King Kamehameha The Great
The First Hawaiian Monarch
Starting from the day of his birth Kamehameha’s life was filled with danger and stories of survival. Kamehameha’s birth name was Paiea (meaning “Hard Shelled Crab). His mother Kekuiapoiwa was the daughter of Alapai, ruling chief of the Kona district and high chief Keoua who ruled the Kohala district on the Big Island of Hawai’i.
The date of his birth is debated among historians but Hawaiian legend tells of a bright star, Kokoiki, appearing just before his birth. The date of the legend may coincide with the appearance of Halley’s Comet in December of 1758.
When the star Kokoiki was viewed by the Kahuna (Hawaiian mystic priests) it was prophesied that a great leader was about to be born who would defeat all his rivals and come to rule all the islands. It was also said that the child was po’olua, meaning “child of two fathers”, due to a liaison his mother had with Kahekili who was the chief Ali’i and King of Maui. It was considered a great honor by the chiefs of that period.
The ruling chief Alapai became fearful of the prophesy and ordered the infant put to death. While Alapai’s chiefs waited outside the birthing hale (house) his mother’s attendants cut a hole in the structure and whisked away the infant within minutes of his birth. It is said he was taken into the mountains where the cold and rain caused the newborn royal infant to stop breathing. Attendants revived him and he stayed hidden for years from the warring clans who saw him as a potential threat. At this time he was given the name Kamehameha which means “The Very Lonely One” or “The One Set Apart”.
After landing at Kealakekua Bay a priest took Captain Cook into the nearby temple thinking he was their god Lono. There they gave him a place upon the platform with the images of the gods. The priest stepped back after putting the oloa (a small white tapa cloth worn while prayer was being recited) on Captain Cook along with the red cloak laaena, as was the custom with the gods. King Kalani’opu’u along with Kamehameha were present at Kealakekua Bay with Cook and his men as they drew heavily from the resources of the area to provision their ships. They left on February 4th, 1779 with increasing tensions between the natives and the crew.
As the days passed the native Hawaiians increasingly saw Captain Cook and crew as mere men instead of the gods they originally believed them to be. After leaving Kealakekua Bay and sailing along the Kohala coast the ships encountered a gale. The Resolution’s mast was damaged and the ships were forced to return to Kealakekua Bay to make repairs. After iron tools were stolen along with one of the transport cutters Cook went ashore with nine marines with the intent to capture and hold Kalaniopu’u hostage for the return of the items. A confrontation ensued and Cook along with four marines were killed. Kamehameha was injured in the scuffle and Cook, Britain’s greatest navigator was dead at the age of 51. After the skirmish a truce was declared and the damaged mast was repaired. The Resolution and the Discovery left Hawai’i February 22 1779 under the command of Captain Charles Clerke and Captain James King.
With the help of two foreigners, Isaac Davis and John Young, Kamehameha was able to implement weapons that his rivals did not have. Among these weapons was a swivel cannon taken from the ship Fair American. The ship was the unlucky recipient of the anger of a Big Island chief who had been insulted by a previous American ship captain. In the ensuing attack on the ship the entire crew was killed and the only survivor was Isaac Davis. It is said he fought bravely and though wounded was rescued and became a close confidant of Kamehameha.
With the canon given the name Lopaka it was mounted onto a war canoe with Davis and another stranded sailor from a different (John Young) the two became gunners for Kamehameha war fleet of hundreds of war canoes and upwards of 6000 men. Muskets from the ship were also used as the two foreigners taught the warriors, including the wives of high ranking Ali’i, how to use, maintenance and repair of firearms with lethal efficiency.
With the use of these weapons Kamehameha soundly defeated Kahekili’s army led by his son Kalanikapule in Iao Valley. The Maui warriors, under cannon fire, attempted to scale the steep cliff walls of the valley. The Iao River became so choked with bodies that it blocked the stream whose waters ran red with blood all the way down to Wailuku. The battle became known as Kepaniwai meaning “The Damming of the Waters”
Kahekili’s son Kalanikapule escaped through the mountains to Lahaina and sailed to O’ahu joining his father. Kahekili’s many years of war and conquest depleted the island of Maui but he was able to secure the rule of seven islands – all of them but the Big Island – through battles, marriages and family alliances. In the end he died on O’ahu in July of 1793. Kamehameha now set his sights on conquering O’ahu but first he needed to resupply and rebuild his forces. Shortly thereafter he learned of a revolt by the Big Island Ali’i which threatened his rule. He returned to the Big Island with his warriors and put down the revolt.
