Hilo, My Home Town

About Hilo, Hawaiʻi

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Hilo [HEE lō] is the largest town on the Island of Hawaiʻi, with a population of over 43,000 people. It is the county seat of Hawaiʻi County, which encompasses the entire island. 

According to Wikipedia, Hilo is the county seat of the County of Hawaiʻi and is located in the District of South Hilo.[2] The town overlooks Hilo Bay, situated upon two shield volcanoes; Mauna Loa, an active volcano, and Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano and the site of some of the world’s most important ground-based astronomical observatories. The majority of human settlement in Hilo stretches from Hilo Bay to Waiākea-Uka, on the flanks of Mauna Loa.

Hilo is home to the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo, ʻImiloa Astronomy Center of Hawaiʻi, as well as the Merrie Monarch Festival, a week-long celebration of ancient and modern hula which takes place annually after Easter. Hilo is also home to the Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Corporation, one of the world’s leading producers of macadamia nuts. It is served by Hilo International Airport, located inside the CDP.[3]

The great Polynesian navigator and culture hero, Hilo, is said to have been one of the discoverers of Hawai`i, and so the fertile district of Hilo was granted him and named in his honor.

“Hilo” also means to twist fibers into a double helix, as when making rope, string, or thread. It also is the name of the first visible moon of the month, as the thin twist of moon looks like a piece of thread, and it is the name for the thin twisted thread of light that appears briefly on the ocean horizon just at dawn.

Hilo has been populated since ancient times. Many people lived above Hilo One [HEE lō OH-nay], from where the police station now stands to the medical center, and farmed the fertile lowlands. The area where the Wailoa Art Center and the Tsunami memorial now stand was Piopio, an exceptionally fertile area on which the royal compound for the chiefs of Hilo was built. Pai`ea Kamehamehaʻs own father, Keoua Kupuapāikalani,  spent his final days and died there. The area where today’s soccer fields are now was covered with taro fields.

The shoreline portion of Hilo is divided into three areas: Hilo Palikū [HEE-lō PAH-lee KOO]–the area fronted by the sea cliffs, Hilo One [HEE-lō OH-nay]–reaching from the Wailuku River to the Wailoa River, and Hilo Hanakahi [HEE-lō hah-nah–KAH-hee]–named for the beloved chief Hanakahi whose reign was marked by peace and prosperity.

Much of the prosperity of Hilo Hanakahi derived from its position on the windward side of the island, combined with the rich flood plain of Waiākea (“broad water”), where taro could be cultivated in abundance.

Many heiau (temples) attested to the prosperity of Hilo. Pinao Heiau, mauka in Pi`ihonua, was where Pai`ea had overturned the Naha stone. Just back from the northern bank of the Wailuku River was Kanoa Heiau. Kaipalaoa (Sperm Whale) Heiau sat on the southern banks. The village of Kaipalaoa was major trade center, where people from Hilo Palikū and the northern districts met the people of the southern portions of Hilo and Puna.

Makai of Piopio, approximately where Lili`uokalani Park is today, was the luakini heiau (temple of human sacrifice) for Hilo. Just offshore in the bay a pu`uhonua (place of refuge) occupied Moku Ola.

Pai`ea Kamehameha was familiar with the Hilo district from his youth. Kaipalaoa, across the Wailuku River from Pu`u`eo was a favorite surfing area, and at least eight excellent breaks could be found from Pu`u`eo to Waiākea.

Also, just a few years before the arrival of Capt. James Cook, Pai`ea was taken to Pinao Heiau in Pi`ihonua, where he overturned the Pōhaku Naha (Naha Stone), a foundation stone of ancient times, indicating he would fulfill the prophecy of a chief who would overturn the old order of Hawai`i.

He continued to visit Kaipalaoa throughout the years. On one visit, he decided to travel to Koloʻiki, the area now known as Reedʻs Island, on personal business, and ordered his bodyguard to stay behind to guard his canoe. He was gone far longer than expected, and the men became concerned and discussed heading mauka (inland) to see if their chief needed their aid. The incoming tide, however, would raise the canoe while they were gone, and it would float away.

One of the men suggested they make ropes to secure the canoe to the nearby coconut trees. He instructed the others on how to gather dry lā`ī (tī leaves), soak them in the sea water, and then twist them into strong ropes in the method known as “hilo.” They did this, and once the canoe was secured, they headed mauka to aid their chief. They soon met him, safe and sound, walking back to the canoe. Angry that they had not stayed with the canoe, he questioned them as to how they had assured its safety. They explained they had made a rope of lā`ī and secured it to the nearby coconut trees. The chief expressed surprise, as only people from Waipi`o practiced the hilo style of rope making. The man who had taught them explained that he was, indeed, from Waipi`o. To commemorate the event, Pai`iea Kamehameha re-named the village “Hilo.”

