumanu, who was born in Hāna. This is how the conquering Alii of Hawaiʻi cemented their control of the community through social and political structures. Lahaina remained the capitol from 1802 until it was moved to Honolulu in 1845.
Kamehameha first began trading with the foreigners after conquering the Oʻahu chiefs. At first the main export was salt, but soon it was overshadowed by the sandalwood trade which destroyed the three layered canopy rainforest covering the mountain slopes of every island in a few short years. With the proceeds Kamehameha built an estimated 30+ European style ships.
Some of the first westerners to arrive in Maui observed a well organized caste society. The Hawaiians had mastered many aspects of living including the creation of stone tools and an incredibly strong rope made from coconut fiber. The concept of private property was unknown to ancient Hawaiians but they did have an ingenious system of land management known as the Ahupua’a. Several of the early sea captains who arrived in Maui saw the rich resources of Hāna as a way to make a living and began cultivating the sugar cane which grew wild. Eventually Hāna was the location for one of Hawaiʻi’s first sugar cane mills in 1849. By 1883 there were six in the area. The original trail constructed by Hāna’s Chief Pi’ilani hundreds of years earlier was finished as a roadway in 1926. It is what we call the road to Hāna today.
So as you travel the road to Hāna keep in mind that this area was the cornerstone of an ancient struggle to control all of Hawaiʻi. Please travel with the same respect and reverence that the Hawaiian people have for this sacred landscape.
A Brief Chronology of Hāna History
* 1550 (est) – Maui Chief Pi’ilani rules Hāna in a time of peace and prosperity. He orders the building of a trail system circling Maui, thus uniting the entire island.
• 1759 to 1779 – Kalani’opu’u of the Big Island captured and held power over Hāna. Eventually, West Maui chief Ka’hekili surrounded him and forced Kalani’opu’u to retreat to defenses on Ka’uiki Hill. Ka’hekili defeated him by stopping all freshwater flow to the hill and forcing them to surrender.
• 1768 – Queen Ka’ahumanu was born in a cave at Ka’uiki Hill. She was King Kamehameha’s favorite wife and largely responsible for the abolition of the Kapu System.
* 1790 – King Kamehameha invades Maui and conquers the island with the help of British armaments.
*1794 – King Kamehameha brings all the island under his rule and establishes Lahaina as the capitol of the Hawaiian kingdom.
• 1849 – Sugarcane is introduced to Hāna via a sugar mill by George Wilfong. In 1883, there were 6 plantations in operation. Before this Hāna and the neighboring Ko’olau districts survived by cultivating dryland taro and local fishing.
• 1926 – The original Hāna Highway was completed. It was a gravel 1-lane road.
Sights of Maui by Elspeth P. Sterling – Bishop Museum Publishing
*Moses Manu, The Story of Kihapiilani, Ka Nupepa Kuokoa, Aug. 9, 1884. MS SC Sterling
*S.M. Kamakau, Ruling Chiefs of Hawaiʻi, Translated from the newspaper Ke Au Okoa 1961 SC Sterling
*Abraham Fornander, An Account of the Polynesian Race: Its Origins and Migrations London 1876-85
*Pi’opi’o State Park signage- Hilo, Hawaiʻi – Kamehameha Schools Alumni Association, Mamalahoe Chapter