Lahaina – The First Capital Of Hawai’i
After Defeating Kahekili’s forces and the revolt on his home island Kamehameha gathered his forces along the shores of Lahaina in preparation of invading O’ahu.
To keep the warriors enthusiastic he ordered the building of more war canoes. Dubbed the Lele Fleet it is said the canoes numbered over 800 and stretched for a mile from what is now Front Street. Several years past in preparation for the invasion of O’ahu. The decades of war waged by Kahekili had depleted the village of Lele (Lahaina) of its gardens and fish ponds and it is said Kamehameha ordered its restoration which included a network of canals throughout the village, which had earned the town the nickname “Venice of the Pacific” by newly arriving foreigners.
Kamehameha soon used his relationships with traders plying the Pacific during the American fur trade with Asia to build up an armory of western weapons while in Lahaina. The maritime fur trade was using Hawaii as a restocking port between China and Northwest America. Kamehameha shrewdly brokered for weapons and even ships. Foreign captains also traded for Sandalwood trees which were favored in China for its fragrance.
This resulted in the Hawaiian Sandalwood trade in which Kamehameha ordered the trees cut, hauled down the mountains on the backs of commoners and loaded into ship holds. Maui’s three layer canopy of sandalwood rainforest spread out along the slopes of Haleakala and the West Maui Mountains were clear cut by 1841 and have yet to recover, though reforestation efforts are underway today.
In 1802, King Kamehameha made Lahaina the capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom. He built a brick palace there along with residences, and other royal buildings and Lahaina served as the center of the Hawaiian government for over 50 years until permanently relocating to Honolulu for its harbor.
Women of Ancient Hawaii
The kapu system had many restrictions when it came to wahine (women). Though they were not harsh it was still a form of oppression that the Ali’i wahine tolerated only as long as they needed to. Women were considered unclean (probably due to menstruation) and had there own eating house and ovens separate from the men. Also women were not allowed to eat certain foods. This ‘ai kapu had several meanings. ‘Ai means to eat and in this case “kapu” means sacred. The word translates to “sacred eating”. Thusly women were not allowed to eat pork (the body form of the god Lono), bananas (body form of the god Kanaloa) and coconuts (body form of the god Ku). Taro (body form of the god Kane) was also kapu for women to cook and prepare. Isabella Abbott, a leading ethnobotanist of Hawaii theorizes that because of this kapu women relied heavily upon seaweeds as a food source, more so than other Pacific Islanders.
The ‘ai kapu was abolished after the death of Kamehameha in 1819 when his son became the Hawaiian Kingdom’s second monarch Liholiho, (Kamehameha ll). Acting with his mother Keopuolani and Queen Ka’ahumanu’s encouragement, he ate these forbidden foods with the women of his court. The gesture began a shift within the Hawaiian religion and new freedoms for women. It was a shrewd move among these two Ali’i Wahine (royal women) as it assured political power to the line of Kamehameha monarchs because it limited the power of the ali’i below them. Ka’ahumanu would guide the next two monarchs through the changes of western influences and a new religion.
In the book Kamehameha’s Children Today, by authors Charles Ahlo and Jerry Walker it was noted that “the women accompanied their husbands on these war expeditions, as well as the young male and female aliʻi. Most of these chiefesses who went with their husbands were adept at shooting a musket …”
Even though they were quite restricted by the kapu system, native Hawaiian women held much respect and power in ancient Hawai’i.
Well, there you have it. Hope you enjoyed learning about Hawaii’s first King and how this beautiful state was once its own kingdom. Though there is still some contention about how Hawaii was annexed by America, the culture has survived and is striving to uphold the honor and wisdom of ancestors like Kamehameha The Great.
Aloha Nui Loa
Using the links below you can purchase these books and other products on Amazon while supporting a cause of your choice. If you have not chosen an organization please help the Hawaii Ecotourism Association with your purchases.
Mary Kawena Pukui – Author and historian
Kamehameha’s Children Today, by authors Charles Ahlo and Jerry Walker
Ho`omana: Understanding the Sacred and Spiritual, by author Malcolm Naea Chun
Hawai’i Myth and Legends – by King David Kalakaua
Maui A History – by Cummings E Speakman Jr