King Kamehameha I

Kamehameha I (1758–May 8, 1819), also known as “Kamehameha the Great,” conquered the Hawaiian Islands and formally established the Kingdom of Hawai’i. in 1810. By developing alliances with the major Pacific colonial powers, Kamehameha preserved Hawai’i's independence under his rule. Kamehameha is remembered for the Kanawai Mamalahoe, the “Law of the Splintered Paddle”, which protects the human rights of non-combatnts in times of battle. Kamehameha’s full Hawaiian name is Kalani Pai’ea Wohi o Kaleikini Keali’ikui Kamehameha o ‘Iolani i Kaiwikapu kaui Ka Liholiho Kūnuiākea.

Legendary Birth

Although there is some debate as to the precise year of his birth, Hawaiian legends claimed that a great king would one day unite the islands, and that the sign of his birth would be a comet.  Halley’s comet was visible from Hawai’i in 1758 and it is likely Kamehameha was born shortly after its appearance. Other accounts state that he was born in November 1737. The 1758 date is more likely, since his eldest son was born in 1797.

He was known as Paiea, which means “hard-shelled crab”. His father by blood was Chief Keoua Nui.  His mother was Chiefess Keku ‘iapoiwa of the Kohala district on the island of Hawai’i. In ancient Hawai’i, it was common for royalty to mentor or “adopt” other children, so they could have another honorary parent. The ruler of the adjacent island of Maui, Kahekili II,  took Kamehameha into his court.

His father Keōua was the grandson of Keaweikekahiali’iokamoku, who had once ruled a large portion of the island of Hawai’i island. When Keaweikekahiali’iokamoku died, war broke out over succession between his sons, and a rival chief, Alapa’i.  Alapa’i emerged victorious over the two brothers, and their orphan sons (including Kamehameha’s father) were absorbed into his clan. When Kamehameha (Paiea) was born, Alapa’i ordered the child killed. One of his priests had warned him that a fiery light in the sky would signal the birth of a “killer of chiefs”. Alapa’i, nervous at the thought of this child eventually usurping his rule, decided to take no chances. Pai’ea’s parents, however, had anticipated this. As soon as he was born, he was given into the care of Nae’ole, another noble from Kohala, and disappeared from sight. Nae’ole raised Pai’ea for the first few years of his life. Five years after his birth, Alapa’i, perhaps remorseful of his actions, invited the child back to live with his family. There under the guidance of his kahu (teacher), Kekuhaupi’o, he learned the ways of court diplomacy and war. Kekuhaupi’o remained a faithful and trusted advisor to Pai’ea until the accidental death of the loyal kahu during a sham battle.

Another story says the name Pai’ea was given to Kamehameha after he first distinguished himself as a warrior in a battles between Maui and Hawai’i island in 1775–1779.

Pai’ea is said to have had a dour disposition, and acquired the name he is best known for today: Ka mehameha, meaing “the lonely one”.

Unification of Hawai’i

When Alapa’i died, his position was succeeded by his son Keawea’opala. Kalani’opu’u, great-nephew, challenged his rule, and was backed by his nephew Kamehameha. In fierce fighting at Kealakekua Bay, Keawea’opala was slain and Kalani’ōpu’u claimed victory. For his loyal service to his uncle, Kamehameha was made Kalani’ōpu’u's aide.

In 1779, Kamehameha again traveled with Kalani’ōpu’u to Kealakekua Bay. This time he, among other young chiefs accompanying their senior chief, met with Capt. James Cook. Cook was perhaps mistaken by some Native Hawaiians to be Lono, the Hawaiian god of fertility. Cook’s ship was HMS Discovery; Kamehameha may have stayed on board at least one night. It was Kamehameha’s first contact with non-Hawaiians.

