Herb Kane: The Last Interview

Just months ago, we had the opportunity to talk with Herb Kane, as powerful an artist as Hawaii has ever produced. We had no idea at the time that the world would soon lose him.


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Herb Kane was the principal designer and the first skipper of the Hokulea, the subject of this painting. He died on the 36th anniversary of the canoe’s launch.

At 9 a.m., we found the barely marked turn off Mamalahoa Highway, bumped up the road through Kane’s 8.5-acre avocado orchard, and circled the banyan drive in front of his house.

Kane was frail, still bothered from hip surgery, but, at 82, he seemed vibrantly alive, glad to have company.

We intended to talk to him about his career, but he was not a man to rush, to interrogate. He was a man to listen to.

As we sat in his sunny, wood-paneled living room, with coffee and blueberry muffins, he began, appropriately enough for Hawaii, talking about a sense of place.

From his lanai you could survey Kealakekua Bay, where Capt. James Cook died in a skirmish with Hawaiians over a missing longboat. Kane spent many years trying to get historians to accurately describe what happened.

“They’d say the Hawaiians sacrificed him when they realized he wasn’t the god Lono. They knew he wasn’t a god, they received him as an honored chief.”

The skirmish, Kane said, was the result of earlier sacrileges committed by Cook’s crew and Cook’s own increasingly bad temper, the result perhaps of a vitamin deficiency.

It was a bright day and, as Kane had predicted, the Big Island vog had not yet covered the coast. You could see all the way down to Puuhonua o Honaunau, the City of Refuge. “Right there,” says Kane, pointing in the general direction of Keei, “was where Kamehameha fought his great battle, his Gettysburg.”

Like most people, I’d always thought that Kamehameha’s Gettysburg was the Battle of Nuuanu—a battle Kane vividly recreated in his well-known 1976 painting, with Kamehameha’s disciplined warriors using their long lances to drive the defeated defenders of Oahu over the edge of the 1,000-foot Pali. That battle secured Kamehameha’s conquest of the Islands.

“No,” says Kane gently, not even noting my ignorance except as a chance to talk about something that interested him: “Kamehameha’s first great battle was for control of the Big Island, the Battle of Mokuohai, against his cousin.”

Kane retold the story. Kamehameha, not yet a king, but a popular chief, was locked in conflict with his cousin Kiwalao. There was an exchange of insults and aggression, alliances and counter alliances, a final, three-day battle that raged on land and sea. At the end, Kamehameha’s chief of staff, Keeaumoku, wounded, crawled to dispatch a wounded Kiwalao with a shark-tooth leimono.

“You can be sure that some of those defeated warriors made straight for the refuge of Puuhonua o Honaunau,” says Kane.

It looks like a long way to run, I say.

Kane just smiled. “They were Hawaiian,” he says. “They swam across the bay.” He traced the line with a finger.

The bay, the landscape, all seemed to have become part of Kane. For him, its history seemed as alive as the ti leaves in his garden.

“The more you learn about the history, the deeper you want to go,” he says. “It pulls you in.”

Remarkably, Kane himself had almost escaped Hawaii’s pull.

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