Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park is a culturally and historically significant site located on the West Coast of the Island of Hawai’i. The 182-acre preserve contains a pu’uhonua (place of refuge) that, until the early 19th century, served as a safe haven for defeated warriors, noncombatants, and individuals accused of breaking a kapu (taboo). A strict set of taboos often carried penalty of death, but offenders who reached the refuge were protected and absolved after a series of ritual procedures administered by the kahuna pule (priest). The kapu system was a set of regulations and prohibitions governing human behavior, the most ancient and fundamental kapu being the separation of sexes for eating. Other kapu were designed to protect the land, conserve resources, and pertained to farming, fishing, water usage, and waste disposal. Several such sanctuaries were located on each of the Hawaiian Islands and the concept of pu’uhonua was more fully developed in Hawai’i than in any other Polynesian island group. The site at Honaunau was the most continuously active refuge and dates approximately from 1550 A.D. The traditional practices of the kapu system were abolished by Kamehameha II in 1819 and many temples were destroyed. However, because the bones of the Kamehameha dynasty were kept there, the site continued to be revered.
The park is situated on a lava slice that stretches along the coastline of three bays: Honaunau, Alahaka, and Ki’ilae. Flanking the park inland is the Keanae’e pali (cliff), which parallels the shore. The 100-foot high escarpment is 1,000 feet long and the numerous cave openings and lava tubes in the cliff face served as residences and burial chambers. The site is located four miles south of Kealakekua Bay where Captain Cook’s ships, the Resolution and the Discovery, anchored in 1778.
The refuge is partially enclosed by a massive, well-preserved wall containing no mortar. The 10-foot high, seven-foot thick wall extends southwesterly for more than 600 feet before turning west and extending another 400 feet toward the sea. Within the enclosure are three heiau (temple) platforms. The most recent structure, Hale o Keawe, dating from approximately 1650 A.D., has been restored with a thatched hale (house), carved ki’i (images), and a wooden lele (altar) for offerings. This structure served as a mausoleum, housing the bones of at least 23 ali’i (royal chiefs), and it was believed that the mana (spiritual power) of the royal bones gave special protection to the pu’uhonua. However, in 1829, Queen Ka’ahumanu ordered the ancestral bones removed and the temple was dismantled. The area outside the enclosure includes the remains of royal residences, a fishpond, and canoe landing.
After lying in ruins for nearly a century, the pu’uhonua was designated a county park in 1920. In 1961,180 acres were donated to the U.S. government by Bishop Estate (administrators of the estate of Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop who died in 1884). Pu’uhonua o Honaunau became a National Historical Park in 1978 and is managed and interpreted by the U.S. National Park Service, which conducts cultural events, provides self-guided tours, and maintains a visitor center. More than 600,000 people tour the park annually and it is popularly referred to as City of Refuge.
- Bryan, E. H. Jr., & Emory, K. P. (1986). The natural and cultural history of Honaunau, Kona, Hawai’i. Honolulu, HI: Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum.
- James, V. (1995). Ancient sites of Hawai’i. Honolulu, HI: Mutual Publishing.
- National Park Service, Department of the Interior (1975). Master plan for City of Refuge National Historical Park, Hawaii. San Francisco, CA: Author.
- National Park Service. (2005). Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park.Retrieved May 21,2005 from ww.nps.gov.