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«Jean Greenwell October 22, 1868. Awful tidings from Kona. The false prophet, Kaona, has killed the sheriff.... Entry from the Reverend Lorenzo ...»

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Crisis in Kona

Jean Greenwell

October 22, 1868. Awful tidings from Kona. The false prophet, Kaona,

has killed the sheriff....

Entry from the Reverend Lorenzo Lyons' Journal. 1

In 1868, the district of Kona, on the island of Hawai'i, made

headlines throughout the Kingdom. Some of the many articles that

appeared in the newspapers were entitled "The Crazy Prophet of

South Kona," "Uprising in Kona," "Insurrection on Hawaii,"

"The Rebels," "A Religious Fanatic," and "Troubles on Hawaii." 2 The person responsible for all this attention was a Hawaiian man named Joseph Kaona. The cult which arose around Kaona typified

what is known as "nativistic religion." Ralph S. Kuykendall says:

From the 1820's onward there were among the Hawaiians, as among other peoples, occasional examples of what anthropologists call 'nativistic religions,' commonly consisting of some odd form of religious observance or belief under the leadership of a 'prophet' who claimed to be inspired by divine revelation; frequently such religious manifestations combined features of Christianity with old Hawaiian beliefs and customs.... 3 Kaona was born and brought up in Kainaliu, Kona on the island of Hawai'i. He received his education at the Hilo Boarding School and graduated from Lahainaluna on Maui. 4 In 1851, in the aftermath of King Kamehameha III's great land Mahele, Kaona was employed surveying kuleana (property, titles, claims) in Ka'u, on the island of Hawai'i. 5 He also surveyed a few kuleana on O'ahu. 6 Later he was employed as a magistrate, both in Honolulu and in Lahaina.7 He was a well-educated native Hawaiian.

Jean Greenwell, researcher and Hawaiian scholar, is a volunteer for the Kona Historical Society and a long-time resident of West Hawai'i.

The Hawaiian Journal of History, vol. 21 (1987) 67 At some point, however, he felt himself possessed with miraculous powers. While living on O'ahu in 1866, he took possession of a neighbor's dead body and kept it for several days with the intent of bringing it back to life. The Deputy Sheriff was sent to retrieve the body. He said Kaona sat on the coffin and would not give the body up—it was several days old and the room stank. When the Sheriff was finally able to secure the body he did not rebury it in the yard for fear Kaona would dig it up again.8 For this act Kaona was arrested and sentenced to the lunatic asylum on O'ahu, but he was declared sane within a few weeks and released.9 Shortly after this event Kaona returned to Kainaliu, Kona. He had many relatives in the Kainaliu area living between the ahupua'a (land division) of Hokukano and Honalo.10 It was to this extended family that he held his greatest appeal.

Kaona arrived in Kona with several hundred bibles which he later gave away to his followers. He asked the resident missionary, the Reverend J. D. Paris, if he could store the Bibles in the recently constructed Lanakila Church at Kainaliu.11 Permission was granted by the luna (officers) of the church, many of whose members soon became followers of Kaona. Kaona began attending services at Lanakila, at times even sharing the pulpit with the Reverend Paris.12 Around this time there was a series of severe earthquakes in Kona and a lava flow in Ka'u. These acts of nature may have had some influence on Kaona for he began preaching the immediate second coming of the Lord.13 He proclaimed that all who gathered in the church building with him would be saved. He predicted that a lava flow would cover all the land; but that Lehu'ula, the ahupua'a on which the church was located, would be spared. This prediction follows the same pattern as other nativistic cults, a belief in imminent world-wide destruction, but salvation for the believers gathered together at a nominated place.14 Kaona soon acquired several hundred followers. When Abraham Fornander, the Inspector General of the Department of Public Instruction, visited the North Kona schools in 1867, the Kainaliu school had only 13 scholars. Fornander observed, "The excitment provided by the religious speculations of Kaona has caused the withdrawal, from the school, of about 30 children, for whom the Kaonaites provide a school and teacher themselves."15 Although Kaona's first prediction did not manifest itself, that in no way discouraged his followers. Kaona received new revelations which postponed the second advent for several years. The believers 68 remained steadfast. One newspaper columnist wrote, "Day and night the disturbed religious remained together engaging in religious excitement, and creating no small hubbub in the community." This behavior, of course, did not meet with the approval of the Reverend Paris and others of his persuasion.16 Missionaries in Hawai'i had had to deal with these nativistic faiths before. One group, called the Hapu cult, appeared in Puna, on the island of Hawai'i, in 1831. This was in the Reverend Sheldon Dibble's missionary district. The cult was named after Hapu, who was a self-styled prophetess. The cult which grew up around her devised a system of religion that was half Christian and half native Hawaiian.17 The Protestant missionaries punished Hapu for practicing "heathen" customs, condemning her to work on the roads.18 There were many similarities between the Hapu cult and the Kaonaites.

