Hawaiians first sailed to their islands nearly a 1000 years before Columbus’ time, and developed a social structure, and religious and military systems. Temples were built and the gods were consulted for auspicious times to fight. Elaborate preparations for war included sacrifices, prayers, and orations offered to the gods.
Armed with weapons of wood, stone, sharks’ teeth, and bone, trained warriors deployed on open ground in dense crescent formations. At the attack signal, the armies rushed forward, throwing spears and sling-stones to loosen the enemy’s formation. Hand-to-hand combat ensued with daggers, clubs, fists, and brute strength. The army whose formation broke, took flight and the victor’s pursuit was intense and deadly.
Feudal Society and Firearms
In 1778 Captain Cook found a feudal society in Hawai’i, similar to Europe during the Middle Ages. Powerful warrior chiefs called ali’i controlled the islands through heredity and kapu, a rigorous system of socio-religious rules. Wars were fought for land, wealth, and power. The ali’i required military service from the tenants of the land, and trained them regularly in the arts of war.
Captain Cook also introduced a new factor to the Hawaiian power struggle: firearms. Hawaiians quickly overcame their initial shock and integrated western with traditional weapons. A typical firearm adopted by the Hawaiians after 1778 was the British .69 caliber “Brown Bess.” Accurate range for this smooth-bore muzzle-loader was only about 50 yards, but the blast, fire, and smoke were terrifying.
Kamehameha Unites the Islands
When Chief Kalaniopu’u of Hawai’i island died in 1782, a struggle for control began between his sons, Kiwala’o and Keoua, and his nephew, Kamehameha. By 1791 Kamehameha defeated and gained enough strength over his rivals to begin a campaign against Kahekili, Chief of Maui, O’ahu, Molokai’i, and Lana’i. Kamehameha moved against Maui and Moloka’i and seized them in 1794, after King Kahekili’s death.
In early 1795, Kamehameha invaded O’ahu, landing hundreds of war canoes on the shoreline between Wai’alae and Waikiki. The O’ahu forces were driven up Nu’uanu Valley to the Pali, where they scattered, some preferring to jump over the edge rather than be captured. This left only the island to the northwest, Kaua’i to be conquered. In 1810, Ka’umuali’i of that island ceded to Kamehameha and the islands were united into one kingdom.
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