Commentaries on Kava

The study of kava is a treasure hunt that yields chests of gold at many turns, not just at the end of the quest. Kava's history and the interest generate by kava over the past two centuries are as colorful and broad as the plant is strong, and many who have described kava and its effects have done so with vivid imagination and lavish language.

On Captain James Cook's first voyage to the South Pacific on the Endeavour (1768-1771) were Daniel Carl Solander, a Swedish botanist, and Sydney Parkinson, an artist assigned to the task of drawing and recording newly discovered plants along the way. These men were probably the first non-natives to encounter and describe kava. But it was a subsequent account of kava given by Johann Georg Forster, a botanist who, along with his father Johann Reinhold Forster, accompanied Captain Cook on his second voyage on the Resolution (1771-1775), that generated significant interest in the plant and in the beverage into which it is made. Forster witnessed the cultivation and harvesting of kava, the preparation of the kava beverage, and the ritualized customs surrounding the consumption of the drink. His illustrations of the plant and his account of its use set off a storm of interest in kava, not all of it favorable. In some cases, accounts of kava were grossly distorted to reflect the ideological and religious biases of the writers.

Forster's account of kava drinking conveys just how bizarre the ritual appeared to non-natives. In September of 1773, while the Resolution was moored off Raiatea, Forster witnessed two men prepare and drink kava inside Captain Cook's cabin. In choosing that location, the youths were exhibiting profound respect for Cook and his mission. But Forster was transfixed with revulsion, rather than recognizing the deference shown by the kava drinkers. He commented that kava

is made in the most disgusting manner that can be imagined, from the juice contained in the roots of a species of pepper tree. This root is cut small, and the pieces chewed by several people, who spit the macerated mass into a bowl, where some water of coconuts is poured upon it. They then strain it through a quantity of the fibers of coconuts, squeezing the chips, till all their juices mix with the coconut milk; and the whole liquor is decanted into another bowl. They swallow this nauseous stuff as fast as possible; and some old topers value themselves on being able to empty a great number of bowls.

In "The Journal of James Morrison", the author, who visited Tahiti between 1788 and 1791, offers a somewhat exaggerated but not antagonistic account of kava consumption.

[Kava] almost immediately deprives them of the use of their limbs and speech, but does not touch the mental faculty and they appear to be in a thoughtful mood and frequently fall backwards after they have finished eating. Some of their attendants then attend to chafe their limbs all over until they fall asleep and the rest retire and no noise is suffered to be made near them. After a few hours they are as fresh as if nothing had happened and are ready for another dose.

The idea of naked or mostly naked black-skinned natives chewing kava into a pulp, spitting that pulp into a communal vessel of preparation, making a beverage from it, drinking it together, and altering their physical and mental state through consumption was more than most white European and American explorers and missionaries in the 1800s and early 1900s could handle. To both, the kava preparation process was filthy, unhygienic, and thoroughly repugnant. To missionaries, the practice of drinking kava was a heinous, devilish act. As a result of extreme biases, accounts of kava drinking from those periods are typically distorted and deprecating.

In 1848 William Torrey, author of "Torrey's Narrative, or the Life and Adventures of William Torrey", offered a skewed account of the effects of kava consumption among natives. "Copious draughts cause a dizziness and a horribly distorted countenance. They lose the use of their limbs and fall and roll about on the ground until the stupefaction wears away."

In 1908 Thompson, in "The Fijians: A Study in the Decay of Custom", offered a more strident indictment of kava consumption. "The body becomes emaciated, the skin becomes dry and covered with scales, especially the palms of the hands, the soles of the feet, and the forearms and the shins. Appetite is lost. Sleep is disordered. Eyes become bloodshot. There are pains in the pit of the stomach. The drinker sinks into unwholesome lethargy."

In the publication Polynesian Researches, William Ellis, a missionary in the Society Islands from 1817 to 1824, railed unrestrained against native kava users. "They were sometimes engaged for several days together, drinking the spirit as it issued from the still, sinking into a state of indescribable wretchedness and often practicing the most ferocious barbarities. Under the unrestraining influence of their intoxicating draught, in their appearance and actions, they resembled demons more than human beings."

Today, the account given by Ellis is immediately recognizable as a transparent fiction on two counts. The first is that kava is not a spirit. Anybody, even a meagerly informed kava antagonist, would know that kava is completely non-alcoholic. Secondly, no such device as a still has ever been used in the preparation of kava. Instead of reflecting the truth in any form, the views espoused by Ellis reflect the zealous blindness with which many missionaries have attacked numerous native customs deemed to be inconsistent with the principles and practices of the church.

In 1929 Hocart offered a more sympathetic and accurate account of kava drinking. "It gives a pleasant, warm and cheerful, but lazy feeling, sociable, though not hilarious or loquacious; the reason is not obscured."

In 1948 Titcombe reported a less flattering account of kava drinking given to him by a Hawaiian named Kaulilinoe. "There is no admiration for the body and face of a [kava] drinker whose eyes are sticky and whose skin cracks like the bark of the kukui trees of Lilikoi in unsightliness. If you are drunk with [kava] you will find your muscles and cords limp, the head feels weighted and the whole body too."

The mention of cracking skin is rooted in fact. Excessive consumption of kava, in combination with inadequate nutrition, can produce a patchy dermatitis which is quite unsightly, and which rapidly disappears after regular kava consumption is suspended and nutrition is improved.

In 1967 Lemert brought to light the common effects of kava upon attitude and outlook. "The head is affected pleasantly; you feel friendly, not beer sentimental; you cannot hate with kava in you. Kava quiets the mind; the world gains no new color or rose tint; it fits in its place and in one easily understandable whole."

It is exactly because kava is a fundamentally friendly agent that it is used throughout Oceania to settle disputes. If two people or groups have a problem, they come together at the kava drinking ground and they share kava. Typically, when this is done, the problem is quickly settled and harmony is restored. Kava drinkers do not become belligerent or blustering. Instead they experience a greater peace and equanimity, and they convey that mood in their behavior and speech.