Kamehameha The Great


Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class from www.HowStuffWorks.com.

Katie Lambert: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm Katie Lambert.

Sarah Dowdey: And I'm Sarah Dowdey.

Katie Lambert: And Sarah was in the mood for a little hot-weather history this week, so we decided to take on Hawaii. Today's subject is Kamehameha the great. We have to start with a little disclaimer. We had asked for some help with Hawaiian pronunciations, so listener Jody was kind of enough to call me and give me her expertise, but any mistakes in this podcast are mine, not hers.

Sarah Dowdey: Or mine. So Kamehameha was born sometime around 1758, but he actually had a dif name. It was Paiea, which meant "hard-shelled crab."

Katie Lambert: As a Cancer, I can sympathize.

Sarah Dowdey: But his birth carried an omen with it, and that's because there was this bright star shining in the sky right before he was born. It may have actually been Haley's comet, and that's how we put his birth year sometime around 1758, because that's when the comet was around. Some seers said it pretended a conqueror, and the baby was almost killed because, as we know, most rulers don't like to hear that there's a little baby being born who might be the new king.

Katie Lambert: Ask Herod.

Sarah Dowdey: So it seemed like a good idea to get rid of him before anything happened. But he was snuck away and raised by another family and grows up.

Katie Lambert: He got his new name, Kamehameha, which means "the lonely one." Eventually he was able to come out of hiding. He'd made it very clear that he wanted to be of service to the people who were in power, and the higher-ups recognized that. There were other omens of his greatness, according to stories, and not necessarily to history, reminiscent of "The Sword and the Stone." There is something called the Naha Stone, which weighs two and a half tons. The story went that if you could move it, you would be the person to unite the islands. Supposedly, Kamehameha did.

Sarah Dowdey: In the meantime, we have a lot of other events going on. Europe had finally discovered Hawaii in 1778 when Captain James Cook arrived. He brought glass and metal and nails and buttons and muskets and cannons, which are are very imp thing. In return, Hawaii had food, like sweet potatoes and coconut and pork. Kamehameha was actually one of the first people to board Cook's ship. Cook mentions him in a journal. He's really impressed with this intelligent, observant, inquisitive young man.

Katie Lambert: This was a fairly peaceful introduction of Europeans to Hawaiians, but theft became a problem fairly early on. After an incident of a stolen boat, Cooke and some of his men tried to kidnap a chief for its ransom on February 14th, 1779, and they were killed with daggers they had given to the people. The Hawaiians took their weapons for their own. These muskets changed warfare for the Hawaiians and merchants aided and abetted the arms race because they could sell to one group, and then they could sell to their enemies. Though those groups would be killing each other, the merchants would be making a profit.

Sarah Dowdey: Kamehameha is really one to realize the game-changing importance of these weapons. His enemies realize it too, but it's his key to ultimately unifying the islands.

Katie Lambert: And he will ambush, and steal, and kidnap to get these weapons. Kamehameha wasn't destined to be king of anything - or at least, that's not how people thought of him. When King Kalaniopuu died in 1782, Kamehameha, his nephew, wasn't first in line to secede. His cousin, Kiwala'o, was, with his cousin, Keoua, also taking some lands and some power. Instead, Kamehameha was the guardian of the family war god, which says something for how he was viewed. Of course, the war god is not just any god.

Sarah Dowdey: This is where the trouble really starts. There is a rebel chief, who dies, and it was Kiwala'o's responsibility to offer his body to the gods, but during the middle of the ceremony, Kamehameha stepped in and did it himself. That was very shocking. It either was a really bold move, like a bold power grab, or it was a major sign of disrespect, but we don't know his motives. We do know the results, because from then on, it's him versus his two cousins.

Katie Lambert: Keoua makes the fir st move against him, cutting down the coconut tree of Kamehameha, which was a big sign of disrespect, and Kamehameha has to fight back, so all other factions on the island pick sides, and there was a battle in 1782. Kiwala'o was killed at this battle, and Kamehameha won over Keoua, but it wasn't over there. These fights would continue for nine years with Hawaii locked in civil war.

Sarah Dowdey: We have an interesting story that emerges that is a major part of the Kamehameha legend. In a strike against a rival, he kills women, and children, and innocent followers. Kamehameha himself falls during this fight, and a fisherman hits him over the head with a paddle. He doesn't die, but he takes away a lesson from it. It's that you shouldn't attack peaceful people. It ultimately leads to a law in 1797, the Law of the Splintered Paddle, appropriately enough, which gave a certain amount of protection to innocent civilians from their brutal overlords.

Katie Lambert: But 1797 is skipping ahead a bit, so we're going to go back to the beginning of our civil war. In 1790, a ship called the Fair American arrives in Hawaii, and unbeknownst to the people on it, one of the Hawaiian chiefs had had an altercation with the occupants of a different European ship, and vowed revenge on the next one that came in. Fair American, you are that unlucky one. Everyone on that ship was beaten to death after being thrown overboard except a man named Isaac Davis.

