Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Did The Early Hawaiians Have Iron?

Hawaiian stone tools came in a variety of shapes and sizes, and likewise served a variety of needs.  They were traditionally used to scrape, chop, carve, chisel, gouge, perforate and strip.

Stone tools for food-related uses include the poi pounder (used to crush taro and pounded into poi) and mortars & pestles (mortar bowls and stick-shaped pestles crushed seaweed, nuts, leaves and other products used for food, dyes and medicines.)

Other stone tools eased work, such as adzes (smaller ones to slice like a knife; larger ones to carve wood for canoes or idols, as well as to fell trees, dig, scrape, chip or strip.)

Stone tools also assisted in fishing; stone components were used in lures to catch many types of fish and squid.  In addition to use in making weapons, stone tools were shaped into clubs, axes, sling stones and other lethal weapons.

We are generally aware of the extensive use and nature of stone tools that the Hawaiians had and used.  But, did they also have and use iron tools - if so, how did they get them?

It turns out iron knives were found in the hands of Hawaiians on Kauaʻi on Captain Cook's first visit in 1778.  Iron, crafted into various shapes, was observed on other islands, as well.

Cook noted that the people he met on Kauaʻi were not “acquainted with our commodities, except iron; which however, it was plain, they had … in some quantity, brought to them at some distant period. ... They asked for it by the name of hamaite.”

It is interesting to note that a Spanish word for iron ore is “Hematitas”.  … Hmmm.

Journals and other accounts by Cook and his officers aboard the Discovery and Resolution, note they observed five pieces of iron.

Of these, the two iron skewers or daggers seen at Maui are believed to have been ship spike nails that they reshaped.

A third piece was a dagger made from a ship's bolt which was floated in wreckage to Kauaʻi about October, 1778.

Cook's vessels were at Kauai only a few days in January 1778. When they returned thirteen months later, Samwell and Edgar observed that the Hawaiians had made a dagger from an iron bolt which had been drifted ashore with wreckage five months before.

Edgar remarked: "It was very well beat out into the form of their own wooden daggers." The Hawaiian wooden dagger, as then described, was pointed at one end and, at the other, perforated for a cord for attachment to the wrist.   (Stokes)

Edgar continued: "we saw a great many daggers beat out of our long spike nails we left here last year."  (Stokes)

Crew journals also note two knives, which have subsequently been identified as Japanese.  One was a fish knife, always carried on Japanese sampans; the other was a fish and vegetable knife, generally carried on sampans.

Captain Clerke's record (Jan. 23, 1778) notes, "This morning one of the midshipmen purchased of the natives a piece of iron lashed into a handle for a cutting instrument; it seems to me a piece of the blade of a cutlass; it has by no means the appearance of a modern acquisition; it looks to have been a good deal used and long in its present state; the midshipman … demanded of the man where he got it; the Indian pointed away to the SE ward, where he says there is an island called Tai, from whence it came."  (Stokes)

On the second visit of the ships (1779), Ms. W Bayly ascertained that all the iron seen in the hands of the Kauaʻi natives had floated ashore in wreckage, a statement which Edgar also made on his second visit after a close enquiry of one of the chiefs.

Referring back to the midshipman's information, it may be noted that there is no island named Tai to the south-east of Waimea, Kauai, where the matter was discussed, and since tai (kai) is the term for "sea" and the current sweeps up to Waimea from the south-east, it therefore appears that the implement was floated in, from the sea.

It turns out that among practically all the Polynesians, as recorded by the European voyagers, iron was immediately recognized and was by far the most desired commodity which the foreigners could supply.

When Cook returned to Hawaiʻi the ships were supplied with fresh provisions which were paid for mainly with iron, much of it in the form of iron daggers made by the ships' blacksmiths on the pattern of the wooden pāhoa used by the Hawaiians. The natives were permitted to watch the ships' blacksmiths at work and from their observations gained information of practical value about the working of iron. (Kuykendall)

This apparent widespread knowledge of iron might imply a common and ancient Polynesian acquaintance with the metal.

A fair conclusion would be that the Hawaiians (and probably all other Polynesians) were not iron smelters, and their acquaintance with iron was limited to the finished material made by other people.

So, it appears evident, before Cook's contact with the islands, the Hawaiian already had, used and wanted more iron - to make tools and weapons (principally to shape into knives.)

In answering the obvious follow-up question - Where did it come from? - we need simply recall our existing apprehension of the recent and coming debris from the Japan tsunami, as well as the ongoing volunteer activity by thousands across the State clearing our shorelines of marine debris.

As noted in historic records, examination of the flotsam on the windward beaches of the islands reveals principally logs from the north-west coast of America and floats from Japan.

After comparing and considering the possibilities in 1778, it is probable that floating pieces of shipwrecks and other marine debris, from Japan and elsewhere, were the more likely sources of the iron.

While the early Hawaiians benefitted from iron materials, as part of the marine debris floating onto the Islands, the matter of marine debris, beyond that associated with the Japan tsunami, is an ongoing concern in Hawaiʻi.  (Most of the information here is from a report prepared by John FG Stokes – Hawaiian Historical Society.)

The image shows some of the modern marine debris in Hawaiʻi.  Note the formed wood that could easily have nails and other metals with it.  Likewise, note the incessant flow of plastics, fishing gear and other marine debris onto our Islands’ shores.

In addition, I have added other related images in a folder of like name in the Photos section on my Facebook and Google+ pages.

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1 comment:

  1. Thanks Peter! This is really fascinating. It makes total sense that early Hawaiians made good use of these "gifts" of iron.