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Kamehameha I
Other names Paiea, Kamehameha the Great
Born February 1758
Big Island of Hawaiʻi
Died May 8, 1819
Kailua Kona
Title King, or Aliʻi nui
Successor Kamehameha II
Religion Hawaiʻian

Kamehameha I, or Kamehameha the Great, (February, 1758, or November 1737, or May 1, 1738 – May 8, 1819) was a Hawaiian king who conquered and united all eight major Hawaiʻian Islands, creating the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi. He made laws that helped his people live peacefully and to retain the islands' sovereignty, such as the Law of the Splintered Paddle.

Birth and early life

According to legend the kahunas predicted that a great king would be born on the night a comet passed over the islands of Hawaiʻi. Kamehameha was born in February 1758, the year Halley’s Comet made an appearance over Hawaiʻian skies. Two other dates are also commonly accepted: November 1737, or May 1, 1738.

Kamehameha was born on the Big Island of Hawaiʻi and named Paiea. His father was said to be High Chief Keoua Kalanikupuapaikalaninui, a grandson of Keaweikekahialiiokamoku, who once ruled a large portion of the island. Translated, Kamehameha means "the lonely one."

Another legend tells of a kahuna who prophesied that the man who moved the 7000-pound (3175.2-kilogram) Naha Stone would become the greatest king of Hawaiʻi. According to the legend, at age 14 Paiea not only moved the stone, but lifted it and turned it completely over.


In 1782 Kalaniʻopuʻu died, and power was divided between his son, Kiwalaʻo, and his nephew Kamehameha. Kiwalaʻo became king, and Kamehameha was given guardianship of the Hawaiʻian god of war, Kukaʻilimoku, as well as the district of Waipiʻo. Due to previous encounters there was already bad blood between the cousins. When a group of chiefs from the Kona district offered Kamehameha the kingship instead of Kiwalaʻo, he accepted eagerly. Among the five Kona chiefs supporting Kamehameha were Keʻeaumoku Pāpaʻiahiahi (Kamehameha's father-in-law), Kaluaʻapana Keaweāheulu (Kamehameha's uncle), Kekūhaupiʻo (Kamehameha's warrior teacher), and Kameʻeiamoku and Kamanawa (twin uncles of Kamehameha).

During Kamehameha's life wars were fought for various reasons. The most commonly cited reasons for these were avenging the fallen in a past battle, and expansion. Wars were generally fought using wooden handled weapons with sharks' teeth blades. These included knives, spears, and occasionally axes. Battles were generally fought to the death, although, since life was deemed precious, if the opponent surrendered he was generally spared.

The Big Island

The Battle of Mokuʻohai

19°27'19"N 155°55'22"W

Kiwalaʻo's half-brother Keōua Kuahuʻula had been left with no territory from his late father. He went into a rage, cutting down sacred coconut trees and killing some of Kamehameha's men. Their bodies were offered as a sacrifice to Kiwalaʻo, who accepted them, and Kamehameha felt he had to respond to the challenge to his honor.

The two armies met just to the south of Kealakekua Bay, near the present-day community called Keʻei. As tensions escalated, women and children from both sides fled to the "place of refuge", Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau.

Kameʻeiamoku was the first leader to be injured in battle. However, as Kiwalaʻo approached him, Kamanawa knocked Kiwalaʻo down with a stone from a sling, allowing the injured Kameʻeiamoku to slit his throat with a shark-tooth dagger.

During this battle Kamehameha captured the renowned red-feather cloak of Kiwalaʻo (now in the Bishop Museum).

With the victory at Mokuʻohai, Kamehameha took control of the districts of Kohala, Kona, and Hamakua on the island of Hawaiʻi.

The raid on Puna District

19°29'37.61"N 155°00'34.88"W

The only other notable combat in Kamehameha's quest for dominance of the Big Island of Hawaiʻi was the raid on Puna district. In 1790 Kamehameha moved against the district of Puna, deposing its chief, Keawemaʻuhili. During the raid Kamehameha had been chasing local fishermen when he got his foot caught in a crevice in the hardened lava. The fisherman then turned back and began beating Kamehameha with paddles until they broke on his back. The fishermen then turned and fled, and Kamehameha ordered his aids not to follow the men, but to help him back to the canoe instead. One story goes that one of the fishermen then turned and threw a spear, which struck Kamehameha's most trusted adviser; however, the generally accepted versions of the legend omit this part. This event would later inspire Kamehameha to create Ke Kānāwai Māmalahoe, or the Law of the Splintered Paddle.

