So this weekend I got a chance to spend a few days relaxing over on the Big Island. And me being the history nerd that I am, I insisted on visiting the imposing and extremely well preserved Pu‘ukohola Heiau, site of perhaps the second most important death in Hawaii in the last couple of centuries (the most important being the killing of Captain James Cook at Kealakekua Bay a few dozen miles away).
It’s an impressive site. It was clear the day I went, and I could easily see Haleakala off in the distance. That’s significant, because as is well known, Pu‘ukohola is where Kamehameha I really got his spiritual start in conquering the Hawaiian islands.
Bolstered by a prophecy that he would rule the archipelago if he built a massive heiau to the war god Ku, Kamehameha ordered its construction in 1790 (he personally even helped move rocks, according to the National Park Service). When it was done a year later, the ever cagey Kamehameha invited his cousin–and greatest Hawaii Island rival–Keoua Kuahu‘ula to the dedication ceremony. As for what happened next, I’ll let the National Park Service (NPS) explain:
“Perhaps awed by the power of the heiau and its god, perhaps resigned to the ascendancy of his cousin, Keoua Kuahu‘ula came willingly to what would be his doom,” states the NPS brochure given out at the heiau. “When he arrived there was a scuffle and, whether Kamehameha intended it or not, Keoua and almost all his companions were slain. The body of Keoua was carried to the heiau and offered as the principle sacrifice to Ku.”
If Keoua knew he was no match for Kamehameha and yet still walked to his own death, then his demise is a chilling but provocative example of how a leader can give up power honorably. Indeed, there’s a powerful Herb Kane painting (“The Arrival of Keoua Below Pu’ukohola”) hanging in the visitor center that seems to show exactly this realism: he knew he was done and he accepted it.
Ironically, the day I visited Pu‘ukohola Heiau–Saturday, Aug. 30–Hawaii Governor Neil Abercrombie offered up a prime and unfortunate example of how not to deal with impending loss. He did this in that most modern of ways–by telling reporters that his August Primary reelection loss was due to Republicans who nefariously voted for Democratic candidate David Ige as a way of punishing Abercrombie over his support for same-sex marriage.
“Republicans crossed over en masse to vote in the Democratic primary, and then the religious factor came in,” Abercrombie said, according to an Aug. 30 Associated Press story. “Doctrinally I was outside the circle and paid for it.”
I’m not going to outline here all the reasons why voters kicked Abercrombie to the curb last month (you can read our Aug. 13 story “Why Gov. Neil Abercrombie Lost & Other Things We Learned From The Hawaii Primary Election” for that). But the always dry AP did very briefly explain why Abercrombie’s claim is whiny nonsense:
“Voters interviewed at polling stations by The Associated Press did not mention gay marriage as their reason for voting for other candidates,” stated the story. “Instead they complained about the way Abercrombie handled contract negotiations with teachers and his proposal to tax pensioners.”
Look, this paper actually liked the Abercrombie Administration, thought he did a solid job as governor and endorsed him for reelection. And he can go into retirement any way he likes. But it would be wise for him to remember that Hawaii has had many leaders in its past and how we remember them now is due to actions they took while they were alive.
Photo of Pu’ukohala Heiau: National Park Service/Hawaii Natural History Association