Wahi Pana: Lāhaina

#80 in the Moʻolelo series. I write about Lāhaina often, but this will be the first of several in a “sub-series” about wahi pana – storied places – which I think are prominent features of any Hawaiian understanding of history. Iʻm thinking of doing Waianae and Waipiʻo next.

Lāhaina, West Maui

Many people don’t know that Lāhaina was the former capital of Hawaiʻi. Mokuʻula, an island of sorts in Lele – Lāhaina was proverbially known as ka malu ʻulu o Lele – was the royal residence during the reigns of Kamehameha II and III. The name Lāhaina means “cruel sun,” and believe me, it’s apt. Waiola church, next to Mokuʻula, is one of the earliest churches in Hawaiʻi, and the burial place of Kaʻahumanu, Kaumualiʻi and Nahiʻenaʻena. And, of course, the oldest school in Hawaiʻi, Lahainaluna, which Iʻve written about extensively was above the town. A large “L” is carved into the mountain far above even Lahainaluna, which it seems is a source of pride to some and an eyesore to others (it is often angled out of depictions of Lāhaina, whether photographic or painterly) – but it’s the size of a football field and in person you canʻt miss it.

The young Kamehameha III lived in Lāhaina until he built ʻIolani Palace (the first version) in Honolulu

Lāhainaʻs heyday was certainly during the whaling period, roughly 1830-1865, but it transitioned into a sugar town. In fact, it could be argued that the idea of the sugar industry originated there – David Malo was probably the first to suggest that sugar wold grow well in Hawaiʻi. Lāhaina still retains the look of a classic port town; the Carthaginian, a whaling ship, was still docked there until recently, Pioneer Inn, the remains of the fort that guarded the capital and the prison where they threw the drunken sailors is still there on Prison Street. Town regulations require development along Front Street to retain the look of the whaling period and even the mall in Lahaina is called The Wharf and the one in Kaʻanapali is called Whaler’s Village.

Illustration of Lahaina, Island of Maui, from Northern California, Oregon, and the Sandwich Islands by Charles Nordhoff. (Wikimedia commons)

The National Park Service recognized Lāhaina’s historic nature:

In the early 1830’s Kamehameha III commissioned the building of a two-story stone structure to be located a mile away from the homes of the missionaries. The King wanted a building that would serve as an inn and store for visiting sailors as well as a place where he could go to relax. In 1844, the U.S. Department of State leased the building to use as a hospital for sick and injured seamen, particularly whalers. The U.S. Seamen’s Hospital officially closed in September 1862, as whaling was beginning to decline. The building was used as a boarding school and a private home and was eventually acquired by the Lahaina Restoration Foundation. Today the U.S. Seamen’s Hospital is leased out for private offices.

In 1845, the capital of the Kingdom of Hawai’i was relocated to the city of Honolulu on the Island of Oahu and Lahaina became an occasional royal residence. By the 1860s, the whaling industry began to collapse and the prosperity that came with the whaling ships began to decline. In 1861, a sugar mill, later known as the Pioneer Mill Company, was established in Lahaina and sugar production eventually became the primary industry in West Maui. With the growth of large sugar plantations, Lahaina transitioned into a quiet plantation town.


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