The Recent Volcanic Eruptions in Hawaii.

The group of Hawaiian, or Sandwich Islands lies like a cluster of emeralds on the gently-heaving bosom of the North Pacific. So central is their situation, that a line having one end fastened in Honolulu, the capital, would with the other sweep in succession the coasts of New Zealand, Eastern Australia, New Guinea, Japan, Manchouria, Kamtschatka, and part of Central America.

To Englishmen these islands possess the great and enduring interest of being the scene of Captain Cook’s death; a fate incontestably shown, by a review of the circumstances, to have been mainly: due to the great circumnavigator’s own conduct on his last return to Hawaii.

The origin of the islands is jointly volcanic and coralline. From the submerged flanks of the mountains rises the coral-insect’s architecture, which, proceeding perpendicularly, emerges from the ocean as a reef, a little distant from the shore, on which the billows love to dash themselves, fretting the blue deep, and girding each green oasis with a thin zone of silver.

Stupendous are the agencies which first uplifted this human home from the deep. If to the 14,000 feet altitude of Mauna Kea be added the unmeasured mass of the mountain below the water-level, downwards to the general bed of the ocean, dim guesses may be hazarded of the entire elevation of a volcanic island, and of the gigantic forces which have built up such chimneys as safety-valves for the pent-up internal fires. Craters, extinct and active, are numerous throughout the islands.

In one place a great lake or inland sea has been formed by the filling-up of a vast crater, which had either ceased to be operative, or was extinguished by the rushing in of the ocean. That of the Mountain Haleakala, in Maui, is the largest in the known world; being nine miles in diameter, and about 2000 feet in depth. At the base of the Mani crater some fifteen others are studded about, which, though dwarfed by contact with their gigantic chief, are themselves not inconsiderable hills. All these mouths are now quiescent; and when visited this autumn, the party which ascended the mountain found the huge cup that once had brimmed with fire, filled with fleecy clouds.

The principal member of the group, Hawaii, appears to be the volcanic centre. Earthquakes and eruptions take place at times on the other islands; but the most considerable manifestations of Plutonic energy have been, and still are, found here. Three remarkable peaks rise superior to the mountain-range of Hawaii. Two of them, Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, are of nearly equal heights — about 14,000 feet. The fires of the former volcano are extinguished, and it is from the sides of the latter that explosions and outpourings of lava principally take place.

The mountain is indeed always in labour; and Dante might have gained ideas of penal fires could he have looked down the fearful orifice of Kilanea, a pit situated about 4000 feet up the mountain’s side, six miles in circumference, and from 400 to 1000 feet in depth. In the native mythology, this abyss was chosen as the dwelling place of the terrible goddess Pele. Hero, with her attendant demons, she bathed and sported in the sulphurous waves; and here was the scene of Christian courage triumphing over material and supernatural terrors, when the converted chiefess, Kapiolani, in 1825, dared the horrors of the way and the anger of the invaded goddess, and descended the crater, casting from her hands into the liquid lava the sacred berries, as an act of desecration. Since that time many persons have visited the scene, and the writer’s brother has also made a descent into the crater.

For nearly three years the volcano has been in a state of more than usual activity. Rivers of burning lava have rolled downwards from the brimming cup. The streams have crept through dark silent forests, withering and burning the hard ko-trees and the fragrant young sapan-wood. They have poured themselves into deep pits, and over perpendicular palis, or precipices; past ruined heiaut, or idol-temples; have destroyed the native kalo grounds, and rendered villages uninhabitable; finally, they have held their downward way through grassy valleys even to the shore, till, in deadly struggle with the waves, then course has been stayed, but not till the temperature of the sea has been sufficiently raised to destroy great quantities of fish.

On the 23rd of January last, a great eruption commenced on Mauna Loa. The lava took a northerly direction, rounded the side of another mountain, and by the 28th had debouched over the plateau, and run some distance into the sea, destroying in its way a small fishing village. An interruption of the trade-wind took place about the same time, having some occult connection, probably, with the volcanic action. Sight-seers, of course, immediately started for the spot. They were rewarded by a spectacle of indescribable grandeur. The fire rose 250 feet above the mouth of the crater, sometimes taking the form of a cone of flame, at others that of a jet de feu, before which all artificial pyrotechnics would have to “pale their ineffectual fires.” The descending lava presented a head of fire 200 rods in width, curving over the mountain sides like a bloodred snake, and occasionally leaping sheer down a precipice.

On the 9th of February, a party left the college in Honolulu for the purpose of ascending to the crater. An unfortunate accident occurred to one of the number. In passing through the forest, a young man fell into one of the deep pits which exist there, probably extinct craters, the mouths of which are often concealed by trailing and orchidaceous plants. His fall was heard, and the sufferer was recovered and carried to a place where medical aid could be obtained. His spine, however, had been injured below the neck, and after lingering a few days he died.

