In ancient Hawaii thieving was an honorable profession. It required cultivation as well as natural ability. Even as late as the days of Captain Cook and his discovery of the Hawaiian Islands there is the record of a chief whose business was to steal successfully. When Captain Cook discovered the island Kauai, a chief by the name of Kapu-puu (The-tabu-hill) was one of the first to go out to the ships. He went saying, “There is plenty of iron [hao]. I will ‘hao’ [steal] the ‘hao,’ for to ‘hao’ [to plunder] is my livelihood”—as one historian expressed the saying: “To plunder is with me house and land.” The chief, however, was detected in the act and was shot and killed. The natives never seemed to blame Captain Cook for the death of that chief. The thief was unsuccessful. Really, the sin of stealing consisted in being detected.
The story of Iwa, the successful thief, is back in the days when Umi was king of Hawaii, fourteen generations of kings before Kamehameha the First. The king Umi was well known in Hawaiian historical legends, and many important events are dated with his reign as the reference-point.
In Puna, Hawaii, while Umi was king, there lived a fisherman by the name of Keaau. He was widely known for his skill in fishing with a wonderful shell. It was one of the leho shells, and was used in catching squid. Its name was Kalo-kuna. Keaau always returned from fishing with his canoe full. After a time he was talked about all around the island, and Umi heard about the magic leho of the fisherman.
At that time Umi dwelt in Kona, where he was fishing after the custom of those days. He sent a messenger commanding the fisherman to bring his shell to Kona, where he could show its power and his skill. Then the king, who had the right to take all the property of any of his subjects, took the shell from the fisherman.
Keaau’s heart became very sore for the loss of his shell, so he went to a man on Hawaii who was skilled in theft and asked him to secretly steal the leho and return it to him. He brought his canoe filled with his property—a pig, some fruit and awa and the black-and-white and spotted tapa sheets—to give to the thief who could get back his shell. But neither this thief nor any others on the islands of Hawaii, Maui or Molokai was sufficiently skilful to give him any aid.
Then he passed on to Oahu, where he met a man fishing, who, according to the custom of the people, invited him to land and accept hospitality. When the feast was over, they asked him the object of his journey. He told the story of the loss of his leho, and said that he was travelling to find “a thief able to steal back the shell taken by the strong hand of the chief of Hawaii.”
Then the Oahu people told him about Iwa and his marvellous skill in plundering. They directed him to row his canoe around by Makapo and then land, and he would find a boy without a malo (loin cloth). He must give him the offering—the good things brought in the canoe. He found the boy and placed before him the gifts. They killed the pig and cooked it over hot stones. Then they had a feast, and the boy-thief asked the traveller why he had come to him. The fisherman told all his trouble and asked Iwa to go with him to recover the shell. To this Iwa consented, and after a night’s rest prepared to go to Hawaii.
When the time came for the journey he placed Keaau in front and took his place to steer and paddle. The name of his paddle was Kapahi, which means “Scatter the water.” Iwa told the fisherman to look sharp at the land before them; then he talked to his paddle, saying, “Let the ocean meet the sea of Iwa.” He struck his paddle once into the sea and the canoe rushed by the little islands along the coast and passed to Niihau. From Niihau in four paddle-strokes the canoe lay before the coast of Hawaii, where Umi and his chiefs were fishing. One of the canoes had a palm-branch house built over it to shade the fisherman. Iwa asked if that was the royal canoe, and, learning that it was, quickly backed his canoe around a headland and prepared to dive, saying to his friend, “I will go and steal that leho.”
He leaped into the water and sank to the bottom of the ocean. He walked along under the sea aided by his magic power until he came to the place where the king’s canoes were floating. Over the side of the king’s boat hung the cord to which the shell was fastened. Iwa rose quietly under the canoe and caught the leho, slowly drew it down to the bottom, broke the cord and fastened it to sharp rocks, and then went back to the place where Keaau was waiting for him. All along the way giant squid and devilfish fought him and tried to take the shell from his hands, but by incantations and the power of his gods he escaped to the canoe, and, leaping in, gave the leho to the fisherman, and paddled away to Puna. There he dwelt with Keaau for a little while.
When the boy-thief took the cord of Umi he thought that a very great squid had seized the shell, and let the line run, afraid lest it might break and the shell be lost, but when he tried to pull he found it fast below. He sent to the land for all the people who could dive, but none of them could go to the bottom. Ten days and ten nights he waited in his canoe. Then he sent over all the island Hawaii for those who knew how to dive in deep water, but all the noted divers failed. The messenger came to the place where Iwa was staying. Keaau was away fishing. Iwa took the messenger to the place where the fisherman dried squid and showed him a great many already caught. Then Iwa said, “Go back and tell your king that the leho is not on the line, but a rock is holding it fast.”
