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How Kamehameha unified the islands

Recounting the history of modern Hawaiʻi's founding.

Umi Perkins

Kamehameha came of age under the rule and tutelage of his powerful uncle, King Kalaniʻōpuʻu. Following Kalani‘ōpu‘u’s death, ceremonies pertaining to the funeral and the transition of power were held. An ‘awa drinking ceremony led to an altercation between the heir, Kīwalaʻō, and Kamehameha’s warrior Kekūhaupi‘o, who claimed that Kamehameha had been insulted by Kīwalaʻō, who passed the ʻawa chewed by Kamehameha on to his aikane.

Kekūhaupiʻo exclaimed, “The chief has insulted us!” Then, turning to Kīwalaʻō: “Your brother did not chew the ʻawa for a commoner, but for you, the chief.” Kamehameha and Kekūhaupiʻo were forced to sail to Keʻei to avoid further conflict.

Key ali‘i involved in the ensuing land division were the new King Kīwala‘ō, his half-brother Keōuakuahu‘ula, his cousin Kamehameha, Keawema‘uhili of the house of Keawe, Ke‘eaumoku Pāpaʻiahiahi (who would become Kamehameha’s chief adviser and father-in-law) and three other Kona chiefs. In reaction to the land division, Keōuakuahu‘ula—who had only received the Ka‘u district, his home district—prepared for battle. As the son of Kalaniʻōpuʻu and half brother of the new King Kīwalaʻō, Keōuakuahu‘ula felt entitled to fertile agricultural lands, which Ka‘u lacked.

Keawemaʻuhili, meanwhile, had advised Kīwalaʻō not to give Kamehameha a significant amount of land, claiming that “this is not according to your father’s command. He [Kamehameha] has the god and his old lands, as was commanded. You are King over the island, I am under you, and the chiefs under us. So was your father’s command.” This caused the other chiefs to rebel against the new political order. Ke‘eaumoku and three other chiefs from Kona aligned with Kamehameha, claiming that the division was “unjust,” and that they were “impoverished” by this division.

In the battle of Moku‘ōhai, Kīwala‘ō was killed by Ke‘eaumoku while trying to save his niho palaoa (a whale tooth necklace that is a royal pendant). Ka‘u forces, meanwhile, cut down niu (coconut trees) at Keʻei; a challenge to the existing power structure and a “sign of war.” According to Kamakau:

The coconut tree was a man … with his head buried underground, and his penis and testicles above ground. There were at this point three aupuni [governments] on Hawai‘i Island: One was led by Keawema‘uhili, who had been captured, but allowed to escape, and whose stronghold or wahi pa‘a was Hilo; [one was led by] Keōuakuahu‘ula whose wahi pa‘a was Ka‘u, and Kamehameha whose wahi pa‘a were Kohala and Kona because of the Kona uncles.

Two major battles on Hawai‘i led to a still indecisive result, and the island remained as three aupuni.

Kamehameha stepped back from the war and focused on taking care of his aupuni—increasing its capacity for food production and, thus, for waging war. Challenges he faced included environmental limitations, large populations and figuring out how to support a large fighting force.

Accomplishments in overcoming these challenges included the successful irrigation of kula lands and the building of canoe ramps, which allowed for the launching of Kamehameha’s massive fleet of 800 pelelu canoes from the rocky coasts of West Hawai’i.

Meanwhile on O‘ahu, a conflict between Kahekili’s protégé Kahāhana and the priest Ka‘ōpulupulu was coming to a head. Kahekili, the powerful King of Maui, prepared to launch an attack to support Kahāhana and asked for assistance from Kamehameha. He instead received it from Keawema‘uhili of Hilo and Keōuakuahu‘ula of Ka‘u. With their assistance Kahekili captured O‘ahu.

Foreign Visitors 1778 – 1796

Kuykendall lists the foreign ships to arrive in Hawai‘i, and also the Hawaiians who left on ships, noting that the first Hawaiian to leave Hawai‘i on a foreign ship was a woman who was hired as a maid for the wife of a ship captain. La Perouse was third.

In 1790, the ship Eleanor arrived at Maui, captained by Simon Metcalf. Some Hawaiians stole the ship’s longboat, killing a sailor in the process. Metcalf took revenge on the group of Hawaiians at Olowalu near Lahaina (Kamakau, 1992, 146). In the resulting massacre, between fifty and one hundred Hawaiians were lured into paddling their canoes to one side of Metcalf’s ship, and then fired upon.

Metcalf had earlier whipped the aliʻi Kameʻeiamoku with a rope for a minor infraction, and Kameʻeiamoku vowed revenge upon the next foreign ship to land near him, which—coincidentally—was the Fair American a schooner captained by Simon Metcalf’s son. All of the crew was killed except for one sailor—Isaac Davis. John Young was taken from the Eleanor at the same time and both became trusted advisers to Kamehameha. The two British foreigners became aikane, or favorite commoners, of Kamehameha, with John Young even marrying Kamehameha’s daughter. Kamehameha also received from this exchange the cannon that became so valued it was given the name Lopaka.

