HAWAI‘I’S ACTIVE VOLCANOES overwhelmed early travelers.
Evidently one visit made quite an impression on the missionary Hiram Bingham. He wrote of approaching Kilauea in 1830: “Evidences of existing volcanic agency multiplied around us; steam, gas and smoke, issued from sulfur banks on the north-east and south-east sides of the crater, and here and there from deep and extended fissures connected with fiery subterranean agency; and as we passed circumspectly along the apparently depressed plain that surrounds the crater, we observed an immense volume of smoke and vapor ascending from the midst of it. At the same time, and from the same source, various unusual sounds not easily described or explained, fell with increasing intensity on the ear. Then the angry abyss, the fabled habitation and throne of Pele, the great ex-goddess of the Hawaiians, opened before us.”
The newspaper writer and humorist Mark Twain was in Hawai‘i and visited Kilauea in 1866. He downplayed the scene, saying he’d been disappointed: “The little fountains scattered about looked very beautiful. They boiled, and coughed, and spluttered, and discharged sprays of stringy red fire of about the consistency of mush, for instance from ten to fifteen feet into the air, along with a shower of brilliant white sparks a quaint and unnatural mingling of gouts of blood and snowflakes!” Twain added, with his characteristic wry humor: “The smell of sulfur is strong, but not unpleasant to a sinner.”
A decade later, Isabella Bird wrote of her six-month visit to the Islands, including two visits to Kilauea. She approached by horseback on a dark, rainy night, and wrote about the glow of the erupting volcano: “Is that possibly a pool of blood? I thought in horror, as a rain puddle glowed crimson on the track. Not that indeed! A glare brighter and redder than that from any furnace suddenly lightened the whole sky, and from that moment brightened our path.”
The next day, Bird and her party climbed down into the crater and walked over a recent lava flow: “It was so hot that a shower of rain hissed as it fell upon it. The crust became increasingly insecure and necessitated our walking in single file, with the guide in front, to test the security of the footing. I fell through several times, and always into holes full of sulfurous steam, so malignantly acid that my dog-skin gloves were burned through as I raised myself on my hands.”
When they reached the edge of the fire pit, Halema‘uma‘u, she wrote: “I think we all screamed, I know we all wept, but we were all speechless, for a new glory and terror had been added to the earth. It is the most unutterable of wonderful things. The words of common speech are quite useless.”
On a second trip to Kilauea, she described the view of the lava lake: “The whole of the inside was red and molten, full of knobs, and great fiery stalactites. Jets of lava at a white heat wave thrown up constantly, and frequently the rent in the side spat our lava in clots, which cooled rapidly, and looked like drops of bottlegreen grass… The blast or roar which came up from below was more than deafening; it was stunning: and accompanied with heavy subterranean rumbling and detonations.”
Anne Brassey, in her 1881 volume, A Voyage in the Sunbeam, described her Christmas 1876 visit to Kilauea: “We were standing on the extreme edge of precipice, overhanging a lake of molten fire, a hundred feet below us, and nearly a mile across. Dashing against the cliffs on the opposite side, with a noise like the roar of a stormy ocean, waves of blood-red, fiery, liquid lava hurled their billows upon an iron-bound headland, and then rushed up the face of the cliffs to toss their gory spray in the air.”