Sarah Dowdey: But Davis wasn't alone on this rescue boat. There had been another white man captured, John Young, earlier from another ship, so there are two of them. Kamehameha claims the rescue boat and the two men. Davis and Young try to escape, but eventually they become his advisors and his interpreters. They teach him about muskets, and cannons, and foreign military strategy, and pass on these lessons to his men, too. This gives Kamehameha a huge leg up on the competition. If you're going to be fighting with European weapons, you need to understand not only how to use them but understand European strategy.

Katie Lambert: Kamehameha's next military engagement came courtesy of Kahekili, a rival who may have been his father. He ruled Oahu, Maui, and Molokai, and he wasn't someone to mess with. He got Oahu in the first place by killing his foster son, torturing the chiefs, and then making a house frame of their bones.

Sarah Dowdey: In her outline, Katie actually wrote "skeleton of a house."

Katie Lambert: And in parentheses, "ha ha," if that gives you an idea of our process there.

Sarah Dowdey: So this guy supports Keoua who is Kamehameha's enemy on the island of Hawaii. Kamehameha reaches a decision. He can beat Keoua if he can just get rid of this possible father figure and the support that he's giving to his number-one enemy.

Katie Lambert: On his side, Kamehameha has cannons and muskets, well-trained men, and his own military genius, so his prospects are good. In 1790, Kahekili leaves Maui to visit Oahu. Perfect.

Sarah Dowdey: It's the perfect opportunity.

Katie Lambert: Kamehameha invades Maui. According to an article in Military History, "His strategy, better known in Hawaiian chronicles than in western history books, predates the island hopping campaigns employed by General Douglass MacArthur in New Guinea, and by Admiral Chester W. Nimitz in the central Pacific by more than 150 years."

Sarah Dowdey: So he's using very modern techniques and ultimately, he conquers. But there's one problem. While he was gone, Keoua started causing trouble back home on Hawaii. That's why you don't leave your island to go attack someone else's island.

Katie Lambert: No. That's the lesson we learned.

Sarah Dowdey: They fight, and Keoua ends up giving up this round.

Katie Lambert: But while he's headed home, a volcano erupts and kills a third of his men, which could not have been a good omen, but he remains obstinate in his quest for Hawaii. So it keeps going on and on for years, and you have to wonder how it's going to resolve itself. Kamehameha invites him to a meeting. Let's get the two rival factions together. Keoua gets dressed up and brings his canoe and his men to meet him, but right after he arrives, he's blocked in the bay and Kamehameha's men are on the beach with muskets and cannons, so Kamehameha asked Keoua to step forward to be greeted, and when he does, he is killed with a spear by an ally of Kamehameha's and then this men are killed. So we don't know whether it was Kamehameha's idea or an independent action by his ally, but civil war has now been quelled on the island of Hawaii, and Kamehameha has it all.

Sarah Dowdey: So with the two original heirs dead, the two cousins, Kamehameha is finally in possession of Hawaii, but he has some unfinished business, and that's what we're going to get to next.

Katie Lambert: If you remember Kamehameha's defeat of Maui, which you should because it was about 30 seconds ago, Kahekili is not pleased, and he hatches a plan with the men of the island of Kauai to team up and strike against him. Kahekili has cannons now too and his own white military advisor, so perhaps he has a chance. They engage in battle on the water. There are many deaths, but neither side won. That's war for you, but European influence is growing on these battlefields.

Sarah Dowdey: The big example of this happens in about 1792 when the Englishman William Brown offers to trade military assistant to Kahekili for the island of Oahu. So now Kamehameha's enemy has his own frigate. So the scales are starting to tip a little here. If Kamehameha looked like he was at the top at first, it's not looking so great anymore.

Katie Lambert: So he needs something similar to face his rival, and he allies himself with Captain Georg Vancouver, getting a ship in exchange for Hawaiian harbors, but Vancouver won't give him any guns and tries to get chiefs to reconcile, which is not the William Brown approach, as we will see. Then we have a twist. Kahekili dies in 1794, and now his sons take his place. Kalanikupule has Oahu and Kaeokulani has Kauai, Molokai, and Lanai, but the two brothers fight, as people tend to do, over their inheritances, and Kaeokulani decides to go to war and attack his brother's island, Oahu.

Sarah Dowdey: Kalanikupule gets wind of this plan and waits for his brother. He has the advantage of Brown's ship backing him up with all that European weaponry, so he stays pretty nearby. So Kaeokulani loses, and he's actually killed in part because of Brown's cannons.

Katie Lambert: We learn another big lesson in this podcast, which is not to wear bright colors in battle because when you do, it makes it a lot easier to hit you with a cannonball.

