Wahi Pana: Honolulu, a.k.a. Kou

#106 in the Moʻolelo series

According to former Kamehameha Schools Hawaiian history teacher Kāwika Makanani, a mentor of mine, the area around Aloha Tower was called Kou. It was a small fishing village. And according to Keao NeSmith, who has done extensive research on the area, it was part of the ahupuaʻa of Pauoa. “Honolulu” – sheltered harbor or bay – was a kind of marketing scheme to attract foreign ships. The larger bay fronting the entire area to Waikīkī is called Mamala Bay. NeSmith also points out that Kakaʻako is not the area we call by that name today, but a no longer extant beach near Aloha Tower. Another name that has been forgotten by many is that of the moku, or district, in which “Honolulu” lies – Kona.*

Prior to about 1820, this was not an important area. Lahaina, Maui was the capital and ports like Hilo were much more important. But the bay formed by Sand Island made for a safe harbor and the “marketing” worked. Peter Young (2020) notes that “Honolulu Harbor (it was earlier known as Kuloloia) was entered by the first foreigner, Captain William Brown of the English ship Butterworth, in 1794” So many ships harbored at Honolulu that it eventually became the capital of the Kingdom. But it was important long before this official move. This occurred during the reign of Kamehameha III, who built the first version of ʻIolani Palace (named for his older brother Kalani-Kua Liholiho ʻIolani – Kamehameha II), a wooden structure on the same site as the present Palace.

According to Peter Young:

They called the harbor “Fair Haven” which may be a rough translation of the Hawaiian name Honolulu (it was also sometimes called Brown’s Harbor.) The name Honolulu (meaning “sheltered bay” – with numerous variations in spelling) soon came into use.

Tradewinds blow from the Northeast; the channel into Honolulu Harbor has a northeasterly alignment. Early ships calling to Honolulu were powered only by sails. The entrance to the harbor was narrow and lined on either side with reefs. Ships don’t sail into the wind. Given all of this, Honolulu Harbor was difficult to enter.

Boats either anchored off-shore, or they were pulled into the harbor (this was done with canoes; or, it meant men and/or oxen pulled them in.)

It might take eight double canoes with 16-20 men each, working in the pre-dawn calm when winds and currents were slow. In 1816 (as stories suggest,) Richards Street alignment was the straight path used by groups of men, and later oxen, to pull ships through the narrow channel into the harbor. (Richards Street was named for a man selling luggage to tourists in his shop on that street.)

Peter Young, Images of Old Hawaiʻi, 2020

The harbor was sheltered but not deep. It was later that it was dredged to accommodate the deeper draft of foreign ships. This was done in stages, some during the Kingdom, a major dredging was undertaken during the Republic period in 1896 and another in the early Territorial period. The various piers were also constructed in this period between the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Young notes:

With the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 and anticipated increased trans-Pacific shipping, government and business planned to further enlarge Honolulu Harbor by dredging Kalihi Channel and Kapālama Basin.

Peter Young, Images of Old Hawaiʻi, 2020
Honolulu/Kou ca. 1820

Much of the land that comprises present-day Honolulu is not real land, but backfill, including the area of Restaurant Row (Waterfront Plaza) and also Pier 38. The shoreline used to be near the Mission Houses at King St, Mission Lane and South Street. Today this area is about a quarter mile inland. King’s Path ran East-West through the area and later became King’s Road and then King Street. Beretania Street was named to recognize Hawaiʻi’s allegiance with Britain – “Britannia” is a name used for the British Empire – around the time of the Paulet Affair and Lā Hoʻihoʻi Ea. Bishop Street, the “Wall Street of the Pacific” is named for Charles Reed and Bernice Pauahi Bishop, whose house, Haleakalā, was at the corner of present-day Bishop and King streets. (The couple moved to Keoua Hale after inheriting it from Ruth Keʻelikōlani). Tamarind Park, a private courtyard at this corner, is roughly the site of their home, and recognized a beloved Tamarind tree on the property (the preserved stump still exists at the Kamehameha Chapel).

*The Kamehameha site Kumukahi notes:

The name Kona is not unique to Oʻahu. We most often hear it used for the leeward district on Hawaiʻi Island. But it is also the name of districts on Molokaʻi, Kauaʻi, and Niʻihau. The name comes from our Polynesian kūpuna. “Kona” is the same as “Tonga” in some other Polynesian languages, and it can refer to the southerly or the leeward side of an island. 


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