Hilo was a wealthy district with easy access to fresh water, the largest rivers on the island, and abundant forest resources. Koa, needed for building large canoes, hau, and niu, needed for rope making, taro, needed for carbohydrates to feed large numbers of people, and fishponds needed to provide protein and sea vegetables, were all in abundance in Hilo. Personally, Pai`ea Kamehameha was especially fond of the young mullet from the Wailoa pond.

With one of his closest advisors, Keaweaheulu Kaluaʻapana, married to the Ali`i Nui of Hilo, the high chiefess Ululani, Kamehameha had easy access to its resources.

In 1794, he decided to move his base of operations to Hilo, and celebrated that yearʻs Makahiki, the Hawaiian New Year and a major religious observance, at Moku Ola.

By 1795, Pai`ea Kamehameha had subjugated Hilo, Puna, and Ka`ū on Hawai`i, as well as the remaining southern Hawaiian islands: Maui, Moloka`i, Lāna`i, and O`ahu. The continued independence of the northern islands, Kauai and Ni`ihau which were ruled by Ali`i Nui Kaumuali`i, rankled him and he decided to do whatever it took to overwhelm Kaumuali`iʻs forces. He moved to the district of Hilo to build his Peleleu fleet, the largest navy the Pacific Ocean had known.

Keaweaheulu Kaluaʻapana was from a family with traditional ties to the Hilo chiefs, but in this case his loyalty lay with the Kohala chief, Pai`ea Kamehameha. With his chief now privy to all the strengths and weaknesses of Hilo, Ululani had had a choice of leading peaceful agrarian Hilo in a fight against the largest, best trained, and most heavily armed military force Hawai`i had ever known, or save her people’s lives by graciously playing hostess to the invading forces.

Heavy taxes were levied on the people of Hilo to provide food for the many artisans, shipwrights, rope makers, weavers, kahuna, and all who were needed to build the great broad canoes of the fleet, as well as the warriors who would man them.

The people of Hilo also paid taxes of koa logs, felled and dragged down the slopes from Haili, Mokaulele, and Kaūmana to the broad black sand beach of Hilo One. When complete, the flotilla was so large that the first wave of the invasion was landing on Maui before the last canoes were launched from the sands of Hilo.

While he was living in Hilo to oversee the building of his fleet, some of Pai`ea Kamehamehaʻs wives joined him. Keōpūolani became pregnant, and it was his wish that the child be born at Kukaniloko on O`ahu, a sacred birth center. However, she was too ill to travel, and so in 1797 Liholiho, the royal heir, was born in Hilo.

It was at this time that Pai`ea Kamehameha recalled the incident with the fisherman of Pāpa`i. He had all of the people of Hilo and Puna questioned as to the location of the man. At last the fisherman was brought before him. Everyone was convinced the man would be executed. Instead, Pai`ea Kamehameha asked his forgiveness. The chief then proclaimed Hawai`iʻs first national law:

Kānāwai Māmalahoe :

E nā kānaka,
E mālama ‘oukou i ke akua
A e mālama ho‘i ke kanaka nui a me kanaka iki;
E hele ka ‘elemakule, ka luahine, a me ke kama
A moe i ke ala
‘A‘ohe mea nāna e ho‘opilikia.
Hewa nō, make.

 Law of the Splintered Paddle:

Oh people,
Honor thy god;
Respect alike [the rights of] people both great and humble;
May everyone, from the old men and women to the children
Be free to go forth and lie in the road (i.e. by the roadside or pathway)
Without fear of harm.
Break this law, and die. 

Until that time, laws were not applied consistently, but at the whim of the ali`i or kahuna. Common people were essentially the property of the chiefs. With the proclamation of the Kānāwai Māmalahoe, Hawai`i counteracted centuries of royal prerogative with a law of human rights. In honor of the fishermanʻs attempt to defend himself, the law was named for the paddle which had been splintered over the chiefʻs head. To this day, the main road (known in English as the Belt Highway) around Hawai`i Island and runs more or less where the original royal road once lay, is named the Māmalahoa Highway.