On the 15th, Captain Montresor in H.M.’s Ship Calypso, having invited the king and his suite to accompany him, proceeded to Hawaii to observe the phenomena of the eruption. Among the party was the British Consul-General and Commissioner in the Islands, Mr. Toup Nicolas, intelligence of whose untimely death was received by the last mail. On the 19th, they landed at Kaawaloa, or Cook’s Bay, and found with surprise that the scene of the great navigator’s death was unmarked by any durable monument. A decaying stump of a cocoa-nut tree indicates the exact spot where he fell, and a few stones piled on a hill at a distance seem placed there for their own safety, or to prove an alibi. On returning to Honolulu, Mr. Nicolas set himself to promote the erection of a more fitting and permanent trophy, and was engaged in procuring subscriptions for the purpose when the failure of his health made it necessary for him to leave the islands.

In the account we proceed to give of the volcano the observations made in the Calypso expedition, and those by another exploring party, are combined. Seen from afar at sea and at night, the first view of the eruption had the appearance of a star, with two rays of light depending — a comet, in fact, — hanging two-thirds up the mountain side. The Calypso’s party commenced their ascent, and passing through a wood seven miles in breadth, emerged on a plateau about 5000 feet above the sea level, affording a good site for observation.

By day two great and solemnly moving rivers flowed northward and westward from the crater, with subsidiary streams. Their motion was marked by the sudden ignition of trees, which fell in that short and fiery embrace. The appearance at night is thus described: “The immense arena, the intense glare of the flows and fissures, covering the mountain side to the height of some 6000 feet above us, describing horizontal lines and points of molten mineral matter ; the sullen glow above the crater and inferior orifices from which the lava issued; the fire and smoke rising from the far-off streams and those nearer at hand, in which latter, every now and then, the burning trees threw up their wreathed flames like the arms of an agonised victim, added to the sort of glimmer and twinkle seen on a frosty night, produced a spectacle of such grandeur, that words before it become powerless.

If on some mountain side, the largest fire that ever devastated San Francisco could be reproduced, and four or five hundred domes like that of St. Peter’s at Rome, when illuminated, be dotted about on the slopes below, the general effect might be that of a very pretty miniature on ivory of the eruption on Mauna Loa. Every five minutes or so some new chasm or torrent showed itself, comparable at first to the spark of a glowworm, but suddenly extending like a train of gunpowder.”

In the more scientific account given by Professor Alexander, he describes the jet when first seen by his party as 300 feet in height; in form and movement exactly like a fountain, and accompanied by immense columns of steam. By day his companions explored the craters. The principal sources of action were two cones, about loO feet high, composed of pumice and fragments of lava. The suffocating gases which escaped from the redhot vent-holes of these furnaces rendered it a matter of danger to approach them. At night, they encamped by a fresh lava stream, which served for all cooking purposes.

The next morning they followed the central flow from the lower crater, and reached its outlet from its subterranean channel Its appearance there was that of a pool of blood, a few rods in width, boiling up like a spring, and spouting up thick clotted masses to the height of ten or twenty feet. On the lower side it poured like a cataract of molten metal at white heat down a descent of about fifty feet, with a roar like that of a heavy surf. Keeping to windward, and protecting their faces with their hats, they approached the brink. The lava appeared almost as fluid as water, and ran with a velocity which the eye could scarcely follow. For several miles the fiery river was a continuous series of rapids and cataracts.

They travelled for three or four hours along the edge of the stream. The open part of the canal was from twenty to fifty feet wide; but the stream was really wider, because both its banks were undermined to a considerable distance. Over this part of the flow there were frequent openings, through which they could see the rushing torrent a few feet, sometimes a few inches, beneath their feet. “To describe the scene,” says the Professor, ” is impossible. For the first time we saw actual waves and actual spray of liquid lava. As its surges rolled back from the enclosing walls of rock, they curled over and broke like combers on the reef.

There was, besides, an endless variety in its forms. Now we passed a cascade, then a smooth majestic river, then a series of rapids, tossing their waves like a stormy sea; now rolling into lurid caverns, the roofs of which were hung with red-hot stalactites, and then under arches which it had thrown over itself in sportive triumph.” After pursuing the great stream some miles, it reticulated into so many rivulets, forming islands, that it required great caution not to be isolated on the latter. The lava often penetrated caves, and blew them up with loud explosions. Where it debouches into tho ocean, it has already filled up the bay, and formed a promontory instead.

Extremes proverbially meet; and the phenomena of glacier progression and lava streams have much in common. Recent investigators of glaciers have examined the curved lines found in the ice, concentric with the axis of the flow. The Hawaiian observers were accounting for curvilinear forms of lava, which it is clear were strict homologues of the glacial ones. The generation of the nests of curved wrinkles could be witnessed; and the theorem which was deduced, only, in regard to ice, was demonstrated in the march of minerals solved by fire.

By the last accounts received from the islands, the volcano was in unabated activity. Numbers of the inhabitants were flocking to the coast to witness tho splendid spectacle of the confluence of the lava – stream with the sea. The whole district of North Kona was suffering from drought; the the wells being completely dry.

Manley Hopkins.


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