Other violent incidents occurred, but according to Kuykendall, the relations between Hawaiians and foreigners were generally good.


Before unifying Hawai‘i island, Kamehameha moved on Maui; a campaign culminating in the Battle of Kepaniwai (the damming of the waters) at Iao valley.

His opponent was Kalanikūpule, who was the son of Kahekili. Kalanikūpule had Keawema‘uhili, the ali‘i nui of Hilo, as an ally. This battle did not lead to unification, but has gone down in Hawaiian history for two reasons.

First, because of Kamehameha’s rousing speech:

“I mua e nā pō ki‘i.  E inu i ka wai ‘awa‘awa.  ‘A‘ohe hope e ho‘i mai ai.”

“Go forward my dear younger brothers.  Drink of the bitter waters.  There is no turning back.”

This speech is the origin of Kamehameha Schools’ motto “Imua Kamehameha.”

The second reason this battle is notable is that it was the first time the cannon “Lopaka” was used. This cannon caused “a great slaughter” (Kamakau, 1992) and introduces the question of Kamehamehaʻs reliance on Western technology.

The result of Kepaniwai was that Kamehameha gained temporary control of Maui. Kalanikūpule fled to O‘ahu where his father, Kahekili ruled. Kahekili received aid from Ka‘eokūlani, the ruling chief on Kaua‘i, to attempt to retake Maui. At the same time, while Kamehameha was campaigning around Maui, Keōuakuahu‘ula of Ka‘u attacked Kamehameha’s land at Kohala and Hamakua and killed Keawema‘uhili, who had returned to Hawai‘i. On Moloka‘i at the time, Kamehameha is reported to have said, “Alas! While I have been seeking new children, my first born have been abandoned!”

Kamehameha returned to Hawai‘i and attacked Keōuakuahu‘ula. After yet another indecisive battle with Kamehameha, Keōuakuahu‘ula retreated. While he was traveling through ‘Ōla‘a, Kīlauea volcano erupted, killing one-third of his army. The footprints of some of his soldiers can still be seen in the lava. This event may have been interpreted as the goddess Pele’s favoring of Kamehameha over his cousin, but regardless, it certainly affected Keōuakuahu‘ula’s ability to wage war, and influenced his next big decision.

Kamehameha, in the meantime, set his focus on cultivating his and his nation’s relationship with the gods. He consulted a prophet from Kaua‘i named Kapoukahi, asking what was required in order to unite Hawai‘i island. The prophet responded that Kamehameha needed to build a house for his god; in other words, a heiau for Kuka‘ilimoku. This heiau was called Pu‘ukoholā, and was built at Kawaihae, Kohala. The work of building this heiau was seen as being so important that Kamehameha did not exempt himself from the work of carrying stones. He had his brother, Keli‘imaika‘i maintain the kapu for their family. When Keli‘imaika‘i tried to carry a stone, Kamehameha took it from him and threw it into the sea.

For the dedication of Pu‘ukoholā, Kamehameha invited Keōuakuahu‘ula to come to Kawaihae, ostensibly to co-rule. Keōuakuahu‘ula agreed to go to Kawaihae, knowing full well that he would be sacrificed to sanctify the new heiau. The loss of one-third of his army meant certain defeat in any further engagement, and his acquiescence was a means of saving his people in Ka‘u from slaughter. Keōuakuahu‘ula stopped, however, at Luahinewai on his way to Kawaihae. At this pond he performed the ritual called “death of uli,” which consisted of “cut[ting] off the end of his penis (umuʻo)” (Kamakau, 1992). This was a final act of defiance toward Kamehameha, in that it would make Keōuakuahu‘ula’s body an imperfect sacrifice and, therefore, make Kamehameha’s unification imperfect.

Keōuakuahu‘ula arrived at Pu‘ukoholā and his entourage sailed into Kawaihae bay. When Keōuakuahu‘ula jumped off his canoe, Ke‘eaumoku immediately tried to kill him with a spear. This was to prevent a face-to-face meeting between Kamehameha and Keōuakuahu‘ula, whom Kamehameha still loved as his cousin despite their long-standing rivalry. According to Kamakau “Kamehameha might not have killed him, for he loved Keōuakuahu‘ula.” Nearly all the Ka‘u chiefs were killed and Keōuakuahu‘ula, the last independent ali‘i nui on Hawai‘i, was sacrificed to Kuka‘ilimoku. Thus, by 1791 Hawai‘i island was completely under the control of Kamehameha.