The Reverend Paris hoped to discourage the Kaonaites by locking the doors of the church. However, Kaona soon returned, and one account says he tampered with the door hinges. When his followers gathered he prayed, then tapped on the door of the church, and it flew open miraculously. They all then reoccupied the church. After a great deal of trouble the Kaonaites were officially evicted from the church building by Judge Hoapili of South Kona, and the church was ordered closed to all.19 The "Second Adventists," as they were called by some, now set up a camp in the vicinity of the church, still proclaiming sanctuary to all who remained with them. They shared everything in common, living in a style the Hawaiians called ku'ikahi (united).20 They took oaths on a Bible to stand by each other in everything; help the poor, feed the hungry, and care for the orphans. One man, who was interviewed by Samuel Kamakau for the Hawaiian newspaper Ke Au Okoa, claimed that Kaona was particularly famous for the aid he gave to all during the time of drought. This man also felt that the situation in Kainaliu was one of drunkenness and rowdiness before the arrival of Kaona. He thought Kaona and his Bibles had had a positive influence on the community.21 This, however, was not the situation being reflected in the English language newspapers.





Kaona combined certain Christian beliefs with some ancient Hawaiian traditions and then played upon the superstitious characteristics latent in many people. He gained many new followers.22 Kaona would fall into trances in order to prophesy.23 Many of the followers would also speak in tongues and receive revelations as well. The people spent most of their money acquiring white clothes 69 to wear. They carried their Bibles at their sides as swords.24 Seven seems to have been a magic number for them, and seven flags or banners could be seen waving from their tents. The 150th Psalm, which spoke of praising the Lord with song and dance, was particularly celebrated.25 Through the nights the people kept watch, chanting and beating drums.26 When the rainy season of 1868 came Kaona and his followers moved down nearer to the beach and built two large edifices. One was a lanai, (an open-sided, roofed structure).27 The other was a large tomb (fig. 1) erected nearby. For exactly whom the tomb was meant is not known. These structures were built on land owned by the future King Lunalilo and were looked after by his father, Kanaina.28 Kaona had been given good reason to believe that he would be able to lease this land. He therefore made a collection among his people and sent an envoy to Honolulu with the rent money.29 When they reached Honolulu, however, they discovered that the land had already been leased to their neighbor, William F. Roy.

The newspaper, Ke Au Okoa, gave a somewhat different version of this transaction. It stated that Kaona had been renting the land he and his followers were actually living on from a widow, Eliza Johnson, widow of William Johnson.30 When she married Roy, Kaona sent an embassy to Honolulu to rent the adjoining land belonging to Lunalilo. Kaona had been given assurance from one of Lunalilo's property managers that he could rent the land for $200 a year, so he proceeded to have his people plant their crops on this land which proved to be very fertile. According to this article, when Roy heard they were renting Lunalilo's property and saw how productive it was, he immediately offered twice as much money and secured the lease for himself.31 Roy wanted Kaona and his people off the property and immediately started eviction proceedings. The Sheriff of the community, R. B.

Neville,32 (fig. 2) was sent to serve the eviction papers. He was not cordially received by the Kaona community, and his eviction notice was ripped and spat upon.33 Kaona continued to live on the disputed land. His very presence there with his hundreds of followers aggravated many of the Kona residents, particularly Roy and his friends. They did not feel it was right that this large group of people should be living on and cultivating land that was leased to Roy.34

FIG. 1. The empty tomb today at Lehu'ula, Kona. (Kona Historical Society photo.)

