Pictures of Kamehameha Day, June 11 2011.
King Kamehameha was one of the most striking figures in Hawaiian history, a leader who united and ruled the islands during a time of great cultural change. Accounts vary, but many think that Kamehameha (originally named Pai’ea) was born into a royal family in North Kohala sometime between 1753 and 1761, possibly in November 1758. Kamehameha’s mother was Kekuiapoiwa, daughter of a Kona chief. His father was probably Keoua, chief of Kohala. Legends link his birth to storms and strange lights, activities thought by Hawaiians to herald the birth of a great chief. Because of prognostications at his birth and threats from warring clans, Kamehameha was taken away and hidden immediately after his birth. He spent his early years secluded in Waipio, returning to Kailua at the age of five. He lived there with his parents until his father’s death, then continued to receive special training from King Kalani’opu’u, his uncle. This training included skills in games, warfare, oral history, navigation, religious ceremonies, and other information necessary to become an ali’i-‘ai-moku (a district chief.)
As king, Kamehameha placed capable followers in charge of large districts. He encouraged trade and peaceful activities, and he presided over the opening of Hawai’i to the rest of the world. On May 8, 1819, King Kamehameha I, also referred to today as Kamehameha the Great, died at Kailua in the district of Kona on his home Island of Hawai’i. His remains were hidden with such secrecy, according to ancient custom, that “only the stars know his final resting place.”
A shrewd businessman, Kamehameha amassed a fortune for his kingdom through a government monopoly on the sandalwood trade and through the imposition of port duties on visiting ships. He was an open-minded sovereign who rightfully deserves his title Kamehameha the Great. Acclaimed as the strongest Hawaiian ruler, he maintained his kingdom’s independence throughout the difficult period of European discovery and exploration of the islands—a task that proved too great for his successors.
Because of Kamehameha’s presence at Kealakekua Bay during the 1790s, many of the foreign trading ships stopped there. Thus he was able to amass large quantities of firearms to use in battle against other leaders. However, the new weapons were expensive and contributed to large increases in the cost of warfare. After almost a decade of fighting, Kamehameha had still not conquered all his enemies. So he heeded the advice of a seer on Kaua’i and erected a great new heiau at Pu’ukohola in Kawaihae for worship and for sacrifices to Kamehameha’s war god Ku. Kamehameha hoped to thereby gain the spiritual power that would enable him to conquer the island. Some say that the rival chief Keoua was invited to Pu’ukohola to negotiate peace, but instead was killed and sacrificed on the heiau’s altar. Others suggest that he was dispirited by the battles and was “induced to surrender himself at Kawaihae” before being killed. His death made Kamehameha ruler of the entire island of Hawai’i. Meanwhile, Kahekili decided to take the advantage while Kamehameha was preoccupied with Keoua and assembled an army — including a foreign gunner, trained dogs, and a special group of ferociously tattooed men known as pahupu’u. They raided villages and defiled graves along the coasts of Hawai’i until challenged by Kamehameha. The ensuing sea battle (Battle of the Red-Mouthed Gun) was indecisive, and Kahekili withdrew safely to O’ahu. Shortly thereafter, the English merchant William Brown, captain of the thirty-gun frigate Butterworth, discovered the harbor at Honolulu. Brown quickly made an agreement with Kahekili. The chief “ceded” the island of O’ahu (and perhaps Kaua’i) to Brown in return for military aid. Kamehameha also recognized the efficacy of foreign aid and sought assistance from Captain George Vancouver. Vancouver, a dedicated “man of empire,” convinced Kamehameha to cede the Island of Hawai’i to the British who would then help protect it.