When Kamehameha was a young chief, he went sailing along the coast of Puna. Kamehameha called out to some fishermen, feigning that he wanted to speak with them. They fled however, knowing that the six-and-a-half foot tall chief wanted them for sacrifices. While chasing them down, Kamehameha’s foot became stuck in the lava rock, and one of the fishermen hit him over the head with a paddle. Years later, after unifying Hawai‘i island, Kamehameha reflected on this episode and realized that his actions constituted an abuse of power. As Mo‘i of Hawai‘i island, he wanted to protect his subjects from such abuses by chiefs. He thus declared Kānāwai Māmalahoe, the law of the splintered paddle. This law proclaimed:

“Let the old men go and lie by the roadside, let the old women go and lie by the roadside, let the children go and lie by the roadside and no one shall harm them.”

This law meant that while travelling, people were not to be attacked, but were to be fed and housed. This was Kamehameha’s way of granting the people of Hawai‘i security and freedom; security from the abuses of chiefs, and freedom of movement.

Ka Naʻi Aupuni—Unification

Kahekili died at the astounding age of 87 in lush Waikīkī, one of the prizes of his conquest of O‘ahu. His son Kalanikūpule then fought a battle against the man who had helped Kahekili win back Maui from Kamehameha—Ka‘eokūlani—in which the ali‘i of Kaua‘i was killed. Ka‘eokulani’s son, Kaumuali‘i, then inherited control of Kaua‘i.

At this time, Kalanikūpule controlled O‘ahu along with all of Nā Hono a Pi‘ilani—Maui, Lana‘i, Moloka‘i and Kaho‘olawe—and had successfully neutralized any potential threat from his his rear, allowing him to concentrate on Kamehameha and a unified Hawai‘i island.

Kamehameha, meanwhile, had turned his attention back toward conquest and prepared an attack on O‘ahu. In 1795, Kamehameha launched the campaign that culminated in the Battle of Nu‘uanu. Kamehameha’s fleet first landed and attacked Lahaina on Maui, burning all the houses, before moving on to Moloka‘i where the final planning meeting for an invasion of O‘ahu was held. An adviser named Ka‘iana, a Hawaiian ali‘i who had sailed on Western ships, one reaching all the way to China, was excluded from the meeting. Taking this as an omen that he was to be killed, he defected along with the 3,500 warriors he commanded, and joined Kalanikūpule’s army.

Years earlier, Kahekili had anticipated this very attack. He had quizzed his chiefs on where they thought Kamehameha would attempt to land. One adviser thought that Kamehameha’s strategy would be to land at Waikīkī and Leahi (Diamond Head). Kahekili believed this to be the correct answer. Kamehameha did indeed land at Waikīkī, his army occupying a three mile stretch of beach there. Contrary to his father’s defensive strategy, Kalanikūpule did not attempt to oppose this landing.

Kamehameha’s army then spent three days camped at Leahi before beginning its march toward Nuʻuanu. The first fighting erupted at Kawananakoa near the mouth of Nuʻuanu valley. Battles continued to rage up the eastern side of the valley, one of which claimed the defector Kaʻiana’s life. Kamehameha sent his soldiers, equipped with cannons, up the East rim of the valley with orders to fire down on the retreating Oʻahu troops. Kamehameha’s forces pushed Kalanikūpule’s army up the back of the valley toward the Nu‘uanu pali (cliffs). In the telling of this story, it is often said that Kamehameha’s men “pushed them [the O‘ahu soldiers] over the pali,” but it is more likely that many of the O‘ahu soldiers jumped over the pali, rather than being captured by Hawai‘i’s army.

After the Battle of Nu‘uanu and Kalanikūpule’s death, Kamehameha claimed Nā Hono a Pi‘ilani, and thus controlled all the Hawaiian islands except Kaua‘i and Ni‘ihau.

Kamehameha then launched an attack on Kaua‘i, but his ships encountered a storm and were forced to return to O‘ahu. He took yet another step back to focus on his new, immense aupuni, working to restore O‘ahu’s productivity.

Kamehameha’s second attempt to take Kaua‘i, in 1804, was stopped by the ma‘i ‘oku‘u, an outbreak of either cholera or bubonic plague. Kamehameha himself caught this disease, but survived. Ke‘eaumoku, however, was not so lucky. On his deathbed, Ke‘eaumoku warned Kamehameha that the only real threat to his rule was from Ke‘eaumoku’s own daughter, Kamehameha’s wife Ka‘ahumanu.

Despite two failed attacks on Kaua‘i, by 1810 Kaumuali‘i felt he could not evade the impending takeover of his kingdom, and agreed to meet Kamehameha at Honolulu Harbor.

“Ke alo I luna, ai’ole ke alo i lalo?” Kaumualiʻi asked Kamehameha upon their meeting: “Here I am; is it face up or face down?” The new King dismissed Kaumuali’i’s acknowledgement of his superiority, prompting Kaumualiʻi to continue: “This is my gift at our meeting: the land of Kauaʻi; its chiefs; its men, great and small.” Kamehameha replied that he would not accept the offer, but said, “if our young chief [Liholiho] makes you a visit, be pleased to receive him.” In 1810, Kaumualiʻi formally became Kamehameha’s vassal, and all the islands were united for the first time in Hawaiian history.