The Maui Inferno in Historical Perspective

Image of burned buildings in Maui.

Lahaina, after the fire. Youtube screen grab.

It’s a damn tough life full of toil and strife
We whalermen undergo.
And we don’t give a damn when the day is done/gale has stopped
How hard the winds did blow.
’cause we’re homeward bound from the Arctic ground
With a good ship, taut and free
And we won’t give a damn when we drink our rum
With the girls of Old Maui.


Rolling down to Old Maui, me boys
Rolling down to Old Maui
We’re homeward bound from the Arctic ground

Rolling down to Old Maui.

This sea song (not technically a “shanty”) was sung from at least the 1850s, by mariners en route from “six hellish months” in the whaling grounds of “the cold Kamchatka Sea,” driven by “a northerly gale,” towards their “island home” in Old Maui. The Maui “girls” referenced here are likely sex workers in the taverns along Front Street, what used to be Front Street, in the bustling port of Lahaina. But the sailors naturally imagined themselves God’s gift to Polynesian womanhood, projecting desire comparable to their own into the breasts of these “native maids”:

How soft the breeze through the island trees,
Now the ice is far astern.
Them native maids, them tropical glades
Is a-waiting our return.
Even now their big brown eyes look out
Hoping some fine day to see
Our baggy sails runnin’ ‘fore the gales

Rolling down to old Maui.

We can of course deconstruct the tune, in crude PC fashion, finding racism, sexism, misogyny, colonialism, and chauvinism in it. The point is, it documents effectively the role of Maui in the mariner imagination of the mid-nineteenth century, when whale oil was the industrial lubricant of the world, when whalers were that world’s front-line workers, and the kingdom of Hawai’i, while retaining political independence, had become economically dependent upon the visits of whaling ships.

(After the failure of the pearl industry in Hawai’i—in part due to the construction around what became “Pearl Harbor,” and before sugar became the mono-crop curse of the islands, whaling and the provision of R&R for whaling ships was the kingdom’s leading economic activity. By 1824 about 100 foreign whaling vessels were using Hawai’i as a reprovisioning center, There were 19 Hawaiian whaling ships in the 1850s, and Hawaiian mariners employed by foreign vessels as well. Melville’s harpooner Queequeg—from “Kokovoko,” a “place not down on a map”—might well be Hawaiian; thousands of native Hawaiians, often referred to as “Kanakas,” worked on whaling ships on the Artic and Pacific oceans. See Gregory Rosenthal, Beyond Hawai’i: Native Labor in the Pacific World, University of California Press, 2018, on capitalist wage-labor and the ethnic division of labor in whaling in the period.)

The sailors for their part could endure the Arctic cold, looking forward to the waiting Paradise.

Rolling down to Old Maui, me boys
Rolling down to Old Maui
We’re homeward bound from the Arctic ground
Rolling down to Old Maui.

During the 1850s, over 500 whaling ships visited Hawai’i every year. A typical vessel would carry a crew of about 36 men. The presence of thousands of transient residents, particularly around Lahaina, the coastal village that had served as capital to the Pi’ilani line of chieftains before Kamehameha’s conquest of the island. It prompted the raising of cattle in Hawai’i, and  the cultivation of potatoes, to satisfy the demands of outsiders unhappy with healthy traditional cuisine. This in addition to above-mentioned sex industry.

For better and worse, Lahaina was for decades the center of Hawai’i’s politics (capital of the kingdom until it was replaced by Honolulu in 1850), economic life, and cultural life turned upside down by missionary efforts. The first royal abode of Kamehameha I (the “Brick Palace”), built after he had unified all the isles but Kauai and Ni’ihau, was located here. It crumbled long ago but its location has been marked by a reconstructed outline of the building set in concrete. It was in Banyan Court Park, behind the public library.

The park is named for the huge banyan tree planted in 1870 to mark the 50th anniversary of the arrival of the missionaries. Banyan trees sprout multiple trunks, so they can spread out indefinitely. This one was among the largest in the world. I hear it might survive.

