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The Innovation of King Kamehameha the Great

The Innovation of King Kamehameha the Great

Submitted by: Nina S. Jones

Lead image kamehameha mural at Gateway Restaurant

The Polynesian Cultural Center has a large homage to King Kamehameha the Great in their Gateway Dining Facility

Much has been said, written, documented, and even fabricated regarding the great Kalani Paiʻea Wohi o Kaleikini Kealiʻikui Kamehameha o ʻIolani i Kaiwikapu kauʻi Ka Liholiho Kūnuiākea (abt 1850 – 1819), known to all as King Kamehameha I, who first united the Hawaiian Islands at the turn of the nineteenth century. His life highlights the amazing range of attributes necessary for one man to become the King of all Hawaii.

Family Connection

Kamehameha was born into a strong and active royal line on the Big Island, so his birthright was the first element that set him on the path to greatness.

Paiea, as he was called as a child, had an auspicious beginning, being born during a great storm and distinct lights in the heavens that quite possibly was Haley’s Comet. He was quickly ostracized as a young child which set forth the lifelong challenge of ready enemies, many from his own family. By the time he was five, he was returned to his family, and soon his education as a royal and a warrior began. Why did his uncle, King Kalani’opu’u, specifically choose him for this? A likely reason is that the heavenly signs during his birth were taken as prophetic indications of his great future as a leader.

King Kamehameha's timeline

The life of King Kamehameha I as it compares to U.S. History

Physical Size

It is said that Kamehameha stood well over 7 feet tall. He must have generated a feeling of awe and fear as he led his armies into battle, met to discuss strategy and terms with other leaders, or simply held court. How history determined his height was by measuring his staff and feather cape. It is, therefore, possible that this was a mere legend, but even if he worked purposefully to overemphasize his height, his ability as a strategist is inarguably impressive.


The invention of artillery from the other side of the world played well into Kamehameha’s rise to power. While still a young man, he saw tall ships stopping for supplies as they brought large amounts of weapons to arm men fighting for control in the western continent. He saw immediately that it would work well for him to befriend these travelers. Through bargaining and building alliances, these traders became loyal friends (at least for the moment) and set Kamehameha on the road to dominance through sheer force.

The death of King Kiwala’o

The death of King Kiwala’o at the hands of Kamehameha’s priests – courtesy of Tour Maui


Although Kamehameha clearly had a vision, his talents included the ability to recognize what actions were available to him in order to achieve those goals. When his troops experienced serious failures in a particular attack, he often took that opportunity to focus on infrastructure issues, like raising funds through trade for the very expensive weapons he could now utilize, or developing the innovative twin-hulled war canoe, helping his forces with maneuverability and troop capacity upon the seas. Never one to sit still, King Kamehameha I was always moving forward.


Kamehameha had an amazing ability to construct paths towards increased power. Rumored to have up to 30 wives, many of these marriages were strategic moves to create alliances, or to deconstruct others.

Another masterful move was made when Thomas Henry Metcalf, the captain of the sailing ship Fair American, ruthlessly attacked the village of Olowalu on the island of Maui, killing over 100. This set the ship on a perilous collision course just off the Kona coastline, with vengeful islanders and Mother Nature itself, which ended in the death of everyone on board but one, Issac Davis. Kamehameha took possession of the ship and Mr. Davis. The king treated him like a royal, gave him a wife, a home, and leadership responsibilities – thus making a loyal friend who taught him about the new innovations in warfare and sailing. The ship was a gold mine of opportunity, both as transportation and because he was able to see and learn from all of the technical instruments and supplies.

The Battle of Nuuanu Pali Lookout

Herb Kane painting of the Battle of Nuuanu at Pali Lookout – Image courtesy of KRON 2 News


Although many see this as a negative trait, in times of war, ruthlessness can be imperative. King Kamehameha, I was faced many times with the need to ‘conquer or be conquered’. The brutal death of King Kalanikūpule’s forces on the Pali Cliffs on Oahu solidified the fact that he, as a warrior, would do whatever was necessary to persevere on the battlefield. Strategically, it set him up for his next move, which took many years to accomplish, in negotiating the acquisition of the remaining island of Kauai by peaceful agreement rather than brute force.


The unification of the Hawaiian Islands was a spectacular feat, attempted by many. But the attributes and incredible timing of King Kamehameha I was the exact combination needed to actually achieve the monumental task. And that is who we honor every June 11th. A man was chosen from birth to lead his people into a new era. A ruler above all others. A strategist, a philosopher, and truly a great king.

Statue of King Kamehameha covered in leis

Every year on June 11th, King Kamehameha I is celebrated for his contributions to Hawaii