Childhood & Early Life
According to some sources, Kamehameha was born in 1736 in Kapakai, Kokoiki, Moʻokini Heiau, Kohala, Hawaiʻi Island. However, historian Ralph Simpson Kuykendall thought that his birth occurred at some point between 1748 and 1761.
Furthermore, a story about his birth indicates a 1758 dating as some scholars believe the new bright star mentioned in the story refers to Halley’s Comet. This dating is likely incorrect, as it does not fit the timeline of other important incidents of his life.
His parents were Kekuʻiapoiwa II, the niece of Alapainui, and the nobleman Keōua Kalanikupuapa'ikalaninui. The native Hawaiian historian Samuel Kamakau believed that Kamehameha was “hanai” adopted (informally adopted) right after his birth by Maui monarch Kahekili II, in accordance with the custom of their people at the time. The author later wrote that Kamehameha could also be a biological son of Kahekili II.
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Accession & Reign
Before Kamehameha was born, his father and his half-brother Kalaniʻōpuʻu were appointed in the service of the ruler of the Hawaiian island. His father’s death occurred when he was quite young, and he was subsequently brought up by his uncle, Kalaniʻōpuʻu, in the royal court.
After his uncle’s death, his cousin and Kalaniʻōpuʻu’s son, Kīwalaʻō, became king. Kamehameha was granted an important religious position, the guardianship of the Hawaiian god of war, Kūkāʻilimoku, alongside the authority over the district of Waipiʻo Valley.
The relationship between Kamehameha and his cousin was troubled since the beginning. However, initially, there was peace. According to a story, this was the time when the prophecy came into play. After he lifted the Naha Stone, Kamehameha was recognised as the king described in the prophesy.
In July 1782, Kīwalaʻō was defeated and killed at the Battle of Mokuʻōha. Kamehameha subsequently ascended the Hawaiian throne and put his chiefs in charge of various administrative and religious responsibilities.
An incredibly ambitious man, Kamehameha set out to unite all the Hawaiian islands. In this endeavour, he had the backing of High Chief Keeaumoku, the father of the queen consort and his favourite wife, Kaʻahumanu.
Kamehameha found allies among British and American traders, from whom he purchased guns and ammunition.
Another contributing factor to Kamehameha’s rise was the backing of Kauai Chief Ka`iana and Captain Brown. The latter assured him of an unlimited supply of gunpowder from China and told him the formula of gunpowder, the components of which, sulphur, saltpetre/potassium nitrate, and charcoal, are found in abundance in the islands.
In 1789, Simon Metcalfe, the captain of the fur-trading vessel Eleanora, killed over 100 residents of the village of Olowalu after they stole one of his boats and killed a night watchman from his ship. He had previously flogged the Hawaiian High Chief Kameʻeiamoku over some supposed offence.
Metcalfe was accompanied by his son, Thomas Humphrey, who was captaining a schooner named The Fair American. Kameʻeiamoku and his men killed all but one crew member of The Fair American when the ship came to the Island of Hawaii following Eleanora’s departure.
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The surviving crewman Isaac Davis was taken under Kamehameha’s protection. The king also took control of the ship. A boatswain from Eleanora, named John Young, came to the islands to investigate what happened to The Fair American. He was detained by the king as he did not want Metcalfe to discover his son’s fate.
The two British sailors tried to escape but later married Hawaiian women and became valued military advisors and translators for the king.
In 1790, Kamehameha launched a campaign against the district of Puna and defeated the Chief Keawemaʻuhili. While he was busy there, a member of the royal class or Aliʻi, named Keōua Kūʻahuʻula, started a revolt against Kamehameha. Upon Kamehameha’s return, Keōua fled to the Kīlauea volcano. It erupted not long after, and the poisonous gas killed several of Keōua’s soldiers.
The construction of Puʻukoholā Heiau was finished in 1791, and Kamehameha subsequently asked Keōua to come see him. According to one theory, Keōua may have had self-inflicted wounds on his body, which would have made him an inappropriate candidate for sacrifice.
After Keōua landed on the shore, a spear was hurled at him by one of the king’s chiefs. Some accounts claim that he had been able to dodge it but died in the musket fire that followed. Keōua’s bodyguards also perished alongside him.
In 1795, Kamehameha began a massive campaign of conquest with an armada of 960 war canoes and 10,000 soldiers. Following the Battle of Kawela, he gained control over the islands of Maui and Molokaʻi.
He then sailed to the island of Oʻahu. Unbeknownst to him, a commander in his army, a high-ranking Aliʻi named Kaʻiana, joined Kalanikūpule, the King of Oʻahu. Following a series of skirmishes, during which Kaʻiana was killed, Kamehameha emerged victorious. After Kalanikūpule was taken captive, he was offered as a sacrifice to Kūkāʻilimoku.
The islands of Kauai and Niihau came under his control through diplomacy. By 1810, Kamehameha had become the uncontested sovereign of the entire island group. He wanted to make sure that the realm would be still united even after his death.
Kamehameha became quite a rich man by the standards of his time through implementing government monopoly on the sandalwood trade and levying port duties on visiting ships. He merged the legal system and invested the products gathered through taxes to encourage trades with Europe and the United States.
In 1797, Kamehameha introduced Kānāwai Māmalahoe, or Law of the Splintered Paddle, which later served as a guideline for the creation of human rights laws in regard to how civilians and other non-combatants are to be treated during acts of peaceful assembly, peaceful association and/or peaceful navigation.
The law, “Let every elderly person, woman and child lie by the roadside in safety”, has been incorporated into Hawaii’s State Constitution (Article 9, Section 10).