“Kamehameha” by David Kāwika Eyre

Kamehameha

Kamehameha I, the first king of Hawai’i, is a heroic figure, legendary for his power and strength. In “Kamehameha: The Rise of a King” (2013) is a fictional account of the life of Kamehameha (1758-1819), David Kāwika Eyre brings to life a Kamehameha who is thoughtful, reflective, innovative, and open to new ideas, and artist Brook Kapūkuniahi Parker illustrates historical people and events. Note: “Kamehameha: The Rise of a King” was previously published as separate books, but his entire life’s story is collected here.

Kamehameha was born at Kokoiki at Kohala in 1758, while Alapa’inui, the high chief of Hawai’i, prepared for war, a bright star streaked across the sky, and a kahuna chanted a death curse on him Alapa’inui ordered his death, for he was prophesied to conquer others, but Nae’ole, chief of Hālawa spirited him away. “It is the work of our people that the land feeds us. We all must work. Even the ali’i. We are ali’i because of the aloha of our people,” Nae’ole taught him. In his fifth year, Kamehameha was summoned to the court of Alapa’inui in Hilo, met his mother Keku’iapoiwa, and trained with the famous warrior-chief of Ke’ei, Kekūhaupi’o.

In 1778, he met and observed Kāpena Kuke (Captain Cook), decided that he was not the god Lono, and watched as Kuke was killed by vengeful warriors. After the death of Kalani’ōpu’u, he went to war against the chief Kīwala’ō over unfair land divisions; decreed the Law of the Splintered Paddle to protect commoners; and befriended foreign advisors, Isaac ‘Aikake Davis and John ‘Olohana Young.

Kamehameha used cannons for the first time in Hawaii at the battle of Kepaniwai (the Scraping of the Cliffs). He strengthened his rule; trained his warriors, including a group of women (among them, his favorite wife, Ka’ahumanu) with muskets; and befriended Captain George Vancouver, who gifted him with cattle, seeds, and the British ship Britannia. Kahekili, chief of O’ahu, gave his land into Kamehameha’s keeping; but betrayal from Kahekili’s son Kalanikūpule forced Kamehameha to go to war.

Despite betrayal from one of his advisors, Ka’iana, Kamehameha used foreign cannons and drove the O’ahu defenders in the cliffs at the Battle of the Leaping Mullet. After the battle, he dedicated himself and his chiefs to rebuilding and replanting. He married the sacred chiefess Keōpūolani and taught his son and heir Liholiho. In 1810, Kaua’i and Ni’ihau peacefully joined Kamehameha’s kingdom. Kamehameha ruled a united kingdom for just 9 years and died at age 61, with the admonition to teach the children well continue his good works.

The narrative is poetic, lyrical, and descriptive, with Hawaiian phrases and chants. “Then, as if in swirling response, Pele shook out her hair. Streams of red and orange light blazed around her, as lightning streaked the air, the sky brightening and blackening, thunder cursing from cloud to cloud” (page 145), Eyre writes, describing a volcanic eruption.

Eyre offers glimpses of Hawaiian history and genealogy, food preparation, philosophy, rituals (a black boar, black ‘awa, and a black niu honor Lono), and burial customs. While reading about a feast, we can almost taste the flavors of the food and smell the salty limu and roasted pork: “They ate of the delicacies of the land, the women in one hale and the men in another. They ate the sweet poi lehua of Hilo, the raw crab, the crisp limu that smelled of salt and the fresh sea. They ate the twice-fattened pig and the plump mullet of the rippling pond at Waiākea. A sweetness filled their mouths and they smacked their lips” (page 56-57).

There is a balanced account of the interactions with Captain Cook, and the cultural misunderstands that led to his death. We see the Hawaiians’ confusion (Cook challenges their belief in Lono) and the Europeans’ desperation (they were in poor health and needed supplies). We also see the Europeans entering into unequal trades, such as a canoe full of supplies for a single nail! And few of us may remember that Cook attempted to take the elderly chief Kalaniōpu’u hostage.

Eyre imagines that Kamehameha feels some regret over the use of cannons: “When warrior met warrior in equal combat, we celebrated the victor, his courage, his skill with spear and dagger… with the cannons, we win a victory, but we lose our honor” (page 137).  I was surprised to learn that Kamehameha allowed women, including his favorite wife Ka’ahumanu, to train with muskets and fight in battle. I also learned about hē: “The men made poi called hē. It was from the core of the taro, which had never touched dirt. Hē was for the feasting of chiefs” (page 99).

Eyre depicts a humble and philosophical Kamehameha who is caught between chiefly law and godly kapu, one who reveals, “The sacred purpose of my life is to care for my people.” (page 141). He teaches his Liholiho, “Have courage, my son. There is always fear. Without fear there can be no courage. Without courage there can be no great deeds” (page 183).

“Kamehameha” shows us a warrior, philosopher, and leader who can be a role model for Hawaii’s children.

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