The Big Island

Raised in the royal court of his uncle Kalani’ōpu’, Kamehameha achieved prominence in 1782, upon Kalani’ōpu’u's death. While the kingship was inherited by Kalani’ōpu’u's son Kiwala’o, Kamehameha was given a prominent religious position, guardianship of the Hawaiian god of war, Kuka’ilimoku, as well as the district of Waipi’o Valley.  There was already bad blood between the two cousins, caused when Kamehameha presented a slain ali’i's body to the gods instead of Kiwala’o. When a group of chiefs from the Kona district offered to back Kamehameha against of Kiwala’o, he accepted eagerly. The five Kona chiefs supporting Kamehameha were: Keeaumoku Pāpaiahiahi (Kamehameha’s father-in-law), Keaweaheulu Kaluaapana (Kamehameha’s uncle), Kekūhaupi’o (Kamehameha’s warrior teacher), Kameeiamoku and Kamanawa (twin uncles of Kamehameha). Kiwala’o was soon defeated in the battle of Mokuohai, and Kamehameha took control of the districts of Kohala, Kona, and Hamakua on the island of Hawai’i.

Kamehameha then moved against the district of Puna in 1790 deposing Chief Keawemauhili. Keōua Kuahuula, exiled to his home in Ka’ū, took advantage of Kamehameha’s absence and led an uprising. When Kamehameha returned with his army to put down the rebellion, Keōua fled past the Kilauea volcano, which erupted and killed nearly a third of his warriors from poisonous gas.

Questioning a kahuna on how best to go about securing the rest of the island, Kamehameha resolved to construct a temple (heiau) to Kūka’ilimoku, as well as lay an ali’i's body on it.

When the Puukoholā Heiau was completed in 1791, Kamehameha invited Keōua to meet with him. Keōua may have been dispirited by his recent losses. He may have mutilated himself before landing so as to make himself an imperfect sacrificial victim. As he stepped on shore, one of Kamehameha’s chiefs threw a spear at him. By some accounts he dodged it, but was then cut down by musket fire. Caught by surprise, Keōua’s bodyguards were killed. With Keōua dead, and his supporters captured or slain, Kamehameha became King of all Hawai’i island.

Wider Ambitions…

Naha Stone at the public library

Kamehameha lifted the Naha Stone at age 14, and was the only person to ever lift it. The legend that goes with this particular stone is that the man who lifted it was the legendary warrior who would unite all of the islands. The prophecy was meant to be with Kamehameha. The Naha Stone now rests in front of the Hilo Public Library on the island of Hawai’i.

Kamehameha’s dreams included far more than the island of Hawai’i; with the council of his favorite wife Kaahumanu, who became one of Hawai’i's most powerful figures, he set about planning to conquer the rest of the Hawaiian Islands. Help came from British and American traders, who sold guns and ammunition to Kamehameha. Two westerners who lived on Hawai’i island, Isaac Davis and John Young, became advisors of Kamehameha and trained his troops in the use of firearms.

With his new weapons, Kamehameha felt confident enough to move on the neighboring islands of Maui and Oahu, already weakened by a war of succession that had broken out between King Kahekili II’s son and brother. Kamehameha may or may not have known that his rival, King Kalanikupule, also possessed firearms, and was planning a move against him when the ali’i nui of Hawai’i invaded those islands.

In 1795, Kamehameha set sail with an armada of 1,200 war canoes and 10,000 soldiers. He quickly secured the lightly defended islands of Maui and Molokai’i, and moved on the island of O’ahu, landing his troops at Waialae and Waikīkī. What Kamehameha did not know was that one of his commanders, a high-ranking ali’i named Ka’iana, had defected to Kalanikupule. Ka’iana assisted in the cutting of notches into the Nuuanu Pali mountain ridge; these notches, like those on a castle turret, would serve as gunports for Kalanikupule’s cannon.

Battle of Nu’uanu

In a series of skirmishes, Kamehameha’s forces were able to push back Kalanikupule’s until he was cornered on the Pali Lookout. While Kamehameha moved on the Pali, his troops took heavy fire from the cannon. In desperation, he assigned two divisions of his best warriors to climb to the Pali to attack the cannons from behind; they surprised Kalanikupule’s gunners and took control of the weapons. With the loss of their guns, Kalanikupule’s troops fell into disarray and were cornered by Kamehameha’s still organized troops. A fierce battle ensued, with Kamehameha’s forces forming an enclosing wall and by using their traditional Hawai’ian spears, muskets and cannon, were able to kill Kalanikupule’s forces to the man. Over 400 men were forced off the Pali’s cliff, a drop of 1,000 feet. Ka’iana was killed during the action; Kalanikupule was captured some time later and sacrificed to Kūkailimoku.

