“The Battle of Nu‘uanu 1795” by Neil Bernard Dukas

The Battle of Nuuanu 1795

I’ve driven along the Pali Highway, a scenic route through the Ko‘olau Mountains, and rarely thought about the epic battle that took place there. I’ve stood on the concrete platform with the wind streaming around me, and seen the beauty of the valley – but not the last stand of desperate warriors. And until now, I never really thought about the battle as a whole, from the military deployment to what it meant for Hawai‘i.

“The Battle of Nu‘uanu 1795: An Illustrated Pocket Guide to the O‘ahu Battlefield” (2010) by Neil Bernard Dukas offers a historical account of the last great battle in Hawaii, a turning point between island self-determination and unification. The account is based on Hawaiian mo‘olelo (story) and mele (chant), journal entries by visitors, and research and interviews by historians.

In April of 1795, a great battle was fought on the island of O‘ahu that would change the future of an island nation. The Battle of Nu‘uanu was the last stand of Kalanikūpule and 9,000 warriors of O‘ahu against Kamehameha and his invading army of 12,000 warriors from Hawai‘i. Outnumbered and outgunned, the O‘ahu defenders were already weakened by the Battle of ‘Aiea (Kuki‘iahu) and a failed attempt to seize two well-armed foreign merchant vessels.

Kalanikūpule concentrated his forces around the base of Pūuwaina (Punchbowl Crater) and at Nu‘uanu. Kamehameha landed unopposed at Diamond Head. When Kamehameha unexpected infiltrated Papakōlea, a critical line of defense that connects the crater to the base of the ridge heading up to Tantalus, the defenders retreated to Pauoa Valley and then Nu‘uanu.

With their strongholds falling and Kalanikūpule wounded, the warriors were demoralized. At Kahuailanawai (Jackass Ginger Pool) in lower Luakaha, the defenders were caught between Kamehameha’s driving army and a flanking force that had crossed over from the back of Pauoa. Pressed back toward Kaholeakeahole (Nu‘uanu Pali), the defenders fought to the death or threw themselves off the heights to avoid capture.

Interwoven in the narrative is a glimpse into the personal story of Ka‘iana, one of Kamehameha’s leading warriors, who defected to Kalanikūpule. He was killed at ‘Elekōki (now Craigside Place on South Judd Street), and comforted in his dying moments by his wife Kekupuohi, who had remained loyal to Kamehameha.

In the aftermath of the battle, prisoners were sacrificed, land was reallocated and colonized by the victors, powerful family lines ended, and natural resources were strained. Kalanikūpule survived the battle, but was later captured and sacrificed by Kamehameha at the Diamond Head heiau of Papa‘ena‘ena. While the battle didn’t result in a unified kingdom – civil war continued for five more years, and the islands were unified after the peaceful submission of Kaua‘i in 1810 – it was a pivotal battle that changed the islands’ future.

With beautiful illustrations and photographs, maps, driving directions, and even invasion routes, “The Battle of Nu‘uanu 1795” brings to life the entire battle from a military perspective. It is easy to read, thoughtful, and balanced. I was sad to read of the destroyed heiau, and distressed to learn that the skeletal remains at the base of the Pali were thoughtlessly obliterated during the construction of the Old Pali Road in 1897. I appreciated the background information on weapons and strategies, but I would have liked more personal stories about Kamehameha, Kalanikūpule, and other prominent warriors.

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