Wildfires destroy Lahaina, Hawaii’s onetime political and economic hub

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In 1823, whaling boats and visitors approaching the coast of Lahaina on the Hawaiian island of Maui were in for a “singularly romantic and beautiful” sight of the Hawaiian Kingdom’s capital city.

“A fine sandy beach stretches along the margin of the sea, lined for a considerable distance with houses, and adorned with shady clumps of kou trees, or waving groves of coconuts,” British missionary William Ellis wrote in an 1823 journal entry.

Lahaina was already a center of power in ancient days, “long before Europeans realized Hawaii was there,” said David Aiona Chang, a professor and Native Hawaiian historian at the University of Minnesota.

Centuries later, Lahaina’s popularity as a tourist destination for beachgoers and surfers has overshadowed, at least to tourists, the city’s deep historic and cultural significance that stretches back centuries, Chang said. To Hawaiians, Lahaina is a crucially important historic city whose legacy includes troves of artifacts that have helped preserve the hula dance form and revitalize the Hawaiian language.

Deadly wildfires in Hawaii this week have reduced much of the town to ash, including the historic Waiola Church, and severely damaged a 150-year-old Banyan tree.

The Baldwin House, the oldest home in Maui, was also burned in the fire, Lahaina Restoration Foundation executive director Theo Morrison said. The foundation runs several other historic sites, such as the Wo Hing Museum and Cookhouse — an artifact of Chinese expatriots on the island — and the Old Lahaina Courthouse. Morrison said Wednesday that the status of those structures was unclear.

“It’s a place where the past is present,” Chang said of Lahaina. “Native Hawaiians, we’re very emphatic that we’re not giving up on that — our culture is still alive, our language is still alive — and that makes Lahaina very important to us.”

The former royal capital city became a preferred destination for Hawaiian kings and queens and developed into not only a political hub, but a center of economic and education life in Hawaii.

By 1802, a leader from the Hawaii island, Kamehameha I (also known as Kamehameha the Great), had united all the islands into one kingdom and made Lahaina the royal seat of power. In Lahaina, Kamehameha began construction of the Brick Palace, the first Western-style brick structure on the island.

“Lahaina was the political center because Kamehameha made it the capital, but it was also the economic center, thanks to it supporting the whaling industry,” Chang said.

Before the discovery of crude petroleum for lubricants and fuel, whale oil was a major global commodity. “Lahaina became a globally important port with people from around the world anchoring their ships in the harbor, provisioning their ships and doing trade,” Chang said.

By late 1845, Lahaina drew an estimated 400 whaling ships to its ports per year, according to a letter a letter written by Christian missionary and doctor Dwight Baldwin — for whom Baldwin House is named. Whaling ships arriving to Lahaina would purchase water, livestock, and fruits and vegetables like bananas, melons, pumpkins and yams.

“The demand for produce of the islands encourages industry, it brings in clothing & other necessaries for the people & makes money more abundant on this than other islands,” Baldwin wrote, noting that the much of the wealth being drawn from Lahaina was already flowing “into the hands of foreigners.”

The arrival of American missionaries to the Hawaiian islands beginning in the 1820s ushered in another era in Lahaina’s history — one not without conflict.

The missionaries established the Lahainaluna Seminary to train ministers and other Hawaiian leaders. It is now houses a public high school.

“On the one hand, the missionaries were very much of a colonist mind-set,” Chang said. “At the same time, this was a place where native Hawaiian men were pursuing really advanced training, including collecting the first histories of Hawaii, editing books and publishing.”

A small, white cottage on the Lahainaluna campus housed Hale Pa‘i, the House of Printing, the first printing press on the island. The Hale Pa‘i produced Bibles and learning materials, as well as the island’s first newspaper — the four-page weekly called “Ka Lama Hawaii” — and the Hawaiian Kingdom’s first paper currency, according to the Lahaina Restoration Foundation.

When Hawaii’s capital was moved to Honolulu in 1845, it ended Lahaina’s reign as the center of political world, but the town remained a center of intellectual society, missionary energy and indigenous life.

“It remained an important city and a principal city in Maui,” Chang said. “Lahaina didn’t disappear.”

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