King of Hawaii: Kamehameha I & His Conquest to Unite Hawaii
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Before King Kamehameha
Before the birth of a young boy from Hilo who would become Kamehameha The Great, the Hawaiian Islands were in a state of constant warfare. Between tentative peace treaties and trade negotiations, the island chiefs would inevitably clash and their clans collided in bloody battles and wars.
Isolated from the rest of the world for at least 500 years, ancient Hawaiians fought to gain power and recognition as Hawaii’s first leader as a nation. So when a prophecy foretelling of a boy who was destined to become a great leader of the islands came about, there was understandably much anger and the threat of death loomed.
King Kamehameha statue on the Big Island | Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) / Tor Johnson
A Child Of Prophecy
Born around 1758 on the Big Island, records show that the birth of Pai?ea was marked by great lights in the sky most likely due to Halley’s comet. A renowned k?ula, or prophet, declared that a great one would rise up to unite the islands. However, the auspicious birth was not welcome news to everyone.
Son of a high chief and high chief’s daughter, the infant had the royal lineage to back up his claim to greatness. But with threats from warring clans and hostile chiefs closing in, the child was secreted away to the valley of Waipi?o, where he took upon the name Kamehameha, or “The Very Lonely One”.
Young Kamehameha excelled in his education and was adept in all areas of knowledge required to become a district chief. He was a grade-A student in games, warfare, oral history (ancient Hawaiians did not have a written language at the time), navigation, religious ceremonies, and even hula, which he was rumored to have not favored…well, no one is perfect!
His special education was continued by his Uncle, King Kalani?opu?u of the Island of Hawaii (Big Island), and by the time Captain James Cook arrived in the islands in 1778, Kamehameha was well-established as a young man experienced in both battle and court politics.
Raised with not only the education of a king but also with the knowledge that he was destined to rule them all, Kamehameha most certainly took pride in his unique notoriety and was known to have moved with an imposing “aura of violence” even in his early 20s.
The Naha Stone
As Kamehameha grew from a young man to a seasoned warrior, he continued to achieve feats of strength and cleverness. One such occasion is the story of Kamehameha and the Naha Stone - a 5,000-pound legendary stone said to be filled with mana. It was believed that the Naha Stone had spiritual power and that whoever could lift it would become King.
However, if unsuccessful, the person would be put to death. As a young man, with a lower rank by blood, Kamehameha was anxious to show his supremacy. Standing 7 feet tall and very strong, Kamehameha successfully lifted the stone and moved it several feet.
Listen to the story of King Kamehameha and the Naha Stone!
Kamehameha’s Steps To Unification
The death of his uncle, King Kalani?opu?u, marked a turning point in the life of Kamehameha. Elderly and diseased, Kalani?opu?u made his own son, K?wala??, the political heir to the Island of Hawaii.
However, to his nephew, he bestowed upon Kamehameha the War God Ku - a powerful symbol giving Kamehameha not only equal political decision-making power but also the green light towards fulfilling his prophecy. This choice effectively set the stage for a rivalry between the cousins and civil war in the islands.
Conquering Hawaii Island
After several years of vying for control over Hawaii Island, also known as the Big Island, Kamehameha sought inspiration from a prophet on Kauai who told him that if he built a large war temple or heiau, he would conquer all of the islands.
Kamehameha set to work immediately, leading tens of thousands of men over a year to transport rocks from some 20 miles away to construct the temple. It was back-breaking work.
When the temple was finally finished, Kamehameha invited his cousin, Chief Keoua, with whom he had warred for years, to the temple dedication ceremony. Keoua came willingly, likely accepting his own fate.
No one knows whether Kamehameha had planned it or not, but a scuffle took place leaving Keoua and all of his guards dead. Their bodies were carried to the War temple and offered as the first sacrifice to the War God Ku.
Today, this heiau - Pu?ukohol? - is a National Historic Site. Located on the Kohala Coast of the Big Island, you can visit and learn about this ancient spot. We’ll guide you there on our Kohala Coast Backcountry tour.
