Kamehameha, the great warrior, who invaded Maui in 1790 and finally, 20 years later, subdued all the Hawaiian islands, occupies a special place in the history of Hawai'i. Conqueror, king, statesman and lawgiver, Kamehameha (circa 1758-1819) has been called the Napoleon of the Pacific.  



Although the Polynesians kept no written records, we know a great deal about their history after they settled the islands. At least, we know what they thought was worth remembering - mostly chiefs' names and accounts of their wars and intrigues. For centuries, life on the islands was not peaceful for long at a stretch, and it was never placid. It never stood still for long, something was always changing. At the same time, historical events did not spread from one island or island group to another. We do not have for early Polynesia any record of wars and conquest over large spaces as we do for the continents of Asia, Africa, and Europe. We are not told about any great individuals who actually lived and changed the course of life on more than one island. Yet even in Polynesia, a change was already taking place at the time of Cook's death, under the guidance of a remarkable Hawaiian called Kamehameha.

Kamehameha was born on 1736, and he died in 1819. the Pacific was still a vast uncharted ocean, as far as Europeans were concerned, when he was a child. By the time of his death, it was already becoming a great route across the world for merchants, and a hunting ground for whalers. Not only European ships and men were coming in, but European ideas. Above all, there was the European religion of Christianity, spread by the missionaries. So the life story of Kamehameha shows two things: what might have happened if Europeans had not arrived at that particular time, and what did happen, in the end. 

Although he was of royal blood, Kemehameha was kept hidden in the mountains of Hawaii for the first years of his life. From this fact he took his name, which means "The Lonely One." It was unusual treatment for a young prince, but it had been foretold at his birth that he would be a killer of kings. Consequently, his life was in danger for a long time from those who wished to forestall his carrying out such a career. However, while he was still quite a young boy, he was brought back to the court of Kalaniopuu, his royal uncle, and given the feather helmet and cloak of a nobleman. Kamehameha grew up to be a young man remarkable for his size and strength, and for his courage as a fighter in his uncle's wars.

The king whom Cook tried to kidnap was Kalaniopuu himself, and probably Kamehameha was on the scene when Cook was killed. The prince may not have believed that the sailor was a god, but he certainly appreciated the improved weapons and skills he could see that the Europeans had. He had not the time to learn as much about them as he would have liked, and another chance did not come soon. Partly in sorrow and partly in fear, Western ships kept away from the Hawaiian Islands for years afterward. At this time Kalaniopuu was growing old, so he appointed Kiwalao, his own son, as his heir to the kingdom. Kamehameha was given the title of war chief, the next most important rank. It meant that he was also high priest of the war god Kukulimoku. In spite of this grand position, he lived quietly on his own lands and took no part in politics until the old king died in 1782. Kiwalao was a moderate man, and terrified that his ambitious brother, Keoua, would cause trouble. So were the other chiefs, who appealed to Kamehameha for support.

By ancient Hawaiian custom, on the death of a king the land was redistributed among the chiefs. At the distribution which now took place Keoua was given nothing. Quite possibly Kamehameha engineered this in order to bring matters to a head. If so, he was successful. Keoua provoked war, in which Kiwalao supported him against Kamehameha. Fierce fighting broke out, and almost immediately Kiwalao was killed. Keoua was declared king. The war went on, always becoming more involved with the complicated politics of the various islands of Hawaii. Kamehameha attempted some daring schemes of conquest, but failed as often as he succeeded. Meantime, events the Hawaiians knew nothing about were to affect their lives. European merchants decided great profits could be made carrying cargoes of furs from what is now British Columbia to China, and there collecting cargoes of tea. By stopping at Hawaii the ships could take on fresh food and water. One of these voyages, in 1787, a Hawaiian chief was taken along to China, and returned with many presents. They included muskets, ammunition, and a small cannon. the chief was persuaded - or blackmailed - into joining Kamehameha and his followers. In this way, the war chief got control of the new and powerful weapons.

He also showed his foresight by preventing some of his allies from trying to capture the English or American visitors. Kamehameha saw very clearly that the attempts would only be unsuccessful, and might frighten off his source of firearms. All the same, a couple of years later one of his chiefs, in revenge for an insult, massacred the crew of an American schooner. Only two men, John Young and Isaac Davis, survived. Kamehameha at once made those two men his allies by giving them the rank of chiefs with lands and property. He now had not only weapons but experts to handle them and train his warriors in their use. That summer Kamehameha invaded Maui, the island next to Hawaii itself, and conquered it in a single battle, no one armed only with a spear or club could stand up to his muskets and cannon. But he soon had to return to his lands in Hawaii, which Keoua had invaded. Now, it seems, he wanted to end the war with Keoua for good, and perhaps Keoua was tired of it too. At any rate he accepted an invitation to visit Kamehameha for a discussion of peace. As he stepped ashore, Keoua was murdered. His body was roasted and offered in sacrifice to the war god of Kamehameha, who by this act had at last succeeded in making himself ruler of all Hawaii.

