Sometime around 1736, a child was born who would change the world. He was a big infant born on a big island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The world didn’t even know that he, his people, or his islands existed – but they would learn. He is one of just 101 statues in the National Statuary Hall Collection in Washington D.C – and he was never an American – a distinction shared with very few of the stautes there.
That man was Kalani Pai’ea Wohi o Kaleikini Keali’kui Kamehameha o ‘Iolani i Kawiwikapu kau’i Ka Liholiho – which is a very long name – the world knows him as King Kamehameha I or King Kamehameha the Great – uniter of the Hawaiian Islands and founder of the United Hawaiian Kingdom. He lived from 1736 to 1819 and saw his entire world change – but didn’t let that stop him from building a modern nation state that dealt with the rest of the world as an equal.
He was the child of high chiefs on the Big Island of Hawaii. He was one of many chiefs who saw the world change when Captain James Cook sailed into Kealakakua Bay in the late 1700s. There are many facts that are hard to verify about his childhood, youth, and birth, but we know that he was one of the many chiefs who met Captain Cook because Cook mentions him in his journals.
Kamehameha was given the family war god (Ku-ka-ili-moku) when his uncle Kalani’opu’u died. While this didn’t give him the chief title, it made him powerful and it made him the priest in charge of the Hawaiian War God. His cousin inherited the Chief (or King) title for the majority of the lands his uncle had ruled. It’s said that Kamehameha fulfilled a prophecy by lifting an impossibly large stone called the Naha Stone – and that act foretold that he would become the uniter of the Hawaiian Islands. It’s a bit like King Arthur. In any event, it set the stage for terrible family reunions and eventually, Kamehameha and his war god killed all of the relatives who oppossed him.
He intended to unite ALL of the Polynesian Islands including Tahiti, New Zealand, Easter Island and everything in between. It was a bit much in the end but he did conquer all of Hawai’i with the help of British and American traders who sold him guns and cannons as well as providing him with tactical, political, and other information that helped him to establish, rule, and deal with other nations. Two of the most important of these were Isaac Davis and John Young, Englishmen who trained his troops and helped him deal with other nations. They also married into his family – Davis and Young are two important Hawaiian names today. They were both crewmen on the ship Fair American which was captured by Kamehameha after it’s sister ship Eleanora massacred a Hawaiian village on Maui. Davis and Young were the only survivors of the revenge – but rather than punish them, Kamehameha married them into his family and made them noblemen. A very smart move as the two helped him navigate the treacherous waters of building a modern nation from a group of islands.
In 1795, Kamehameha set out to conquer the other islands. He ran into light resistance until he hit Oahu where his forces fought a bloody battle against Kalani’kapule – the son of the Maui chief who had conquered Oahu a decade before. After taking control of the cannon placed on the Pali lookout – Kamehameha took control of Oahu. In 1810 – he established control over Kaua’i and thus became the sole sovereign of the unified Hawaiian Kingdom.
And that’s when the heavy work began. Kamehameha unified the legal system, established treaties and tariffs with the United States and Europe, set up a system of taxation. His greatest law was his simplest – “Let every elderly person, woman and child lie by the roadside in safety”.
Kamehameha I had about thirty wives, half of whom bore him children. There are certainly descendents of the King walking about Hawaii today. There are many statues of him but the most important are the ones in the Hall of Statuary, the Honolulu Historic Districe near Iolani Palace, and the statues at HIlo and his birth place on the Big Island of Hawail.