Military History & Espionage

                                                                      

King Kamehameha

First published in
Command:
September-October 1992

by Michael Antonucci
Two hundred years ago, the young American republic was completing its recovery from the effects of its war for independence and was entering into a great expansionary phase. France was in the throes of its revolutionary terror. All Europe was soon to discover the grand ambitions of a young military genius, Napoleon Bonaparte.

Half a world away, on an island not much larger that Napoleon's birthplace of Corsica, another man also had visions of conquest and unification. His name was Kamehameha and his domain was the island of Hawaii.


Hawaii is the largest and easternmost of the eight islands of the Hawaiian chain. Those islands were originally settled by Polynesians who sailed thousands of miles across the Pacific without compasses or sextants. Their early history is filled with episodes of bloody warfare that, by the time of Kamehameha, had led to unified rule on each individual island.

Kamehameha (the name means, "The Lonely One") was born into a family of high nobility some time between 1752 and 1758. There are reported to have been a number of propitious omens surrounding his birth, and great things were thereby expected of him from the start. He was raised in the court of King Kalaniopuu, who had only recently defeated his own nephew to become the sole ruler of Hawaii island.

Kamehameha


Though Kalaniopuu had two sons of his own, he also saw to it Kamehameha received the finest possible training for kingship. Kalaniopuu even appointed his best general, Kekuhaupio, as the youth's personal tutor. From the general, Kamehameha eventually learned all the skills he would need to assume the role of warrior-statesman.

The Hawaiians did not maintain standing armies, so when a king decided on war, a feudal-style levy system went into operation that resulted in at least some males from almost every household being mobilized. Thus every male was expected to receive training in the arts of war, and the noble classes that provided the officers had to be the most highly trained of all.

Accordingly, young Kamehameha built up his physical strength through a daily regimen including swimming and wrestling. His courage and agility were tested by his participation in the ancient sport of spear-dodging. In it, spears (usually blunt-tipped, but occasionally sharpened) were tossed back and forth by two opponents, the object being to catch, deflect or dodge them. Spear-dodging tournaments were a regular feature of Hawaiian social life, and Kamehameha quickly achieved fame as a champion. In one such contest he avoided six javelins by catching three in his right hand, deflecting two with a spear held in his left, and dodging the sixth by twisting his body at the last instant.

Beyond spear-dodging, Kamehameha also had to master the weaponry and equipment used by the warriors of Hawaii. Fierce hand-to-hand combat was the traditional hallmark of Hawaiian warfare, and missile weapons remained relatively unimportant, used only as preliminaries to melee. Archery was known in the islands, but the bow and arrow were considered clumsy for warfare since they were useless at close quarters.

Slings were popular because they could be stashed under a belt quickly after use, and naturally occurring ammunition (stones) was always near at hand. Range depended on the arm strength of the slinger, but accuracy was really the key to success with the weapon. In battle, Hawaiian chieftains had to remain alert at all times, because a favorite tactic of slingers was to target the generals, just as with modern-day snipers.

The other major Hawaiian missile weapon was the throwing spear, called the ihe. These javelins were five to six feet long and were used to harass individual enemy warriors, or could be massed and volleyed as a kind of preliminary artillery bombardment prior to the charge-to-melee.

The polulu was a thrusting spear that sometimes reached a length of 20 feet. They were used by the elite troops chosen to guard the king and nobility during battle. At times these troops were formed into Macedonian-style phalanxes to deliver shock charges to the enemy line.

For combat up close, warriors chose from a variety of clubs and daggers. Clubs could be as short as 10 inches, or as long as a baseball bat. They were commonly made of wood, stone or whalebone. Daggers were often fashioned from hardwood and some had their cutting power enhanced by sharks' teeth embedded along their edges.

One novel weapon used by the islanders was called the piikoi. This was similar to the South American bolo, and was used to trip or bring down an opponent so he could then be finished off with a dagger or club.

Hawaiians wore very little into battle. Common soldiers often fought in nothing more than a loincloth. Chiefs wore helmets and feathered capes, mostly crafted as badges of rank rather than a means of body protection. Canoe paddlers, unable to dodge slingers' stones as they worked, wore calabash gourd helmets.

In formation, images of war gods were paraded in front of the troops. This had both religious and practical significance, since the Hawaiians used no trumpets, drums or flags to help maintain organization on the battlefield.

Kekuhaupio also taught Kamehameha the skills of generalship.