But this was not enough for him. The chiefs of the other islands battled among each other, and Kamehameha made war on all of them. the others wanted only to keep what they had, but Kamehameha wanted power. By 1810 the corpse of his last opponent had been sacrificed to the war god, and Kamehameha ruled the whole Hawaiian group of islands. The king had done something unknown before in Polynesia; he had set up an empire. He even began to contemplate enlarging it by invasions of other island groups. thanks to the visits of traders, his name was well known in Europe, where he was sometimes admiringly called "the Napoleon of the Pacific." But it was not only his foresight, ambition, and military skill which had won him his great position. Above all, it was the guns, bullets, cannon, and ships his European friends had sold him.

Kamehameha looked upon these Americans and English as his servants, and he did not realize that their picture of the situation was different. They had not only brought weapons which gave Kamehameha his victories, and which had helped reduce the populations of the islands at a steady rate. They had brought in rum, which wrecked the health of thousands more, including the king's own family. Besides, they were beginning to find their own use for the islands. The old dreams in European minds about Polynesia had faded away long before, for there was no gold, and the islands were not lands of milk and honey. but there were even more valuable things. In the seas swarmed the great whales, with ivory in their jaws and layers of oil-giving blubber under their skins. On the hillsides grew forests of the sandalwood trees the Chinese used for incense. More and more often the white men's ships went to and fro between Europe and America and China, carrying tea, furs, ivory, whalebone, and oil. More and more often they stopped at the islands for food, water, and sandalwood. They paid with more guns, and more rum. Worse, they gave the diseases of their sailors - smallpox and tuberculosis - to people who had never experienced them, and who died like flies when they caught them. 

In Hawaii itself the sandalwood trade alone caused devastation, since the nobles forced the people to neglect their crops in order to cut the precious trees. At last, the king himself realized what was happening, and did what he could to repair the damage. Kamehamea set the example of a true Polynesian chief by putting a tapu on the young trees, and planting fields with his own hands. He himself gave up drinking rum. But the world went on changing all the time, and the fate of his country was no longer in Kamehameha's hands. When he died in 1819, he was made a god like his ancestors, and his bones were hidden away in a sacred cave as theirs had been, generation after generation. But no one was sacrificed to his spirit, as had been done for hundreds of years whenever his ancestors died.

Another Story About Kamehameha

When Kamehameha's mother, Kekuiapoiwa, was pregnant with him, she had a craving for the eyeball of a chief. Instead she was given the eyeball of a man-eating shark and the priests prophesied that this desire meant that the child would be a rebel and a killer of chiefs. Alapainui, the old ruler of the island of Hawai'i, secretly made plans to have the newborn infant killed.

Kekuiapoiwa's time came on a stormy night in the Kohala district, when a strange star with a tail of white fire appeared in the western sky. According to one legend, the baby was passed through a hole in the side of Kekuiapoiwa's thatched hut to a local chief named Naeole, who carried the child to safety at Awini on Hawaii's north coast.

By the time the infant in Naeole's care was five, Alapainui had forgotten his fears and accepted the boy into his household. It was said that he was a child without laughter, and so he was named Kamehameha (the Lonely One). At the royal court, he was introduced to the complexities of the kapu system, the network of taboos that reinforced Hawaiian society and pervaded every aspect of life. Canoes were not built, nor fields cultivated, without the proper prayers and ceremonies. It was forbidden under penalty of death for men and women to eat together, or for the shadow of a commoner to fall on a chief.

In 1782, Kalaniopuu died, naming his son Kiwalao heir but giving his nephew Kamehameha custody of the powerful war god, Kukailimoku. The cousins did not get along well and before long there was open warfare between Kamehameha and his rivals, and Kiwalao was struck down by a sling stone and his throat was cut with a weapon edged with shark's teeth.

For nine years, between 1782 and 1791, Kamehameha battled rival chiefs on the island of Hawai'i and embarked on his conquest of Maui. There were many bloody encounters but no clear victor. As contact with foreign traders increased, the chiefs hurried to equip themselves with musket and cannon. In addition, Kamehameha pressed two English seamen into his service, Isaac Davis and John Young, who would play a large part in his future victories.

During this time, Kamehameha took two wives. One was Kaahumanu, a six-foot 300-pound woman who would become Kamehameha's great counselor. The other bride was the delicate 11-year old Keopuolani, with whom he would have a formal politically expedient union. She belonged to the highest ali'i class, and the right of succession of their two sons (Kamehameha II and III) was never questioned.

In 1790, frustrated by his stalemate with the rival chiefs, Kamehameha sought the advice of a famous soothsayer on the island of Kauai, who said that he must build a new temple for his war gods on Puukohola (Hill of the Whale) near Kawaihae if he was to be ruler of Hawai'i. Work on the structure began just before Kamehameha successfully repelled an attack by his cousin Keoua.

