Kamehameha the Great

Ruler of the Hawaiian Kingdom from 1795-1819

Kamehameha the Great
••• Kamehameha the Great. Hawaii State Archives

Note - This is the third in a series of articles that were written in 1998 about the life of Kamehameha I, also known as Kamehameha the Great. The first two articles in the series were written by Bob Olson, our former Local Guide to Hawaii Island (the Big Island), where Kamehameha was born in or around 1758. The first two articles covered the early years of Kamehameha's life, his rise to power on the Big Island following the arrival and subsequent death of Captain James Cook, and his subsequent conquest of the islands of Maui, Moloka'i and Oahu. This third in the series was written when I was the Guide to Hawaiian Culture, History and Language prior to 1999 when that site was merged with this, our Hawaii Travel site. Unfortunately, the first two articles are no longer available online.

Kamehameha Casts His Eyes on Kauai and Ni'ihau

Following his conquest of Oahu in the Battle of Nu'uanu, Kamehameha the Great remained on Oahu, preparing to acquire possession of Kauai and Ni'ihau. However, poor weather in the spring of 1796 prevented his invasion plans and a rebellion on the Big Island of Hawaii mandated his return to his home island.

Realizing the danger of leaving the chiefs of Oahu behind, he was advised to take them with him on his return to the Island of Hawaii, and leave commoners behind whom he trusted to oversee the island. The revolt on Hawaii was led by Namakeha, the brother of Kaiana, a chief of Kauai. The final battle of Kamehameha's life occurred near Hilo, on the Island of Hawaii in January 1797 in which Namakeha was captured and sacrificed.

For the next six years, Kamehameha remained on the Island of Hawaii. These were years of peace, yet Kamehameha continued to plan his invasion of Kauai, constructing ships that could withstand the harsh currents of the channel between Oahu and Kauai.

With the help of his trusted foreign advisers, Kamehameha was able to construct several modern warships and modern arms, including cannons.

In 1802, the fleet left the Island of Hawaii and after a year's stop on Maui, proceeded to Oahu in 1803, preparing for the invasion of Kauai. A terrible disease, the precise nature of which has never been established, but most likely cholera or typhoid fever, struck Oahu, resulting in the deaths of many chiefs and soldiers.

Kamehameha was also stricken with the disease, but survived. However, the invasion of Kauai was again postponed.

For much of the next eight years of his reign, Kamehameha continued his plans to conquer Kauai, purchasing numerous foreign ships. Kauai, however, was never to be conquered. The island was brought into the Kingdom, through a negotiated agreement brought about by a face-to-face meeting between the reigning ruler of Kauai, Kaumualii and Kamehameha on Oahu in 1810.

NEXT PAGE - Supreme Ruler of Hawaii

At long last, Hawaii was a united Kingdom, under the rule of Kamehameha I.

The Early Years of Rule

In the early years of his rule, Kamehameha surrounded himself with a body of advisers consisting of five chiefs who had played an integral role in the conquest of Hawaii. They were consulted on most matters of state. However, as they died their sons did not inherit their influence. Kamehameha gradually became an absolute monarch.

Kamehameha was proud of his strong ties to the British. The strong influence of the British system of government is seen in much of the government established by Kamehameha. He appointed a young chief, named Kalanimoku, to act as his executive.

Kalanimoku proceeded to adopt the name of William Pitt, the English Prime Minister, and, in fact, he served Kamehameha as Prime Minister, Treasurer and chief adviser. In addition, Kamehameha appointed a governor to be his representatives on each island, since he was unable to be there himself at all times. The only exception was Kauai, which was allowed to remain a tributary kingdom that recognized Kamehameha as sovereign.

These governors were appointed based on loyalty and ability rather than any rank as chief. In addition, tax collectors were appointed to raise the large amount of revenue needed to support the king and his court.

A look at the Hawaiian Flag, which is still today the State Flag of Hawaii, shows the special relationship between Great Britain and Hawaii.

For the people, this was not an entirely new system of government. They had long lived in a feudal society, where land was owned by the ruling chiefs and where the kapu system dealt with almost every facet of Hawaiian life. Kamehameha made use of the kapu system to solidify his rule.

Kamehameha united the islands and established himself as a supreme ruler.

By keeping the other chiefs close to him at all times, and redistributing their lands on several islands, he ensured that no rebellions could occur.

Kamehameha also remained loyal to his own gods. While he listened to the stories of the Christian God from foreigners who visited the court, it was the gods of his heritage that he ultimately honored.

Years of Peace

Kamehameha remained on Oahu until the summer of 1812, when he returned to the Kona district of the Big Island of Hawaii. These were years of peace. Kamehameha spent his time fishing, rebuilding heiaus (temples) and working on increasing agricultural production.

During these years, foreign trade continued to increase. Trade was a Royal monopoly and Kamehameha enjoyed taking part personally. He took pleasure in dealing with ship captains over cargos and trades.

As written by Richard Wisniewksi in his book, The Rise and Fall of the Hawaiian Kingdom:

"The consolidation of the Hawaiian Islands by Kamehameha into one kingdom was one of the greatest achievements in Hawaiian history. Three important factors contributed to this achievement: 1) the foreigners with their weapons, advice and physical aid; 2) the feudal Hawaiian society with its lack of distinct tribes having intense tribal loyalties; and probably the most important influence; 3) the personality of Kamehameha.

"High born and trained to lead, Kamehameha possessed all the qualities of a strong leader. Powerful in physique, agile, fearless and possessing a strong mind, he easily inspired loyalty in his followers. Though ruthless in war, he was kind and forgiving when the need arose. He used new things and new ideas to promote his own interests. He appreciated the advantages offered by foreigners and used them in his service. yet he never fell into their power. Kamehameha's good judgment and strong will prevailed. Through constant vigilance and internal strength, he held his kingdom together until the last days of his life."

NEXT PAGE - Kamehameha's Death

In April of 1819, the Spaniard Don Francisco de Paula y Marin was summoned to the Big Island of Hawaii.

Marin had traveled the world, from Spain, to Mexico, to California and eventually to Hawaii, where he is credited with planting the first pineapples in the islands.

Fluent in Spanish, French and English, Marin served Kamehameha as both interpreter and manager of trade. Marin also had some basic medical knowledge

Neither modern medicine nor the religious and medical powers of the kahunas were able to improve the condition of Kamehameha, who had taken ill.

On May 8, 1819, King Kamehameha I of the Unified Nation of Hawaii died.

Again, as written by Richard Wisniewksi in his book, The Rise and Fall of the Hawaiian Kingdom:

"As word of the king's death reached the people, a great grief fell upon them. As evidence of sorrow, those who lived in close association with the king augmented their sorrow by self-mutilation, such as knocking out one or more front teeth.

But some of the more extreme examples of sorrow such as suicide, had gradually faded away as a result of the influence of the foreigner's culture. With the exception of human sacrifice, which Kamehameha had forbidden on his deathbed, the old customs were observed for the departed king. At the appropriate time, the bones were carefully hidden and their location has never been revealed."

Today you can view four statues of Kamehameha the Great - in Honolulu on Oahu, Hilo and Kapaau on Hawaii Island and in Washington D.C. at Emancipation Hall in the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center.


The Rise and Fall of the Hawaiian Kingdom
Compiled Written and Edited by Richard Wisniewski
Pacific Basin Enterprises, Honolulu, Hawaii 1979

Shoal of Time - A History of the Hawaiian Islands
written by Gavan Daws
University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu Hawaii 1968