Wars of Hawaiian Unification

From 1782 to 1810, the rulers of the various Hawaiian Islands clashed in a struggle for power until King Kamehameha I consolidated rule over Hawaii into a single kingdom. As a united kingdom, Hawaii was able to remain independent in the next century, while the other Pacific islands fell to the European imperial powers.

Summary of Event

Before the European discovery of Hawai’i (Hawaii) by Captain James Cook, the islands were loosely governed by chiefs who controlled various parts of the archipelago. Warfare was common, aimed at establishing political boundaries and clarifying succession after the deaths of local chiefs. Raids were conducted from time to time, though truces were often declared, usually in order to allow time to harvest crops. [kw]Wars of Hawaiian Unification (1782-1810)
[kw]Unification, Wars of Hawaiian (1782-1810)
[kw]Hawaiian Unification, Wars of (1782-1810)
[g]Hawaii;1782-1810: Wars of Hawaiian Unification[2480]
[g]Pacific Islands;1782-1810: Wars of Hawaiian Unification[2480]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;1782-1810: Wars of Hawaiian Unification[2480]
[c]Expansion and land acquisition;1782-1810: Wars of Hawaiian Unification[2480]
[c]Government and politics;1782-1810: Wars of Hawaiian Unification[2480]
Kamehameha I (Hawaiaan ruler)
Cook, James
Kahekili (Hawaiaan ruler)
Kaumauli’i (Hawaiaan ruler)

In 1738, the islands were nearly unified by Alapainui, Alapainui (Hawaiian ruler) ruler of the southernmost island of the archipelago, the island of Hawaii, and his brother Kamehamehanui, Kamehamehanui (Hawaiian ruler) who was the chief on Maui, when they joined forces to seize control of Molokai and took their armies to Oahu for a bloody encounter with the powerful forces of Peleioholani. Rather than pursuing what might have been a pyrrhic victory, the rivals concluded the Treaty of Naoneala’a, Naoneala’a, Treaty of (1738)[Naonealaa] in which Molokai was returned to Peleioholani, Peleioholani (Hawaiian ruler) who also controlled a portion of Kauai, the northernmost inhabited island in the archipelago. As a result, a peaceful era ensued.

After both Alapainui and Kamehamehanui died, war broke out between their successors, Kalaniopu’u Kalaniopu’u (Hawaiian ruler) and Kahekili Kahekili (Hawaiian ruler) respectively, in the Battle of Kapalipilo Kapalipilo, Battle of (1758) of 1758, which resulted in a draw. In 1759, Kalaniopu’u invaded Maui and succeeded in controlling the southern part.

The situation changed dramatically after Captain Cook arrived in 1778 with modern instruments of war, including muskets, pistols, and four-pound cannon; his ships also brought iron, which could be fashioned into superior spears. When Cook died at the hands of the local population in 1779 while demonstrating the power of his muskets, local military leaders lusted to possess more of the advanced technology. Traders from abroad set up shop on the major islands, offering modern goods and weapons for sale; in exchange, island chiefs provided such commodities as sandalwood, the forests of which were soon exhausted.

A statue of King Kamehameha I, who united the Hawaiian islands to form one strong kingdom that repelled European imperial powers for a century.

(Library of Congress)

When 1782 began, Kalaniopu’u ruled the island of Hawaii and south Maui, Kahekili controlled north Maui and Lanai, Peleioholani remained in charge of Oahu and Molokai, and Kaeokulani Kaeokulani (Hawaiian ruler) unified rule on Kauai as well as Ni’ihau. Kahekili then attacked the forces of Kalaniopu’u, successfully expelling them from Maui. When Kalaniopu’u died in 1782, Kahekili turned his sights in the opposite direction; after seizing Molokai, he defeated the ruler of Oahu, his foster son. Ruling most of the islands of the archipelago, he then moved to establish an alliance with his half brother Kaeokulani, ruler of Kauai, and might well have unified the islands at that point.

Meanwhile, the island of Hawaii was convulsed in a civil war that arose as rivals sought to become Kalaniopu’u’s successor. One faction, headed by Kiwalao, Kiwalao (Hawaiian ruler) controlled the Kau and Puna districts; Kalaniopu’u had designated him as his heir. Keawemauhili, Keawemauhili (Hawaiian ruler) ruler of the Hilo and Puna districts, refused to accept Kiwalao’s authority. Kamehameha, whom Kalaniopu’u had named as the protector of the war god Kukailimoku, refused to recognize Kiwalao as his leader; he maintained the loyalty of the people in the Kona and Kohala districts. To gain the upper hand, Kamehameha captured and married both Kiwalao’s daughter, Keopuolani, and his prospective wife, Ka’ahumanu. In the Battle of Mokuohai Mokuohai, Battle of (1786) (1786), Kamehameha’s forces killed Kiwalao. He was succeeded by Keoua, who sustained the rivalry with Kamehameha. Fighting between the three factions continued inconclusively on the island until 1795.