The messenger returned to the king and reported the saying of Iwa. Then the king sent swift men to run and bring Iwa to him. The boy agreed to go to Umi, and sped more swiftly than the runners sent for him. When he stood before Umi he told the king all his story and leaped into the sea, diving down, breaking the rock and bringing up the piece to which the line had been tied. Umi then wanted Iwa to return to Puna and steal that leho for him. Iwa went back to the fisherman’s house, and that night stole the shell for the king.
When Umi received the shell he rejoiced greatly at the skill of this thief. Then he thought about his tabu stone axe in Waipio Valley, and wished to test this boy-thief again.
This sacred stone axe really belonged to Umi, the son of Liloa, but it had been kept in the tabu heiau (sacred temple) of Pakaalana, in Waipio Valley. Two old women were guardians of this tabu axe. It was tied fast in the middle of a line. One end of that cord was fastened around the neck of one old woman, and one end around the neck of the other. Thus they wore the cord as a lei (wreath) of that sacred stone axe of Umi. When Umi asked the thief if he would steal this axe, Iwa said he would try, but he waited until the sun was almost down, then he ran swiftly to Waipio Valley as if he were a messenger of the king, calling to the people and establishing a tabu over the land:
“Sleep—sleep for the sacred stone axe of Umi.
Tabu—let no man go forth from his house.
Tabu—let no dog bark.
Tabu—let no rooster crow.
Tabu—let no pig make a noise.
Sleep—sleep till the tabu is raised.”
Five times he called the tabu, beginning at Puukapu near Waimea, as he went to the guarded path to Waipio. When he had established this tabu he travelled down to the place where the old women guarded the axe. He called again, “Has sleep come to you two?” And they answered, “Here we are; we are not asleep.” He called again: “Where are you? I would touch that sacred axe of Umi and return and report that this hand has held the sacred stone axe of the king.”
He came near and took the axe and pulled the ends of the string tight around the necks of the old women, choking them and throwing them over. Then he broke the string and ran swiftly up the path over the precipice. The old women disentangled themselves and began to cry out, “Stolen is the tabu axe of Umi, and the thief has gone up toward Waimea.” The people followed Iwa from place to place, but could not overtake him, and soon lost him.
Iwa went on to the king’s place and lay down to sleep. As morning drew near the king’s people found him asleep and told the king he had not been away, but when Iwa was awake he was called to the king, who said, “Here, you have not got the tabu stone axe.”
“Perhaps not,” said the boy, “but here is an axe which I found last night. Will you look at it?” The king saw that it was his tabu axe, and wondered at the magic power of the thief, for he thought it impossible to go to Waipio and return in the one night, and he knew how difficult it would be to get the axe and escape from the people.
He determined to give Iwa another trial—a contest with the best thieves of his kingdom. He asked if Iwa would consent to a death contest. The one surpassing in theft should receive reward. The defeated should be put to death. This plan seemed right to the thief from Oahu. It would be a great battle—one against six.
The king called his clan of six thieves and Iwa, and told them that he would set apart two houses in which they could put their plunder. That night they were to go out and steal, and the one whose house contained the most property should be the victor. The report of the contest spread all through the village, and the people prepared to hide their property.
Iwa lay down to sleep while the six men quietly and swiftly passed among the people, stealing whatever they could. When they saw Iwa asleep they pitied him for his certain death. Toward morning their house was almost full, and still Iwa slept. The six thieves were very tired and hungry, so they prepared a feast and awa. They ate and drank until overcome with drunkenness. A little before dawn they also fell asleep.
Iwa arose, hastened to the house filled by the six thieves, and hastily removed all their plunder to his own house. Then he went quietly to Umi’s sleeping-house, and, showing his great skill, removed the tapa sheets from the bed in which the king was sleeping, and piled them on the other things in his house. Then he lay down again as if asleep.
The morning cold fell on the king, and he was chilled, and awoke, feeling for the sheets, but could not find them. He remembered the contest, and as the daylight rested upon them he called the people together.
They went to the house of the six thieves and opened it to look for their plunder, and not one thing was there. It was entirely empty. After this they went to Iwa’s house. When the door was open they saw the king’s tapa sheets on all the other plunder. The six thieves were put to death, and Iwa was honored for some years as the very dear friend of the king and the most adroit thief in the kingdom.
After a time he longed for the place of his birth, and he asked Umi to send him back to his parents. Umi filled a double canoe with good things and let him go back to the green-sided pali (or precipice) of the district of Koolau, on the island Oahu.