Lahaina has been at the center of life in the Hawaiian Islands almost since the first Polynesian colonizers aboard their voyaging canoes began arriving here between 300 and 700 C.E. It didn't take long for the new arrivals to figure out the many desirable qualities of Lahaina and Maui's West Side.
With its roots firmly planted in the islands' deep past, Lahaina has developed in stages: First as a thriving native village, then in sequence; a raucous seaport, a place for the early missionaries to take a stand against the evils of Western civilization, and a plantation and canning town where immigrant Japanese entrepreneurs built a beehive of stores, shops and services for the expanding community.
Its location, about equidistant between the southern coast of Hawai'i Island and Kaua'i and Ni'ihau in the north, made Lahaina the crossroads for social contact, commerce and warfare in the islands' early days. Travelers, traders and warriors alike found Lahaina's gentle leeward-side waters and coastline, near perfect climate, and abundance of fresh water to their liking when their missions required them to journey in their outrigger canoes between the islands.
Much of present-day Lahainatown remains from the thriving 1920–30 era when proprietors lived above their stores and shops. Even new building architecture must conform to the old in the Historic District of old Lahainatown.
Though the name Lahaina means "cruel sun," the area was once a tropical Garden of Eden nourished by free-?owing streams rushing through the deeply cut canyons from the mountains that rise behind the coastal plain like a theatrical backdrop. The streams ?owed from the alluvial hillsides and were channeled through well-developed taro and sweet potato terraces that lined their banks. Palm trees and bananas thrived along the streams and usually gentle coast.
When the fresh water reached the ?at plain that skirted the ocean it was skillfully diverted and channeled by man-made canals that crisscrossed the whole area to connect and control the streams. Early sailors, who began finding their way here to what Capt. Cook called the Sandwich Islands, characterized the area as "the Venice of the Pacific."
The written history of Lahaina begins after Capt. James Cook stumbled upon these islands in 1778, and the arrival in subsequent years of trading ships, whalers, missionaries, planters, canners, the U.S. Navy and finally, tourists.
By 1790, the ambitious Kamehameha had conquered Maui and made Lahaina the defacto capitol of his new Hawaiian kingdom. Both his sons made Lahaina their center of operations until Kamehameha III moved the official capitol to Honolulu in 1850.
After the first arrivals of the Christian missionaries from America in 1820, they soon chose Lahaina as one of the key sites for their activities. Education was a high priority of both the monarchy and the missionaries. The missionaries developed Lahainaluna Seminary in 1831 and included a printing press for making Hawaiian language bibles, hymnals and teaching materials in the newly devised written Hawaiian language. Both were historic events, being the first school and first printing house West of the Rockies.
At different times in its history Lahaina has provided safe anchorage for such diverse naval ?eets as thousands of Kamehameha's war canoes, hundreds of whaling ships wintering in the calm roads and friendly town, and global trading ships loading cargo and re-supplying for their long voyages.
During WWII, hundreds of Navy ships with thousands of sailors, soldiers and marines on board used Lahainatown as a safe harbor and liberty port while training and preparing to assault the Japanese-held islands of the Pacific.
After WWII, Waikiki and Lahaina began developing under the pressure of more and more visitors with sunshine and sand on their minds. Sleepy old Lahaina was about to become a place of soaring hotels and condominiums.
But, in 1961, with uncommon foresight and out of concern that Lahaina would become the next Waikiki, the Maui County Council wisely made Lahainatown the state's first Historic District, relegating all the new hotels in the area to Ka'anapali Beach. Later, Lahaina became one of the first areas in the nation to win a National Historic Landmark designation.
Today, Lahaina still provides safe anchorage for fishing boats, tourist excursion boats and cruise ships seeking the myriad pleasures of shopping and onshore activities available to passengers and visiting tourists alike.
But Lahaina survives, even thrives on adversity and constant change. She has survived tidal waves, horrific winds, devastating fires, marauding whalers, cannon barrages, economic downturns, droughts and ?oods and now the unabated crush of tourists and cruise ship passengers. One can only hope that those who choose Maui to visit are as respectful of this special 'aina (land) as was the host Hawaiian culture that first recognized the special qualities of Lahaina.
Reviewed by Sam Ako, cultural resource advisor, Ka'anapali Beach Hotel.
October 25, 2007