Kamehameha I the Great (1758 (?)-1819) was the first king to unite all of the Hawaiian Islands. 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 therefore assumed that Kamehameha was born shortly after its appearance.
Birth and Childhood
Kamehameha's birth is shrouded in legend. He was born as Paiea, to Keoua and Keku`iapoiwa, ali'i of Kohala on the island of Hawai'i. Kamehameha's father, Keoua, was the grandson of Keaweikekahiali`iokamoku, who had once ruled a large portion of the island. When he died, war broke out over succession between his sons, Ke`eaumoku and Kalaninui`amamao, and a rival chief, Alapa`inuiakauaua. Alapa'i emerged victorious over the two brothers, and their orphan sons were absorbed into his clan.
When Kamehameha was born, Alapa'i ordered the child killed. One of his Kahunas had warned him that a fiery light in the sky would signal the birth of a "killer of chiefs", or ali'i. Alapa'i, nervous at the thought of his nephew usurping his rule, decided to take no chances.
Paiea's parents, however, had anticipated this. As soon as he was born, he was given into the care of Nae'ole, another ali'i, and disappeared from sight.
Nae'ole raised Paiea 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. He is said to have had a dour disposition, and acquired the name he is best known for today: Kamehameha, from the Hawaiian language term for "the lonely one".
Unification of the island of Hawaii
When Alapa'i died, his position was succeeded by his son Keaweaopala. Kalani'opu'u, Alapa'i's brother, challenged his rule, and was backed by his nephew Kamehameha. In fierce fighting at Kealakekua Bay, Keaweaopala was slain and Kalani'opu'u claimed victory. For his loyal service to his uncle, Kamehameha was made Kalaniopuu's aide.
In 1779, Kamehameha again traveled with Kalani'opu'u to Kealakekua Bay. This time, he met with Lono, the Hawaiian god of fertility, who had arrived on a great canoe bearing tapa banners. Lono was, in fact, Captain James Cook, and his ship was the H.M.S. Discovery. It was Kamehameha's first dealings with the white man, the haole. It would not be the last.
Raised in the royal court of his uncle, Kamehameha achieved prominence in 1782, upon Kalani'opu'u's death. While the kingship was inherited by Kalaniopuu's son Kiwalao, Kamehameha was given a prominent religious position, guardianship of the Hawaiian god of war, Kukailimoku, as well as the district of Waipio. Nevertheless, there was already bad blood between the two cousins, caused when Kamehameha presented a slain ali'i's body to the gods instead of Kiwalao, and when a group of chiefs from the Kona district offered Kamehameha the kingship instead of Kiwalao, he accepted eagerly. Kiwalao was soon defeated in the battle of Mokuohai, and Kamehameha took control of the districts of Kohala, Kona, and Hamakua on Hawai'i, but Kiwalao's brother Keoua-of-the-Flaming-Cloak escaped.
Kamehameha then moved against the district of Puna in 1790 deposing its chief Keawemauhili. Keoua, exiled to his home of Ka'u, took advantage of Kamehameha's absence and led an uprising. When Kamehameha returned with his army to put down the rebellion, Keoua fled past the 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 heiau to Kukailimoku, as well as lay an ali'i's body on it.
When the temple was completed the following, Kamehameha invited Keoua to meet with him. Keoua was no fool, and brought the greater part of his remaining army with him. As he stepped on shore, one of Kamehameha's chief's threw a spear at him. By some accounts he dodged it, but was then cut down by musket fire. Caught by surprise, Keoua's bodyguards were killed. With Keoua dead, and his supporters captured or slain, Kamehameha became ali'i nui of all Hawaii.
Kamehameha's dreams included far more than the island of Hawai'i. Help came from British and American traders, who sold guns and ammunition to Kamehameha. Two westerners who were resident on Hawai'i, Isaac Davis and John Young, trained Kamehameha's troops in use of the 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 broke out between King Kahekili's sons. Kamehameha may or may not have known that his rival, Kalanikupule, also possessed firearms, and was planning a move against Kamehameha when the ali' nui of Hawaii invaded the western islands.
In 1795, Kamehameha set sail with an armada of 1,200 war canoes and 10,000 soldiers - an incredible number for an island chain whose population had never exceeded 300,000. Kamehameha quickly secured the lightly defended islands of Maui and Molokai, and moved on the island of Oahu, landing his troops at Waialae and Waikiki. What Kamehameha did not know was that one of his commanders, a high-ranking ali'i named Kaiana, had defected to Kalanikupule. Kaiana assisting the cutting of notches into the Nu'uanu Pali mountain ridge; these notches, like those on a castle turret, would serve as gunports for Kalanikupule's cannon.
When 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. Converging on the cannons from behind, they surprised Kalanikupule's gunners and took control of the cannons. With the loss of their guns, Kalanikupule's troops fell into disarray, and many were driven off the cliffs of the Pali. Kaiana was killed during the action; Kalanikupule was captured some time later and sacrificed to Kukailimoku.
Kamehameha was now ali'i nui of all of Hawaii east of Oahu, but the islands of Kaua'i and Ni'ihau continually eluded him. When he attempted to invade the islands in 1796, his governor on Hawai'i, Namakeha, led a rebellion against his rule, and Kamehameha was forced to return. In 1803 he tried again, but this time disease broke out among his warriors, and Kamehameha himself fell ill, though he later recovered. During this time, Kamehameha was amassing the largest armada Hawai'i 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 Kaumualii as bad for the sandalwood trade.
In 1810, Kaumualii became a vassal of Kamehameha, who therefore emerged as the sole sovereign of the island chain of Hawai'i.
The First King of Hawaii
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 haoles (non-Hawaiians) to own land; the 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, or "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. A local fisherman, fearful for his family, hit Kamehameha hard on the head with a paddle, which splintered. Kamehameha was stunned and left for dead, allowing the fisherman and his companion to escape. Chastened by this experience, Kamehameha declared, "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, and remains in the state constitution to this day.
Although he ended human sacrifice, Kamehameha was to the last a follower of the Hawaiian religion, executing his subjects for breaches of the kapu. Although he entertained Christians, he did not appear to take them seriously.
When Kamehameha died in 1819, his body was hidden by his kahuna. To this day his final resting place remains a mystery.