When Captain James Cook of His Britannic Majesty’s Royal Navy visited Hawaii in 1778-79, Kamehameha was a young chief and his uncle, Kalaniopuu, was the principal chief of the island of Hawaii. Kamehameha was invited to spend one night aboard the Discovery, after a visit during which he bartered a feather cloak for some iron daggers. According to Captain King:
In the afternoon, a chief of the first rank, and nearly related to Karipoo (Kalanipouu) paid us a visit on board the Discovery. His name was Ka mca mca; he was dressed in a very rich feather cloak, which he seemed to have brought for sale, but would part with it for nothing except iron daggers. These, the chiefs some time before our departure, had preferred to every other article; for having received a plentiful supply of hatchets and other tools, they began to collect a store of warlike instruments. Kameamea procured nine daggers for his cloak; and, being pleased with his reception, he and his attendants slept on board that night.1
Kamehameha easily and almost readily made friends with foreign visitors. He saw the advantage of this, in his desire to promote his chief ambition. In 1802, Captain John Turnbull, a visitor to Hawaii, remarked: “Kamehameha’s grand and favorite object was the establishment of a large military and naval force.” Kamehameha learned of the terrifying power of the white man’s firearms, as during an attempt to land by a small boat which Cook had dispatched to discover a suitable landing place, a native chief tried to secure the anchor, and was immediately shot by Lieutenant Williamson. This was the first time that the natives had observed a firearm in action and their respect for it became great. Pogue gives an account of the reaction of the natives, and their surprise and horror at the power of guns: “When the people were fired upon, they held up their mats for protection, but the bullets were not estopped to their distress and tragedy.”2
Kamehameha decided that guns and cannon were more effective firearms than spears and slings; the white man’s vessels too were better than canoes in taking the war to the enemy.
At first, his ambition would appear to be contrary to plans for his upbringing, for very early in life he had been destined for the priesthood and dedicated to Lono, god of peace, and upon the death of his uncle, Kalaniopuu, he was made custodian of the war-god Ku-kailimoku. However, he became the real as well as spiritual ruler, and in this he was successful after adopting the white man’s tactics and weapons of warfare.
In 1795, he laid down an edict prohibiting the people from disposing of hogs and other refreshment to European and American visitors under penalty of death, for any commodity other than arms and ammunition. He gathered around his person the most powerful chiefs and skilled artisans of foreign extraction. Such men as John Young, Isaac Davis, George Beckley, Archibald Campbell, James Boyd, Peter Corney, John Har- bottle, and Alexander Adams formed his Board of Strategy and were largely instrumental in his successes.
Another of these white men to whom Kamehameha became much attached was Captain George Vancouver of the English Navy, whose men built the first Hawaiian warship in 1794. Vancouver states:
This afforded me an opportunity of conferring upon Tamaahmaah a favor that he valued beyond every other obligation in my power to bestow; by permitting our carpenters to begin the vessel; from whose example, and assistance of these three engineers (Young, Boyd and Davis) he was in hopes that his people would hereafter be able to build boats and small vessels for themselves. An ambition so laudable in one whose hospitality and friendship we had been so highly indebted, and whose good offices were daily administering in some way or other to our comfort, it was a grateful task to cherish and promote; and as our carpenters had finished the re-equipment of the vessels, on Saturday, the first of February, they laid down the keel, and began to prepare the framework of his Owhyhean Majesty’s first man of war.3
The vessel was to be named the Britannia, and she was intended to protect the royal person of Kamehameha.
Vancouver also rigged one of Kamchameha’s largest double canoes, replete with a full set of canvas sails, sloop-fashion, and gave him a union jack and a pennant. Before sailing, he left several rockets and hand grenades with the injunction that they should be used only for Kamehameha’s protection; and promised that a man-o’-war loaded with brass guns and European articles would be sent from England. This promise was fulfilled after the death of Kamehameha. Vancouver’s men also taught the Hawaiian warriors how to drill as a body of soldiers in extended and closed order, in methods of deployment and as skirmishers. It may therefore be said that Vancouver was largely responsible for the origin and development of Kamehameha’s army and navy, despite the fact that he refused guns and ammunition to his Hawaiian friend.
Vancouver had always been discreet in his dealings with native peoples. He did not see the fairness of exchanging things which he wanted from the natives for things which they could not possibly use. He had known of unscrupulous foreign traders among the northwest Indians, who gave to the natives pistols and muskets which would burst upon being fired, though with proper loading. Gunpowder would be mixed with tea and charcoal. Many bad accidents happened. One such was a case of a young native chief who had purchased a musket, and upon his firing it, with a common charge of powder, it burst; and he not only lost some of the joints of his fingers on his left hand, but his right arm below the elbow was so dangerously wounded that, had it not been for some of Vancouver’s men, his life would have been in imminent danger. “The putting of firearms into the hands of uncivilized people, is at best very bad policy; but when they are given in an imperfect condition for a valuable consideration, it is not only infamously fraudulent, but barbarous and inhuman,” said Vancouver.