Though close-fought, the Hawaiian method of warfare was not a savage free-for-all. In fact, operationally and strategically, up to the time of Kamehameha, it closely resembled the medieval warfare of high-feudal Europe. Battles were conducted under a strict set of rules and formalities, and were preceded by much formal prayer, ceremony, and even temple-building.

Each year's warfare was only allowed to take place during the five-month period from February to June. This restriction grew out of the need to keep the other seven months free for fishing and farming. Without that economic maintenance, large-scale organized warfare would have become impossible.

It was considered unsportsmanlike to attack without warning. It was not unusual for opposing leaders to negotiate the exact times and places for battle. Thus, most big engagements took place in broad daylight on level ground (though this rule was sometimes broken). Once all arrangements had been made, both armies spent the interim in prayer, temple-building, augury, and offering sacrifices to the war gods.

This stylized approach had great practical effects on all Hawaiian armies. The morale of the rank-and-file came to be largely dependent on the success or failure of their pre-battle ceremonies. If the omens were bad, or a chief failed to perform his required rites perfectly, the warriors would go to the field nervous, and were likely to break and run at the first sign of trouble.

Religion aside, Kekuhaupio taught Kamehameha that victory went to the strongest and bravest. Accordingly, Hawaiian armies always fought in a shallow crescent-line formation, with the king or general in the center-rear. Skirmishers and slingers were in front to exchange missiles. General melees were often delayed until after single heroic combat between the champions of each side. Then the two crescents would charge-to-melee, with victory going to the side with the best combination of mass, velocity and morale. Flanking attacks were almost unknown. Battle was viewed as a test of strength and endurance rather than cleverness and maneuver.

Just as in medieval Europe, battles could be bloody, but the real slaughter usually occurred only after one side had won. Captives and enemy wounded were routinely enslaved or slaughtered. Unlike Europe, though, captive kings were not ransomed; instead, they were sacrificed and sometimes cannibalized. The latter practice was based on the belief that ritual cannibalism allowed the victors to absorb their defeated foes' mana, or spiritual power.

As Kamehameha drew near manhood, King Kalaniopuu began taking him along on raids to the neighboring island of Maui. At the start of one one such raid in 1778, Capt. James Cook of the Royal Navy "discovered" the islands. The raid was immediately postponed, and the two rival kings, Kalaniopuu and Kahekili of Maul, took turns visiting the Europeans aboard their ships.


Those first contacts were friendly, and Cook returned to visit Kalaniopuu in January 1779. But tensions mounted as curious Hawaiians began to steal things from the English ships, and the sailors started, well, acting like sailors.

On Feburary 14, after one of his ships' landing boats was stolen, Cook mustered a squad of marines and resolved to take and hold a hostage until King George's property was returned. A confrontation ensued, and when it was over 17 natives had been shot dead. Additionally, four marines were slain and Cook himself killed and his body eaten. In retaliation, the British ships shelled the beach, seriously wounding Kekuhaupio. According to some sources, Kamehameha was also wounded in the same barrage. At any rate, all agree the first-hand lesson the young leader learned about the destructive power of cannon was one he would remember in later years.

Capt. James Cook


Early in 1782 King Kalaniopuu died, leaving most of the island of Hawaii to his eldest son Kiwalao - who proved to be a weak and vacillating ruler. At the same time, small allotments were also granted to his other son, Keoua ("of the flaming cloak"), and Kalaniopuu's own brother, Keawemauhili. Kamehameha was made custodian of the war god, a position of great prestige and power. Of course, such a situation augured civil war, and it was not long in coming.

It began when Keawemauhili and Keoua pressured the new king to redistribute the lands that had been set aside for Kamehameha. Immediately aware this was only the first step in a process that would lead to his eventual removal, Kamehameha began negotiating with various chiefs for their support and warriors.

Then Keoua accelerated events by launching a series of deliberately provocative actions designed to insult Kamehameha and undercut his prestige. He had his men cut down coconut trees inside Kamehameha's territory, which in Polynesian society was a direct slap in the face and tantamount to a declaration of war. Then, as Kamehameha and his main ally, Keeaumoku, were massing their forces, the warriors of Keoua and King Kiwalao struck suddenly at the village of Mokuohai.

Kamehameha consulted with priests while Keeaumoku organized the actual defense. The battle was going poorly for him, and the king's men began pressing forward in the center. At a critical moment, Keeaumoku was taken down by a piikou, and three men rushed forward to finish him. Two cut at the chief with daggers while the third jabbed him with a short spear.