70 This situation continued for several months, causing tempers to rise within the Kona district. On the morning of October 19, 1868, Sheriff Neville came a second time with eviction papers. He arrived at Kaona's camp with an armed posse and was met by the Kaonaites with a shower of stones. They pulled Sheriff Neville from his horse and clubbed him to death.35 Several attempts were made that day to retrieve Neville's body, to no avail.36 In the late afternoon another posse, that included native constables and was headed by Judge Kupake'e, descended upon the camp with the intent of securing Neville's body. A stone-throwing, club-wielding battle ensued. Kupake'e's forces came armed with a few guns but fired only one or two shots. One native constable, a man by the name of Kamai, was lassoed from his horse, dragged and beaten to death.37 These violent acts created great concern in Kona. Some people felt that the acts might have racial overtones since shouts of, "Kill the haole," were called out by the Kaonaites when Neville was killed that morning.38 During the fracas some of the Kaona followers' houses had been set on fire. The foreign community members, made up of missionaries, planters, and a few business men, took extreme measures to protect themselves, fearing reprisal from the Kaonaites.

Roy wrote to a friend in Honolulu, "This night I expect my house will be in flames and many more... I am taking the children and clothing away, also Mrs. Roy as they have threatened to kill her tonight. God help us." 39 The Kona residents, who feared Kaona, sent a message to Honolulu asking for help. The Marshal of the Hawaiian Islands, William Cooper Parke, was awakened at one in the morning with this plea from Kona. King Kamehameha V called a cabinet meeting at the unusual hour of six in the morning.40 As a result of that meeting, 200 troops, along with Governor John O. Dominis of O'ahu, were dispatched in two sailing vessels to intercept the steamer Kilauea at Lahaina. There they were joined by the Maui Governor, Nahaolelua.

The troops were transferred to the steamer, and they proceeded on to Hawai'i.41 In the meantime, the sheriff of Hilo, Mr. J. H. Coney, was at the Volcano area with his family. When he heard of this crisis in Kona he gathered a group of 50 men and marched with them from Ka'u to FIG. 2. Sheriff R. B. Neville, killed in 1868 when he attempted to serve the Kaonaites with eviction papers. (Kona Historical Society photo.) 71 Kona, gaining followers as he went. He arrived in Kona with more than 200 men ready and eager to save the Kona residents from the "religious fanatics." When Sheriff Coney reached Kaona's camp he managed to arrest Kaona, recover Neville's body, and herd together all the Kaonaites.

As the above events were taking place, the Kilauea steamed past Kainaliu. The troops were well hidden below deck so that those in Kaona's camp would not be alerted.42 After the Kilauea's arrival at Ka'awaloa, the government forces took charge of the prisoners. The prisoners, who spent the night huddled in the rain, were shipped the next day to Kailua where they were housed in Hulihe'e House and in the yet unfinished portion of Moku'aikaua Church.43 A hearing was then held at Moku'aikaua. The missionary, Doctor L. H.

Gulick, served as translator. Five men, including Kaona, were charged with murder, and about 120 others were held as accessories.

All were taken to Honolulu.44 In Honolulu, 12 or 15 of these prisoners were confined in jail.

The rest were bound out to serve as laborers with the understanding that they were to appear when their trial was held. According to Doctor Gulick, their children were placed in foster homes with the intent of having them returned to their own parents at a later date.45 Ke Au Okoa, however, reported that the gentleman being interviewed by Kamakau said that the children were sold at auction by the Loio Kuhina (Attorney General). Kamakau noted that perhaps this was true or perhaps it was not true.46 The official trial of these Kaonaites was held in May of 1869. The counsel for the prisoners expressed doubt as to whether an impartial jury could be found in Hilo. It was finally decided that there was just as much high feeling concerning Kaona in Honolulu as there was on the island of Hawai'i. Furthermore, a prisoner was supposed to have the right to be tried on the island on which his crime had been committed. So now all concerned with the trial were shipped to Hilo so the trial could be held there when the Third Circuit Court met.



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