Conquering Maui and Molokai
Realizing the superiority of the warfare tactics and weapons of Western foreigners, Kamehameha spent the next three years on Hawaii Island rebuilding the economy and learning from visiting foreigners.
This decision would be vital in his future success as he was unmatched in the islands when it came to military strength, foreign connections, and political recognition.
Now armed with a thriving economy backed by powerful warriors and an even more powerful reputation, Kamehameha set his sights on Kalanik?pule and his half-brother Ka?eokulani.
Squabbles between other chiefs were still a major occurrence in Hawaii and Kamehameha took advantage of one such situation when Kalanik?pule, the powerful chief of Oahu, went to war with his half-brother, Ka?eokulani, in an attempt to gain control over Maui, Kauai, Molokai and Lanai.
Kalanik?pule won that battle and, soaring high from confidence, proceeded to attack a British ship for their weapons. This ultimately failed and Kamehameha easily took control of Maui and Molokai.
Listen to the story about Chief Kahekii the man who almost beat Kamehameha to uniting Hawaii!
Finally, Kamehameha arrived on Oahu with a large fleet of war canoes to fight Chief Kaiana, a former ally who had turned his back on Kamehameha and sided with Kalanik?pule.
The warriors fought ferociously but were no match for Kamehameha, who forced Kaiana’s warriors through the valleys to the steep cliffs of the Ko?olau Mountains.
The end of the battle was dramatic, as thousands of warriors, including women and children, were cornered against the cliffs and driven over the steep drop to their deaths on the jagged rocks, hundreds of feet below.
Watch the video below to see where this battle took place:
Surprisingly, Kauai was conquered by an amusing twist of bumbling fate. After a couple of failed attempts by Kamehameha, he stepped back to recover from his losses.
However, King Ka?umu?ali?i did not look forward to his inevitable submission under Kamehameha’s rule and saw himself as the real leader of the Hawaiian islands.
Russian Fort in Kauai
So when charismatic George Anton Scheffer from the Russia Trading Company came ashore with plans and promises to protect Kauai in the name of Czar Alexander, Ka?umu?ali?i jumped on the chance.
The two had the time of their lives devising plans, signing agreements, and even building a Russian Fort on Kauai. However, what Ka?umu?ali?i didn’t know was that George Anton Scheffer was actually only a doctor for a Russian ship and nowhere close to a diplomat!
By the time the truth had come out, Ka?umu?ali?i was forced to acknowledge Kamehameha as sovereign. Kauai finally fell under Kamehameha’s rule after almost 30 years, uniting the Hawaiian islands and completing the prophecy.
Learn about the alliance - or farce - that caused Kauai to fall to King Kamehameha.
Impact Of King Kamehameha The Great
King Kamehameha had accomplished what no other Hawaiian chief had done in 500 years: he united the Hawaiian islands as a nation and thus, gained recognition as a political entity.
During his early years of battle, he quickly learned the importance of foreign warfare and weapons and promoted trade between the US and Europe.
Isaac Davis and John Young were not only his good friends but also his advisors who helped him navigate the Hawaiian Kingdom through the waters of world politics.
Law Of The Splintered Paddle
Kamehameha’s reign was a time of peace. He unified the legal system, outlawed the ritual of human sacrifices, and built an empire around the trade of sandalwood. He was also known as a fair leader and a compassionate voice for the common people.
In fact, the very first law he put into place was the Law Of The Splintered Paddle, which states that all innocent people have the right to sleep unharmed on their land without fear of being attacked, robbed, or murdered. Violators would be put to death.
Today, Hawaii celebrates King Kamehameha’s achievements every year on King Kamehameha Day, June 11. It’s a public holiday in the State of Hawaii system and both city and state workers get a day off.
Look for the garlands of fresh flowers (Hawaiian strands of lei) hung on the statues of Kamehameha The Great - the most famous one residing in downtown, Honolulu on Oahu.
Want to learn more about King Kamehameha and Hawaii's history? Download our Big Island Tour Bundle.