But while he consistently refused to give firearms and ammunition to the Hawaiians, he nevertheless aided Kamehameha in many other ways which could be turned to warlike advantages.
Kamehameha formally ceded the Island of Hawaii to England but this was never ratified by England.
The ancient Hawaiian warfare method consisted of a solid body of warriors moving towards the enemy in a wedge-shaped phalanx. At the point of this V-shaped formation was placed a volunteer called the maka, or eye. Warriors were said to have fought among themselves for this coveted position. With spears as their weapons of fire, this proved very effective, but with the introduction of guns and cannon, more deadly and longer range fire weapons, the plan of attack bad to be altered. Kamehameha therefore reorganized his entire army.
During Kamehameha’s time, all able- bodied men literally enjoyed perpetual I-A status.
His army consisted of disciplined troops, who trained regularly in the ancient war games and modern drills, and who went on duty with the drum and fife and relieved each other as in Europe, calling out, “All is well” at every half hour, as on board ship. They wore a blue-gray coat with yellow facings, and kept time by an hour glass which was held by one of the guards. In 1804, Kamehameha had some 60 pieces of artillery, and 600 muskets, and by 1806, his army equipment increased to upwards of 2,000 stand of arms, upwards of $12,000 in cash, and other valuable articles in proportion deposited in storehouses and in an underground arsenal. At this time also, he had between 200 and 300 body guards to attend him, independent of the number of chiefs who were required to accompany him on all his voyages and expeditions. This little bit of strategy prevented them from starting rebellions.
By 1817, he had the most important and strategically located islands fortified. The ancient temple of Ahuena at Kailua Hawaii, which became his official home, was fortified by a battery of 18 guns taken from the wreck of the Lark, a trading ship which ran on a reef. There were two mortars near the door. Mats were tied over the guns and covered with greenery, indicating that Kamehameha knew something of modern camouflage. At Lahaina Maui, he built a palace after the European fashion, of brick and glazed windows, and defended by ten guns which had been taken from the wreck of a ship which sank off Oahu.
In 1816, the Russians built a blockhouse in Honolulu, which was shortly thereafter taken over by the wily Kamehameha. This became the Honolulu fort, after which one of Honolulu’s main thoroughfares has been named. The Russians proceeded to the island of Kauai where they made overtures to Kaumualii, King of that island, and succeeded in building two forts, one at Waimea and one in Hanalei Valley. They also succeeded in acquiring the entire Hanalei valley, and gave to Kaumaulii a Russian decoration and name. According to Archibald Campbell, who arrived in Hawaii aboard a Russian ship, they had full intentions of taking the Hawaiian islands, but were frustrated in their attempt by Kamehameha. They were finally expelled from Kauai at the insistence of Kamehameha. After he had consolidated the entire group of islands, Kamehameha declared the Law of Friendship, as follows: “Love ye and reverence your god. Love ye one another lest your affections go to a dog.” He encouraged the manufacture of fishing nets and canoes, and bade his warriors turn their spears into spades. He forbade the use of intoxicating drink among his people and refrained from its use himself. He taught by example.
As to his navy, Kamehameha had the largest naval force in the entire Pacific during his time. Japan had gone into seclusion from 1638 to 1852, during which time she forbade anyone from leaving the country or from building ships, under penalty of death. America acquired the Louisiana Territory during this time, and had not yet reached her Pacific boundaries. Lisiansky, a Russian naval officer, was much impressed by Kamehameha’s might and in comparing his army and navy with those of other South Sea Islands, styled them “invincible.” He noted that they included some 7,000 warriors and about 60 Europeans, a large arsenal of modern weapons, and a fleet of many war canoes and ships. Golovnin, another Russian naval officer, remarked:
Seeing all these vessels flying their flags and the Hawaiian flag hoisted over the fort, I could not help but be pleasantly surprised at such a step towards enlightenment on the part of this savage people, and frankly, I was ashamed when I recalled that the eastern shores of Siberia and Kamchata present no such sight.4
In 1794, Kamehameha had a navy yard at Kawaihae, Island of Hawaii, with John Young as Commandant. This superseded the establishment of the United States Department of Navy by some four years.