But having seen Keeaumoku fall, King Kiwalao brashly made the error of his life. Wanting to deliver the death blow, he ordered his warriors to back away to make room for his kingly swing. This exposed him to a nearby enemy slinger, and a well-aimed stone slammed straight into Kiwalao's forehead, knocking him to the ground next to the enemy chief. Keeaumoku, by now seriously wounded but still able to move, instantly reached over with a dagger and slit Kiwalao's throat.

At that very moment, Kamehameha arrived on the scene with reinforcements. Then news of Kiwalao's death spread across the battlefield. Keoua was forced to retreat to his waiting war canoe. Kamehameha and Keeaumoku had won the day.

The practical result of the Battle of Mokuohai was to certify Hawaii was indeed divided into roughly three equal parts, each under its own ruler: Keawemauhili held the east and northeast sections; Keoua was in the southeast, and Kamehameha had the west and northwest. However, the chief who really gained the most from that division was Kahekili of Maui.

With the Hawaiians occupied by their own civil war, the Mauian ruler was able to launch a successful campaign against King Kahahana of Oahu, defeating him in 1782 and conquering that island. Then the islands of Molokai and Lanai, threatened similarly with invasion, quickly submitted to Kahekili. Since the Mauian king's half-brother Kaeokulani already ruled Kauai and Niihau, only the quarreling chiefs of Hawaii stood in the way of Kahekili's ambition of conquering the entire island chain.

Being a shrewd man, Kahekili realized the most dangerous of the three Hawaiians was Kamehameha. In short order, he formed an alliance with Keoua and Keawemauhili, and sent a force of several hundred of his warriors to supplement their armies.

Meanwhile, Kamehameha was planning to bring an end to the Hawaiian civil war by launching his own two-pronged offensive against the strongholds of Keawemauhili and Keoua. The warriors of the northern pincer were to travel by war canoe and make an amphibious assault on Hilo, Keawemauhili's capital. First, though, Kamehameha would lead the southern pincer overland through the saddle between the mountains of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, to Keoua's headquarters in Ka'u.

Unfortunately for Kamehameha, word of his plan fell into the hands of the Mauians, who ambushed his force at the Kilauea Fire Pit. They rained ihe and sling-stones upon his men, and would undoubtedly have crushed him had not Kamehameha earlier thought to have a rescue fleet of war canoes standing by at a nearby landing. His force was saved and he retreated to his capital at Kohala, where he planned his revenge.

After a raid against Maui was bloodily repulsed in 1786, Kamehameha paused. He realized that since he held only one-third of Hawaii, he really did not have the resources needed to take the battle to Kahekili. Accordingly, Kamehameha set aside his broader ambitions for a time and concentrated on cultivating a friendly relationship with the only power that could bring him victory - the European seafarers and their guns.

After Cook's demise, explorers and traders had of course become wary of the islanders, but still they kept arriving. Some offered weapons for trade, but without training in their use and supplies of ammunition to go with them, they promised little of real value in protracted warfare. Kamehameha sidestepped that problem by befriending a young chief named Kaiana. He had actually joined an English ship's crew and sailed to such exotic places as China and Oregon. Worldly wise beyond his years, Kaiana acted as go-between for his new royal friend and the ships that pulled into Kohala. With smooth communications facilitated, the Europeans soon viewed Kamehameha as their best friend in the islands.

In 1790, a vassal of Kamehameha had rashly attacked a small schooner, the Fair American, killing five of its six crewmen. Kamehameha disciplined the vassal, but at the same time had the captured ship's swivel guns and brass cannon brought to him. He also kept the sole survivor, crewman Isaac Davis, to train his warriors in the use of the new weapons. Then John Young, a scout from the sister ship of the Fair American, the Eleanora, was also captured and brought to the king's court.

Davis and Young were kept in luxurious surroundings and had all their desires, except for freedom, met instantly. Naturally, they soon abandoned all thought of returning to their ships and pledged allegiance to Kamehameha. Soon they were his most trusted advisors.
 

Having learned Kahekili had left his main island to put down a revolt on Oahu, Kamehameha decided the time was right for another try at Maui. He made a truce with Keawemauhili, in the hope he would keep Keoua at bay while the expedition played out.

Kamehameha gathered 3,000 warriors, loaded a brass cannon (nicknamed "Lopaka") between the twin hulls of a 60-foot war canoe, and set off for Hana, on the extreme east of Maui. This time Kamehameha felt confident, even though he had only 12 muskets, along with six iron cannonballs to load into Lopaka.

Model of Hawaiian war canoe


The fleet first landed unopposed just south of Hana, and Kamehameha then employed a leapfrog strategy of advance along Maui's north coast, aimed at eventually reaching the capital, Wailuku, in the northwest. As he moved, Kamehameha picked up supplies and, somewhat surprisingly, support from the people he encountered along the coast. Many Mauian warriors rushed to support his cause.

With Kahekili still away on Oahu, his son Kalanikupule was serving as regent on Maui. He sent a mobile force under the command of his best general, Kapakahili, to intercept the Hawaiians before they could reach the capital. The two vanguards collided near the village of Halehaku.

Kapakahili had only 1,000 Mauian warriors with him, and his mission was to fix the invaders in place until reinforcements from Wailuku could arrive to finish the job. On the Hawaiian side, Kamehameha's forces had by this time become spread out all along the north coast, with the cannon well to the rear. Both side felt compelled and content to postpone battle until the next day.

During the intervening night, however, Kamehameha moved his shock troops, a unit called the Alapa, to high ground southwest of the village. He also resolved to challenge Kapakahili to single combat.

The next morning Kamehameha and his retinue sought out the defending general and began things by shouting ritual insults back and forth across the line. Sling stones soon followed, then ihe. Soon Kamehameha (who by this time had grown into a mature man of 6'6", weighing some 300 lbs.) launched himself straight for Kapakahili, carrying a 14-foot pololu. The general, also a large man, met the king head on, and the two were soon in the clinches. But Kamehameha pushed off again, dropped his spear, and swung his shark-toothed club in an uppercut, slashing Kapakahili across the midsection.

As Kamehameha stepped in to swing the final blow, Kapakahili managed to stab him in the side with a dagger. Still, the general's move came too late to save him; the king's blow struck him on the head and killed Kapakahili instantly.

As Kapakahili fell and Kamehameha was led away to have his wound bound, the Alapa suddenly charged down from the hill where they had been moved the night before, straight toward the center of the Mauian line. Already demoralized by the death of their commander, the Mauians put up little resistance. Their defeat turned into a full rout when Hawaiian reinforcements arrived and drove into the Mauian left. Less than half escaped to the west.

Three days later, with Kamehameha recovering well from his wound and his forces reunited at Halehaku, the war canoes were loaded, and the Hawaiian army headed for the bay of Kahului, only a short march from the capital. Leaving garrisons along his path, Kamehameha advanced on Wailuku with only 1,400 men. There 2,000 Mauians under the command of the regent Kalanikupule awaited them.

But this time Kamehameha had Lopaka and a swivel gun mounted on crude gun carriages, along with a dozen musketeers who had been trained by Davis and Young.

The Hawaiians advanced in the traditional crescent formation, while the defenders stood in line at a narrow pass in the Iao Valley. Kamehameha opened the battle in a distinctly non-traditional way, by using Lopaka to bombard the crowded Mauian ranks. The gun wreaked fearful slaughter among defenders. Then the swivel gun, muskets, slings and spear-throwers let fly in turn, and Kalanikupule's troops broke and ran for higher ground. But the Alapa charged forward and killed them as they fled.

Only Kalanikupule and his retinue made it to a war canoe and got away. They headed for Waikiki, Kahekili's capital on Oahu.

The Battle of Iao Valley marked the first use of cannon by Hawaiians. Kamehameha was suddenly the master of Maui.


At this point Kamehameha offered peace to Kahekili on the condition the Mauian acknowledged him as overlord. Kahekili rejected the offer and lent covert support to Keoua back on Hawaii. While Kamehameha was still busy on Maui, Keoua invaded the territory of the third Hawaiian monarch, Keawemauhili. Keoua's plan was to make his own position as secure as possible before launching the climactic campaign against his main rival, Kamehameha.

Keawemahili was slain and his army was defeated at the town of Alae. This gave Keoua control over the entire eastern half of the island of Hawaii. Keoua immediately sent warriors northwest into Kamehameha's lands.

Keoua's arrival at Kawaihae


Keoua's vanguard advanced as far as as the Waipio Valley before Kamehameha, who had been forced to give up campaigning on Maui and return home with his army, managed to block the invasion. Keoua reacted by retreating his lead elements back toward the main body. Kamehameha pursued, but his forces were slowed by the necessity of pulling the cannon over rough terrain. Keoua therefore had good time, once he had picked a spot to halt his retreat, to put his men into the classic crescent formation and await decisive battle.

Kamehameha once again employed the tactics that won the day for him in the Iao Valley, but the results were not the same. Shots from Lopaka and the musketeers tore into Keoua's ranks, but instead of fleeing in terror the army rushed to the attack to reach the guns before they could fire again. At the same time, Kamehameha's gunners discovered they were low on ammunition.

Kamehameha prepared his men to meet the charge with traditional weapons, and sent for more powder to be brought up.  Keoua's human wave struck, and the battle raged around the cannon. Kamehameha was beginning to give ground when the new supplies of powder arrived. A ragged volley followed, driving off Keoua's men, but they retreated in good order.

Ill omen and ill fortune then struck Keoua and his retreating army as they maneuvered to get back to their home base in Ka'u. Their line of march took them near volcanic Mount Kilauea, which erupted at just that moment. Keoua's army was decimated by lava and volcanic ash, and the chief became demoralized by what he interpreted to be a sign of divine disfavor.

Shortly thereafter, Kamehameha sent Keoua an invitation to come for a parley at Kawihae. Perhaps sensing what was to occur, Keoua agreed, prepared himself for death, and sailed into Kamehameha's territory. Upon landing at Kawaihae, Keoua stood up in his canoe, whereupon Keeaumoku, the chief who had earlier slit the throat of Kiwalao, transfixed him with a spear. Keoua died instantly. No source is certain if Keeaumoku acted on his own or on orders from Kamehameha. Either way, the result was the same - Kamehameha became undisputed ruler of Hawaii.

Kamehameha continued to trade with the Europeans for more guns. He also was learning the frustration inherent in two-front wars. While he had been preoccupied with Keoua, King Kahekili of Maui had taken the opportunity to send another large raiding party to Hawaii.

These raiders were different from those in the past, for they, too, were armed with cannon and swivel guns mounted on war canoes. They pillaged the western coast of the island, looting and defiling graves as they went. In reaction, Kamehameha loaded as many cannon as possible onto his fleet of war canoes and set out to intercept. The two fleets met off the coast of Waimanu. No detailed account of the action survives, which is unfortunate, since it marked the first time in Hawaiian history a seat battle was fought with artillery. The Battle of Kepuwahaulaula (or the Battle of the Red-Mouthed Gun) can probably best be said to have ended in a draw, since the raiders survived but were forced to retreat to Maui.

With Hawaii secured, Kamehameha spent the next year preparing his forces for another major campaign. He continued to trade for cannon, muskets and ammunition, and put his carpenters to work building more canoes. He trained and drilled his troops, expanding his force of musketeers as rapidly as possible.

His new plan began to come together when King Kahekili died in July 1794. In his will, he left the islands of Maui, Molokai, Kahoolawe and Lanai to his brother Kaeokulani (who was already King of Kaui and Niihau), and bequeathed only Oahu to his son Kalanikupule.

Again, events fell out in Kamehameha's favor when Kaeokulani decided to attack Oahu - a dubious strategic maneuver that proved his undoing. While the invaders landed and drove inland, looting as they went, Kalanikupule sought help from a British merchant captain, William Brown. Brown obliged by providing not only muskets, but a strong force of marines to use them. Kaeokulani's booty-laden army was sourrounded by the British tarts, whose sharpshooting quickly and easily picked off the brightly caped chiefs.

Kaeokulani retreated back to the beach with the survivors of his army, but was intercepted and killed there by an awaiting phalanx of Oahuans. With that victory, Kalanikupule gained a shaky control over Oahu, Maui, Lanai, Kahoolawe and Molokai, but Kaeokulani's son, Kaumualii, took possession of Kauai and Niihau.

There could have been no better time for Kamehameha to make his move. He had 500 war canoes, including specially designed, twin-hulled models called peleleu. He had mustered 15,000 men (some 4,000 of them Alapa), including a battalion of musketeers and a battery of cannon.

At the start of the campaigning season in February 1795, Kamehameha and his huge fleet set out from the Kona coast. Having attained such overwhelming numbers, the king had decided on a coup de main. He took the entire fleet around to the northwest corner of Maui and landed at Lahaina. The few defenders Kalanikupule had there fled immediately; the Hawaiians swarmed ashore, and Maui was taken without a fight.

Kamehameha stopped only long enough to reprovision, then swept on to Molokai. Another landing led to another surrender and bloodless conquest. Then a chief from Lanai arrived and submitted that island to Kamehameha's rule. Along with the uninhabited island of Kahoolawe, the Hawaiian king now held supreme power in five of the eight islands in the chain. Only one great campaign remained to be fought, but Kamehameha suffered a setback before it could be conducted.

One of Kamehameha's best friends and closest advisers, the young chief Kaiana, who had earlier facilitated communications with the Europeans, was also rumored to be the secret lover of his king's favorite wife, Kaahamanu. Lately Kamehameha had begun reacting to the rumors by keep Kaiana away from his war councils. The younger man knew if he had fallen out of the king's favor to such an extent, the next step would surely be death.

Kaiana moved first and defected to the Oahuans, together with about 1,500 men and a dozen musketeers who were personally loyal to him. After landing on Oahu, Kaiana began a march through Kaneohe toward Nuuanu Pali.

Meanwhile, Kamehameha landed at Kaupo, on the extreme east coast of Oahu. Encountering no resistance there, he set up a base, then reembarked his force for a landing at Wailupe, a place only six miles from the capital at Waikiki.

Taking into account Kaiana's defection and the troops he left at the new base, Kamehameha probably still had about 10,000 fighters on hand. There are no reliable estimates as to the size of Kalanikupule's army, but all accounts agree his forces at Waikiki were greatly outnumbered. When battle was finally closed at Wailupe, we can guess the defenders numbered approximately 5,000. They also had some guns, but no dependable supply of ammunition, and it is doubtful the weapons were of any practical use that day.

Kalanikupule's plan was to make contact with the lead elements of Kamehameha's force and draw them forward, away from their main body and supplies and into the Nuuanu Valley. The ground there gradually rose to reach a peak at Nuuanu Pali. Kalanikupule expected Kamehameha would be unable to move his cannon up such a slope. Additionally, Kaiana had positioned his force of defectors behind a hastily constructed wall inside the pass, ready to fall on the stalled Hawaiians' flank at the decisive moment. Given Kalanikupule's inferiority in firepower, it was not a bad plan.

Kalanikupule must have been enthused when Kamehameha readily moved into the trap. Without even stopping to take possession of the palace at Waikiki, the invaders pressed forward, following the retreating Oahuans into the Nuuanu Valley. As the head of the Hawaiian column entered the valley, the Oahuans suddenly slowed their withdrawal and began firing missile weapons and goading the Hawaiians to close with them. Kalanikupule was preparing his coup de grace, but he had underestimated the invading king's grim resolution.

Observing the direction of the Oahuan moves, Kamehameha doubled his artillery crews. This enabled him to get Lopaka and several other guns hauled quickly to the front of his formation despite the rising ground. Then he deployed his battalion of musketeers along some high ground on his right flank. Those men began a sniping fire that drove the Oahuans from their positions and further into the valley.

This had the effect of reversing the trap. Suddenly it was the Oahuans who were being herded and compressed into the narrow pass, under enfilade fire from higher ground.

A fighting withdrawal is universally recognized as one of the most difficult military operations to accomplish, and Kalanikupule was simply not up to such a task. His men began running faster and faster to escape the stones and the Hawaiian vanguard's ihe, as well as the withering fire from the musketeers on the slopes above.

Kalanikupule had only one last card to play. Kaiana and his band stood ready at the wall in the pass. They could make a stand there and drive Kamehameha back.

The Hawaiian king came charging up the trail, accompanied by the chiefs of the Alapa. He stopped about 200 yards from the pass and viewed the Oahuans, reinforced by Kaiana's men, lined up in the traditional crescent behind the wall constructed from volcanic rock.

At that distance, the Hawaiians were still beyond the range of the Oahuans' ihe and and slings, but those defenders were well within the reach of Lopaka. The king had 200 men drag the gun up the narrow trail and into position, as high winds (characteristic of the Pali Pass) began to howl. Watching from above, Davis and Young, in command of the musketeers there, sent a squad of ten men armed with long-barreled flintlocks down to join the main body. Shortly, with the Alapa formed behind Lopaka and its crew, Kamehameha was ready.

