Narrative Tour of Volcano

by William Ellis

William Ellis

The following passages were reprinted from the 1823 Journal of William Ellis. The reverand William Ellis (pictured on the right) and his party were the first non-Hawaiian group to enter the sacred region of Pele now known as Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Ellis was guided by a man named Makoa (pictured on the left) who was provided by the high chief Kuakini of Hawaii. By foot and by canoe the Ellis party had to endure diarrhea, sunburn, fleas, lack of food and water during their two month trek around the island of Hawaii. Ellis’ words are western man’s first written accounts from the volcano in Hawaii.

While the natives were sitting round the fire, Mr. Thurston and I ascended to the upper region, and walked to a rising ground at a small distance from the mouth of the cavern, to try if we could discern the light of the volcano. The wind blew fresh from the mountains; the noise of the rolling surf, to which we had been accustomed on the shore, was not heard; and the stillness of the night was only disturbed by the chirping of the insects in the grass. The sky was clear, except in the eastern horizon, where a few light clouds arose, and slowly floated across the expanse of heaven.

A Man named Mokua. Mokua was the personal guide for the Reverand William Ellis.

On looking towards the north-east, we saw a broad column of light rising to a considerable elevation in the air, and immediately above it some bright clouds, or thin vapours, beautifully tinged with red on the under side. We had no doubt that the column of light arose from the large crater, and that its fires illuminated the surrounding atmosphere. The fleecy clouds generally passed over the luminous column in a south-east direction. As they approached it, the side towards the place where we stood became generally bright; afterwards the under edge only reflected the volcanic fire; and in a little time each cloud passed entirely away, and was succeeded by another.

We remained some time to observe the beautiful phenomenon occasioned by the reflection of the volcanic fire, and the more magnificent spectacle presented by the multitude and brilliancy of the heavenly bodies. The season was solemn and delightful.

Refreshed by a comfortable night’s sleep, we arose before daylight on the morning of the first of August, and after stirring up the embers of our fire, rendered, with grateful hearts, our morning tribute of praise to our almighty Preserver.

As the day began to dawn, we tied on our sandals, ascended from the subterraneous dormitory, and pursued our journey, directing our course towards the column of smoke, which bore E.N.E. from the cavern.

The path for several miles lay through a most fertile tract of country, covered with bushes, or tall grass and fern, frequently from three to five feet high, and so heavily laden with dew, that before we had passed it, we were as completely wet as if we had walked through a river.

The morning air was cool, the singing of birds enlivened the woods, and we travelled along in Indian file nearly four miles and hour, although most of the natives carried heavy burdens, which were tied on their backs with small bands over their shoulders, in the same manner that a soldier fastens on his knapsack. Having also ourselves a small leather bag containing a bible, inkstand, note-book, compass, &c. suspended from one shoulder, a canteen of water from the other, and sometimes a light port-folio, of papers, with specimens of plants besides, our whole party appeared, in this respect at least, somewhat en militaire.

(photo credit: Herb Kawainui Kāne)

Kapi'olani Defying Pele.

In 1824 the high chiefess Kapi’olani, an ardent Christian, decided to act in defiance of Pele as a demonstration to her people of her new faith.

Ignoring dire warnings she descended into the caldera to the brink of the fire-pit Halema’uma’u. Here she ate ‘ohelo berries without asking Pele’s permission and read passages from the Bible.

Unharmed, she returned home, hopeful that her action would help win converts among her people.

Herb Kane

After travelling a short distance over the open country, we came to a small wood, into which we had not penetrated far, before all traces of a path entirely disappeared. We kept on some time, but were soon brought to a stand by a deep chasm, over which we saw no means of passing. Here the natives ran about in every direction searching for marks of footsteps, just as a dog runs to and fro when he has lost the track of his master..

After searching about half an hour, they discovered a path, which led some distance to the southward, in order to avoid the deep chasm in the lava.

Near the place where we crossed over, there was an extensive cavern. The natives sat down on the top of the arch by which it was formed, and began eating their sugar-cane, a portable kind of provision usually carried on their journeys, while we explored the cavern in hopes of finding fresh water. In several places drops of water, beautifully clear, constantly filtered through the vaulted arch, and fell into calabashes placed underneath to receive it. Unfortunately for us, these were all nearly empty. Probably some thirsty traveller had been there but a short time before.

Leaving the wood, we entered a waste of dry sand, about four miles across. The travelling over it was extremely fatiguing, as we sunk in to our ankles at every step. The sand was of a dark olive colour, fine and sparkling, parts of it adhering readily to the magnet, and being raised up in heaps in every direction, presented a surface resembling, colour excepted, that of drifted snow.

It was undoubtedly volcanic; but whether thrown out of any of the adjacent craters in its present form, or made up of small particles of decomposed lava, and the crystalline olivin we had observed so abundant in the lava of the southern shore, and drifted by the constant trade-wind from the vast tract of lava to the eastward, we could not determine.

When we had nearly passed through it, we sat down on a heap of lava to rest and refresh ourselves, having taken nothing since the preceding noon. About ten o’clock, Messrs. Bishop and Goodrich reached the place where we were sitting. They had heard by some travellers, that two or three days would elapse before Makoa would overtake them, and deeming it inexpedient to wait so long, had procured a guide, and earlier this morning set out from Kapapala to follow the rest of the party.


Pu'u O'o Vent. photo credit: Kirk Aeder

Having refreshed ourselves, we resumed our journey, taking a northerly direction towards the columns of smoke, which we could now distinctly perceive. Our way lay over a wide waste of ancient lava, of a black colour, compact and heavy, with a shining vitreous surface, sometimes entirely covered with obsidian, and frequently thrown up, by the expansive force of vapour or heated air, into conical mounds, from six to twelve feet high, which were, probably, by the same power rent into a number of pieces, from the apex to the base. The hollows between the mounds and long ridges were filled with volcanic sand, and fine particles of olivin, or decomposed lava.

This vast tract of lava resembled in appearance an inland sea, bounded by distant mountains. Once it had certainly been in a fluid state, but appeared as if it had become suddenly petrified, or turned into a glassy stone, while its agitated billows were rolling to and fro.

Not only were the large swells and hollows distinctly marked, but in many places the surface of these billows was covered by a smaller ripple, like that observed on the surface of the sea at the first springing up of a breeze, or the passing currents of air which produce what the sailor’s call a cat’s-paw. The billows may have been raised by the force which elevated the mounds or hills, but they look as if the whole mass, extending several miles, had, when in a state of perfect fusion, been agitated with a violent undulating or heaving motion.

The sun had now risen in his strength, and his bright rays, reflected from the sparkling sand, and undulated surface of the vitreous lava, dazzled our sight and caused considerable pain, particularly as the trade-wind blew fresh in our faces, and continually drove into our eyes particles of sand.

This part of our journey was unusually laborious, not only from the heat of the sun and the reflection from the lava, but also from the unevenness of its surface, which obliged us constantly to tread on an inclined plane, in some places as smooth and almost as slippery as glass, where the greatest caution was necessary to avoid a fall. Frequently we chose to walk along the ride of a billow lava, though considerably circuitous, rather than pass up and down its polished sides. Taking the trough, or hollow between the waves, was found safer, but much more fatiguing, as we sunk every step ankle-deep into the sand.

The natives ran along the ridges, stepping like goats from one ridge to another. They, however, occasionally descended into the hollows, and made several marks with their feet in the sand at short distances, for the direction of two or three native boys with our provisions, and some of their companions, who had fallen behind early in the morning not being able to keep up with the foremost party.

Between eleven and twelve we passed a number of conical hills on our right, which the natives informed us were craters. A quantity of sand was collected round their base, but whether thrown out by them, or drifted thither by the wind, they could not inform us.

In their vicinity we also passed several deep chasms, from which, in a number of places, small columns of vapour arose, at frequent and irregular intervals. They appeared to proceed from Kirauea, the great volcano, and extended towards the sea in a south-east direction. Probably they are connected with Ponahohoa, and may mark the course of a vast subterraneous channel leading from the volcano to the shore. The surface of the lava on both sides was heated, and the vapour had a strong sulphureous smell.

We continued our way beneath the scorching rays of a vertical sun till about noon, when we reached a solitary tree growing in a bed of sand, spreading its roots among the crevices of the rocks, and casting its grateful shade on the barren lava. Here we threw ourselves down on the sand and fragments of lava, stretched out our weary limbs, and drank the little water left in our canteens.

In every direction we observed a number of pieces of spumous lava, of an olive colour, extremely cellular, and as light as sponge. They appeared to have been drifted by the wind into the hollows which they occupied.

The high bluff rocks on the north-west side of the volcano were distinctly seen; the smoke and vapours driven pas us, and the scent of the fumes of sulphur, which, as we approached from the leeward, we had perceived ever since the wind sprung up becoming very strong, indicated our proximity to Kirauea.

Impatient to view it we arose, after resting about half an hour, and pursued our journey. In the way we saw a number of low bushes bearing beautiful red and yellow berries in clusters, each berry being about the size and shape of a large currant. The bushes on which they grew were generally low, seldom reaching two feet in height; the branches small and clear, leaves alternate, obtuse with a point, and serrated; the flower was monopetalous, and, on being examined, determined the plant to belong to the class decandria, and order monogynia.

