Battle for Paradise: The Wars of Hawaiian Unification, 1782-1795

The Hawaiian Islands (Mokupuni o Hawai‘i) have a fascinating history as it relates to warfare and military studies at the turn of the 18th century. A product of both the industrial revolution and the colonial/imperial age which was only just beginning in the late 1790’s throughout the Americas, Africa, and Asia, the Hawaiian kingdom was born in the earliest age of exploration and trade.

Kamehameha the Great (b.1758-1819), reigning as king of a united Hawaii from 1810 until his death in 1819, is the keystone figure. A warrior-general as well as a benevolent peace-maker and diplomat, Kamehameha created modern Hawaii by forging an empire out of a chain of scattered island-kingdoms long ruled by 'petty' kings and chieftains. King Kamehameha unified all of the Hawai’ian islands by the time of his death, ruling Hawaii, Maui, O’ahu, Kauaʻi, Niʻihau, Moloka’i, Lana’i, and Kaho’olawe.

Kamehameha and his officers/chieftains prepare for battle 
by Herb Kawainui Kāne (b.1928-2011)

Through many years of battles and skirmishes with successful and failed campaigns waged throughout 1795-1810, Kamehameha became the first King of the Hawaiian empire through both diplomacy and war, beginning his rise to power as an ambitious young war-chief in the year 1782. Following his great victory in 1795 at the Battle of Nuʻuanu Pali, Kamehameha had conquered all the major islands of Hawaii save for Kauaʻi and Niʻihau which were finally united with the Empire of Hawai’i as a vassal state in 1810.

The Lonely One rises to power,
Kamehameha and the island of Hawai’i, 1775-1785

Born to the royal chieftain Keoua and his wife Kekuʻiapoiwa on the island of Hawai’i, the Big Island, in the year 1758, the young Kamehameha was raised from an early age to become a warrior and ali'i-'ai-moku, a regional or district chief on the island. As Hawaiian legend holds, the birth of the young man Paiea (meaning hard shelled crab) took place sometime during or after the night that Halley’s Comet shot across the sky, when many chiefs and high priests were warned of the birth of boy who would grow up to be the “slayer of chiefs” and ruler of the Islands. 

The young man took the name Kamehameha (meaning the lonely one) and lived in isolation in his adolescence which protected him from the threat of assassination from rival Hawaiian chiefs including chief Alapa'i (reigned c.1725-1755), who was himself preoccupied with the ongoing conflict being fought against the chiefs of Maui. A long-winded struggle dating back to before the 1650’s in which the Mau’i and Hawaiian chiefs raided and counter-raided each others districts for many years on end.

Raised by his uncle King Kalani'opu'u, Kamehameha was an imposing warrior at an early age. The young prince was tall, strong, and agile, well trained in the use of the Island weapons of war; the javelin, the long and short spear, the shark tooth dagger, and war club, as well as in the arts of hand-to-hand combat. He was described as “[moving] in an aura of violence” in his younger years, certainly having fought against the warriors loyal to the Kings of Maui. [1]

The young chief, Kamehameha by Kāne

Kamehameha like many other men his age or younger was a koa (warrior), fighting for his ali'i nui (chief or high chief) whenever he called him to service against rival tribes (districts) or invaders from an enemy island. When the first European explorers came to Hawaii these same warriors were called to the coastal regions, gazing in awe upon the fair skinned, oddly clothed men who carried firearms and steel swords onto the shores of Kauaʻi and Kealakekua Bay in 1778 and 1779. These white men were sailors and Royal Marines of the British Navy, commanded by explorer Captain James Cook (b.1729-1779). His career as a navigator and Royal Navy captain would end in February of 1779, when he attempted to kidnap a chieftain to recover a stolen ship, the plan backfired On the beaches of Kealakekua Bay, Cook was clubbed and then stabbed to death despite being a well respected figure amongst the islanders. Several British sailors and marines were slain in the skirmish and a rifle volley or two were fired at the Hawaiians, who to the surprise of the British, did not waver. [2]

Kamehameha was present with his uncle King Kalani'opu'u when this infamous event took place, witnessing first-hand the power that musket firearms and muzzle loading cannons possessed against unarmed (with modern weapons) foes. In the chaos of the skirmish, Captain Cook’s lieutenant Capt. Charles Clerke fired on the beach with the guns of his ship HMS Discovery slightly wounding the young Kamehameha before withdrawing to the high seas.

