Awesome People in History: King Kamehameha the Great

Kamehameha I image from Wikipedia

It sure has been a long time since I’ve done one of these, hasn’t it?

Catflaggers who have followed my blog for a while will remember that my mother took a trip to Hawaii a few years ago. I admit to being rather envious, having never left the Lower 48 myself. I am fascinated by the culture and history of Hawaii, arguably the most unique state of the Union. Texans may brag about how they were totally a legitimate country for nine years before joining the Union, but Hawaiians can smugly say, “That’s cute. We were a thousand year old civilization.”

Also, Hawaii had kings.

The Hawaiian Islands are located smack-dab in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, 2,000 miles southwest of the mainland United States. They were settled by Polynesians in a series of migrations from about 300-800 AD. For centuries, Hawaiians survived by growing taro, bananas, coconuts, and breadfruit and raising pigs and chickens. They lived in a rigid caste system, with chiefs on top, followed by priests, commoners, and slaves, and social order was enforced with an extremely strict code called kapu, where you could be killed on the spot for even an accidental violation. The Hawaiians worshiped a pantheon of gods and goddesses in temples called Heiau, and chiefs were said to have a special power called mana that gave them the right to rule.

Then, as these stories always go, somebody new appeared on the scene and changed everything. In 1778, that somebody was British Captain James Cook, who was on a mission to map the entire Pacific. His first encounter with Hawaii passed without incident, but when he returned to the islands on his way back from visiting North America’s Pacific coast the following year, his ship was damaged and he ended up having to stay a bit longer than originally anticipated. Soon, tensions arose between his men and the locals, and these escalated when one of his smaller boats was stolen. Cook tried to force the issue by kidnapping one of the local chiefs, an action that resulted in his being beaten and stabbed to death by an angry mob of Hawaiians.

In spite of Cook’s fate, his voyages opened the door for more European and American visitors to sail out to Hawaii looking for trade and good whaling ports. These visitors unwittingly enabled a very ambitious chief to rise to power and unite the entire island chain into one kingdom for the first time.

Today, many legends are told about King Kamehameha the Great. According to Hawaiian lore, an ancient prophecy told that “a light in the sky with feathers like a bird” would appear when the greatest chief who would ever live was born – Kamehameha was born in 1758, one of the years that Halley’s Comet appeared in the sky. Another legend claims that a prophecy predicted that the man who could lift the Naha Stone, a 7,000-lb. slab of rock, would unite Hawaii. Supposedly, when the future King Kamehameha was 14 years old, he not only lifted the stone, but completely flipped it over onto its side. Today, the stone is still there, in front of the Hilo Public Library on the Big Island of Hawaii:

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It’s also across the street from an ice cream parlor called “Kozmic Cones”. Seriously.

Lore aside, the future king spent much of his childhood in hiding, as civil war raged over the land where he grew up. Kamehameha means “The Lonely One” in Hawaiian. Eventually, though, he was able to enter the court of his uncle, Kalaniʻōpuʻu, and gain royal favor. Upon the old chief’s death in 1782, Kamehameha was made a high priest while his cousin became chief. However, Kamehameha and his cousin did not get along at all, and after a brief war Kamehameha seized power for himself.

It was in these first years of his reign that Kamehameha came to recruit some British soldiers and sailors into his court, giving him access to European weapons and allowing him to learn European military tactics. This, combined with diseases introduced by Europeans, gave Kamehameha the advantage as he sailed from island to island and defeated army after army. During a battle at the Pali cliffs on the island of Oahu, Kamehameha’s forces were able to pin their opponents down at the edge with the cliffs at their backs, and then won the battle by just pushing them off.

While this might make Kamehameha look like a ruthless conqueror, he was actually quite merciful to the civilians he encountered. During a battle in 1782, Kamehameha’s foot was caught in a reef while he was chasing some fishermen. One of the fishermen hit Kamehameha upside the head with a paddle, breaking the paddle in two in the process. Yet when Kamehameha survived the blow, the fisherman couldn’t bring himself to kill the man. Inspired by this act of mercy, Kamehameha declared the “Law of the Splintered Paddle”, one of the first ever laws regarding the treatment of non-combatants in wartime, 80 years before the first of the Geneva Conventions. The law declared that if any of his warriors harmed any women, children, or elderly people who were trying to escape the battlefield, that warrior was to be killed. In this way, Kamehameha earned the trust of the people he conquered.

By 1795, most of Hawaii had been conquered, but Kamehameha still wanted to conquer Kauai, the last independent island. As he prepared his fleet in 1796, a great storm prevented him from sailing for the island. The following year, he had to put down a rebellion against him. Still, Kamehameha had not given up, and with the help of his British advisers, he built a modern, European-style navy. In 1803, he was ready to take on Kauai, but then disease spread through his ranks and devastated his army. Finally, in 1810, Kauai agreed to a peacefully negotiated settlement, accepting Kamehameha’s rule in return for some local autonomy.

As king, Kamehameha gradually laid the foundations of a modern state. At first, he gave the top positions of power in his court to the warriors and chiefs who had helped him during his conquests, but as they grew old and died, he did not replace them with their sons, as was the custom. Instead, he appointed new officials based on merit and ability, rewarding competence rather than caste. He also worked to bring prosperity to his people by increasing agricultural production and foreign trade. He even banned the once-common practice of human sacrifice.

While Kamehameha had a fondness for the foreign visitors he received, he worked hard to maintain Hawaiian independence, refusing to let it be conquered and colonized by European powers as many other Polynesian islands had been. He even refused to allow Christian missionaries into his kingdom. Partially through these efforts, his kingdom would manage to remain independent until 1898.

Kamehameha died in 1819, and a priest hid his body in accordance with Hawaiian tradition. To this day, nobody knows where the king was buried, though you can find monuments to him all over the Hawaiian islands. Four of Kamehameha’s successors took the name “Kamehameha” upon assuming the throne in his honor. If it had not been for Kamehameha’s unification of the islands and protection of his kingdom’s independence, it is probable that Hawaii would have been conquered and colonized by the British or French, and would never have become a U.S. state. It just goes to show what an impact on history the right person at the right time can do.

One Response to Awesome People in History: King Kamehameha the Great

  1. Pingback: The History of U.S. State flags | Cat Flag

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