Kamehameha was now ali’i nui of all of all islands from O’ahu to the east, but the western islands of Kauai and Niihau continued to elude him. Using Honolulu as a base, he had a forty-ton ship built. When he attempted to invade the western islands in 1796, Ka’iana’s brother Namakeha led a rebellion on Hawai’i island against his rule, and Kamehameha was forced to return and put down the insurrection.

In 1803 he tried again, but this time, disease broke out among his warriors; Kamehameha himself fell ill, though he later recovered. During this time, Kamehameha was amassing the largest armada Hawaiʻi had ever seen – foreign-built schooners and massive war canoes, armed with cannon and carrying his vast army. Kaumualii, ali’i nui of Kaua’i, watched as Kamehameha built up his invading force and decided he would have a better chance in negotiation than battle. He may also have been influenced by foreign merchants, who saw the continuing feud between Kamehameha and Kaumuali’i as bad for the sandalwood trade.

In 1810, Kaumuali’i became a vassal of Kamehameha, who therefore emerged as the sole sovereign of the unified Hawaiian islands.

First King of Hawai’i

“E na’i wale no ‘oukou, i ke kupono a’ole au” which roughly translated is, “Prevail/continue my just deeds, they are not yet finished” -final words for his people

As king, Kamehameha took several steps to ensure that the islands remained a united realm even after his death. He unified the legal system and he used the products he collected in taxes to promote trade with Europe and the United States. Kamehameha did not allow non-Hawaiians to own land; they would not be able to until the Great Mahele of 1848. This edict ensured the islands’ independence even while many of the other islands of the Pacific succumbed to the colonial powers.

In fact, the Kingdom of Hawai’i that Kamehameha established retained its independence, except for a five-month British occupation in 1843, until it was annexed by the United States in 1898. It was this legacy that earned Kamehameha the epithet “Napoleon of the Pacific.”

Kamehameha also instituted the Mamalahoe Kanawai, the Law of the Splintered Paddle. Its origins derived from before the unification of the Island of Hawai’i, in 1782, when Kamehameha, during a raid, caught his foot in a rock. Two local fisherman, fearful of the great warrior, hit Kamehameha hard on the head with a large paddle, which actually broke the paddle. Kamehameha was stunned and left for dead, allowing the fisherman and his companion to escape. Twelve years later, the same fisherman was brought before Kamehameha for punishment. King Kamehameha instead blamed himself for attacking innocent people, gave the fisherman gifts of land and set them free. He declared the new law, “Let every elderly person, woman and child lie by the roadside in safety”. This law, which provided for the safety of noncombatants in wartime, is estimated to have saved thousands of lives during Kamehameha’s campaigns. It became the first written law of the Kingdom of Hawai’i, was included in the state constitution, and has influenced many subsequent humanitarian laws of war.

Although he ended human sacrifice, Kamehameha was to the last a follower of the Hawaiian religion and Hawaiian traditions. He believed so strongly in his religion and culture that he would execute his subjects for breaches of the strict rules called kapu. Although he entertained Christians, he did not appear to take them seriously.

Later life

After about 1812, Kamehameha spent his time at Kamakahonu, a compound he built in Kailua-Kona. It is now the site of King Kamehameha’s Beach Hotel, the starting and finishing points of the Ironman World Championship Triathlon.

As the custom of the time, he took several wives and had many children, although he would outlive about half of them.

When Kamehameha died May 8, 1819, his body was hidden by his trusted friends, Hoapili and hoolulu. To this day his final resting place remains unknown. The mana, or power of a person, was considered to be sacred. As per the ancient custom, his body was buried hidden because of his mana

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