Other events in the taking of the Big Island

1790 Footprints

20°4'14"N 155°25'54"W

Keoua Kuahuʻula, having been exiled to his home of Kaʻū, took advantage of Kamehameha's absence (he had gone to the island of Maui for unknown purposes) and led an uprising. When Kamehameha returned with his army to put down the rebellion, Keoua fled past the volcano, Kilauea, which erupted, the poisonous gas killing nearly a third of his warriors. Through fossilization the footprints of Keoua, his army, and the residents of the area have been preserved in what are called the 1790 Footprints.

Keoua slain

Upon questioning a Kahuna on the best way to capture the rest of the island, Kamehameha decided to construct a Heiau, or temple, to Kukaʻilimoku, as well as lay an aliʻi's body on it. When the Puʻukoholā Heiau was completed in 1791 Kamehameha invited Keoua to meet with him in the Kona district. Keoua most likely knew what Kamehameha was planning, but decided to meet with him anyway, presumably due to heavy losses and a hope for peace. Some accounts say Keoua may have mutilated himself beforehand to make himself an imperfect offering. Upon arrival one of Kamehamehas chiefs threw a spear at Keoua, slaying him. Other accounts say he dodged the spear, but was immediately cut down by musket fire. Either way, with Keoua out of the way Kamehameha's domination of the Big Island of Hawaiʻi was complete.

The other islands

Once Kamehameha had gained control of the Big Island he prepared to realize his true ambition: uniting and ruling all the islands of Hawaii. With help from Isaac Davis and John Young, two resident westerners, Kamehamehas men were outfitted with firearms and trained to use them properly.

With Maui and Oahu already weakened by a war of succession that had broken out between King Kahekili II's son and brother, and emboldened by his new weapons, Kamehameha felt confident enough to move on the neighboring islands.

Maui and Molokaʻi

In 1795, Kamehameha set sail with an armada of 1,200 war canoes and 10,000 soldiers. He quickly secured the lightly defended islands of Maui and Molokaʻi.

Battle of Kepaniwai

20°52'51"N 156°32'42"W

In 1790 Kamehameha's men landed in Kahului, a few kilometers from the base of ʻĪao Valley. The king of Maui, Kahekili II was on Oahu for unknown reasons, so his son Kalanikūpule, king of Oahu, led the army of Maui against Kamehameha. Though Kamehameha brought a rather large army, the two were evenly matched, and neither side gave way after two days of fighting. On the third day, Kamehameha's army was assisted by two cannons named "Lopaka" and "Kalola" operated by John Young and Isaac Davis, two of Kamehameha's royal advisors. Although none of Maui's major chiefs were killed, many people died resulting in the "damming of the waters" by the corpses floating in the river. It was said that the river "ran red with the blood of the dead." Chiefess Kalola and her granddaughter Keopuolani were able to escape west through the valley to Olowalu and north to Lahaina. Later, Kalola would offer her eleven-year-old granddaughter to Kamehameha as a future wife.

Though Maui was defeated, Kamehameha had to wait for the Battle of Nuʻuanu to finally control Maui.


With Molokaʻi secured and Maui severely disheartened, Kamehameha moved on Oahu, which was controlled by his rival, King Kalanikupule. Kalanikupule had received prior warnings of the impending invasion from the chiefs of Maui and Molokai and had begun building several lines of fortifications on Oahu. He had already begun buying muskets and cannons from European traders, but had far fewer than Kamehameha. He was also assisted by one of Kamehameha's chiefs, Kaiana, who defected before the battle began. Kaiana had fallen out of favor with Kamehameha's inner circle and feared that he was being plotted against. On the voyage to Oahu, his army split off from the Hawaiian armada and landed on the north side of the island. There, they began cutting notches into the Nuʻuanu Pali mountain ridge, which would serve as gunports for Kalanikupule's cannons.

Battle of Nuʻuanu

21°18'45"N 157°50'46"W

The Battle of Nuʻuanu began when Kamehameha's forces landed on the southeastern portion of Oahu near Waiʻalae and Waikiki. After spending several days gathering supplies and scouting Kalanikupule's positions, Kamehameha's army advanced westward, encountering Kalanikupule's first line of defense near the Punchbowl Crater. Splitting his army into two, Kamehameha sent one half in a flanking maneuver around the crater and the other straight at Kalanikupule. Pressed from both sides, the Oahu forces retreated to Kalanikupule's next line of defense near Laʻimi. While Kamehameha pursued, he secretly detached a portion of his army to clear the surrounding heights of the Nuʻuanu Valley of Kalanikupule's cannons. Kamehameha also brought up his own cannons to shell Laʻimi. During this part of the battle, both Kalanikupule and Kaiana were wounded, Kaiana fatally. With its leadership in chaos, the Oahu army slowly fell back north through the Nuʻuanu Valley to the cliffs at Nuʻuanu Pali. Caught between the Hawaiʻian Army and a 1000-foot drop, over 400 Oahu warriors either jumped or were pushed over the edge of the Pali.

