In ancient Hawai‘i, most of the makaʻāinana (‘common people’) were farmers, a few were fishermen. Tenants cultivated smaller crops for family consumption, to supply the needs of chiefs and provide tributes.
“The people had ample cultivable land in the moist upland from two to four miles inland at altitudes of one thousand to twenty-five hundred feet. … The soil is most fertile, being formed from the decay of recent lava flows.”
“There the natives found their chief means of subsistence, and, in good seasons, were sufficiently fed. In bad seasons there were droughts, and more or less of ‘wī,’ or famine.” (Bishop)
The food plants of Hawaiʻi can be divided into three groups: those known as staple foods (the principal starchy foods – kalo (taro,) ʻuala (sweet potato,) ʻulu (breadfruit,) etc;) those of less importance (to add nutrients and variety to the diet;) and those known as famine foods. (Krauss)
Food shortages and famines result from a variety of events: natural disasters, drought, or even the unrelated consequence of political or economic policy. We saw the latter in the Islands when sandalwood harvesting took people away from farming.
“The chiefs also were ordered to send out their men to cut sandalwood. Because the chiefs and commoners in large numbers went out cutting and carrying sandalwood, famine was experienced from Hawaii to Kauai. … The people were forced to eat herbs and fern trunks, because there was no food to be had. “
“When Kamehameha saw that the country was in the grip of a severe famine, he ordered the chiefs and commoners not to devote all their time to cutting sandalwood, and also proclaimed all sandalwood to be the property of the government. Kamehameha then turned and ordered the chiefs and the people under them to farm. (Kamakau; Kuykendall)
There were three approaches to the use of famine food; these included: the use of plants that were not usually eaten but, even if not deliberately planted, were provided at least rudimentary agricultural attention; the use of wild plants that were obtained from natural forest; and the setting aside of land for cultivation, but for use only under emergency conditions. (Campbell)
According to Hawaiian traditions, the ʻuala (sweet potato) was not only a primary staple food, it was also a food to deal with famine, as noted in the following ʻōlelo noʻeau:
He ʻuala ka ʻai hoʻola koke i ka wi
The sweet potato is the food that ends famine quickly
ʻUala is in the Morning Glory family and grows easy and it grows fast – within 4-5 months of planting (as opposed to nine to eighteen months for taro), ʻuala is cultivated for their enlarged primary roots called tubers (the primary food from the ʻuala,) while leaves can also be eaten.
Tubers were also used as bait for fishing; Vines were used to make an under cushion for lauhala mats in houses; and Fermented ʻuala “beer” (ʻuala ʻawaʻawa) brewed (but it is unclear if this is a pre-contact practice.) (Bishop Museum)
ʻUala, sweet potato, was a canoe crop (it was brought to Hawaiʻi by the Polynesians, who brought with them shoots, roots, cuttings and seeds of various plants for food, cordage, medicine, fabric, containers, all of life’s vital needs.)
Another food recognized, not only in the Islands but across the world, as an important staple, as well as famine food, is ʻulu (breadfruit.)
Tradition traces its origin to a time of famine when Kū, the god of building and war, buried himself in the earth near his home. He later turned into an ʻulu tree so that his wife and children would not starve. (Pukui)
“If a man plant ten breadfruit trees in his life, which he can do in about an hour, he would completely fulfil his duty to his own as well as future generations.” (Joseph Banks, 1769)
Banks had been on the Endeavour with Captain Cook on his first voyage to the South Pacific in 1768-1771. William Bligh was part of the Cook’s crew on its third voyage when it made contact with Hawaiʻi in 1778.
Bligh later captained the Bounty on a voyage to gather breadfruit trees from Tahiti and take them to Jamaica in the Caribbean. There, the trees would be planted to provide food for slaves.
Bligh didn’t make it back on the Bounty, his crew mutinied (April 28, 1789;) one reason for the mutiny was that the crew believed Bligh cared more about the breadfruit than them (he cut water rationing to the crew in favor of providing water for the breadfruit plants.)
ʻUlu (breadfruit) was another canoe crop – one of around 30 plants brought to the Hawaiian Islands by the Polynesians when they first arrived in Hawaiʻi.
“This tree, whose fruit is so useful, if not necessary, to the inhabitants of most of the islands of the South Seas, has been chiefly celebrated as a production of the Sandwich Islands; it is not confined to these alone, but is also found in all the countries bordering on the Pacific Ocean.” (Book of Trees, 1837)
The breadfruit is multipurpose, it may be eaten ripe as a fruit or under-ripe as a vegetable – it is roasted, baked, boiled, fried, pickled, fermented, frozen, mashed into a puree, and dried and ground into meal or flour.
Another famine food, but not part of the typical cultivated plants, was hāpuʻu (tree fern.) Another ʻōlelo noʻeau notes that when the hāpuʻu was eaten, it was a time of famine:
He hāpuʻu ka ʻai he ai make”
If the hāpuʻu is the food, it is the food of death
Other crop plants that also served as famine food was: maiʻa (banana,) kō (sugarcane,) ki (ti,) noni (Indian Mulberry) and others.