Standing at the Nu‘uanu Pali overlook on O‘ahu, it is hard to imagine that such a serene landscape was the setting for a bloody and ultimately futile last stand by hundreds of Polynesian warriors.
In the late 18th century the archipelago that comprises the modern-day Hawai‘ian Islands was the object of a ruthless territorial battle sparked by the 1782 death of the Hawai‘ian ali‘i (“high chief”) Kalani‘o¯pu‘u. The ali‘i’s nephew Kamehameha, who wrested control of the “Big Island” of Hawai‘i, and Kalaniku¯ pule, head of the Maui dynasty that dominated O‘ahu and most of the other islands, each wanted to unite all the islands into one nation under his own rule.
Kamehameha was a fierce warrior. He was also a careful planner and worked diligently to strengthen his forces and build substantial defenses on Hawai‘i. Kalaniku¯pule, for his part, had inherited power on O‘ahu from his father and vied with his uncle Ka¯‘eoku¯lani, killing him in 1794 to gain control of Maui. While Kalaniku¯ pule’s victory over his uncle had weakened his forces, Kamehameha continued to gain support from district chiefs on Hawai‘i and even began incorporating Western fighting techniques and weaponry.
In January 1795, knowing that Kamehameha was building his forces, Kalaniku¯pule decided to launch a pre-emptive strike on the Big Island using captured British ships. But it failed when the British crews successfully retook their ships.
Learning of Kalaniku¯pule’s intentions, Kamehameha prepared to invade O‘ahu. He assembled a 10,000-koa (warrior) army equipped with muskets and cannon, and a fleet of 1,200 traditional canoes and a captured American schooner. Thanks to British sailors who had joined his cause, Kamehameha also had Britannia, a small schooner built in Hawai‘i of Western design. In February the invasion force went to war, first conquering Maui and Moloka‘i and mustering several thousand additional koa.
In late April, Kamehameha and his forces landed unopposed on O‘ahu near Wai‘alae and Waik¯ık¯ı, spending several days provisioning and scouting before moving on. Why Kalaniku¯pule did not immediately attack the invaders is unknown. He may have wanted to trap Kamehameha inland, where his 7,000-koa O‘ahuan force manned strong positions at Pu¯owaina (Punchbowl Crater). But the Hawai‘ians’ superior numbers and firepower soon broke through the enemy defenses, effectively splitting the O‘ahuan line. The rival armies then engaged in brutal hand-to-hand combat using spears, clubs, daggers and hand weapons studded with sharks’ teeth.
As the Hawai‘ians advanced, the O‘ahuans withdrew to higher ground atop the upward-sloping Nu‘uanu Valley. Hundreds of defenders fell in battle, while others, including Kalaniku¯ pule, fled into the hills. By the time the O‘ahuan force reached the pali (cliffs), it had been reduced to some 1,000-koa and pu¯kaua (senior leaders). The defenders had little choice but to fight to the death or face the steep 1,000- foot drop-off. Hundreds of warriors fought to hold off the advancing Hawai‘ians, then threw themselves to their deaths rather than be captured and face the humiliation of defeat. The exact number of warriors killed at the pali is uncertain. In 1897 the engineering company Wilson & Whitehouse discovered more than 800 human skulls near the base of the cliffs while constructing the Old Pali Road. Kalaniku¯ pule was eventually captured and sacrificed. Kamehameha’s force suffered minimal casualties, allowing him to fight until all of the islands were finally united under his rule in 1810.
Few memorials commemorate the Battle of Nu‘uanu, though each April, Hawai‘ians hold a traditional ceremony to honor those who fought. The Nu‘uanu Pali State Wayside [www.hawaiistateparks.org/parks/oahu], five miles northeast of Honolulu, offers sweeping views of O‘ahu’s windward coast. Hundreds of years after the battle that helped make Kamehameha the first king of a united Hawai‘i, the pali remain formidable. Wind gusts can exceed 60 miles per hour, and tourists who disregard warning signs and climb the walls at the overlook run the risk of inadvertently re-creating the final moments of that long-ago last stand.
Originally published in the March 2014 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.