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Maui fire also burns Hawaii’s history

The historic district of Lahaina, the former capital of the Hawaiian kingdom, was home to buildings key to the archipelago’s identity that have been destroyed by the deadly blaze

The historic Waiola Church and nearby Hongwanji Mission are devoured by flames on Tuesday, August 8, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii.
The historic Waiola Church and nearby Hongwanji Mission are devoured by flames on Tuesday, August 8, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii.Associated Press/LaPresse (APN)
Macarena Vidal Liy

Rubble, charred scrap and a gray blanket of ashes. That’s all that remains in the old town of Hawaii’s former capital, Lahaina, after a devastating fire turned it to dust in just four hours on Tuesday. It was the deadliest U.S. wildfire for over a century, leaving at least 89 people dead and another thousand missing. Residents were able to return Saturday for the first time to collect their belongings, although they barely managed to rescue more than a handful of objects. The authorities estimate that the cost of restoration will exceed $5 billion. But there is something cannot be recovered: the enormous historical legacy that the flames have devoured.

Lahaina, in the northwest of the island of Maui, had a dual identity: on the one hand, it was an idyllic tourist port, visited by hundreds of thousands of people a year, who came for its sun — in the native language, Lahaina means “cruel sun ”—, its motley shops and its gastronomy. But it was also a gateway to the archipelago’s past, both to its independent and colonial-era history, and a pillar of Hawaiian identity.

Lahaina’s history spans centuries. It was one of the favorite places of the kings of Maui. The monarch Kamehameha, who united the Hawaiian archipelago into a single kingdom after defeating the chiefs of the rest of the islands, made it his court. It ended up being designated the capital in the 19th century.

The History Museum, located in the old courthouse, housed relics from the era when Hawaii had yet to be discovered by Western explorers. The oldest building, the Baldwin House, was a symbol of the arrival of the first missionaries who settled there. It had been transformed into a museum of the time and a center for the dissemination of Hawaiian culture, which also hosted traditional music festivals. The Wo Hing Society Hall, a small wooden building built by Chinese immigrants to serve as a temple and community kitchen, paid tribute to the past of Maui’s thriving Chinese-Hawaiian community. Hawaiian kings, queens, princesses and chiefs were buried in the Waiola Cemetery.

Lahaina’s greatest symbol, a banyan tree brought from India by Christian missionaries 150 years ago and considered the oldest living tree on the island, covered an entire 2,000-square-meter park with its sprawling trunks. Generation after generation had gathered in its shadow. Planted in 1873, it had witnessed the conversion of the archipelago: from an independent kingdom to a U.S. territory at the dawn of the 20th century, and later to a state of the union in 1959.

All this has been devoured or damaged by the flames. The fire, fueled by the winds of a distant hurricane, spread rapidly, before the historic town could be saved. The 122-year-old Pioneer Inn, in whose rooms authors such as Mark Twain and Jack London had stayed, is also history. The last queen of Hawaii, Liliuokalani, also stayed at the inn.

The banyan tree so beloved by Lahaina residents, from whose branches buckets of water were hung to stimulate the growth of its aerial roots, still stands, but it has lost its leaves and its branches are scorched. It is still unknown if the underground roots were affected and if the tree will be able to revive.

“There is nothing that has made me cry more today than the thought of the Banyan Tree in my hometown of Lahaina,” wrote a poster identifying herself as HawaiiDelilah on X, formerly known as Twitter. “We will rebuild,” her post said. “And the natural beauty of Maui will be forever.”

A man looks at the historic Lahaina banyan tree, damaged by the fire that has reduced the Hawaiian town to ashes, on August 11, 2023.
A man looks at the historic Lahaina banyan tree, damaged by the fire that has reduced the Hawaiian town to ashes, on August 11, 2023.Rick Bowmer (Associated Press/LaPresse)

The loss of the town’s cultural and historical legacy is especially evident in what until Tuesday was Front Street and the surrounding area. The seaside promenade, filled with rows of small colored wooden houses, was a journey back into the history of the island and its past as the center of political power in the archipelago and the center of trade in the Pacific.

For centuries Hawaii was isolated from the rest of the world, visited only by the canoes of other Polynesian kingdoms, but that changed with the arrival of white explorers. In the early 19th century, fleets of American whaling ships began arriving in Lahaina. In the middle of that century, more than 400 whaling ships docked in the port of that city every year. The sailor’s behavior scandalized the other large Western group residing in the city: the missionaries, who were trying to convert the local population.

In 1845, the capital was moved to Honolulu, on the island of Oahu. With the decline of the whaling industry, the island’s economy became dependent on another sector, the vast pineapple and sugar cane plantations, which took up most of Maui’s arable land. Thousands of Chinese and Japanese immigrants came to work as day laborers in the fields; many stayed. In 1898, a coup overthrew the queen and turned the archipelago into U.S. territory.

The testimony of that past has been revealed to be very fragile. The old wood and textiles from many of the shops that dotted the neighborhood helped feed the flames. Images of the aftermath of the fire show that hardly anything in the historic district has been left standing. The old court building has lost its roof and its interior has been consumed. In satellite images of the Baldwin House, only the garden wall appears to remain standing.

“It was all boarded buildings, wooden buildings, storefronts, but all very close together. Maybe just an alleyway between them,” Davianna McGregor, a retired professor of ethnic studies at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, told the Los Angeles Times. “So of course, it just went up like a matchbox.”

Not everything is lost. The documents kept by the History Museum, for example, were digitized. But the historic buildings “are structures that cannot be replaced,” explained Lahaina Restoration Foundation Director Theo Morrison to ABC News.

The Native Hawaiian population in Lahaina has been particularly hit hard by the disaster. A population that, as in the rest of the island and the archipelago, saw their ancestral lands first turned into plantations that monopolized the water supply and dried up their land, and then into luxury hotels and tourist accommodation that triggered skyrocketing housing prices. Driven out from their homes, this community represents 10% of Maui’s residents (35,000 total), but account for 50% of the homeless. Many of them lived in old and fragile houses, passed from generation to generation, which were not always insured. The fire has devoured these homes.

Working with these communities will be key to the reconstruction effort, Kaniela Ing, co-founded the Native Hawaiian-focused organization Our Hawaii, told NBC. “There needs to be a lot of intention and hard intervention there to make sure that federal resources and philanthropic resources go to support native folks, not to stop acute harm like this, but actually, lead us on the positive path forward.”

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