Kamehameha I (c. 1736? – May 8 or 14, 1819) was a Hawaiian king also known as Kamehameha the Great. He conquered most of the Hawaiian Islands, and formally establishing the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi in 1810.
His full Hawaiian name was Kalani Paiʻea Wohi o Kaleikini Kealiʻikui Kamehameha o ʻIolani i Kaiwikapu kauʻi Ka Liholiho Kūnuiākea.
By developing alliances with colonial powers, Kamehameha preserved Hawaiʻi’s independence. Kamehameha is remembered for the Kānāwai Māmalahoe, the “Law of the Splintered Paddle”, which protected the human rights of non-combatants in times of war.
Accounts of Kamehameha I’s birth vary. Hawaiian historian Samuel Kamakau published an account in the Ka Nupepa Kuokoa in 1867, which was widely accepted until February 10, 1911. This version was challenged by the oral history of the Kaha family, as published in newspaper articles also appearing in the Kuoko.
After the republication of the story by Kamakau to a larger English reading public in 1911 Hawaii, yet another version of the story was published by Kamaka Stillman, who had objected to the Nupepa article. Her version is verified by others within the Kaha family.
Kamehameha is considered the son of Keōua, founder of the House of Keoua, and Kekuʻiʻapoiwa II.
Keōua and Kekuʻiʻapoiwa were both grandchildren of Keaweʻīkekahialiʻiokamoku, Aliʻi nui of the island of Hawaiʻi, and came from the district of Kohala.
Hawaiian genealogy notes that Keōua may not have been Kamehameha’s biological father, suggesting instead Kahekili II of Maui. Either way, Kamehameha was a descendant of Keawe through his mother. Keōua acknowledged him as his son and this was recognized in official genealogies.
After about 1812, Kamehameha spent his time at Kamakahonu, a compound he built in Kailua-Kona. In modern times, this location became the site of a resort and the starting and finishing point of the Ironman World Championship Triathlon.
As was the custom of the time, he took several wives and had many children, though he outlived about half of them.
The exact number is debated because documents that recorded the names of his wives were destroyed.
Bingham lists 21, but earlier research from Mary Kawena Pukui counted 26. In Kamehameha’s Children Today authors Ahlo and Walker list 30 wives: 18 that bore children, and 12 that did not. They state the total number of children to be 35: 17 sons, and 18 daughters.
While he had many wives and children, his children through his highest-ranking wife, Keōpūolani, succeeded him to the throne.
In Ho`omana: Understanding the Sacred and Spiritual, Chun stated that Keōpūolani supported Kaʻahumanu’s ending of the Kapu system as the best way to ensure that Kamehameha’s children and grandchildren would rule the kingdom.
Conflicting dates and events surrounding birth of Kamehameha I
The traditional mele chant of Keaka, wife of Alapainui, indicates that Kamehameha was born in the month of ikuwā (winter) or around November. Alapai had given the child, Kamehameha, to his wife, Keaka, and her sister, Hākau, to care for after the ruler discovered the infant had survived.
Kamakau wrote, “It was during the time of the warfare among the chiefs of [the island of] Hawaii which followed the death of Keawe, chief over the whole island (Ke-awe-i-kekahi-aliʻi-o-ka-moku) that Kamehameha I was born.” However, his general date of birth has been challenged.
Abraham Fornander wrote in An Account of the Polynesian Race: Its Origins and Migrations, “when Kamehameha died in 1819 he was past eighty years old. His birth would thus fall between 1736 and 1740, probably nearer the former than the latter.”
A Brief History of the Hawaiian People by William De Witt Alexander lists the birth date in the Chronological Table of Events of Hawaiian History” as 1736.
At the time of Kamehameha’s birth, Keōua and his half-brother Kalaniʻōpuʻu were serving Alapaʻinui, ruler of Hawaiʻi island. Alapaʻinui had brought the brothers to his court after defeating both their fathers in the civil war that followed the death of Keaweʻīkekahialiʻiokamoku. Keōua died while Kamehameha was young, so Kamehameha was raised in the court of his uncle, Kalaniʻōpuʻu.
Prophecy of the Naha Stone
Prophecy states that the man (child) who moves the Naha Stone would be the one to unite the islands. Many tried and failed to get the stone to move from its original spot. Those who have tried were of high-ranking “naha” blood.
Kamehameha was of nīʻaupiʻo descent and Ululani believed that Kamehameha was not worthy of attempting to move the stone. A story found at the Hilo Library holds that Ululani, High Chiefess of Hilo, wife of Keawemauhili, and other High Chiefs/Chiefesses were brought together by Prince Kai o Kuanui a Kanaele of Kawaihae to prophecy over Kamehameha.
Ululani then introduced her son Keawe I Kahikona of Keaau Village (the only other Chief to ever lift the Naha stone) as the younger brother to Kamehameha, so later they would not fight.
In the gathering of the Ohana for Unity, Keawe I Kahi Kona chose Kamehameha I over his father Keawe Mauhili. Kamehameha ignored all negativity and moved the stone. Legend says the stone was overturned. Kamehameha went on to unite the islands through a series of battles.