In 1801, Hualalai, on the other side of the island, erupted. Pai`ea Kamehamehaʻs kahuna advised that he had not been generous enough with offerings to Pele, and that she wanted to eat the breadfruit in his orchards and the sweet fish in his ponds. He asked the kahuna to take additional offerings, but the kahuna stated that as the offence was the chiefʻs, the chief needed to go. He told the kahuna that if Pele was so angry, it was likely he would be killed. His two most prominent wives, Keōpūolani and Ka`ahumanu, said that if he were to die, they would be with him and die at his side. Ululani, the ali`i nui of Hilo, was related to Pele. As a member of the Pele clan, when her first child died in infancy the baby was taken to Pele to be deified and become an `aumakua. Ululani offered to go with the party to appeal to her child to intercede for them. At the flow, an unusual flame was seen dancing at the edge of the lava closest to them. The kahuna stated that this was Ululaniʻs child. The chiefesses followed Pai`ea Kamehameha in making offerings, but the eruption continued until he cut off his hair and cast it into the flow, which then stopped.

Shortly after the eruption, the Peleleu fleet was ready. “Peleleu” translates to English as “broad.” Compared to traditional Hawaiian war canoes, these were built short and broad with reinforced superstructure to accommodate European weaponry and rigging.

Since meeting Westerners, Kamehameha had astutely traded for goods to reinforce his social status and his military capability. By the time the 800 canoe Peleleu Fleet was complete he had amassed 14 cannon ranging from three to six pounders, 40 swivels, 6 mortars, and 600 muskets.

Shortly after returning from Hualalaiʻs cooling eruption, Pai`ea Kamehameha ordered the Peleleu Fleet to set sail for Maui

While the Peleleu Fleet was being constructed in Hilo, in his home district of Kohala, Pai`ea Kamehameha had ordered the establishment of a shipyard complete with forges and blacksmiths. There, Hawaiian and haole shipwrights constructed between 20 and 30 European style vessels of between 20 and 25 ton burthen. As the Peleleu Fleet reached the Alenuihāhā Channel the western-style ships were launched. In 1802, the massive fleet landed at Maui for staging. After a year of sea trials, training, and staging, the fleet, with nearly 8,000 trained warrior-seamen launched for O`ahu.

Final staging would be held on O`ahu. Pai`ea Kamehameha planned to throw the entire might of his military forces against Kaumuali`i, the Ali`i Nui of Kauai and Ni`ihau, the last remaining independent ruling chief in the Hawaiian Islands.

In 1804, while staging the fleet on O`ahu, disaster struck, and Pai`ea Kamehamehaʻs forces were devastated by cholera. The plan to invade Kauai was abandoned.

At last, in 1809, fearing that as separate kingdoms the islands would be overwhelmed by the larger and aggressively expanding Western nations, Kaumuali`i traveled to O`ahu to formally join the northern islands to the southern as a tributary kingdom. The entire chain was now one nation under Pai`ea Kamehameha.

Pai`ea Kamehameha maintained his seat of government on O`ahu for the next three years, but in 1812 decided to return to the island of his birth. Settling at Kamakahonu in Kailua-Kona, he ruled over his kingdom. He turned his skills in managing warfare to managing diplomatic affairs.


Appox 1758 – Pai`ea born, taken to Waipi`o

Approx 1760 – Pai`eaʻs father dies in Hilo

Approx 1763 – Pai`ea taken to court of Kalaniopu`u at Kailua, Hawai`i.

Approx 1770 – Pai`ea overturns Pōhaku Naha

1779 – Pai`ea meets Capt. James Cook

1781 – Kalaniopu`u dies

1782 – Pai`ea engages in open rebellion

1783 – Fishermen attacked

1792 – Pu`ukohoa Heiau consecrated with body of Keōuakū`ahu`ula

1794 – Pai`ea Kamehameha celebrates Makahiki at Moku Ola, Hilo. Hilo begins to function as base of operations

1796 – Pai`ea Kamehameha moves full-time to Hilo, starts building Peleleu Fleet

1797 – Keōpūolani gives birth in Hilo to Pai`ea Kamehameha’s highest ranking son,  Liholiho (Kamehameha II)

1797 – Kānāwai Māmalahoe proclaimed

1801 – Hualalai erupts, Pai`ea Kamehameha, his wives, and Hilo Ali`i Ululani travel to the eruption to make offerings

1802 – Peleleu fleet sails for Maui

1804 – Plans to invade Kauai abandoned

1809 – Kaumuali`i and Kamehameha unite their kingdoms

1812 – Kamehameha returns to Moku Hawai`i

1819 – Pai`ea Kamehameha dies, Liholiho becomes Mō`ī

Below are some Hilo-related things we recommend: