The State of Aloha
Last Wednesday, just before dawn, the quiet and empty streets of Kailua-Kona on the Big Island held a dignified procession. They quietly walked through the town in the darkness. The procession ended at the Ahu’ena Heiau, a temple at the waters of Kailua Bay across from the pier. They had gathered to honor the death of Hawaii’s first king.
Centuries ago a baby was born in Kohala on the northern edge of the Big Island. No one is sure of the actual year of his birth on a Western calendar, but many agree the date ranges between 1753 and 1761.
At the time of his birth, soothsayers predicted great things for the healthy baby boy. But this was also at a time when chiefs were in constant competition for territory. The child was hidden away to the remote and isolated Waipio Valley for many years.
When he returned as a young child, he was given the name Kamehameha, the lonely one. He was trained in the ways of warfare, games, navigation and history from his uncle, a great chief Kalaniopuu. He grew strong and was a great warrior.
When Kalaniopuu died, he had conquered the Big Island and parts of East Maui. He divided power between his son and Kamehameha. A civil war soon broke out. For four years there was violence and warfare. Lesser chiefs were constantly changing alliances. Territories were seized and retaken and then seized again. The common people were living in fear of battling chiefs and armies. Kamehameha persevered and defeated his rivals on the Big Island.
He moved on to acquire more territory. He waged wars against Kahekili, whose kingdom included Maui, Molokai, Lanai and Oahu. The armies were equally matched at first, but Kamehameha had a great tactical advantage.
In addition to his loyal chiefs, he recruited two white advisers — Isaac Davis, the sole survivor of a passing ship, and John Young, who was marooned on the Big Island. Davis and Young manned a cannon they named Robert (Lopaka).
Guns changed Hawaiian history. With them, Kamehameha’s army was able to gain the upper hand. For example, Davis, Young and Lopaka landed on the sandy shores of Maui in the face of the enemy.
The shelling of the Maui forces forced them to retreat upward into Iao Valley. Once inside the valley, they were trapped and mercilessly killed. Dead soldiers and chiefs filled the river. That is how the battle became known as Kepaniwai, which means the damning of the waters.
Kahekili soon caught on and acquired Western weaponry. After Kahekili died, his children started to fight with each other. Kamehameha saw his chance and invaded Oahu with a massive army.
Armed with cannons and muskets as well as traditional slings, spears and clubs, his army landed at Waikiki and Waialae. They advanced westward and engaged with the enemy near Punchbowl Crater.
The Oahu forces retreated into Nuuanu Valley. The battle ended at the Pali when Oahu forces were forced off the 1,000-foot drop. Almost a hundred years later, when engineers were constructing the old Pali Road in the 1890s, workers uncovered hundreds of skulls at the base of the cliffs. These are believed to be their remains.
In 1796, with most of the main islands firmly in place, Kamehameha set his sights on Kauai. His efforts, however, were constantly thwarted. His first attempt was undone by the weather. A storm swept through the wide channel between Oahu and Kauai and routed his invading army. They were forced to return to Oahu and rebuild.
Then an uprising erupted on Kamehameha’s home island. Kamehameha turned his forces back to his home to crush it. Finally, after years of preparing to invade the last kingdom, a mysterious disease killed off many of his soldiers.
Counseled by foreign sailors and explorers, Kamehameha and Kaumuali’i, the ruler of Kauai, reached a compromise. Kaumuali’i agreed to be subordinate to Kamehameha and there would be no invasion. Kauai was never taken by conquest.
By 1810, the undisputed leader of the newly formed Hawaiian Kingdom was Kamehameha. He ruled from his home in Kailua-Kona. He enjoyed a peaceful and stable reign. Commoners were free from fear and moved freely from district to district.
Kamehameha became an old man. On May 8, 1819, Kamehameha died of an unknown illness at his home near the waters of Kailua Bay, surrounded by his loyal chiefs, advisers and family. His bones were hidden away. His final resting place has never been found.
At the procession on the Big Island last week, people carried a portrait of Kamehameha through Kailua-Kona. He had done what no one had done before — unite the islands into a single, political state. He is the founder of the Hawaiian nation.
* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer, currently with the Office of the Public Defender, who grew up on Maui. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org. “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”