Death of Captain James Cooke, 14 February 1779

Brown Bess muskets and 6 pound cannons could not have saved Captain Cook’s life that fateful day; though they were weapons technology which would prove decisive in the battles to come for control of all of the islands of Hawai’i. Kamehameha must have later realized that these weapons technologies importance was two-fold. He had to master them to not only defeat his enemies in the Islands and to unite the chiefs of Hawaii, but to prove to the outsiders eyeing his lands that his people, once united, could not and would not be so easily conquered by a foreign people.

Civil War on the Big Island and the Beginning of the
Battles for Unification, 1782-1791

Kamehameha’s first tests as a general and chief would begin after the death of King Kalani'opu'u in April 1782, when he pressed his claim as King of Hawai’i island against that of Kīwalaʻō, his cousin and the son of the deceased king, and chief Kiwalaʻo’s half brother, chief Keōua. In 1782 Kamehameha won his first major victory as a chief at the Battle of Moku’ohai dealing chiefs Kiwalaʻo & Keōua a crushing defeat. Kiwalaʻo was killed by one of Kamehameha’s officers in the melee but Keōua escaped with his life to the southern districts. He would resist Kamehameha’s attempts to conquer all of the Big Island for many years after.

War canoes off the coast of Waikiki by Kāne

After his great victory at Moku’ohai, Kamehameha led successive wars against the neighboring districts of Hilo and Kaʻū (where Keōua was being sheltered by relatives) from 1783-1790, fighting many battles against chief of Hilo, Keawe, and Keōua, who had allied themselves with the chiefs Maui, long at war with the Hawaiians since the 1750’s. Chief Kamehameha won many battles in this period and lost several as well in his attempts to control all of the districts of Hawaii, though the results of both his victories and defeats were always short lived it seems.

Before he had defeated all of his enemies on the Big Island, Kamehameha would invade and subdue Maui, drawing the ire of King Kahekili II of Maui (b.1710-1794). An accomplished warrior-general and well respected chief throughout his life, Kahekili was exiled to O’ahu following the Battle of ‘Iao Valley sometime in 1790. Rumored to have been Kamehameha’s biological father, Kahekili was a most fascinating man. Tattooed from head to toe on one half of his body in the “cut-in-half” style, Kahekili means ‘Thunderer’. As a chief and warrior his reputation seems to be that of an iron willed and unrelenting warrior-chieftain. He inspired great loyalty and became Kamehameha's major antagonist.

A depiction of an Hawaiian chief sporting the "cut in half" style

By the time of his death after more than a sixty year reign, King Kahekili II had at one time controlled or had direct influence over most of the islands of Hawaii save for the Big Island. Kahekili fought in many battles before the Wars of Conquest including the First Battle of Wailuku in 1776, where he defended his capital from the invading Hawaiians in the Third Hawai’i-Maui War of 1775-1779. In this battle, his warriors using the cover of sand dunes ambushed and then annihilated King Kalani'opu'u’s warriors on the beaches of Maui before they could attack his lands. Great hostilities ensued and were only ended upon the arrival of Captain Cook on the HMS Resolution in January of 1779. From 1780-1783, King Kahekili warred with the chiefs of O’ahu becoming high chief of that island after the Battle of Kahei’iki in 1783.

King Kamehameha’s War of Conquest, 1790-1795

By 1790 Kamehameha’s men were already utilizing modern weaponry on the battlefield against their enemies on Hawaii and on Maui with muskets being employed sporadically amongst their infantry and cannons being placed on their war canoes for battles at sea.  The training and consul provided by John Young (b.1742-1835) and Isaac Davis (b.1758-1810), two British sailors who helped introduce Western tactics and technology and to train his armies, especially Davis who was a diplomat and advisor as well. Other chiefs received help from similar advisors though it was the traditional Hawaiian ways of warfare which ended up winning the war of unification of the Hawaiian Islands.

After a string of totally decisive victories culminating in ta series of battles fought in South-Eastern Hawaii near Hilo in 1790-1791, Kamehameha finally ended the War of Succession when he captured Keōua in the skirmish at Kawaihae in 1791. The rebel chieftain was later sacrificed to honor the construction of a new temple as a tribute to the growing power of King Kamehameha and to gods who allowed it. After the death of the meandering rebel chief, the King controlled all of the districts of the island of Hawaii and held nominal control of Maui and its surrounding islands, though this was disputed by the chiefs of O’ahu and Maui.

