The Krotona Colony’s Kaua’i Connection, Part IV: Augustus Knudsen’s Passage to India

February 16, 2011 § Leave a comment

The Theosophical Society Headquarters in Adyar, Madras/www.blavatskyarchive.com

In 1896, Augustus Knudsen left Kaua’i for San Francisco. From there, he intended to travel to India and study Hinduism. But in San Francisco, fate intervened when he met the president and co-founder of the Theosophical Society, Henry Steel Olcott.

Henry Steel Olcott, seated at center, and Helena Blavatsky, standing behind him, with spiritual leaders in India/www.ookaboo.com

Olcott (1832-1907) was famous not only as Madame Blavatsky’s partner in the Theosophical Society (which he served as lawyer as well as spiritual leader) but as the best-known, and probably first, person of European descent to convert to Buddhism. Before he embarked upon this unorthodox path, Olcott was a Civil War veteran who fought graft and investigated Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. In 1874, he was hired by the New York Sun and New York Graphic to investigate “spiritual manifestations” at Eddy Farm. There he encountered Madame Blavatsky, a meeting of minds which led to the founding of the Theosophical Society the following year, and to the establishment of its worldwide headquarters in Adyar, Madras (now Chennai) in 1883.

The late 19th century was a boom time for new religions, many of which were concerned with signs of life after death. Olcott’s social stature was shared by many fellow seekers: among his contemporaries who studied Theosophy were William James and Thomas Edison. Olcott’s background as a soldier, lawyer and patriot no doubt boosted the image of Theosophy for those who otherwise would have been skeptical of some of its tenets. 

What attracted Augustus Knudsen to Theosophy was the same thing that drew Olcott’s attentions away from Buddhism: psychic phenomena and occult rituals like seances. In 1896, the newly converted Knudsen traveled to Adyar, where he studied with Madame Blavatsky. By 1898 he was back in San Francisco, where he married Margaret Russell, a Californian with Southern roots.

After their daughter Ruth was born in 1901, Augustus and Margaret returned to Kaua’i. Valdemar had died in 1898, and with only his brother Eric left to run the family businesses, Augustus had a role there. (The youngest Knudsen brother, Arthur, suffered a mental breakdown in his 20’s and remained institutionalized in Boston.) But the marriage foundered when Margaret, a late-in-life mother, became physically and emotionally incapacitated by menopause. According to Ruth,   

[Augustus] kicked her out of the house. And told me later that her illness had interfered with his spiritual development.

The calamity of divorce allowed Augustus Knudsen to make a final break with his life on Kaua’i. Placing Ruth in the care of her grandmother, Anne Sinclair Knudsen, he left Hawai’i, remarried and settled in Hollywood. The house he commissioned on Vista del Mar Avenue would be the gateway to the Krotona Colony, a utopia made real by his devotion to Theosophy–and the family fortune made on Kaua’i.

Additional Sources:

Oral History of Ruth Knudsen Hanner, Courtesy Kauai Museum.

Theosophical Society Headquarters, Adyar.  http://www.ts-adyar.org/
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For more about the Krotona Colony, purchase the documentary “Under the Hollywood Sign” at http://hopeandersonproductions.com/?page_id=3361
The film is also available for rent at https://vimeo.com/ondemand/uths

The Krotona Colony’s Kaua’i Roots, Part III: The Indelible Influence of Hawai’ian Religion

February 13, 2011 § Leave a comment

Kauai's Menehune Fish Pond/Courtesy http://www.kauaivacation.biz

The Knudsens were major players Kauai’s economy from the late 19th century to the mid- 20th century, producing cattle and sugar and overseeing large tracts of land, but the family’s cultural legacy was at least as significant.Valdemar Knudsen, the patriarch, became fluent in Hawai’ian and made the first written studies of Kauai’s birds and plants. His abiding respect for native customs and religion made him a natural go-between for the Island’s native and haole populations, and his erudition led to his appointment as agent for the Kingdom’s Board of Education. Under King Kamehameha IV, Valdemar became a noble with governing power on Kaua’i.

All five of his children grew up among native Hawai’ians, and in addition to speaking Hawai’ian were well versed in local myths and religious practices. While Eric went on to become Hawaii’s preeminate folklorist, publishing the first English-language books of Hawai’ian myths and legends, his older brother Augustus concerned himself with Hawai’ian religion, a polytheistic faith that incorporated ancestor worship and animism.

Growing up on a ranch in the wilds of western Kaua’i put the younger Knudsens in frequent contact with kahuna  (Hawai’ian priests)–as well as unexplained phenomena. Their sister Ida Knudsen Von Holt writes:

Augustus also claimed to have seeen a menehune on one of his camping out nights. He had been late hunting cattle, and built a fire to keep warm. As he sat eating chocolate and hard tack, he suddenly realized that across from him through the flames he could see a little figure, bushy haired and heavly bearded, and clad only in a malo, and about 18 inches high.

(The menehune, often described as the “leprechauns of Hawaii,” were Hawaii’s pre-Polynesian natives, and engineers of incredible skill. On Kaua’i, they are credited with building the 1,000-year-old fish pond pictured above, as well as the Island’s heiau [temples made of intricately fitted stones]. Though often assumed to be mythological, they probably did exist, though in less tiny form: in Kaua’i’s 1820 census, 65 people described themselves as menehune.)

It was his affinity for Hawai’ian religion that eventually led Augustus to Hinduism, the most polytheistic of the major religions. Back on Kaua’i in the early 1890’s after earning an engineering degree from MIT, and none too happily running the family ranch, Augustus delved further into his newly adopted faith. According to his daughter, Ruth:

…in 1896 he had saved up enough money to go to India. He was sure there was a great connection between India and Hawaii.

But Ruth’s opinion of her father’s religious interests was decidedly jaundiced:

He was interested in the occultism…and black magic.

Additional Sources:

Oral History of Ruth Knudsen Hanner, courtesy Kauai Museum.

Von Holt, Ida Elizabeth Knudsen. Stories of Long Ago: Niihau, Kauai, Oahu. Honolulu: Daughter of Hawaii, 1985.

 www.kamhcc.org/Hawaiianreligionandmyths.pdf

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Menehune#cite_note-1
__________________
For more about the Krotona Colony, purchase the documentary “Under the Hollywood Sign” at http://hopeandersonproductions.com/?page_id=3361
The film is also available for rent at https://vimeo.com/ondemand/uths

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