The Napoleon of Hawaii, Kamehameha I

Kamehameha I of Hawaii fought his way to supremacy in the Hawaiian archipelago in the 1790s in part thanks to his use of European arms, rather than spears, clubs, daggers and slingshots. His power was based on the west coast of the island of Hawaii, a coast frequented by European ships, and he employed Europeans as gunners.

The Napoleon of Hawaii, Kamehameha I, fought his way to supremacy over the archipelago in the 1790s, using muskets and cannon and winning victories such as Nuuanu (1795). The so-called unification of the Hawaiian islands was far from predetermined, however. Kamehameha won dominance of his home island of Hawaii in 1791 and of the islands of Maui and Oahu in 1795. In 1810 Kaumualii, the ruler of the islands of Kauai and Niihau, agreed to serve as a client king to Kamehameha.

Hawaiian Wars (1782-1810)

The three decades from about 1780 to 1810 that saw the Hawaiian Islands brought together into a unified kingdom for the first time by King Kamehameha “the Great” (c. 1752-1819). As in other parts of the world, this consolidation was made possible in the Hawaiian Islands in great part through the introduction of firearms.

When Captain James Cook was killed on the Big Island of Hawaii in 1778 by armed warriors of that island’s primary chief, Kalaniopuu, the islands of Hawaii were far from a unified polity. Political power and control varied from island to island, with even the Big Island divided among rival chieftains. Yet within a generation the armaments and technology that Cook and other Western traders and explorers introduced would become decisive in that archipelago’s unification. Soon after Chief Kalaniopuu’s death in 1782 a rivalry ensued between Kalaniopuu’s relations, including his sons Kiwalao and Keoua and his nephew Kamehameha, for control of the Big Island. But the rival chieftains and their bands of warriors were of relatively equal strength, and as a result their struggle persisted throughout the 1780s without conclusive results.

In 1790 an American trading vessel, the Fair American, along with its guns and two English crewmen, fell into the hands of Kamehameha after it was attacked and seized as retaliation for losses suffered in an encounter with an earlier Western ship. Such trading vessels had begun to appear with increasing frequency in the islands, a convenient watering hole between China and the West Coast of the Americas. Kamehameha would use the two foreigners to manufacture Western handguns and train his men in Western fighting tactics.

Even before establishing his power on the Big Island, Kamehameha decided to attack the neighboring island of Maui, then under the control of the most powerful chief in the islands, Kahekili. In the narrow valley of Iao on Maui, Kamehameha, employing his two Englishmen and newly acquired guns, inflicted a decisive defeat upon an army led by Kahekili’s son. Despite this victory Kamehameha returned to the Big Island, where fighting had erupted again in his absence. The renewed struggle on the Big Island was again indecisive until Kamehameha ambushed and killed his chief rival, Keoua, along with his retinue of warriors, after inviting him to meet at a newly constructed heiau (temple), dedicated tellingly to the god of war. With this death Kamehameha established himself as master of the Big Island of Hawaii.

Soon thereafter Kahekili sent a fleet of native canoes and special bands of warriors, along with his own Western vessel, to harass Kamehameha on his own turf. A sea battle was fought off the Big Island between the two rival chieftains’ vessels, which proved sanguinary but indecisive. Kahekili died on his home island of Oahu soon afterward, his domains, like those of Kalaniopuu previously, falling into dispute between his various heirs. Only in late 1794 did Kahekili’s son Kalanikupule emerge as victor, following the defeat on Oahu of his half-brother, and primary foe, with the help of guns supplied by an English merchant. In January 1795 the victorious Kalanikupule decided to take his campaigns to the Big Island of Hawaii, hoping to defeat his father’s rival Kamehameha. Now equipped with a plentiful supply of firearms and several Western vessels, his hopes of bringing the Big Island under his control were not farfetched. His luck did not hold, however, and the foreign crews of his ships, pressed into his service, mutinied and succeeded in driving Kalanikupule and his warriors overboard and back to Oahu in humiliation.

Kamehameha meanwhile had been colluding with the English. In 1794 he agreed to “cede” the Big Island of Hawaii to Great Britain and in return received English help in building a fighting ship. Eyeing his strategic opportunity, Kamehameha decided to move and in early 1795 seized Maui and the narrow island of Molokai, which lay just to its north. Despite the defection of one of his primary chiefs to Kalanikupule, Kamehameha proceeded with plans to attack Oahu and landed on that island’s southern coast near modern Waikiki. Kamehameha scattered his foe, driving many over the high cliffs of the pass, and with his victory, and the death of Kalanikupule, secured his control over Oahu.

The only island remaining outside Kamehameha’s control was the far western island of Kauai. On Oahu Kamehameha received further British help in building a 40-ton ship with which to attack Kauai. Kamehameha and his forces set sail for Kauai in summer 1796, only to have his plans postponed at the last moment by an uprising on the Big Island. Perhaps the delay was fortunate. The uprising was soon subdued but plans for the invasion of Kauai were put on hold. The interval allowed Kamehameha time to consolidate his newly won domains and to set up efficient means of administration and communication. He set up governors on each of the islands, and like resourceful rulers before him, such as France’s Louis XIV or Toyotomi Hideyoshi in Japan, he invited potential rivals to dwell with him in his capital. He also set about building a stronger navy, switching to innovative twin-hulled canoes rather than the traditional and less stable single-hulled ones. From the foreigners arriving in increasing numbers and with increasing frequency in the islands Kamehameha procured yet more armaments and foreign vessels.

In 1802 Kamehameha finally sailed again for Kauai, then ruled by the chief Kaumualii, with a fleet of nearly 800 vessels and an armed force of thousands. Kamehameha and his fleet tarried for some time on Maui, hoping unsuccessfully to threaten Kaumualii into submission, before continuing westward to Oahu. On Oahu in 1804 Kamehameha’s efforts were struck an almost fatal blow, in the form of an epidemic that wiped out many of his troops, though it spared him. For several more years Kamehameha stayed on in Oahu, which was yearly growing in population and prosperity. At this point Kamehameha let it be known that he would be satisfied with the outward submission of his rival on Kauai, and gaining it would allow him to rule on there as his governor. The two rival chieftains were finally brought together in Honolulu in early 1810. The result was the formal inclusion of Kauai as a tributary island to Kamehameha with Kaumualii as its leader. It was a diplomatic terminus to almost two decades of conflict, and with it Kamehameha secured his control over all of Hawaii and effected the first unification of the islands in their history.

References and further reading: Cahill, Emmett. The Life and Times of John Young: Confidant and Advisor to Kamehameha the Great. Honolulu: Island Heritage Publishers, 1999. Daws, Gavan. Shoal of Time: A History of the Hawaiian Islands. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1968. Kuykendall, Ralph S. The Hawaiian Kingdom. 3 vols. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1967.

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