Here too was the Seamen’s Hospital, built by Kamehameha III in 1833 on 1024 Front St. It wasn’t originally as a welfare facility, but as an inn where the king could escape the intrusive attention of the New England Congregationalists, as they pursued their mission to reform the savages’ morals. Here he could meet his beloved sister Nani’ena’ena (whom he’d been forbidden to marry by the missionaries), or his aikane (male partner) Kaomi, a Hawaiian-Tahitian proponent of the old religion. Kaomi and the king created a secret order to resist the missionaries, but this was suppressed and the king was forced to eventually cut ties with Kaomi, enter into a respectable heteronormative marriage, keep a mistress, and promote the foreign faith.

Meanwhile, Juaquin Armas, the Mexican cowboy hired by the king to round up feral cattle on the Big Island, acquired the property before it was leased to the U.S. in 1844, becoming the U.S. Seamen’s Hospital. Beset by scandal (doctors collecting fees from the U.S. government for services to dead people) this closed during the Civil War but then became a boarding school before it was purchased by Bishop Estate and then the Lahaina Restoration Foundation. After an archeological investigation, the stone building was restored to its original appearance in 1982.

Waiola Church, on 535 Wainee St., one street mauka of Front Street, erected in 1832, was the first permanent church structure on Maui. The bones of Keopuolani, Kamehameha’s highest-ranking wife, are interred there, along with those of other royals. It was a reminder of the intimate connection of the Kamehameha line to the missionaries and their belief system (notwithstanding Kamehameha III’s ambivalence). Nearby, on 696 Front Street, the Baldwin Home Museum (Baldwin House) was the oldest standing residential structure on the island. It was the home of medical missionary Dwight Baldwin, and a schoolhouse for the instruction of both English and Hawaiian. (Baldwin was a typical missionary in Hawai’i, in that his progeny leveraged their position to acquire vast sugar plantations. Jack London did a good job of exploring this history in some of his short stories from Hawai’i, like “The House of Pride.”)

This building has also been managed by the Lahaina Restoration Foundation. It gave rise to Lahaina High School, and Baldwin High School in Wailuku is named after the missionary.


I first visited Maui as a high school student. My alma mater Radford High School, on Oahu, was a major rival, at least in speech and debate competitions, with Baldwin High. Baldwin was hosting; my debate partner and I were defeated by two very sharp Maui girls. We visited Lahaina, where I was impressed by the museum detailing the legacy of whaling in the town. I visited most recently in 1997, with my children, then 8 and 12. Glad I did that.

I don’t think I ever heard “Rolling Down to Old Maui” on the radio growing up, but remember Loggins & Messina’s “Lahaina.” Kenny Logins and Jim Messina, U.S. rockers best known for “Your Mama Don’t Dance,” had no particular relationship to Hawai’i, but in 1973 recorded the calypso-like song on their Full Sail album. It hung in my head through my junior year.

I was sitting at a table on an open bay
Waiting for drink of rum
When I asked my waiter for the time of day
She said, “Look out there’s a centipede coming your way

Centipedes were an issue in my own backyard on Oahu. They’re not unique to Lahaina. But the duo sang:

In Lahaina, the sugarcane grow
In Lahaina, the living is slow
In Lahaina, the mangoes are sweet
But the centipede he crawls all over your feet

There followed at this point a series some apparently random syllables:

Lo lo lo lo lo lo pakalolo, lo lo lo lo lo lo. The mainland audience may not have realized that pakalolo is marijuana in Hawaiian. For some of us, there was a strong association of Maui with good weed, such as Maui Wowie, celebrated in the car scene of the 1978 Cheech & Chong movie “Up in Smoke.” I’m pleased to admit that as a 17-year-old I could walk across the street from my high school break and score excellent pakalolo unimaginable to my mainland peers. This was not just nature’s gift, but a humanly engineered product; the finest grad student minds at the University of Hawai’i’s School of Tropical Agriculture to hybridize with Panama Red, Elephant (brought back by GIs from Vietnam) and other strains to develop stonier pot. Anyway, Maui to me meant marijuana, just as Kauai meant shrooms.

 (Digression: The lyrics have the centipede call the singer “Mr. Haole”—haole meaning, as you know, something like “newcomer” in Hawaiian, although the etymology is unclear, nd some haoles find it disparaging. Kenny Loggins, like me, was apparently comfortable with the term, but. I notice that in the published lyrics this gets rendered “Mr. Hall.” This is surely an example of misplaced political correctness.)

