Cook had first arrived in Hawai’i in 1778, stopping off at Kauai; however, his return the following year coincided with the annual Makahiki, the season that honored Lono with tribute offerings, feasting, competitive games, and hula performances. Traditionally warfare was taboo during this period.
The emblem of Lono was an upright pole with crossbeam and hanging tapa cloth, which the Hawaiians likened to the mast and sails of the European ships.
During this visit to Hawai’i Island, Cook performed the first Christian ceremony at Hikiau Heiau, a funeral service for a crew member who had died January 28, 1779.
Within days, Cook’s ships departed and all would have gone well, but fate ordained otherwise. A broken mast forced Cook’s return to Kealakekua Bay for repairs.
By then the Makahiki had ended and attitudes had changed. There followed a skirmish at the water’s edge fronting Ka’awaloa village (a residence of ruling Chief Kalani‘ōpu‘u), and Captain Cook was slain.
Cook’s body was then taken to nearby Puhina o Lono Heiau for traditional Hawaiian rites that included cooking and cleaning flesh from his bones, an honor afforded to only the highest and most sacred Hawaiian chiefs. (Ala Kahakai)
“Some of Cook’s bones, considered sacred, were deposited in a heiau (temple) dedicated to Rono, on the opposite side of the island.”
“There religious homage was paid to them, and from thence they were annually carried in procession to several other temples, or borne by the priests around the island, to collect the offerings of the people for the support of the worship of the god Rono.”
“The bones were preserved in a small basket of wickerwork completely covered over with red feathers, which in those days were considered to be symbols of kingship or godship, and were the most valuable articles the natives possessed.”
Ellis stated that since the time of his arrival in the islands, in company with the deputation from the London Missionary Society in 1822, every endeavour had been made to learn, though without success, whether Cook’s bones were still kept, and their location.
All the Hawaiians of whom inquiry had been made had asserted that they were formerly kept by the priests of Rono, and worshipped as sacred objects.
“Whenever we have asked the king, or Hevaheva, the chief priest, or any of the chiefs, they have either told us they were under the care of those who had themselves said they knew nothing about them, or that they were now lost.”
“The best conclusion we may form is that part of Captain Cook’s bones were preserved by the priests, and were considered sacred by the people probably till the abolition of idolatry in 1819; that, at that period they were committed to the secret care of some chief, or deposited by the priests who had charge of them, in a cave, unknown to all besides themselves.”
“The manner in which they were then disposed of will, it is presumed, remain a secret, till the knowledge of it is entirely lost.” (Lack)
“At about one mile from the shore on the hill is a monument, erected in 1825 by Lord Byron, Captain of his Britannic majesty’s frigate ‘Blond,’ to the memory of Captain Cook. It consists of a simple wall of lava about five feet high, embracing a square of twenty feet, in the centre of which is a cedar post, twelve feet in height, and near the top a copper plate, with this inscription:”
“‘In memory of Captain James Cook, R. N., Who discovered these Islands, in the year of our Lord, 1778. This humble monument is erected by his fellow countrymen, in the year of our Lord, 1825.’”
“This post is completely covered with the initials of persons who have from time to time visited the spot, chiefly the masters, officers, and crews of vessels”. (Townsend)
Puhina o Lono (literally meaning ‘to burn Lono’, also sometimes referred to as “Cook’s Heiau”) was succinctly first described by archaeologists as “an enclosure where the bones of Captain Cook were extracted”.
There are two written accounts of visits to Puhina o Lono in the years immediately following the abolition of traditional religion in 1819, one by the missionary William Ellis and the other by the English naturalist Andrew Bloxam.
In 1823, Ellis travelled along the coast of Kealakekua Bay and gives a second-hand account of the upcountry site of Puhina o Lono:
“… Mr. Goodrich ascended a neighboring height, and visited the spot where the body of the unfortunate Captain Cook was cut to pieces, and the flesh, after being separated from the bones, was burnt.”
