ancient weapons and society of hawaii
THE ANCIENT Weapons, Tikis AND Society OF Hawaii

History of
Warriors and Warfare in Ancient Hawaii

The history of Polynesian tribal Hawaii traces back to 300-500 AD, (the exact time is still debated) with the first migrations of Polynesians, who journeyed across the South Pacific from the Marquesas in double-hulled canoes. By 850 AD, the seven main Hawaiian islands were occupied. A second wave of migration occurred circa 1100 AD from Tahiti, and a distinctive Hawaiian culture and tribal organization was well-established by 1400 AD.

Hawaii Home

Ancient Weapons
of Hawaii

Hawaiian History
& Culture

Tiki Gods

Tiki History
& Tiki Culture

Hawaiian Warrior

War God Temples

Contact Mythic



polynesian warriors
Kamehameha drives the enemy
warriors of the cliffs edge.


Warfare amongst the tribal chieftains (ali'i) of the Hawaiian islands was common, with fierce battles typically fought to establish political boundaries and during succession disputes. Raiding was frequent. As the scale of warfare increased, the chieftains of Hawaii and Maui became increasingly powerful as they could draw on the larger populations and resources of their islands to support military operations. By the 1780s warfare was increasingly institutionalized, with formal rules and rituals. The ali'i built and consecrated luakini (state temples) and conducted sacrifices, prayers, and ceremonies before launching campaigns. The mystical Kahunas were consulted to determine the best time for military operations. The chieftains increasingly drilled their troops and engaged in a technology race of sorts with firearms, cannon and other weapons acquired obtained from western traders. As wealth accumulated through trading with western visitors, opportunities for conflict between the chieftains also increased.

Warriors were known as koa, and gave their name to the koa tree, whose hard wood provided many of their weapons. A traditional warrior society, Hawaiian chieftains and their retainers practiced a type of martial arts (lua) and engaged in Olympic-style games during the annual Makahiki festival that tested their abilities. The catching or deflecting of thrown spears was a skill practiced by warriors. The warrior code was brutal. A sentry who neglected his post might have his brains bashed out by a superior or be executed by strangulation. An enemy captured in battle might have his entrails removed and every bone methodically broken while still alive, so that his body could be "bundled up" and carried off the field as a sacrifice.

Warriors generally fought in a loincloth (malo) tucked over in front and shaved and oiled their skin to prevent enemies from obtaining a sure grip in hand-to-hand combat. There fully visible traditional Hawaiian tattoos were designed to strike fear in their oppone. Nobles typically also wore a cape, which was slung over the left arm in battle like a shield to help snag missiles, as well as crested helmets made of wicker or gourds, which provided some protection against sling stones. Later in the period, woven mats of coconut fiber were occasionally used as a type of body armor.

Hawaiian warriors employed a wide variety of weapons, often carrying several into battle for different purposes. Typical weapons include the Ihe (short spear), Pololu (long spear/javelin), Pahoa (wooden dagger), Pahoa 'Oilua (double bladed weapon), Lei-o-mano (shark-tooth weapon), La-au-palau (long war club), Newa (short war club), Pohaku (stone hand club), Pikoi 'Ikoi (tripping weapon), Ma'a (sling), Ka'ane (strangulation cord), and Ko'oko'o (cane).

The history of Hawaiian warfare is unrecorded until the 1700s. One early account concerns the Hawaiian King Kalani'opu'u who landed an army near Wailuku sometime in the 1770s in an attempt to unseat the powerful King Kahekili of Maui (1765-1790). Kahekili's domain included O'ahu, Moloka'i and Lan'i, as well as Kaua'i and Ni'ihau, which were held by his half-brother Ka'eokulani. Kahekili hid his warriors in the sand dunes, ambushing Kalani'opu'u's forces as they advanced in march order, and causing a great slaughter.

The most famous Hawaiian King was Kamehameha I (1758-1819), who unified the seven Hawaiian islands. His birth coincided with the appearance of Halley's Comet, giving rise to a prophesy that he would one day rule. Ordered to be killed by his grandfather Alapai, he was secreted away in Waipio for five years. Returning after the death of his father Keoua, chief of Kohala, Kamehameha ("The Lonely One") was trained by his uncle King Kalani'opu'u in all the duties required of an ali'i-'ai-moku (district chief). Kamehameha grew to become a skilled warrior, renowned for his valor in the battle in which Captain Cook was killed. Slowed by age and illness, Kalani'opu'u designated his son Kiawala'o as his heir, but named Kamehameha the protector of the wargod Ku-ka'ili-moku, which set the stage for conflict and an eventual civil war after Kalani'opu'u's death in 1782.

In 1775 Hawaiian warfare changed from being ancient, 1775 roughly corresponds with the introduction of firearm weapons. The subsequent period, however, is the best recorded and most famous period of Hawaiian warfare.

Operating from his political base in Kona, Kohala, and Hamakua, Kamehameha contended with Kiawala'o for four years, capturing and wedding both Kiwala'o's daugher Keopuolani and prospective wife Ka'ahumanu, and eventually killing Kiawala'o in 1786, Kiawala'o was struck down by a sling stone and then had his throat cut by a weapon edged in sharks' teeth. Despite this victory, Kamehameha still faced strong opposition from other Hawaiian chieftains, including his counsin Keoua, chieftain of the Puna and Ka'u districts.