The cannabis will always be there. And the island retains many of its attractions. The Iao Valley, site of the bloody 1790 Battle of Kepaniwai  is still there, with its Iao Needle. Haleakala (the House of the Sun), a massive caldera atop a mountain that’s 75% of the island, will always be there, the most romantic spot imaginable from which to observe the rising sun. Jack London, visiting in 1907, described it as such: “so few tourists have ever peeped into it, much less entered it, that their number may be practically reckoned as zero. Yet I venture to state that for natural beauty and wonder the nature-lover may see dissimilar things as great as Haleakala, but no greater, while he will never see elsewhere anything more beautiful or wonderful.”

In recent years the tourists have been all too many, and I am not recommending that outsiders visit Maui, or any other Hawaiian island, anytime soon. Among other things, visitors consume a lot of water, on an archipelago unable to meet the water demand without shortchanging local people. Hotels, and the even less welcome military bases there for no good reason, consume resources as voraciously as did the old sugar fields.

I never advocate for charities, not simply due to concerns about overstaffing, payroll, corruption, etc. but because I think society should be organized intelligently and compassionately, and that those suffering should not be obliged to request alms. FEMA, funded by the people, should do what it’s supposed to do, serve the people, although precedent (2017) is not encouraging.

MSNBC’s anchor Alex Wagner surprised me (positively) a couple nights back by suggesting that the Lahaina conflagration needs to be put into perspective, including the experience of colonization and the accompanying transformation of the environment. She mentioned no details, but she might have mentioned that native pili grass, used traditionally for thatching, has been overtaken most places by intrusive species like molasses grass (introduced ca. 1900 for cattle forage), described by U.S. Department of Agriculture as “highly flammable, quick burning, and promotes fire by increasing vegetation horizontal continuity in invaded communities.” After a fire molasses grass tends to recover, and spread at the expense of indigenous grass. So maybe we can accord some blame for the hellish conflagration in Lahaina on such locally specific conditions.

But I think Wagner was referring to the general transformation of Hawaiian society, under duress, from self-sufficient taro production under the ali’i, to sugar plantations based on wage-slavery. (After the decline of whaling, Lahaina became a sugar port.) This surely happened, although it’s hard to link that stage of capitalist oppression to last week’s conflagration.   The more obvious chain of causality begins with global warming, rooted in carbon emissions, rooted in the satiable greed for profit, regardless of the consequences for future humans, which is what capitalism’s been all about since the Industrial Revolution. Delay in addressing this question means mass death.

For the capitalist, this conflagration is sad—so sad—but natural. For the missionary, this is the wages of sin, a call to redemption. The weather’s God’s business, and even if it’s changing, there’s no need to formulate a significant response.  For the moral activist, the fire is a call to redouble the struggle against the root of the problem.

So I’d suggest to those moved in watching these unfolding events—as the casualty count mounts, as voices of anger at the inoperative warning system rise, as ignored warnings are exposed—to donate funds for Maui, but to send them to those working for change, not for post-disaster fixes, or efforts to fix what’s either gone or beyond all fixing. Send them to respected environmental organizations, rooted in the land and housing struggles of the 1970s, such as Save Our Surf and Life of the Land give to Aha Punana  Leo,, a movement to revitalize Hawaiian language instruction in the islands to one of the multiple Hawaiian sovereignty movements.

Rather than sending Mainland balm for Global Warming-inflicted pain, we should send both expressions of solidarity and material support for the people of an island which should never have been annexed to the Mainland in the first place, in the halcyon dawn of U.S. imperialism.


Sunday, 11:20 PM EST: A high school friend teaching on Lanai tells me on Facebook “It is worse than the news is saying… at least 200 dead… 1k missing…” I see the confirmed death toll now 93, and the cadaver-dogs are just being set to their grim task, combing through the rubble that was homes a few days back. As Alex Cockburn noted long ago, “Fires hurt the poor more… People are always being burned alive in tenements, though the news stories are always about wildfires menacing big homes.” Soon Maui will be out of sight and out of mind, as its allotted airtime shrinks to allow more Trump coverage, Ukraine War propaganda, and incessant appeals to the viewer to embrace an endangered system they conflate with “democracy.”

Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: