First published in
|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.
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
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 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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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,
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.