Though he escaped the battle, Kalanikupule was later captured and sacrificed. This battle was the climax of Kamehameha's campaign: after it, his kingdom was for the first time referred to as the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi. Despite this, the islands were still not completely united; he still had to capture the remaining neighboring islands of Kauai and Niʻihau. First he had to put down an uprising on the Big Island, and then he began his preparations for the conquest of Kauai.

Kauai and Niʻihau

Kamehameha first attempted to invade the island of Kauai in 1796, but had to return to the Big Island to stop an uprising led by his interim chief, Namakeha. He tried again in 1803, but disease overtook him and his men, and they had to return home once more. During his recovery, Kamehameha began amassing the largest armada the islands of Hawaiʻi had ever seen, inlcuding foreign schooners and massive war canoes, both armed with cannons and carrying Kamehameha's massive army. Kaumaliʻi, aliʻi nui of Kauai, saw this and realized he had a better chance in negotiations than in battle. Some people attest that he may have also been influenced into negotiations by foreigners, who viewed the wars as bad for the sandalwood trade. Nevertheless, Kaumualiʻi became a vassal of Kamehameha in 1810, making Kamehameha the Aliʻi nui of all the Hawaiʻian Islands.

Kamehameha as king of Hawaiʻi

Now that Kamehameha had united the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi under his rule, he took great pains to preserve the unity and sovereignty of the islands. Kamehameha ruled that non-Hawaiʻians would not be permitted to own land. This law continued until the Great Mahele of 1848. Kamehameha ruled so effectively that, save for a five-month occupation by the British, Hawaiʻi remained independent until it was annexed by the United States of America in 1898. It was this legacy that earned Kamehameha the nickname "Napoleon of the Pacific."

Ke Kānāwai Māmalahoe

King Kamehameha also introduced the Ke Kānāwai Māmalahoe, or Law of the Splintered Paddle. During the raid on Puna Kamehameha had been attacked by fishermen who hit him with paddles until they broke. The fishermen could have easily killed Kamehameha, but saw that he had been knocked unconscious and left him alone. Years later, after Kamehameha became King, the fishermen were brought before him. Instead of punishing the men, King Kamehameha blamed himself for attacking innocent people, gave the fisherman gifts of land and set them free. He declared in a new law, "Let every elderly person, woman and child lie by the roadside in safety". This law, which provided for the safety of noncombatants in wartime, is estimated to have saved thousands of lives during Kamehameha's campaigns. It became the first written law of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi, and remains in the state constitution to this day.

Later life

He spent his later years at Kamakahonu, a compound he built in Kailua-Kona. It is now the site of King Kamehameha's Beach Hotel, the starting and finishing points of the Ironman World Championship Triathlon.

When Kamehameha died on May 8, 1819, his body was hidden by his trusted friend, Hoapili, and his wife Keopuolani. To this day his final resting place remains a mystery. It was said that the mana, or power of an aliʻi, was to be sacred. As per the ancient custom, his body was buried hidden because of his mana.




Five statues exist; each of the statues vary slightly from each other in details such as having different weaponry, gilding or painting. The original cast has been restored to its original appearance.

  • The original cast--the ship, bound for Honolulu on which it was being shipped from Europe sank off the Falkland Islands but in 1912 the original was salvaged, repaired and erected in Kapaau, on the Big Island of Hawaiʻi;
  • One is located in Hilo, Hawaiʻi at the north end of the Wailoa State Recreation area, where it enjoys a king's view of Hilo Bay;
  • One of smaller size is located in an outdoor Polynesian shopping center, across from the Monte Carlo Resort and Casino on the Las Vegas Strip in Las Vegas, Nevada; and

Other honors rendered

  • Kamehameha Schools were founded according to the will of Pauahi, at the time of her death in 1884 the last direct descendant of Kamehameha I. Her intention was to bring education, and thus hope for a future, to the rapidly declining number of native Hawaiians. The first school opened in 1887.

Lines of succession

King of the Kingdom of Hawaii
preceded by
1795 - 1819
succeeded by
Kamehameha II
Alii Aimoku of the island of Hawaii
preceded by
1782 - 1795
succeeded by
Alii Aimoku of the Islands of Maui and Oahu
preceded by
1795 - 1810
succeeded by
Alii Aimoku of the Islands of Kauai and Niihau
preceded by
1810 - 1819
succeeded by