Kamehameha I (ca. 1758-1819), first king of the Hawaiian Islands, conquered and united the islands. He became a statesman who knew how to keep the best of the old ways while adopting the best of the new.
Born in Kohala, Hawaii, of a family of high chiefs, Kamehameha learned the chiefly arts at the court of his uncle Kalaniopuu, ruler of the island of Hawaii. When Capt. James Cook visited Hawaii in 1778, his lieutenant wrote that the young warrior had "as savage a face as I ever saw" but his disposition was "good natured and humorous."
After his uncle's death in 1782, Kamehameha led a group of rebellious chiefs in civil war. By 1790 he controlled much of the island of Hawaii. He added to his staff two English seamen, John Young and Isaac Davis, who knew about muskets and cannon. With their advice he won victories on the islands of Maui, Molokai, and Lanai. He then went back to Hawaii to put down an uprising by a chief, Keoua. Ashes and fumes from a sudden eruption of a volcano killed about a third of Keoua's warriors. The survivors took this as a sign that the volcano goddess favored Kamehameha.
In 1795 Kamehameha completed his conquest of Maui, Molokai, and Lanai and invaded Oahu, where during the climactic battle many of the enemy were driven to their death over the Nuuanu cliffs. With this victory he gained control of all the islands except Kauai and Niihau, which yielded in 1810 without a fight.
Kamehameha organized the government in the period of peace after 1795 and centralized power in his own hands. While entering into friendly and profitable relations with foreigners, he kept the ways of his ancestors. As a leader in restoring the islands, he urged his people to work and to grow food. They said of him, "He is a farmer, a fisherman, a maker of cloth, a provider for the needy, and a father to the fatherless."
Kamehameha died at Kailua, Kona, on the island of Hawaii. The funeral was in the traditional Hawaiian style, except that no human sacrifice was offered. His bones were carefully hidden, and it is said that only the stars know Kamehameha's final resting place. His favorite wife, Kaahumanu, became a prime minister and a regent of the kingdom after his death. By another wife, Keopuolani, he had two sons who ruled as Kamehameha II and Kamehameha III.
Further Reading on Kamehameha I
The most reliable account of Kamehameha I is in Ralph S.Kuykendall, The Hawaiian Kingdom, 1778-1854: Foundation and Transformation (1938). Two other useful works are Herbert H. Gowen, Napoleon of the Pacific: Kamehameha the Great (1919), and James T. Pole, Hawaii's First King (1959). Gavan Daws, Shoal of Time: A History of the Hawaiian Islands (1968), has an accurate, well-written chapter on Kamehameha.
Additional Biography Sources
Gowen, Herbert H. (Herbert Henry), The Napoleon of the Pacific: Kamehameha the Great, New York: AMS Press, 1977.
Judd, Walter F., Kamehameha, Norfolk Island, Australia: Island Heritage, 1976.