O’ahu and to a lesser extent the islands of Maui & Kauai became the center of resistance to the rule of Kamehameha where the exiled Kahekili sought and received aid from numerous allies to defy the King until his death from natural causes in 1794. One of the most notable battle to be fought between Kamehameha’s army and the Kaua’i-Maui-O’ahu chiefs before the decisive Battle of Nu’aanu was fought in 1795 north of the Waipi’o coast in what was called the Battle of Red Mouthed Gun (Battle of Kepuwahaʻulaʻula). Several months after Kamehameha captured and sacrificed Keōua, chief Kahekili and the King of Kaui would organize a great fleet of war canoes to sail for Hawaii and to invade Kamehameha’s lands from the Northwestern coast.

Traditionally the battle at sea was a rare occurrence and if fought a relatively small action occurred. The warriors of Hawaii traditionally preferred to maneuver their war canoes up close to their enemy to exchange spear thrusts and javelin casts on the open water, again this occurred less frequently as they often chose to meet in the open-on the beach or in a field to allow their enemy to prepare tactically and ritualistically for the upcoming skirmish. [3]

In the unique naval action that followed in the Battle of Red Mouthed Gun both sides exchanged musket and cannon fire from aboard their war canoes, certainly hundreds of armed vessels would have been engaged that day. A melee ensued and many were killed or had their canoes wrecked by cannon fire. King Kamehameha watched from his European style sloop, Fair American, as his ships armed with swivel mounted small bore cannons and defended by musketeers pummeled the enemy fleet.

King Kamehameha (left) directs his war vessels aboard the Fair American by Kāne

The action broke the invaders before they could come ashore and managed to decisively beat back the expeditionary army comprised of Oʻahu, exiled Maui, and Kaua’ian warriors, bringing relative peace to Kamehameha’s kingdom for nearly four years thereafter. An opportune time for the next great campaign in his War of Conquest came following the 1794 Kuki’iahu War, a war of succession fought on Oʻahu and later Kaua’i after the death of King Kahekili.

Battle at Sea by Kāne

Fought from November to December of that same year between forces loyal to the sixteen year old King of Kaua’i, Kaumualiʻi (b.1778-1824) , and other rival chieftains, the upheaval caused by this war made it possible for Kamehameha to land his army on Oʻahu unopposed in 1795. With an army perhaps as large as 10,000 to as many as 16,000 armed men and women supported by twelve hundred or more war canoes.

Battle of Nuʻuanu Pali 1795, Kamehameha becomes 'Master of Hawaii'

The great battle known as Nuʻuanu or the Battle of Nuʻuanu Pali (Ka-lele-a-ke-anae, the leaping mullet fish), is the most decisive and perhaps the largest and bloodiest battle in Kamehameha’s campaign to conquer all of Hawaii. Fought on the island of Oʻahu the historian and journalist Abraham Fornander states that King Kamehameha became “master of Hawaii” following his victory in the battle. The now powerful chieftain and high king finally defeating any great or organized resistance to his rule. After his victory in the Battle of Nuʻuanu Pali, Kamehameha came to control all of the islands of Hawaii save for Kaua’i and its sister islands. [5]  The Battle Nuʻuanu Pali pitted King Kamehameha against King Kalanikupule the son of King Kahekili II and his allies including Prince Kaʻiana (b.1755-1795). [6]

The conclusion to the Battle of Nuʻuanu Pali by Kāne

Battle was offered near the foot of the Punchbowl in modern day Honolulu. It was a running fight more than six miles long, the army of Kamehameha chasing the army of Maui and O‘ahu toward the Tantalus crater into the Manoa Valley. Muskets were fired frequently and cannon used by both sides though the latter was generally ineffective. The Hawaiians fought their enemies in bloody hand to hand combat wherever they were with spears (polulu or ihe), the pōhaku newa or stone club, and the pāhoa (dagger). Kamehameha’s men charged up the Nu‘uanu Pali ridge to silence the guns of Kaʻiana after taking fire from his cannons initially on their ascent to the strongholds of the allied armies of Kalanikupule.

Battle map of the valley and the mountain range of 

When this was accomplished the final stage of the battle began. Beforehand a brief melee occurred before the Punchbowl in which chief Kaʻiana and his brother were slain. By this point in the battle the army of Maui & O‘ahu led by a now wounded Kalanikupule was in full retreat, Fornander recounting that the battle of Nuʻuanu Pali had “become an accelerated rout and promiscuous slaughter” by the time the enemies of Kamehameha retreated into the valley and made their 'last stand'. Though multiple accounts offer an explanation of Kaʻiana’s death none can confirm the last moments of the globe trotting chieftain who had once fought for King Kamehameha until turning against him during the landings on O‘ahu. His wife fought for the King in the battle.

