Bringing Hell to Paradise

Banyan tree in Lahaina

150 years ago, on April 24, 1873, Sheriff William Owen Smith planted a banyan tree in the courthouse square of Lahaina, Maui. The tree was a gift from Protestant missionaries in India, and they sent it to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first Protestant mission to Maui.

The tree was only eight feet tall when Smith planted it, but after 150 years of growth, it measures 60 feet in height and shades an area of a full city block, about two thirds of an acre. In addition to its original central trunk, it is supported by many additional trunks that have grown as aerial roots from its branches. It is the largest banyan tree in Hawai’i. It is the largest banyan tree in all of the United States of America.

During the Maui wildfires in August, the great banyan also burned along with so much else. Eighty percent of Lahaina burned in the fires. But the tree continued to stand as a symbol of hope for recovery. Arborists examined the tree and determined that there was still live tissue in the tree’s cambium, the layer beneath the bark. They began to care intensively for the tree, to water it, to compost and aerate the surrounding soil. Their efforts are paying off. New leaves have sprouted from the tree. All is not lost.

The banyan tree was sent to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the protestant missions to Maui. The Christianity that came to Hawaii in about 1820 comes from our family tree–specifically New England Congregationalism. The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions sent twelve companies of Christian missionaries to Hawaii between 1820 and 1848. Queen Keōpūolani, the wife of the late King Kamehameha who had unified Hawaii with the help and gunpowder of British and American traders, invited the missionaries to come to Maui in 1823. Queen Keōpūolani converted and was baptized.

The missionaries stressed to their converts the importance of reading the bible, and to do so they translated it into Hawaiian language. The Hawaiian language had previously been unwritten, taught and transmitted orally. The missionaries taught the Hawaiian people their own language transliterated in the Latin alphabet so they could share the Bible with them. They formed schools for children, and school became compulsory, even for girls, something unheard of in the United States. Within a generation of the missionaries’ arrival, people who could not read were not allowed to get married.

The missionaries, whether from good intentions or not, reshaped Hawaiian culture. Hawaii went from a stop in the middle of the Pacific to a site of industrialization and globalization. Rev. Daniel Dole, son of a Congregationalist deacon, left New England in 1840 to serve as a missionary in Hawaii. His wife Emily Hoyt Ballard accompanied him. They founded a school for the children of the missionaries, where the instruction took place in English, not Hawaiian. Daniel Dole never learned Hawaiian in his lifetime.

In 1852, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions stopped funding the Hawaiian missions, which meant that the missionaries had to self-fund or leave. King Kamehameha III didn’t want the missionaries to leave–they were part of this emerging new Hawaii–so he sold them land at incredibly low prices to get them to stay.

Daniel Dole’s son Sanford B. Dole was born in Oahu. After a short stint at Williams College and some legal work in Boston, he returned to Hawaii. He was twice elected to the legislature of the Hawaiian kingdom, took part in securing the 1887 Constitution that restricted voting rights to men of Hawaiian, European, or American descent and only permitted men of wealth to vote for elections to the House of Nobles, effectively concentrating power among the wealthy merchant class.

In 1889, a former Universalist minister, journalist, and politician from Maine, Rev. John L. Stevens was appointed by the US State Department to serve as minister to the Hawaiian kingdom. He arrived shortly after the 1887 Constitution had shifted the balance of power away from native Hawaiians to foreign businessmen. Even before he had arrived in Hawaii, he had written about the importance of the US securing ties with Hawaii, and then he was the one in place to make it happen. King Kalākaua died in 1891, which was a problem for the American businessmen and their political allies: his sister and heir, the ascendant Queen Liliʻuokalani was less inclined to go along with the Americans. She tried to reverse the damage inflicted to her people by the 1887 constitution, restore power to the monarchy, and restore the voting rights of Asians and lower income native Hawaiians. Stevens, as minister to Hawaii, could not support this and collaborated with those who overthrew Queen Liliʻuokalani in 1893.

And it’s into this Hawaii that James Dole arrives in 1899. James Dole, son of the minister of the Unitarian church in Jamaica Plain, Boston, arrived in Hawaii with a little over sixteen thousand dollars, which is roughly six hundred thousand dollars in today’s money. To begin with, he stayed with his cousin Sanford Dole, who had served as the president of Hawaii until the US annexed it and was serving in 1899 as the governor of Hawaii. James bought a 64-acre homestead in Oahu and experimented with a variety of crops before settling on pineapples.

James Dole began canning pineapple for export and grew and grew his empire. Dole now farms 109,000 acres on five continents. Farmers from tropical regions around the world lament the Dole corporation’s business practices–destroying ecosystems for exploitative and extractive agriculture, using dangerous pesticides, interrupting local foodways, leaving little in the way of crops for those who grew them, and maybe even supporting paramilitary forces.

The Maui wildfires were fed by two hundred years of colonialism, by the sugarcane and pineapple plantations and the loss of the native plants, by Europeans and US Americans deciding that we know better than the people who know a place intimately, by white supremacy hiding in religion paving the way for depriving people of their rights, by unsustainable tourism in an ecosystem on the edge, by real estate abuses. The settler colonialism that has harmed Hawaii is intimately connected, is the child and grandchild of the settler colonialism we still live with in Massachusetts.

What will it take for us to know the land as our source instead of a resource? What will we give up? Will we trust native Hawaiians when they ask us not to come to Hawaii as tourists? Will we begin to live from the relationships we build rather than the things (and places) we buy?

The great banyan, an Indian tree that took root in Maui, sent by one group of missionaries to honor another, simultaneously a symbol of enduring colonialism and enduring hope, might point the way. You see, the arborists caring for the banyan are not only caring for the banyan. The volunteer arborists who came together as the Lahaina Treescape Restoration Project met under the banyan about a week ago to survey the new growth. They also are caring for the native ulu, kukui nut, and Royal palm trees of Lahaina. Trees are essential for surviving the next fire. They hold water and moisture, and they slow the fire spread. The arborists are planting the next generations of native trees that will thrive in Lahaina’s hot sunshine and teaching others about the importance of restoring native plants after the fire.

After the fires, I will not romanticize the opportunity to plant drought-resistant native trees instead of invasive grasses, not after 98 people have died and more are still missing. But this is one more invitation to question the colonizer thinking that lives inside all of us, to say that manifest destiny must stop, to find the connections in our history and relationships and build forward with respect. We know too well that we cannot change the past, but we need not repeat it.

The following resources may help you find connections to change the future.

  • The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition is a nonprofit composed of more than 80 organizations that are dedicated to healing Native American communities affected by Indian Boarding Schools in the United States.
  • LANDBACK is a movement that has existed for generations with a long legacy of organizing and sacrifice to get Indigenous Lands back into Indigenous hands.
  • MA Indigenous Agenda is working to support legislation currently before the Massachusetts State Legislature that will benefit Indigenous Peoples.

To view the sermon, please visit the recording on our YouTube page:

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