On Keoua's retreat south to his home in Kau, he tragically lost a third of his warriors in a violent eruption of the Kilauea volcano on the slopes of Mauna Loa. The incident was psychologically damaging to Keoua for it appeared that the volcano goddess, Pele, had shown her favour to Kamehameha.

In 1791, the Puukohola heiau was completed. Rows of wooden images and thatched houses for priests and the ruling chiefs were erected on a huge 224-by-100-foot platform of lava rocks with a commanding view down the coast. Two of Kamehameha's counselors travelled to Keoua and persuaded him to come to Kawaihae, saying Kamehameha wanted peace. As Keoua went, one of Kamehameha's chiefs threw a spear at him, which he then dodged. Muskets were then fired from the shore, and Keoua was killed. Some accounts of the story say that Kamehameha genuinely sought to end the fighting with his cousin but was thwarted by his ambitious chiefs. As was the custom, the body of Keoua was baked in an underground oven until the flesh came loose from the bones. The bones, which Hawaiians believed contained the mana of the chief, were offered to the war god Kukailimoku in a solemn night of prayer. If anyone made a sound during the prayers, they themselves would have been put to death.

With the dedication of the Puukohola heiau and the death of Keoua, Kamehameha who was then in his 30s became ruler of the island of Hawai'i. Four years later, in 1795, he launched an invasion fleet of some 1,200 canoes and more than 10,000 warriors and finally took Maui, Molokai, Lanai, and Oahu. Kamehameha's superior strength in European weapons was credited with routing the strong Oahu army up the Nuuanu Valley. Trapped, many of the fleeing warriors were pushed or jumped to their deaths off the 1,200-foot Nuuanu Pali.

Kamehameha then set his sights on Kauai and Niihau - 70 miles away and the only islands outside his control. Kamehameha's men encountered a storm half way across the treacherous channel between Oahu and Kauai and many canoes were capsized. The crippled fleet then returned to Oahu.

Kamehameha's next tragedy was to build a navy of very large stable canoes which were rigged with sails of western design and which could hold 50 to 100 warriors. Some 800 of these peleleu canoes were eventually assembled on Hawai'i but this fleet met with no more success than the last. At this time, during a stop-over in Oahu on his way to Kauai in 1804, an epidemic killed many of his warriors and the magnificent canoes were left to rot on the shores of Waikiki. Kamehameha himself became ill but recovered. In just 26 years after first contact with Europeans, the Hawaiian population had shrunk from an estimated 300,000 to 195,000, primarily because of imported diseases, such as pneumonia, smallpox, measles, syphilis, and gonorrhea.

Finally, Kauai and Niihau were incorporated into Kamehameha's kingdom in 1810 by diplomatic means. American and European merchants who did not want warfare to disrupt the lucrative sandalwood trade finally persuaded Kauai ruler Kaumualii to acknowledge Kamehameha as sovereign. Kamehameha, in turn, permitted Kaumualii to govern the island until his death. The conquest of the islands is now complete and it had taken Kamehameha 28 years to achieve.

As ruthless as Kamehameha was in war, he was generous and forgiving in peace. In addition to the Law of the Splintered Paddle, he created laws against murder, theft and plundering. Kamehameha also divided the conquered lands among his high chiefs in detached parcels to diffuse the possibility of rebellion and to create a lasting kingdom. In 1812, Kamehameha returned to the island of his birth, Hawai'i, and spent the remainder of his days in Kailua on the Kona Coast, now a bustling resort town and center for deep-sea sportfishing. Kamehameha himself was an avid fisherman and scheduled affairs of state in his later years around the running of his favourite fish.  

Of all Kamehameha's abilities, it was his resourcefulness in dealing with foreigners that inspired the most admiration. He obtained from the British and Americans arms to conquer the islands and western luxuries to enhance his people's lifestyle. No foreigners were permitted to own land. Indeed, the island of Kauai might well be soviet territory today had not Kamehameha insisted that Kaumualii expel an ambitious German doctor, Georg Schaffer, who was in the employ of the Russian-American Company. The tsar of Russia desired only friendly trade relations with the Hawaiians, but Dr. Schaffer built a fort for the Russians on Kauai and even planted the Russian flag on leeward Ohau.

In the spring of 1819, Kamehameha became very ill, and, when it was clear that he was beyond the help of men skilled in the medical art, the leading kahuna said a human sacrifice should be made to save the king. Kamehameha, however would not permit it and early on the morning of 8th May, 1819, Kamehameha drew his last breath. A pig was cooked and offered to the gods so that his spirit would be received into the realm of the aumakua. Kamehameha's flesh was removed from his bones and laid to rest in the sea. A sennit basket was then woven around the bones and taken to Kaloko in north Kona where they were buried.

Next --- Kings Kamehameha II and III ....>

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