When Kaʻiana met his death the army of Hawaii stopped long enough for a priest to sacrifice him and perhaps several other warriors of note before chasing the remaining Maui-O‘ahu forces up into the highlands of the greater Koʻolau mountain range. It was here on the Nu‘uanu cliffs where the most iconic confrontation of the battle and indeed of Kamehameha’s War of Unification took place. Around 400-500 to perhaps no less than 800 warriors made a final stand in the defense and honor of last Mōʻī of Maui and Alii Aimoku of Oahu, King Kalanikupule.

This last stand was a rearguard defense allowing the chief and perhaps hundreds of his warriors to escape the army of Kamehameha. Many fought to the death preferring to be driven off the Nuʻuanu Pali or to jump off the cliffs edge rather than to be captured (and enslaved or sacrificed) following the defeat of their chief.

Archaeological evidence proves that some 800 warriors may have perished in this fashion though the near 990 foot drop off the Nuʻuanu Pali may have also served as a makeshift grave following the battles' conclusion. [7] Though Kalanikupule escaped death in the battle his fate was sealed and months later he was captured and sacrificed, Kamehameha solidifying his claim over the majority of the islands by the winter of 1795-1796. Two major expeditions to conquer Kauaʻi would fail, destroyed by storms & rough seas in 1796, the last major attempt quashed by pestilence sometime before 1800. Kamehameha would become ruler of all Hawai’i following chief Kaumualii’s relinquishing control of Kauaʻi  & Niʻihau to the King of Hawaii's rule in 1810.

King Kamehameha the Great from a portrait depicting him much later in life

[1] National Park Service History, ‘Kamehameha the Great’
[2] Dukas, Neil Bernard A Military History of Sovereign Hawaii (Mutual Publishing, Honolulu.) 2004
[3] A Military History of Sovereign Hawaii
[4] A Military History of Sovereign Hawaii
[5] Abraham Fornander (b.1812-1887), a Swedish born Hawaiian immigrant who became a writer, historian, and public/court official in the Kingdom of Hawaii (1795-1893).
[6] Kaʻiana traveled to China with the Royal Navy including many months spent living in Portuguese Macau. He had begged his British Navy handlers several times to allow him passage to England.
[7] Hawai’i Council for the Humanities & the Hawai’i Geographic Alliance


  1. Very nice pictures and explanations...Unusual subject, and great post!

  2. Thanks for checking out the Warfare History Blog-glad you enjoyed the post!

  3. Totally disregards what actually took place on Oahu. The invasion of Oahu and battle for its possession took place in Waikiki. The Oahu Kahuna instructed their armies that if they held their ground, Kamehameha would not be able to advance. This proved true, but then something happened wherein the Kahuna fell, and many of his warriors, seeing this, lost the faith and fled landward to reform their lines in Nuuanu valley. Mark Twain stated he rode in an oxcart from Waikiki to Diamond Head across the current Kapiolani Park in 1865 and that the cart's wheels would not make a full rotation without crushing the bones of the warriors who still lay there 70 years after the battle. My tour boss, Sammy Alama, Jr, told me in 1974 that 800 warriors went to their deaths at the Pali. What is not known is that the Oahu warriors fought very well whilst cornered, and 300 of those who went over the cliff were his own warriors. Seeing the situation, Kamehaha ordered the end of the battle, sparing the rest of Oahu's army. The chief of Oahu and his court were pursued over the Northern Koolaus for a number on months before finally being captured and then sacrificed. Kamehameha's first attempt at conquering Kauai ended with a terrific storm that left his tattered fleet with no option other than to land on Kauai, where they were immediately exterminated. As far as a battle being fought on Molokai, there is no proof whatsoever, in fact, the battle referred to took place almost 60 years earlier. From what I've heard, Kamehameha feared attacking Molokai because it is the center of Kahuna Power in Hawaii. It is the Island of Mystery, and its sea cliffs hide the most important secret of Hawaii. Stories say his vast fleet anchored along Molokai's southern coast in preparation for the Oahu invasion, but no record exists of any conflict with Molokai.and its priests.

  4. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.


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