The native name of the plant is ohelo. The berries looked tempting to persons experiencing both hunger and thirst, and we eagerly plucked and ate all that came in our way. They are juicy, but rather insipid to the taste.

As soon as the natives perceived us eating them, they called out aloud, and begged us to desist, saying we were now within the precincts of Pele’s dominions, to whom they belonged, and by whom they were rahuiia, (prohibited,) until some had been offered to her, and permission to eat them asked. We told them we were sorry they should feel uneasy on this account, -that we acknowledged Jehova as the only divine proprietor of the fruits of the earth, and felt thankful to him for them, especially in our present circumstances.

Some of them then said, “We are afraid. We shall be overtaken by some calamity before we leave this place.”

We advised them to dismiss their fears, and eat with us, as we knew they were thirsty and faint. They shook their heads, and perceiving us determined to disregard their entreaties, walked along in silence.

We travelled on, regretting that the natives should indulge notions so superstitious, but clearing every ohelo bush that grew near our path, till about two p.m. when the Crater of Kirauea suddenly burst upon our view.

We expected to have seen a mountain with a broad base and rough indented sides, composed of loose slags or hardened streams of lava, and whose summit would have presented a rugged wall of scoria, forming the rim of a mighty caldron. But instead of this, we found ourselves on the edge of a steep precipice, with a vast plain before us, fifteen or sixteen miles in circumference, and sunk from 200 to 400 feet below its original level.

The surface of this plain was uneven, and strewed over with large stones and volcanic rocks, and in the centre of it was the great crater, at the distance of a mile and half from the precipice on which we were standing.

Our guides led us round towards the north end of the ridge, in order to find a place by which we might descend to the plain below.

As we passed along, we observed the natives, who had hitherto refused to touch any of the ohelo berries, now gather several bunches, and, after offering a part to Pele, eat them very freely. They did not use much ceremony in their acknowledgment; but when they had plucked a branch, containing several clusters of berries, they turned their faces towards the place whence the greatest quantity of smoke and vapour issued, and, breaking the branch they held in their hand in two, they threw one part down the precipice, saying at the same time,

“E Pele, ela ka ohelo’au; e taumaha aku wau ia oe, e ai hoi au tetahi.” “Pele, here are your Ohelos: I offer some to you, some I also eat.”

Several of them told us, as they turned round from the crater, that after such acknowledgments they might eat the fruit with security.

We answered we were sorry to see them offering to an imaginary deity the gifts of the true God; but hoped they would soon know better, and acknowledge Jehovah alone in all the benefits they received.

We walked on to the north end of the ridge, where, the precipice being less steep, a descent to the plain below seemed practicable. It required, however, the greatest caution, as the stones and fragments of rock frequently gave way under our feet, and rolled down from above; but, with all our care, we did not reach the bottom without several falls and slight bruises.

The steep which we had descended was formed of volcanic matter, apparently a light red and gray kind of lava, vesicular, and lying in horizontal strata, varying in thickness from one to forty feet. In a small number of places the different strata of lava were also rent in perpendicular or oblique directions, from the top to the bottom, either by earthquakes, or other violent convulsions of the ground connected with the action of the adjacent volcano.

After walking some distance over the sunken plain, which to several places sounded hollow under our feet, we at length came to the edge of the great crater, where a spectacle, sublime and even appalling, presented itself before us- “We stopped and trembled.”

Astonishment and awe for some moments rendered us mute, and like statues, we stood fixed to the spot, with our eyes riveted on the abyss below.

Immediately before us yawned an immense gulf, in the form of a crescent, about two miles in length, from north-east to south-west, nearly a mile in width, and apparently 800 feet deep.

The bottom was covered with lava, and the south-west and northern parts of it were one vast flood of burning matter, in a state of terrific ebullition, rolling to and fro its “fiery surge” and flaming billows.

Fifty-one conical islands, of varied form and size, containing so many craters, rose either round the edge or from the surface of the burning lake.

Twenty-two constantly emitted columns of gray smoke, or pyramids of brilliant flame; and several of these at the same time vomited from their ignited mouths streams of lava, which rolled in blazing torrents down their black indented sides into the boiling mass below.

The existence of these conical craters led us to conclude, that the boiling caldron of lava before us did not form the focus of the volcano; that this mass of melted lava was comparatively shallow; and that the basin in which it was contained was separated, by a stratum of solid matter, from the great volcanic abyss, which constantly poured out its melted contents through these numerous craters into this upper reservoir.

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Story appeared originally in Coffee Times print magazine and appears online for archival purposes only. Any use or reprinting of these stories without the expressed written consent of the author is prohibited.