A volley from the flintlocks hit some of the Oahuans immediately behind the wall. Then Lopaka hurled grapeshot 30 yards beyond the wall and killed a number of men in horrible fashion. A wailing rose from the Oahuan ranks as those men began to see the devastation of modern gunfire up close.

Then Kamehameha ordered Lopaka's crew to switch to balls and lower their sights to destroy the center of the wall - the place most likely to be concealing Kalanikupule and Kaiana.

Lopaka's crew was well-trained. They struck dead center with their first four-pounder and blasted a hole, showering all those nearby with rock fragments. A second shot had the same effect. A third followed and the targeted portion of the wall disintegrated. That shot also killed a dozen huddled chiefs, including Kaiana.

Relatively few Oahuans had died up to that point, but now fear of Lopaka and the Hawaiian muskets overtook them. They began to run again, and Kalanikupule himself began to search for a way to escape. The flaw in his original plan became apparent - his back was to a 1,000-foot precipice and he was surrounded on three sides by cliffs, cannon and muskets.


The Oahuans backed away from the cannon as far as they were able. They were still a sizable mob, but the gunfire had rendered them ineffective as an organized fighting force. Kamehameha wanted to finish them off with artillery, but his troops were already closing in without orders. He unleashed the Alapa.

Hawaii's best warriors, armed with the long pololu spears, pressed the mass of Oahuans back toward the precipice. Only a few managed to escape by climbing up the slopes or running along narrow foot trails. Most were driven over the edge of the cliff to their deaths on the craggy rocks below. Kamehameha had won a total victory.

Kalanikupule escaped by climbing up. He hid in the rain forest for months, but was eventually run to ground. Then he suffered the fate of many defeated chieftains before him - he was sacrificed to the war god.

Death at the Nuuanu Pali


Kamehameha took over the royal palace at Waikiki and rested his forces; the campaigning season was nearing its end for the year. He need only to defeat Kaumualii on Kauai to become undisputed master of all the islands.

The next year, 1796, his fleet set out for Kauai, but a violent storm struck and much of Kamehameha's armada was sunk. While he readied a second attempt, a revolt broke out on Hawaii led by Kaiana's brother, Namakeha. Kamehameha returned home and swiftly crushed that movement at Hilo, ending the rebellion in one stroke.

The king then decided to consolidate his conquests before launching a final assault against Kauai. He bulit a new fleet of 800 peleleu canoes, and brought his army's manpower up to 16,000. He assembled more artillery and constructed new gun carriages to ease their transport. In 1802, the largest fleet ever seen in Hawaiian waters sailed for Maui. Kamehameha remained there a full year and settled many affairs of state to ensure his rear areas would be secure during the final move.  By this time, the fleet had 40 swivel guns, 14 cannon and 600 muskets.

By the spring of 1804 all was ready. It was obvious Kaumualii could not resist such a force, but just before the fleet was to embark, the Hawaiian army was struck by cholera. Probably brought by ship from Canton, the plague swept through the ranks, killing thousands. When it had passed, Kamehameha was convinced his planned invasion was ill-omened.

While the king went about restoring his military, he also sent emissaries to Kauai to negotiate with Kaumualii. The king of Kauai resisted the diplomacy for years, however, until an American trader named Nathan Winship finally convinced him of the utter certainty Kamehameha would unite the islands under one rule. Thus Kaumualii agreed to bow to the inevitable and met with Kamehameha in Honolulu, where he acknowledged his tributary status to the Hawaiian.

In battle, Kamehameha was more noteworthy for his doggedness and foresight than for any tactical brilliance. Operationally, he certainly knew how to handle  an army and fleet, and strategically, he had a knack for striking in the right place at the right time. As to his personal courage and strength there can be no doubt. His defeat of Kapakahili in single combat was a feat even his contemporary, Napoleon, could never have matched.

But the most important reason for Kamehameha's success was his recognition of the revolutionary effect gunpowder had on island warfare. Though all the chiefs attempted to trade for guns, Kamehameha alone saw to it his men were trained in their use and organized in such a way as to bring the new weapons to bear efficiently. He also maintained the friendship of European and American traders to ensure a continued supply of powder.

Finally, and most importantly, though his campaigns were bloody, his victory put an end to the devastating inter-island warfare that had consumed so much of his people's blood and labor. His triumph enabled the islands' economies to begin to grow unhindered.

Kamehameha made the islands one nation. It is for that reason that to this day, every June 11 the islanders celebrate a holiday in honor of the first king of a united Hawaii.