“It is a small enclosure, about fifteen feet square, surrounded by a wall five feet high; within is a kind of hearth, raised about eighteen inches from the ground, and encircled by a curb of rude stones. Here the fire was kindled on the above occasion; and the place is still strewed with charcoal. (Ellis)
A second visit to the site on July 15, 1825 is recounted in the journal of Andrew Bloxam. Bloxam describes a small group of British
Sailors – including himself, Lord George Anson Byron and other members of crew of the HMS Blonde …
… who were taken to the site by a local chief named Naihe (also referred to as Nahi) and told that this was the “spot where Captain Cook’s body was taken and cut up immediately after he was killed”.
Bloxam does, go into great detail in his description of the creation of a monument to Cook consisting of a “stone pyramid” with a wooden post holding a brass plaque:
In the center of this [enclosure] Lord Byron, Mr. Ball, Davis and I laid the first four stones of a pyramid to form the base of a monument to his memory.
A large post was fixed in the middle of this, and on the top was nailed a brass plate, with the following words engraved upon it: To the memory of Captain James Cook, R.N., who discovered these islands in the year of our Lord 1778. This humble monument was erected by his fellow countrymen in the year of our Lord 1825. (Flexner & McCoy)
The layout of the site and its surrounding features suggest that this was not a simple or small structure, a fact that in our view makes it unlikely it was specially built in the short time that elapsed between Captain Cook’s death and when his body was partially returned to his crew.
It is oriented to the local landform, rather than to a particular sacred direction; northeast being expected if it were dedicated to Lono. Further, there is documentary evidence to support the notion that at the time of contact the site was not used as a heiau.
An 1883 Hawaiian Government survey map of Kealakekua Bay shows the site as a rectangular enclosure labelled as Puhina o “Lono”.
While other sites on the 1883 map were identified as “Old Heiau”, Puhina o Lono was not. Other early references to Puhina o Lono also do not refer to it as a heiau. The site only begins to be referred to as a heiau in the 20th century, first as Puhina o Lono Heiau (USGS 1928) and later as Cook’s Heiau (USGS 1959).
If the site of Puhina o Lono was not purpose-built to process Cook’s body, and is also not a good fit for the architectural forms of heiau, there are a number of other possible roles it could have played in the ritual landscape.
“One scenario that we see as likely is that this structure was used in the preparation of high chiefs for burial. The close proximity of burial caves, and its placement outside both the primary coastal and upland residential zones, is circumstantial evidence supporting this interpretation.”
“(I)t would appear that Cook’s remains may have been treated in much the same fashion as a high chief, rather than requiring some new hitherto unknown and exceptional religious ritual apparatus.”
“While this is far from definitively settling the ‘apotheosis or not’ debate regarding Cook, it pushes us to think about how sites of religious ritual were being used in the earliest days of the post-contact period.”
“The timing of the HMS Blonde’s visit to Ka‘awaloa, so closely following the abolition of traditional religion is certainly a factor; but far more important to understanding this event is the purpose of the HMS Blonde’s visit to Hawai‘i.”
“Almost exactly a year earlier, Liholiho (King Kamehameha II) and his wife Queen Kamāmalu died from measles on a visit to the UK. The HMS Blonde returned the royal bodies to O‘ahu, then proceeded to Ka‘awaloa with the explicit purpose of creating a monument to Cook.”
“The placement of the monument in the centre of the enclosure, the same location as the hearth where Cook’s body was burnt, may have been deemed correct (pono) for the crew who had played a pivotal role in bringing the king and queen back to Hawai‘i for burial.”
“In sum, the monument’s construction does not necessarily indicate that the site was de-sacralised in a material expression of the wholesale replacement of one set of beliefs and values with another.”
“Rather, the specific historical context suggests the re-use of building materials in a continuously sacred, if transformed, architecture.” (Flexner & McCoy)