The modern urban district of Kaka‘ako is comprised primarily of the ‘ili (land section) of Kaʻākaukukui, Kukuluāeʻo and Kewalo, all part of the ahupua‘a of Honolulu.
A typical ahupuaʻa (what we generally refer to as watersheds, today) was a long strip of land, narrow at its mountain summit top and becoming wider as it ran down a valley into the sea to the outer edge of the reef. If there was no reef then the sea boundary would be about one and a half miles from the shore.
Some ahupuaʻa were subdivided into units (still part of the ahupuaʻa) called ʻili. Some of the smallest ahupuaʻa were not subdivided at all, while the larger ones sometimes contained as many as thirty or forty ʻili, each named with its own individual title and carefully marked out as to boundary.
Occasionally, the ahupuaʻa was divided into ʻili lele (“jumping strips”.) The ʻili lele often consisted of several distinct pieces of land at different climatic zones that gave the benefit of the ahupuaʻa land use to the ʻili owner: the shore, open kula lands, wetland kalo land and forested sections.
Like adjoining makai lands of Kaʻākaukukui and Kukuluāe’o, Kewalo, is an ʻili lele. It was awarded to Kamakeʻe Piʻikoi, wife of Jonah Piʻikoi (grandparents of Prince Kūhiō;) the award was shared between husband and wife. The lower land section extended from Kawaiahaʻo Church to Sheridan Street down to the shoreline.
The ʻIli Lele of Kewalo had a lower coastal area adjoining Waikīkī and below the Plain (Kulaokahu‘a) (270+ acres,) a portion makai of Pūowaina (Punchbowl) (50-acres, about one-half of Pūowaina,) a portion in Nuʻuanu (about 8-acres) and kalo loʻi in Pauoa Valley (about 1-acre.)
The makai portion of the Kewalo region was described by missionary Hiram Bingham, as he stood atop “Punchbowl Hill” looking toward Waikīkī to the south, as the “plain of Honolulu” with its “fishponds and salt making pools along the seashore”. (Bingham)
Another visitor to Honolulu in the 1820s, Capt. Jacobus Boelen, gives similar insight to the possible pre-contact character of the Kewalo area:
“It would be difficult to say much about Honoruru (honolulu.) On its southern side is the harbor or the basin of that name. The landlocked side in the northwest consists mostly of tarro (kalo, taro) fields. …”
“From the north toward the east, where the beach forms the bight of Whytetee (Waikīkī,) the soil around the village is less fertile, or at least not greatly cultivated.” (Cultural Surveys)
The undeveloped natural condition of the Kewalo area once consisted of low-lying marshes, tidal flats, fish ponds, reef and limited areas of dry land.
However, during pre-contact times, Hawaiians used it for salt making and farming of fishponds along with some limited wetland taro agriculture, and this supported habitation sites clustered around the mauka (inland) boundary up to King Street.
The salt marshes were excellent places to gather pili grass for the thatching of houses, which may have led to the area’s name: Kaka‘ako (prepare the thatching.)
Beginning in the late-nineteenth century, these low-lying areas were filled in and then developed, which permanently changed the area into its present fully-urbanized character. (Cultural Surveys)
The Kaka‘ako area has been heavily modified over the last 150 years due to historic filling for land reclamation. During the first half of the twentieth century, the marshlands, kalo and rice fields, and reefs were filled to accommodate the expanding urbanization of Honolulu.
The original foot path at the edge of the former coastline has been transformed through time to a horse path, buggy and cart path, and finally to the widened Ala Moana Boulevard.
It continued to be outside Waikīkī and Honolulu during the post-Contact era and served as a place of the dying and the dead, of isolation and quarantine (leper, smallpox, cholera and bubonic patients,) of trash (the city’s dump) and wastelands, and the poor and the immigrant (Japanese, Chinese, Filipino and Portuguese.)
Kewalo literally means “the calling (as an echo).” Outcasts (kauwā) intended for sacrifice were drowned in a pond here as the first step in a sacrificial ritual known as Kānāwai Kaihehe‘e or Ke-kai-he‘ehe‘e, which translates as “sea sliding along,” suggesting that the victims were slid under the sea. (Cultural Surveys)
The priest holding the victim’s head under water would say to her or him on any signs of struggling, “Moe malie i ke kai o ko haku.” “Lie still in the waters of your superiors.” From this it was called Kawailumalumai, “Drowning waters.” (Cultural Surveys)
Today, Kewalo and the district of Kakaʻako are an important link between Honolulu and Waikīkī and are undergoing tremendous commercial and residential redevelopment and is well on its way as a vibrant place to live, work, play and learn, within easy distance between the two commercial centers.