Opinion | Lahaina’s Banyan Tree Stands Yet Much Hawaiian History Is Gone

It may not be the oldest landmark in Lahaina. But it’s among its most beloved.

The historic Hawaiian port town’s massive Banyan tree — standing over 60 feet tall with a canopy that has grown to cover more than half an acre — has been the backdrop for endless selfies. It’s also a striking symbol of endurance for a community that had long struggled to preserve its multicultural heritage against an onslaught of transience, tourism, and development pressures.

Lahaina’s Ficus benghalensis, or banyan fig, burst into flames in the massive wildfire that killed at least 90 people and turned countless buildings into char. It’s too soon to know whether the burned banyan will survive or not. Weighed against the horrific loss of lives and the nearly complete destruction of a town, the potential loss of a single, gigantic tree may seem trivial.

But this magnificent specimen, believed to have been the largest tree in the Hawaiian Islands, has touched the hearts of many in Hawaii and elsewhere. The tree and surrounding historic district are a powerful reminder of how Lahaina, however imperfectly, had managed to preserve its 19th-century roots to a greater extent than most other places on the islands. The fact that the tree is charred but still standing offers us the hope of both the tree and the town’s eventual revival.

First planted by the town’s sheriff in 1873 as an eight-foot-tall sapling to mark the 50th anniversary of the arrival of Protestant missionaries, the tree was planted in the rich volcanic soil as a gesture of civic commitment.

The sheriff’s decision to plant a fast-growing species not native to Hawaii but to the Indian subcontinent mirrored the town’s own history as a place where waves of people had arrived on its shores to sink roots, some shallow, some deep. Locals and visitors embraced this non-native tree with aloha as a botanical wonder.

Generations of schoolchildren played under its shady canopy on school trips (and were warned by their teachers not to climb on its branches or swing on its tempting aerial roots) amid the clucking and crowing of the wild chickens that roosted on its branches. At Christmas, its branches were festooned with colored lights.

The tree stands near the Old Lahaina Courthouse, whose second floor housed another project of the Lahaina Restoration Foundation — a small heritage museum. To tell the town’s long and complex history, it displayed stone artifacts, such as a replica Hawaiian adze, from Maui’s first settlers — intrepid voyagers who navigated their way by the stars from the Marquesas Islands.

The isolation of the Hawaiian archipelago’s early inhabitants ended with the arrival of the British explorer Captain Cook and his men in 1778, landing on the nearby island of Kauai. Whalers and missionaries soon followed, as did Western diseases, such as smallpox, to which the Native Hawaiians had no resistance. A rowdy harbor town, Lahaina’s brothels and taverns filled upon the arrival of ships, and New England traders on their way to or from China.

The warrior king Kamehameha I, who united the islands into the Kingdom of Hawaii, established the first royal capital in Lahaina in 1802 (Kamehameha III officially declared Honolulu the capital in 1850). The museum possessed a fearsome harpoon gun and lances, dating to the 1850s, which it displayed on a wall. The courthouse roof caught fire and the museum, and all its artifacts, including the harpoon, have most likely been lost.

Flames scorched the sites of early Christian missionary homes, including the nearby site of Richards House, the home of Lahaina’s first Protestant missionary, who helped translate for Kamehameha III and helped draft Hawaii’s constitution. The Native Hawaiians had an oral tradition, and missionaries such as the Rev. William Richards helped bring heluhelu (reading) and a Hawaiian alphabet to the islands for the first time, as well as a printing press to spread the Gospel. On the grounds of Lahainaluna Seminary (now Lahainaluna High School), founded in 1831, a press printed the first Hawaiian language newspaper. The printing museum and archive center seem to have been spared by the fires.

After the whaling industry declined, steamers began bringing tourists to visit the picturesque town, with its enchanting coral-and-rock structures and old wooden storefronts. Its oldest landmark was Baldwin Home, dating back to 1834 and named after one of the first medical missionaries to the islands. It, too, was consumed by fire in recent days — along with the medical instruments that Dr. Baldwin, a missionary and physician, had used to vaccinate much of Maui against smallpox.

During the second half of the 19th century, the town’s banyan tree kept growing and spreading its branches through the death in 1891 of the last king and penultimate monarch of the kingdom of Hawaii, Kalakaua, and the overthrow of his sister, Lili’uokalani, two years later. Across from the Banyan tree, the Pioneer Inn, founded in 1901 at the beginning of Hawaii’s Territorial era, was consumed by flames. Some guests at the Pioneer Inn surely shuddered at the news of the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Oahu in 1941. The hotel was still serving guests when Hawaii became the 50th state in 1959.

The area now known as the historic district survived the transformation of Lahaina from a town where boisterous seafarers sought pleasures of all kinds to one whose lures included discounted Crocs at the town’s outlet mall or a bowl of mac and cheese at Fleetwood’s on Front Street, owned by the drummer Mick Fleetwood. With a longstanding push-pull between commercial development and preservation, some Maui residents avoided the town because of the congestion and touristy elements.

Yet, the historic district remained a treasured reminder of old Hawaii and the grief over its loss will be deep. It’s the physical connection to the past we’ll miss. Schoolchildren will no longer be able to see the original wooden rocking chairs brought from New England to Lahaina nearly two centuries ago at the Baldwin Home. For now, there will be no more field trips in which classmates gaze in awe up through the branches of the huge mother tree. Yet as we mourn, it’s also crucial to start imagining different forms of revival.

This past weekend, hula dancers were scheduled to gather under the town’s beloved banyan tree for the Emma Farden Sharpe Hula Festival, named after “Aunty Emma” Farden Sharpe, a revered kumu hula, or hula teacher, who started the festival.

The festival’s Facebook page announced that the in-person festival was canceled because of the devastating fires and replaced with a virtual event. But there will be joy and dancing again in Lahaina. Because deeply rooted cultures, like trees, have a way of regenerating.

Julia Flynn Siler is the author of “Lost Kingdom: Hawaii’s Last Queen, the Sugar Kings, and America’s First Imperial Adventure.”

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