In 1795, Kamehameha had a fleet of 20 vessels, tonnage of from 20 to 40 tons. Each vessel was well armed and manned. John Harbottle, an experienced seaman, was his Admiral; James Boyd, his shipwright, and Archibald Campbell his sailmaker. By 1802, he acquired more than 25 vessels of various sizes, from 20 to 75 tons, of which a number were copper-bottomed. By 1804, the Hawaiians had made such an advance since Vancouver’s visit that they were ready to open up foreign trade and commerce. They acquired such skill in navigation by the compass that they were able to take over the charge of vessels and their cargo. Indeed, when asked as to how the Hawaiians had felt after the death of Captain Cook, John Young intimated that he had been told that they were afraid that the English would later return with a large force and wreak a merited revenge. But now they were so confident in their own strength that they bid defiance to any force that could be sent against them. By 1805, Kamehameha had a sizable navy, consisting of more than 40 large ships and several hundred peleleu, all equipped with guns of various caliber. The peleleu was a long and deep double canoe with a covered platform and foreign sail, and was built for Kamehameha by his foreign friends. A swivel gun was mounted on the platform. According to the Hawaiian historian Kamakau, Kamehameha had some 800 peleleu. During this same year his navy was enhanced by the addition of the Lelia Byrd, a 175-ton ship which he procured from an American trader. This was the largest of his vessels, and she became his flagship. His smaller ships were used as transports for carrying men and materials to various parts of his domain, while the larger ships were used as men-of-war. By 1810, he had more than 30 sloops at Waikiki, and a dozen more in Honolulu Harbor, all neatly kept, with sails and spars in storehouses. According to Campbell, “Kameha-meha established a large navy. War and not commerce seems to his principal motive in forming so extensive a navy.”5 Turnbull stated that Kamehameha did everything possible to acquire large naval stores.
It may be interesting to note in passing that Kamehameha encouraged young natives to leave the islands aboard foreign vessels to see the world and to gain experience. Not a few had taken advantage of this opportunity, among them being five youths, Prince George Humehume, Henry Opukahaia, John Honolii, William Kenui, and Thomas Hopu. Humehume, Kenui, and Hopu fought in the War of 1812, later returning to their native land. Prince George also fought in the war against the Tripolitan pirates and served under Commodore Stephen Decatur. He was aboard the Enterprise and Guerriére and was wounded in action. He calculated an eclipse of the moon while a student at the Foreign Mission School. This school was founded by and through the efforts of Opukahaia. Hopu, during a skirmish in the War of 1812, rescued a number of his shipmates from drowning.6
In 1816, Kamehameha decided to send a shipload of sandalwood to China. With the assistance of his English advisors, he designed a flag, containing eight alternating stripes of while, red, blue, white, red, blue, white, and red with the Union Jack in its upper left-hand corner. In China the flag was not recognized, the ship was charged a heavy port fee, and the venture ended in a loss. Kamehameha, however, began charging port fees to vessels entering Honolulu Harbor. Towards the end of 1817, an English ship arrived in Hawaii, was sold to Kamehameha, and added to his navy. In May of 1818, the Santa Rosa, a captured Argentine pirate ship, arrived and was sold to Kamehameha for 6,000 piculs of sandalwood. However, he later learned of the circumstances, and held the ship and crew until a representative of that government arrived to take over. The first treaty that Hawaii negotiated with a foreign power was signed with Argentina on August 20, 1818, and relations of amity and commerce were established. Towards the end of that same year, a Russian naval officer named Golovnin arrived in Hawaii. He enjoyed a brief visit with Kamehameha, who had on the parade uniform of an English naval captain and wore a hat with feathers and gold braid. Golovnin remarked:
Kamehameha is already very old; lie considers himself to be 79 years of age. It is probable that his exact age is unknown even to himself, but his appearance shows that there cannot be a great disparity between the real age and his estimation. However, lie is alert, strong and sober, he never takes strong drinks and eats moderately. In him one secs a most amazing mixture of childish deeds and ripe judgement and actions, that would not disgrace even a European ruler.7
Kamehameha was the greatest Polynesian Commander in Chief that ever lived. He placed the art of warfare on a scientific basis, and to insure peace to his people, he built the largest navy in the entire Pacific region, in spite of the fact that he did not have occasion to test its strength. He believed in security, and he achieved his grand and favorite object, so that before he died, he was able to issue the following challenge to his friends and advisors:
Strive as ye may to undo that which I have established in righteousness, ye will never reach the end.
1. A voyage to the Pacific Ocean, 1116-1780, Volume III, London, 1784.
2. Pokue, J. F., Mooolelo Hawaii (in vernacular). Honolulu, 1856,
3. Voyage of Discovery, Vol. Ill (London, 1801).
4. Mehrnert, Klaus, The Russians In Hawaii, 1804- 1819. University of Hawaii Pub. #38, Honolulu, 1939.
5. A Voyage Round The World from 1806-1812. Mass. 1925.
6. A Narrative of Five Youths from the Sandwich Islands Now Studying in This Country, 1816. (Pub. with funds obtained from America and Europe.)