After sailing around the island and exploring its northern and eastern sides, Captain Cook landed at Kealakekua Bay early in 1779.
When Cook arrived at Kealakekua, “they called Captain Cook Lono (after the god Lono who had gone away promising to return).” (Kamakau)
When Cook went ashore, he was taken to Hiki‘au Heiau and was seated above the altar and covered with a cloak of red tapa like that about the images.
Both chiefs and commoners said to each other, “This is indeed Lono, and this is his heiau come across the Sea from Moa-ʻula-nui-akea (land in Raʻiatea in the Society Islands) across Mano-wai-nui-kai-oʻo!” (Kamakau)
There are a number of reasons why the people may have thought Cook was the god Lono:
- He arrived during the Makahiki festival, a time when the god Lono symbolically returned from his travels
- Like Lono, Cook had come to the Hawaiian people from the sea
- The shapes of the English ships were reminiscent of the kapa cloth and upright standards used in the Makahiki parades
- Cook’s ships had sailed around Hawai’i clockwise, the same direction followed by Lono’s processions
- Kealakekua, where Cook’s ships anchored, was the site of the important Hiki‘au Heiau dedicated to Lono
When Kalani‘ōpu‘u (Ali‘i ʻAimoku (High Chief or King) of the Island of Hawai‘i) met with Cook, he treated him with hospitality, giving him hogs, taro, potatoes, bananas and other provisions.
In addition, he gave feather capes, helmets, kahili, feather lei, wooden bowls, tapa cloths and finely woven mats. Cook gave Kalani’ōpu’u gifts in return.
When Captain Vancouver visited the islands in the 1790s, he provided the following description of Hiki‘au:“Adjoining one side of the Square was the great Morai (heiau,) where there stood a kind of steeple (‘anu‘u) that ran up to the height of 60 or 70 feet, …”
“… it was in square form, narrowing gradually towards the top where it was square and flat; it is built of very slight twigs & laths, placed horizontally and closely, and each lath hung with narrow pieces of white Cloth.”
“… next to this was a House occupied by the Priests, where they performed their religious ceremonies and the whole was enclosed by a high railing on which in many parts were stuck skulls of those people, who had fallen victims to the Wrath of their Deity.. . . In the center of the Morai stood a preposterous figure carved out of wood larger than life representing the . . . supreme deity. . ..”
John Papa I‘i wrote that in ca. 1812-1813, shortly after Kamehameha’s return to Hawai‘i, the king celebrated the Makahiki and in the course of doing so he rededicated Hiki‘au, “the most important heiau in the district of Kona”.
In 1819, Louis de Freycinet also visited Hiki‘au Heiau and stated: “The one [temple] of Riorio (Liholiho) in Kayakakoua (Kealakekua) was surrounded by a simple square palisade in the center of which were twelve hideous idols of gigantic proportions. …”
“Next to them rose the light wooden obelisk-like structure that we mentioned earlier and then a small terrace surrounding a wooden platform, which was supported by two stakes driven into the ground. This platform is where they sacrifice men and animals to these terrible deities.”
“… A rather large number of rocks, piled here and there without any seeming order, covered the ground. … In the center, as well as to the extreme right of the enclosure, stood wooden huts covered with palm leaves. One of these was reserved for the king during certain ceremonies and others for the priests.”
As a side note, you recall that Henry ʻŌpūkahaʻia left Hawai‘i in 1809 and sailed to the continent where he eventually inspired the first missionaries to volunteer to carry the message of Christianity to the islands.
ʻŌpūkahaʻia had wanted to join them in spreading the word of Christianity back home in Hawaiʻi, but died in 1818 of typhus fever before the first company of missionaries sailed to Hawaiʻi in 1819, landing at Kailua-Kona on April 4, 1820.
It is interesting to note that ʻŌpūkahaʻia (prior to leaving the islands) had been under the direction of his uncle, a kahuna (priest) at the Hiki‘au Heiau. It had been the hope of his uncle that Opukahaʻia would take his place as the kahuna at Hiki‘au Heiau.