Kamehameha was raised in the royal court of his uncle Kalaniʻōpuʻu. He achieved prominence in 1782, upon Kalaniʻōpuʻu’s death.
While the kingship was inherited by Kalaniʻōpuʻu’s son, Kīwalaʻō, Kamehameha was given a prominent religious position, guardianship of the Hawaiian god of war, Kūkāʻilimoku, as well as control of the district of Waipiʻo valley.
The two cousins hated each other, caused when Kamehameha presented a slain aliʻi’s body to the gods instead of to Kīwalaʻō. Kamehameha accepted the allegiance of a group of chiefs from the Kona district.
The other story is after the Prophecy was passed along by the High Priests/Priestesses and High Chiefs/Chiefesses. The fulfilling of the Prophecy by lifting the Naha Stone, singled out Kamehameha as the fulfiller of the Prophecy.
Other ruling Chiefs, Keawe Mauhili, the Mahoe (twins) Keoua and other Chiefs rejected the Prophecy of Ka Poukahi.
The High Chiefs of Kauai and supported Kiwala`o even after learning about the Prophecy.
The five Kona chiefs supporting Kamehameha were: Keʻeaumoku Pāpaʻiahiahi (Kamehameha’s father-in-law/grand Uncle), Keaweaheulu Kaluaʻāpana (Kamehameha’s uncle), Kekūhaupiʻo (Kamehameha’s warrior teacher), Kameʻeiamoku and Kamanawa (twin uncles of Kamehameha).
They defended Kamehameha as the Unifier Ka Na`i aupuni.
High Chiefs Keawe Mauhili and Keeaumoku were by genealogy the next in line for Ali`i Nui. Both chose the younger nephews Kiwala`o and Kamehameha over themselves.
Kīwalaʻō was soon defeated in the first key conflict, the battle of Mokuʻōhai, and Kamehameha and His Chiefs took over Konohiki responsibilities and sacred obligations of the districts of Kohala, Kona and Hāmākua on Hawaiʻi island.
The Prophecy included far more than Hawaiʻi island. It went across and beyond the Pacific Islands to the semi continent of Aotearoa (New Zealand).
He was supported by his favorite wife Kaʻahumanu and father High Chief Keeaumoku, Senior Counselor to Kamehameha. She became one of Hawaiʻi’s most powerful figures.
Kamehameha and his Council of Chiefs planned to unite the rest of the Hawaiian Islands.
Allies came from British and American traders, who sold guns and ammunition to Kamehameha.
Another major factor in Kamehameha’s continued success was the support of Kauai Chief Ka`iana and Captain Brown, who used to be with Kaeo okalani. He guaranteed Kamehameha unlimited gunpowder from China and gave him the formula for gunpowder: sulfur, saltpeter/potassium nitrate and charcoal, all abundant in the islands.
Two westerners who lived on Hawaii island, Isaac Davis and John Young, became ohana by marriage and hanai of Kamehameha, and trained his troops in the use, maintenance and repair of firearms.
In 1789, Simon Metcalfe captained the fur trading vessel the Eleanora while his son, Thomas Humphrey Metcalfe, captained the ship Fair American along the Northwest Coast.
They were to rendezvous in what was then known as the Sandwich Islands.
The Fair American was held up when it was captured by the Spanish and then quickly released in San Blas. The Eleanora arrived in 1790, where it was greeted by chief Kameʻeiamoku.
The chief did something that the captain took offense to, and Metcalfe struck the chief with a rope’s end.
Sometime later, while docked in Honuaula, Maui, a small boat tied to the ship was stolen by native townspeople with a crewmen inside. When Metcalfe discovered where the boat was taken, he sailed directly to the village called Olowalu. There he confirmed the boat had been broken apart and the man killed.
He had already fired muskets into the previous village where he was anchored, killing some residents. Metcalfe then took aim at this small town of native Hawaiians. He had all cannons moved to one side of the ship and began his trading call out to the locals. Hundreds of people came out to the beach to trade and canoes were launched.
When they were within firing range, the ship fired on the Hawaiians, killing over 100.
Six weeks later, the Fair American was stuck near the Kona coast of Hawaii where chief Kameʻeiamoku was living. He had decided to attack the next foreign ship to avenge the strike by the elder Metcalfe.
He canoed out to the ship with his men, where he killed Metcalfe’s son and all but one (Isaac Davis) of the five crewmen. Kamehameha took Davis into protection and took possession of the ship.
The Eleanora was at that time anchored at Kealakekua Bay, where the ship’s boatswain had gone ashore and been captured by Kamehameha’s forces, because Kamehameha believed Metcalfe was planning more revenge.
The Eleanora waited several days before sailing off, apparently without knowledge of what had happened to the Fair American or Metcalfe’s son. Davis and Eleanora’s boatswain, John Young, tried to escape, but were treated as chiefs, given wives and settled in Hawaii.
