Old Hawaiian Newspapers Reveal Details of Past Natural Disasters
On Aug. 9, 1871, a major hurricane struck the islands of Hawai‘i and Maui, leaving widespread destruction from Hilo to Lahaina.
A recent study by two scientists, a Hawaiian language expert, and an educator from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa revealed how historical Hawaiian-language newspapers expand knowledge of this and other natural disasters of the past.
The storm of 1871 was known from ship logs and English newspaper accounts, but the Hawaiian-language newspapers added significant new information allowing the team to document the intensity and track of the storm for the first time.
The largest native-language cache in the Western Hemisphere
Following the introduction of the English language by missionaries and the collaborative effort with literate Hawaiians to create Hawaiian orthography, literacy rates in Hawai‘i rose from near zero in 1820 to between 90% and 95% by midcentury. King Kamehameha III’s call for national literacy was strongly advocated by the ali‘i (royalty) and, by 1831, the royal government financed all infrastructure costs for 1,103 schoolhouses—and a teachers’ college, Lahainaluna, the first such school west of the Rocky Mountains.
In February 1834, the first edition of Ka Lama Hawai‘i was printed at Lahainaluna School on Maui, the first newspaper and first school west of the Rocky Mountains.
From 1834 to 1948 more than a hundred independent newspapers were printed in Hawaiian. This newspaper archive comprises more than a million typescript pages of text—the largest native-language cache in the Western Hemisphere.
For years, a team led by Puakea Nogelmeier, professor of Hawaiian language at UH Mānoa, director of the UH Institute of Hawaiian Language Research and Translation and co-author of this study, has worked to convert Hawaiian-language newspapers to a word-searchable digital format that is publicly available.
The archive as a treasure trove of data
Recognizing the value of Hawaiian newspapers as sources of data for the day-to-day events of the past, Steven Businger and Thomas Schroeder, professors in the UH Mānoa School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology, partnered with Nogelmeier and his graduate students to extend translation research in the Hawaiian language papers, looking specifically for geophysical stories, including the hurricane of 1871. They produced a digital database of more than 4,000 articles related to meteorology and geology.
What they found in the translations was a timeline of the 1871 storm hitting—Waipi‘o, then Kohala, then on to Maui—and detailed descriptions about the resulting destruction.
On Maui, newspaper reports document that Hāna, Wailuku, and Lahaina were particularly hard-hit. A writer in Hāna described the storm: “Then the strong, fierce presence of the wind and rain finally came, and the simple Hawaiian houses and the wooden houses of the residents here in Hāna were knocked down. They were overturned and moved by the strength of that which hears not when spoken to” (Ka Nupepa Kuokoa on 26 August 1871).
In Wailuku the bridge was destroyed: “the bridge turned like a ship overturned by the carpenters, and it was like a mast-less ship on an unlucky sail” (Ka Nupepa Kuokoa on 19 August 1871).
From Lahaina came the following report: “It commenced lightly on Tuesday night, with a gentle breeze, up to daylight on Wednesday, when the rain began to pour in proportion, from the westward, veering round to all points, becoming a perfect hurricane, thrashing and crashing among the trees and shrubbery, while the streams and fishponds overflowed and the land was flooded” (Pacific Commercial Advertiser on 19 August 1871)
The existence of such a powerful hurricane, uncovered in the historical record, more clearly defines the hurricane risk faced by the people of Hawai‘i today.
“Puakea’s vision has helped conserve Hawaiian language of the past and is opening a window on the historical record that has been long overlooked in Hawai‘i,” said Businger, lead author of the study and professor of Atmospheric Sciences in SOEST.
Businger and JIMAR continued to support the effort to search Hawaiian-language newspapers for articles relating to floods, droughts, high surf, storms, landslides, earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions.
“The goal of the ongoing work is to extend our understanding of geoscience back into historical, post-contact and pre-contact times to project and prepare for future events,” said Businger. “It is important to note that there would be much greater destruction if a storm of similar intensity and track were to occur today.”
Incorporating the translations into K-12 education
The translated articles are also being used in place- and culture-based geoscience education and curriculum development.
“These translations are important for STEM education because the articles show that universal public education during the Hawaiian Kingdom led to highly literate citizens, always observing, commenting, communicating and sharing information that others were free to comment on,” said Pauline Chinn, professor in the UH Mānoa College of Education and co-author of the study. “These are the fundamental processes of science inquiry—sharing of data and interpretations in a public forum for commentary and critique.”
With support from NSF, Businger, Nogelmeier and Chinn searched 1870-1900 Hawaiian-language newspapers for articles relating to floods, droughts and storms, enabling detection of El-Nino-La Nina patterns. Chinn, Nogelmeier, Kahea Faria, assistant specialist in COE, and four graduate students continue expanding the IHLRT database of articles on ʻaina-based phenomena, specifically to create a resource for teachers and public.
“Incorporating articles into place-based K-12 STEM lessons provides students with historical knowledge of ecological, cultural and economic changes as Hawaiʻi entered the global economy,” said Chinn. We find students, especially those identifying as Native Hawaiian, are more interested in future courses and careers related to STEM, Hawaiian language and culture after these lessons. “We are hopeful that knowing the past can help us to understand where we are now and provide pathways for the future.”
Unlike newspapers in Europe and America which typically conveyed business and daily news, the study found that Hawaiian-language newspapers were the center of both current affairs and academic discourse. Much of the intellectual production was a conscious effort to preserve oral traditions and conserve knowledge as foreign diseases and cultural change rapidly reduced the numbers of experts and elders who held this knowledge.
Readers shared specific bodies of knowledge, such as the techniques of making nets, twine, or cloth from native plants or the names of the winds of a certain ahupua‘a. Scholars contributed epics of Hawaiian literature, such as that of the volcano goddess, Pele, who in her chant for her lover, Lohi‘au, names all of the winds of Kaua‘i to prove that she is not a stranger to the island.