The History of Hawai‘i From Our Files: Photographing “The First Hawaiians”

HONOLULU Magazine emerged from predecessor Paradise of the Pacific, which began in 1888, fulfilling a commission by King Kalākaua. That makes this the oldest continuously published magazine west of the Mississippi with an enviable archive worth diving into each month. Here’s a look back at February 2012.
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HONOLULU publishes a photo essay, with images by Olivier Koning and text by Lavonne Leong, depicting what this magazine calls “The First Hawaiians”: 15 plants that were established in the Islands before Western contact. The idea came up in collaboration with Rick Barboza of Hui Kū Maoli Ola, along with wisdom from Puakea Nogelmeier and botanist Joel Lau.


February From Our Files 2012 First Hawaiians 1



Each portrait shows the plants in great detail against a stark white background, with captions explaining what they’re used for in Hawaiian culture. ʻŌhai, for instance, enriches the soil for other plants, and koki‘o bark was used to dye nets and lines, making it hard for fish to see them in the water. ʻĀkia is called the “fish poison plant,” since its crushed bark, roots and leaves can make fish drunk and easy to catch. Other plants were used for medicine, such as ʻilima and ʻalaʻala wai nui.


SEE ALSO: The First Hawaiians: Native Plants


In 2016, The First Hawaiians series was displayed as an exhibition at the Dawson Offices in Pioneer Plaza. And 10 years after the project was conceived for HONOLULU, Koning continues to shoot for it. These days he brings a white backdrop and battery-powered strobe to the plants’ natural habitats and shoots them on location, which he says is a lot of work but worth the effort. You can find prints from the series at Nā Mea at Ward Village, thanks to a partnership with owner Maile Meyer. Find more info at, or call Nā Mea at (808) 596-8885.


native plants of hawaii From Our Files 2012



We’re also happy to continue featuring Koning’s work in our pages: See his photos of two new bars in the February issue of HONOLULU.


David Kalākaua began his reign as king on Feb. 12, 1874, at age 37.


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Learn more about the evolution of covers in HONOLULU Magazine and Paradise of the Pacific: 125 Years of Covers, available at



Find more photos from Honolulu’s past every Thursday on Instagram @honolulumag.