Death of Keōua Kuahuula
Kamehameha then moved against the district of Puna in 1790 deposing Chief Keawemaʻuhili. Keōua Kūʻahuʻula, exiled to his home in Kaʻū, took advantage of Kamehameha’s absence and led an uprising.
When Kamehameha returned with his army to put down the rebellion, Keōua fled past the Kīlauea volcano, which erupted and killed nearly a third of his warriors with its poisonous gas.
When the Puʻukoholā Heiau was completed in 1791, Kamehameha invited Keōua to meet with him. Keōua may have been dispirited by his recent losses. He may have mutilated himself before landing so as to render himself an inappropriate sacrificial victim.
As he stepped on shore, one of Kamehameha’s chiefs threw a spear at him. By some accounts he dodged it, but was then cut down by musket fire. Caught by surprise, Keōua’s bodyguards were killed. With Keōua dead, and his supporters captured or slain, Kamehameha became King of Hawaiʻi island.
Battles for Maui and Oʻahu
In 1795, Kamehameha set sail with an armada of 960 war canoes and 10,000 soldiers. He quickly secured the lightly defended islands of Maui and Molokaʻi at the Battle of Kawela.
He moved on to the island of Oʻahu, landing his troops at Waiʻalae and Waikīkī. Kamehameha did not know that one of his commanders, a high-ranking aliʻi named Kaʻiana, had defected to Kalanikūpule.
Kaʻiana assisted in cutting notches into the Nuʻuanu Pali mountain ridge; these notches, like those on a castle turret, were to serve as gunports for Kalanikūpule’s cannon. In a series of skirmishes, Kamehameha’s forces pushed Kalanikūpule’s men back until they were cornered on the Pali Lookout.
While Kamehameha moved on the Pali, his troops took heavy fire from the cannon. He assigned two divisions of his best warriors to climb to the Pali to attack the cannons from behind; they surprised Kalanikūpule’s gunners and took control.
With the loss of their guns, Kalanikūpule’s troops fell into disarray and were cornered by Kamehameha’s still-organized troops. A fierce battle ensued, with Kamehameha’s forces forming an enclosing wall. Using traditional Hawaiian spears, as well as muskets and cannon, they killed most of Kalanikūpule’s forces.
Over 400 men were forced over the Pali’s cliff, a drop of 1,000 feet. Kaʻiana was killed during the action; Kalanikūpule was later captured and sacrificed to Kūkāʻilimoku.
Kamehameha wanted to win the hearts of the people. After the victory at Nuʻuanu, Kamehameha not only cared for his own warriors but for the opposing warriors. He helped replenish the island of Oʻahu by repairing kalo patches and planting more sweet potatoes.
In April 1810, King Kaumualiʻi of Kaua’i became a vassal of Kamehameha, who therefore emerged as the sole sovereign of the unified Hawaiian islands. Angry over the settlement, several chiefs plotted to kill Kaumualiʻi with poison at the feast in his honor.
Isaac Davis got word of this and warned the King who escaped unharmed quietly before the dinner. The poison meant for the king was said to instead have been given to Davis, who died suddenly.
King of the Hawaiian Islands
As ruler, Kamehameha took steps to ensure the islands remained a united realm after his death. He unified the legal system. He used the products collected in taxes to promote trade with Europe and the United States.
Kamehameha did not allow non-Hawaiians to own land; this prohibition remained in place until the Great Māhele of 1848. This edict ensured the islands’ independence, even while many of the other islands of the Pacific succumbed to the colonial powers.
The origins of the Law of the Splintered Paddle are derived from before the unification of the Island of Hawaiʻi. In 1782 during a raid Kamehameha caught his foot in a rock. Two local fishermen, fearful of the great warrior, hit Kamehameha hard on the head with a large paddle, which broke the paddle. Kamehameha was stunned and left for dead, allowing the fisherman and his companion to escape.
Twelve years later, the same fisherman was brought before Kamehameha for punishment. The king instead blamed himself for attacking innocent people, gave the fisherman gifts of land and set them free. He declared the new law, “Let every elderly person, woman and child lie by the roadside in safety.” This influenced many subsequent humanitarian laws of war.
Young and Davis became advisors to Kamehameha and provided him with advanced weapons that helped in combat.
Kamehameha was also a religious king and the holder of the war god Kukaʻ ilimoku.
Vancouver noted that Kamehameha worshiped his gods and wooden images in a heiau, but originally wanted to bring England’s religion, Christianity, to Hawaiʻi.
Missionaries were not sent from Great Britain because Kamehameha told Vancouver that the gods he worshiped were his gods with mana, and that through these gods, Kamehameha had become supreme ruler over all of the islands. Witnessing Kamehameha’s devotion, Vancouver decided against sending missionaries from England.
Final Resting Place of Kamehameha I
When Kamehameha died on May 8 or 14, 1819, his body was hidden by his trusted friends, Hoapili and Hoʻolulu, in the ancient custom called hūnākele (literally, “to hide in secret”). The mana, or power of a person, was considered to be sacred. As per the ancient custom, his body was buried in a hidden location because of his mana. His final resting place remains unknown.