Sarah Dowdey: Exactly. So Kalanikupule is not very grateful though about Brown's help, all his great weaponry, his boat, and he kills Brown and puts his body on a pole, which is interesting, because this is kind of contemporary to French Revolution style. Next, he takes all of Brown's men and enlists them in his next cause, which is to attack Kamehameha. He's probably thinking he's on top of the world right now. He's just killed his brother. He's about to take over.

Katie Lambert: No. No, he's not. It doesn't last long. The Englishmen take over the ship and throw him overboard, and still ticked off, they make their way to Hawaii, and hand over all of the weapons and ammunition to Kamehameha. So everyone's angry at Kalanikupule.

Sarah Dowdey: Who isn't dead from getting tossed overboard.

Katie Lambert: Sarah asked repeatedly during this, "Is he dead? Is he dead?" No. He never is.

Sarah Dowdey: This guy is like a zombie or something in this podcast.

Katie Lambert: He has no European support. He has no weapons, and Kamehameha, on the other hand, has all of these things along with two ships. So Kamehameha attacks in short order Maui, Molokai, and Lanai, but there is treachery afoot. His high chief, Kohala, is on the outs with the big guy, so he isn't invited to key meetings, which displeases him greatly. That's partly because he slept with Kamehameha's wife, so don't do that either. He takes 1,500 of his men and meets up with Kalanikupule.

Sarah Dowdey: This engagement is known as the Battle of Nu'uanu, and it happens in April 1795. Kaiana, who's been the high chief -

Katie Lambert: Yeah, he's the No. 2.

Sarah Dowdey: He has all this military knowledge. He knows what he's doing. He's familiar with weaponry. He's familiar with how Kamehameha thinks, and how he fights, the places he might attack, how he might do it, so he picks very strong positions. For a while, it seems like his defense is unbreakable. But he too makes the fatal mistake of wearing bright colors in war, and a cannonball hits him too. When he dies, everything completely falls apart.

Katie Lambert: Kalanikupule's men get their women and children to a safe place before they face off with Kamehameha's warriors, and they have no chance. They lose badly, and while some escape, most were driven off a 700-foot cliff.

Sarah Dowdey: But Kalanikupule does escape. Like I said, this guy does not die.

Katie Lambert: Supposedly he goes off to live as a disgraced person in the mountains.

Sarah Dowdey: So all that we have now for Kamehameha to win is Kauai. That takes a little while. There's a storm. There's a revolt, an epidemic, so it takes until about 1810 before the chief of Kauai actually gives it over to him, but that's it. Then the Hawaiian Islands are unified, and he's king of them all.

Katie Lambert: Some call him Hawaii's strongest ruler because he unified the islands. He managed to keep Hawaii's independence for quite a long time, and he made his rule an era of peace.

Sarah Dowdey: And he was really a strong ruler, especially compared to some of the rulers who followed him. We're going to talk a little bit about that in another podcast, but he stood up to European influence. Actually, he used it to his advantage. That's what made him the strong ruler he was, but he didn't give way at all.

Katie Lambert: No, he kept his islands wealthy with a monopoly on sandalwood and on port duties. As far as his own rule, there were some harsh laws, but he also outlawed human sacrifice and let the islands have their own governors. We can't forget the rest of his military legacy. According to one article we read, he assembled the largest mobile force of warriors ever organized, which is staying something.

Sarah Dowdey: He also developed some pretty cool military technology, like artillery on double canoes, which sounds awesome.

Katie Lambert: And while we missed it this year, we're hoping to catch this next year. Kamehameha Day, June 11th, is a state holiday in Hawaii, so that is your chance to celebrate him. As for the future of Hawaii's monarchy, you'll have to wait for our next installment. That brings us to listener mail.

Sarah Dowdey: This message comes from listener Otto, and it was in response to our Emperor Norton podcast. He wrote, "I very much enjoyed your recent podcast about Joshua Norton but was surprised there was no mention of his "widow," Jose Saria. Saria was a drag queen working in San Francisco in the 1950s and 60s and was an early proponent of LGBT rights at a time when advocating for homosexuals, much less being openly gay, was almost unheard of. "He specialized in performing erotic operas with a particular favorite being a parody of Bizet's 'Carmen.' He was known as the nightingale of Montgomery Street." He actually goes on to proclaim himself "Her Royal Majesty, Empress of San Francisco, Jose the First, the Widow of Norton," which is pretty awesome.

Katie Lambert: We loved that email.

Sarah Dowdey: I'm sorry we didn't run into that fact while we were researching.

Katie Lambert: If you'd like to email us with some extra little tidbits about a podcast we've done, our email is HistoryPodcast@HowStuffWorks.com. It's not the only way to keep in touch. We're on Twitter at MissedinHistory, and we have a Facebook fan page. If you'd like to check out a cool article that's related to this podcast, look for the "Top-Ten Game-Changing Military Technologies" on our home page at www.HowStuffWorks.com.

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