In 1790, Kamehameha looked across the water toward the domain of King Kahekili on Maui. By this time, Kamehameha's army included Isaac Davis (an Englishmen) and John Young (a Welshmen), as well as cannon and a swivel gun taken from the ship Fair American, and various firearms. With Kahekili off suppressing a revolt on O'ahu, Kamehameha landed his army at Wailuku. There he was confronted by Kalanikapule, the son of Kahekili, at the head of an army that barred Kamehameha's advance through the Iao Valey. For two days, the evenly-matched armies fought with traditional weapons, neither side gaining advantage. On the third day, Kamehameha deployed his cannon, causing a great slaughter among the Maui koa, who fell so thickly that their bodies dammed the local stream. As the Maui warriors retired up the narrowing valley, Kamehameha pressed them closely, cutting them down in large numbers as they attempted to escape scale by climbing down a cliff. Although a great victory, many of Kahekili's chiefs were able to avoid capture and take refuge on Oahu and Molokai. This historical battle is known as both Ka'uwa'u-pali (Clawed Off the Cliff) and Ke-pani-wai (The Damming of the Waters).

After his victory, Kamehameha had to quickly return to Hawaii to face his cousin Keoua, who had been pillaging Kamehameha's villages along the western coast in Kamehameha's absence. After two battles, Keoua and his warriors retired southward toward their homes in Kau. On route, a third of his army was suffocated by sulphurous gas during the eruption of Kilauea volcano on the slopes of Mauna Loa. The disaster weakened Keoua's position and was interpreted as a sign that the goddess Pele favored Kamehameha.

While Kamehameha was preoccupied campaigning against Keoua, King Kahekili of Maui decided to avenge the defeat at Ke-pani-wai by raiding the Hawaiian coast. He employed a sizeable force including a European gunner, trained dogs, and a special unit of tattooed fanatics known as pahupu'u. Kamehameha's Europeans mounted their swivel gun on a specially constructed double-hulled canoe, after which Kamehameha set forth to fight a naval battle. Dubbed the battle of the Red-Mouthed Gun, the action was indecisive although Kahekili subsequently retired to Oahu.

Still unable to consolidate control over the island of Hawaii, a frustrated Kamehameha sought the advice of a famous kahuna on Kauai, who instructed him to build a new temple to the wargods on Puukohola near Kawaihae. With the temple completed, Keoua was invited to help dedicate the site and negotiate peace. Whether by treachery or as a voluntary sacrifice, Keoua was killed and his body used to dedicate the altar. With Keoua's death, Kamehameha was recognized the ruler of the entire island of Hawaii.

Thereafter, King Kahekili of Maui made an agreement with the English Captain William Brown, a private merchant who commanded the thirty-gun frigate Butterworth, for military aid. This forced Kamehameha to seek the assistance of the American Captain George Vancouver to ensure a military balance of powers. For the next three years, Kamehameha used the peace to rebuild Hawaii's economy, obtaining large numbers of firearms, and hiring visiting foreigners to help drill his army in their use. Young and Davis remained favored subordinates, and were allowed to recruit a small company of women warriors who were armed with rifles. A large fleet of war canoes was constructed, and European boats were added to his navy.

The death of Kahekili in 1794 resulted in a civil war between his son Kalanikupule and his half-brother Ka'eokulani. A series of battles were fought on Oahu, with Kalanikupule prevailing thanks in part to a naval bombardment provided by his ally Captain Brown and the frigage Butterworth. Kalanikupul then attempted to take the Butterworth, killing Captain Brown and seizing the crew. The British seaman, however, were able to retake their vessel, forcing Kalanikuple and his warriors to shore.

With Kalanikupule weakened, Kamehameha sent a large fleet of war cannoes to seize Maui and Molakai. In 1795, he then turned toward Oahu, dispatching an invasion fleet of 1200 canoes bearing more than 10,000 warriors. There, he faced the combined army of Kalanikupule and the Hawiian chieftain Kaiana drawn up at the mouth of the Nuuanu Valley. The heavy fire of his cannon and fire arms caused a rout. As the warriors of Oahu fled up the valley, the westerners Davis and Young were carried forward on the shoulders of Hawaiian warriors between shots so that they could keep pace wth the advance. As the retiring Oahuans reached the head of the valley, they were trapped with the 1,200 foot Nu'uani Pali cliff at their backs. Kamehameha committed his pike, whose advance literally pushed the Oahu warriors off the cliff to their deaths.

In 1796, Kamehameha employed English carpenters to build a 40 ton warship at Honolulu to support his planned campaign against Kauai. Bad weather delayed the invasion, which was abandoned when Namakeha, the brother of Kaiana, led an uprising on Hawaii, devastating large areas of the Island. Kamehameha returned and crushed the rebellion. The next several years were spent building a armada of 800 special war canoes (peleleu) and schooners. In 1803, he moved the fleet from Hawaii to Maui, where he commenced sending threats to King Ka'umu'ali'i of Kauai. In 1804, he moved the fleet to Oahu in preparation for the invasion, but an epidemic swept through his army, killing large numbers and forcing him to abandon his fleet. Meanwhile, Ka'umu'ali'i employed Russian agents to build and arm a fortress at the mouth of the Waimea River in anticipation of an eventual invasion. With the stage set for a dramatic confrontation, English and American traders grew concerned that the impending conflict would disrupt the lucrative sandalwood trade. A peace was negotiated between Kamehameha and Ka'umu'ali'i, in which Kamehameha as acknowledged as sovereign, and Ka'umu'ali'i was allowed to rule Kaua'i until his death, with his son in Kamehameha's care as a hostage.

After 28 years of campaigning, Kamehameha now ruled all the islands of Hawaii. Governing from Oahu, he issued the famous Mamalahoe Kanawai or Law of the Splintered Paddle, which decreed that old men and women and children should not be subjected to wanton attacks, and passed a series of laws against murder, theft and plundering. Conquered lands were divided among his high chieftains in widely dispersed parcels to minimize the risk of rebellion. In 1812, he took a final tour of his kingdom and then settled at Kailua-Kona, where he mixed avid sport fishing with statecraft until his death in 1819.

Copyright © 2006