After Kahekili relocated his residence from Maui to Oahu while suppressing a revolt there, Kamehameha took advantage of the power vacuum to subdue Maui in the Battle of Kapaniwai and Kauwau-pali Kapaniwai and Kauwau-pali, Battle of (1790) (1790); among Kamehameha’s allies were Isaac Davis and John Young, both from Britain. On the third day of the battle, Kamehameha prevailed by deploying a cannon for the first time. He devastated the opposing army, which tried to escape down a steep cliff.

In February, 1794, Captain George Vancouver, Vancouver, George midshipman with Cook, landed on the island of Hawaii. Kamehameha soon offered to cede the archipelago to Great Britain, an offer never acted upon by the British parliament, in exchange for a supply of muskets and for the construction of a warship. Meanwhile, muskets had been supplied in 1793 to Kahekili by William Brown, Brown, William a trader who had taken up residence on Oahu. When Kamehameha returned to Hawaii to deal with Keoua, Kahekili thought that he could wipe out his main opponent by sending a gunboat. However, the first naval battle in the history of the islands was inconclusive.

In mid-1794, Kahekili died, leaving his son Kalanikupule Kalanikupule (Hawaiian ruler) in control of Oahu and Kahekili’s half brother Kaeokulani Kaeokulani (Hawaiian ruler) in control of Kauai, Lanai, Molokai, and Ni’ihau. The two rivals then fought, with Kalanikupule the victor, thanks in part to men and munitions supplied by Brown. However, Kalanikupule then overpowered the commanders of one of the ships in port, ordering the boat to sail for new conquests, but his crew soon mutinied and ignominiously forced Kalanikupule and his men off the ship.

In 1795, Kamehameha sailed his army to Oahu, overwhelming Kalanikupule’s depleted forces, which were forced up the Pali precipice in the Battle of Nu’uanu. Nu’uanu, Battle of (1795)[Nuuanu] Those who escaped plunging to their deaths over the precipice did not regroup, so Kamehameha I became the ruler of the central islands of the archipelago as the successor to Kalanikupule’s control over Lanai and Molokai. He then returned to the island of Hawaii to defeat the remaining faction, killing his cousin Keoua by the end of 1795. He also managed to put down a rebellion by Namakeha in 1796.

Only Kauai and Ni’ihau, now ruled by Kaumauli’i, were independent of the power of Kamehameha I. In 1796, Kamehameha launched warships toward Kauai, but a heavy storm turned them back. He then ordered construction of a fleet of fourteen hundred vessels to maintain authority on the various islands; the armada was completed by 1802. He readied the fleet to attack Kauai in 1804 but relented when his sailors were stricken with an epidemic, possibly typhoid fever. In 1809, Kaumuali’i went to Oahu; when he voluntarily surrendered his island to Kamehameha in 1810, the latter in turn named him governor of the island. Kamehameha had also named loyalists as governors of other islands, so as of 1810, the islands were effectively unified under a single ruler, Kamehameha I, who had established a stable hereditary monarchy.


While the rest of the South Pacific was gobbled up by European imperial powers in the nineteenth century, the unification of Hawaii by Kamehameha I served to preserve the archipelago as an independent country that was recognized diplomatically by the major powers as a sovereign state throughout most of the nineteenth century. The rulers, who had outfitted armies in the wars of unification with some modern weaponry, continued to adopt progressive innovations—notably the world’s first system of compulsory public elementary education and the world’s first ministry of public health—to develop a literate, healthy population. The monarchs also encouraged expatriate entrepreneurs from Britain, Germany, and the United States to cultivate coffee, pineapple, and sugarcane, thus developing exports that brought much wealth to the islands.

With the introduction of the export crops, the monarchy sought ever-closer trade relations Trade;United States with Hawaii with the United States, leading ultimately to the decision in 1887 to grant the United States a naval leasehold of Pearl Harbor. Mindful of the dominant position of military forces at Pearl Harbor, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii Congress voted in 1898 to annex Hawaii as a territory without first conducting a plebiscite of the native population, some of whom today believe that the annexation was contrary to international law and that the sovereign status of the Kingdom of Hawaii, as established by Kamehameha in 1810, should be restored.

Further Reading

  • Brantly, Chris. “Hawaiian (1100-1785 AD) DBA IV/12c.” http://www.fanaticus.org/dba/armies/IV/12c, 2004. A detailed account of the wars of unification.
  • Daws, Gavin. Shoal of Time: A History of the Hawaiian Islands. New York: Macmillan, 1968. Chapters 1-2 describe issues involved in the internecine warfare from 1779.
  • Grant, Glen. Fornander’s Ancient History of the Hawaiian People. Honolulu: Mutual, 1996. The definitive work on the early history of Hawaii.
  • Kuykendall, Ralph S., and A. Grove Day. Hawaii: A History from Polynesian Kingdom to American State. Rev. ed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1961. The definitive work on the modern history of Hawaii.

Collapse of the South Sea Bubble

European Discovery of Easter Island

Voyages of Captain Cook

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Eighteenth Century</i><br />

James Cook; George Vancouver. Hawaii;unification