Within a single lifetime the Hawaiian islands went from a dozen warring territories cut-off from the outside world, to a united kingdom with trade and diplomatic contacts stretching from Canton to St. Petersburg, and it did so under the direction of one man. Kamehameha the Great It is 1781 and the Great Chief of Hawai’i Island is dying. To his son he bequeaths his title as the Ali’i, or chief of three districts and his de-facto position as king. To his nephew Kamehameha he leaves a single district and a powerful religious position: the guardianship of the war god. This power sharing agreement is in reality a recipe for war: these cousins are bitter rivals But more than that, time and again prophecies have named Kamehameha as a usurper, a slayer of chiefs. These predictions began even before Kamehameha was born and they so alarmed the previous king that upon his birth Kamehameha’s mother had sent him to be raised in secret. The boy would only return to court at the age of five, when the king pledged his safety. Many Ali’i would later lament this decision because as he grew it became clear that Kamehameha was indeed a person of great mana or spiritual life force. Mana was the bedrock of Hawaiian culture. A man of great mana was both physically and spiritually adept, a person of great power and personal charisma. He was a formidable warrior and natural leader, but also intelligent and wise. Crucially, a warrior could also increase his mana by defeating and sacrificing his enemies gaining their spiritual power. And Kamehameha’s mana was legendary. He was a formidable warrior, seven feet tall and skilled in the Hawaiian arts of war. He was also deeply intellectual with a voracious appetite for knowledge and an unshakable faith in both the gods and himself. Even his chosen name, Kamehameha, “the lonely one” simultaneously described his quiet, brooding manner and declared that he was a man without peer. But the former king’s division of power was shocking: by making Kamehameha the war god’s guardian the dying king had effectively split his dominion between two men of unequal rank bypassing his youngest son entirely. The infuriated prince decided that the proper response was murdering some of Kamehameha’s men and, in a symbolic riposte, Kamehameha conducted a religious ritual prohibited to any but the king. It was ON. Ali’i flocked to Kamehameha and five months after inheriting his father’s kingdom the older son was dead on the battlefield, throat slit with a shark-tooth dagger. Kamehameha’s cousin and his uncle escaped and consolidated their forces, vowing to kill the usurper. Kamehameha, now in possession of Hawai’i’s northwestern side declared himself king of the Island and married his dead rival’s daughter to legitimize the title. That accomplished, he entered a grinding conflict with the dead king’s relatives. And he lost battle after battle after battle. Other chiefs might have taken this as a loss of prestige, or begun to doubt the prophecies but to Kamehameha it was a scientific problem. Each time he lost, he withdrew to retrain and refine his armies. During this period he developed tactics that would serve him well in the conquests to come like creating a corps of shock troops that would attack without warning disordering the enemy before the main force of infantry hit home. Still, even if this were enough to win Hawai’i bit by bit, it would not be enough to defeat the rival kings of Maui, O’ahu, and Kaua’i. And he needed to defeat them. Kamehameha was not merely power-hungry: he also had enough foresight to see that his people were in trouble. Only a few years after Captain Cook had first landed in the islands, European diseases were already ravaging the Hawaiian population. And Kamehameha knew that more foreigners were on the way. The king was not opposed to foreign visitors, in fact he welcomed them But he also knew that they brought danger. To resist them, the islands must be united. Years passed as Kamehameha tried to find a breakthrough in the conflict drilling again, and again, and again. Eight years later, the American trading ship Eleanora anchored at the village of Olowalu and rang its bell for trade. It was a relief. Days before, men from Olowalu had killed one of the Eleanora’s night watchmen and stolen a boat. The villagers expected retribution, but instead they got this friendly gesture. Hundreds of them piled into canoes and headed out to trade. When they drew close, the captain opened fire with a double broadside of ball and nails. Over a hundred unarmed men, women and children were torn to pieces. Then, the Eleanora weighed anchor and sailed away. So it seemed fate played a hand when, weeks later, a party of local warriors found the Eleanora’s sister ship, Fair American, becomed just offshore. They vowed revenge for the Eleanora’s actions, boarded the vessel and killed four of the crewmen sparing only a man named Isaac Davis because he had fought bravely. Kamehameha was furious about the incident. He liked to keep good relations with visiting ships, and didn’t want violent reprisals. He put Davis under royal protection and demanded he come to court. But when Davis arrived he saw a familiar face: John Young, the boatswain of the Eleanora who had been captured after the Olowalu massacre. The two men had only a moment to catch up before Kamehameha summoned them to an audience. The sailors were more than a little frightened as they approached the huge man still vital and powerful in his middle age. Eight years of conflict had in no way diminished this king. He gave the men a choice: either they could die, or they could serve as members of his court. He would give them wives, land and riches. He would raise them to Ali’i status, and adopt them as his own family members. In return, they would give him what he needed most: guns and ships. Kamehameha had been long fascinated by the power of gunpowder. During Captain Cook’s visit a decade before, he had toured the ships specifically so he could pump Cook for information on the Western way of war. This, he concluded, was the necessary tool to conquer the islands. Young and Davis, he said would serve as intermediaries with the trading ships and as military advisors drilling his men in Western infantry and artillery tactics. In addition, he needed cannons to outfit the great fleet of war canoes he was constructing and instructors to teach his men how to sail the Fair American and build gunships in the Western style. Young and Davis agreed. Kamehameha put them to work almost immediately. The king of Maui had recently conquered the Island of O’ahu, and moved his court there to manage his new prize, leaving his son Kalanikupule to govern their home island. Maui had proved an elusive prize for many Hawaiian kings, but with its king away from home Kamehameha saw his chance. He mustered his fleet and crossed the channel. In his first battle with Maui forces Kamehameha routed a small army by killing its general in single combat but that easy victory did little to resolve the critical issue. Kalanikupule’s main force had taken a defensive position in the narrow mouth of a valley, and to take the island the Hawaiians had to dislodge them. The battle was bitter and long. Only on the third day, when Young and Davis arrived dragging two cannons on sledges did the Maui forces break. The slaughter was so great that bodies choked the valley streams, and it would forever be remembered as “The Battle of the Dammed Waters” Kalanikupule fled across the mountains, his scattered warriors trickling after him. But it was a hollow victory. Kamehameha knew that the fierce old king of Maui himself would soon return to challenge his now depleted army. And to make matters more difficult, word came that, in his absence, his cousin, his old enemy had risen in rebellion to challenge his home territories on Hawai’i. His plans to conquer Maui would have to wait. He withdrew to Hawai’i, vowing to put an end to his rebel cousin. After all, he had recently finished work on a massive new temple to the war god, and there could be no more powerful way to christen it than with the sacrifice of his oldest foe. The East Hawai’i campaign was bloody. Kamehameha’s army fell into an ambush, triggering a series of battles that saw the rebels driven South but Kamehameha’s forces badly damaged. In the end both withdrew: Kamehameha home the rebels across the laval fields near the caldera of a volcano. And that is when the gods made their choice. The volcano erupted, enveloping the rebel army with clouds of hot ash and poison gas. They attempted an evacuation, but it was too late. The volcano goddess Pele took a full two thirds of their proud host. The rebellion was broken. Kamehameha would have his sacrifice. It was 1790. Kamehameha was master of Hawai’i Island, surrounded by able advisors and in possession of both a modernized military and the favor of the gods. He looked across the channel to Maui and prepared his fleet for sail.