Hawaiian History Timeline
The formation of Pearl Harbor began abruptly around 1.5 million years ago. At the time Oahu consisted of two volcano peaks and geologist believe a massive earthquake split the island in half pushing the mountain ranges miles apart and spreading debri for thousands of square miles across the ocean floor. A mega-tsunami thousands of feet high, rushed down the island chain depositing coral rock found recently high upon the slopes of the neighbor islands of Lana’i and Moloka’i.
Located in the center of Oahu between two mountain ranges, Pearl Harbor in ancient times was mostly a river flowing down from the nearby mountain ranges. Native Hawaiians called the river Wai Momi, meaning “Waters of Pearl”.
As Polynesians continued to arrive in the Hawaiian islands from the south the native populations grew around the now expanding shallow lagoon. For over 600 years Hawaiians fished Pearl Harbor and harvested the bay’s oysters for food but they were not interested in the pearls. They used the shells to decorate wooden bowls and made fish hooks out of the mother of pearl as the shiny surface was excellent for attracting fish, but there is no evidence they saved or collected pearls.
The lagoon had an extensive fish pond complex which was part of the Hawaiian land management system. This system divided the land into districts called an ahupua’a which ran from the top of a mountain to the sea, usually following a stream or valley. Pearl Harbor sat at the bottom of the very abundant ahupua’a of Ewa.
Taro was cultivated along the river and upper mountain slopes while fish ponds were fed by the upstream nutrients washing through the taro fields. This sustainable agricultural technique enabled the Hawaiian society to grow, and by the time the islands were discovered by western explorers, Hawai’i was sustaining one of the largest populations found in all of Polynesia at the time!
In ancient times Pearl Harbor was also known by the Hawaiian name Pu’uloa, meaning “long hill”, for the straight escarpment that lined the long entrance to the lagoon. Pu’uloa was known to have at least 27 fishponds lining it’s shores.
Scholars and archeologists believe Polynesians from the Marquesas islands some 2000 miles to the south of Hawai’i began voyaging to the Islands around 450 AD. The islands were perfect for colonization – no predators, mosquitos or disease. They brought with them what was needed to survive – banana, coconut, sweet potato, taro, breadfruit, pigs, chickens and dogs. Only the best people of each societal discipline came to set up the culture and society in this newly found land.
By 1200 AD the islands, by what some native scholars (kapuna) believe, were invaded by Tahitian priests and warriors. Led by a priest named Paao, they established a caste based social system and warrior society known as the Kapu system. A kapu chief’s bloodline connected them directly to the gods and the Ali’i or ruling class of families spread their power and control throughout the island chain through war and marriage.
The idea of mana, that one could have spiritual power over another, became the dominant belief throughout the Hawaiian society. Soon each island was ruled by multiple chiefs fighting for more territory and increased mana. Temples were built and human sacrifices performed in the name of gathering mana. Eventually this resulted in what scholars have estimated to have been close to 100 years of intermittent war for control of multiple islands and eventually the entire Hawaiian archipelago.
Legends say Pearl Harbor’s entrance was guarded by the shark goddess Ka’ahupahau ( meaning “well cared for feather cloak”, a symbol of royalty) and her son (or brother) Kahi’uka (meaning “smiting tail”). The shark goddess put a kapu (taboo) on harming humans in these waters. It was she who identified which sharks were man-eaters and thus drove them away with the help of her son who had a extra large and sharp tail he would strike the dangerous invaders with. A slap of his tail also warned fishermen of the danger. Ka’ahupahau was said to have lived in a cave at Honouliuliu (west Loch) and Kahi’uka in an underwater cave at Moku’ume’ume (Ford Island) at the entrance of East Loch.
Several mo’olelo (stories) were told about the shark goddess Ka’ahupahau and her son, describing many good deeds towards humans. The people were said to have fed her and cared for her by scraping barnacles from her back. The goddess in turn protected the fishermen from harm.
According to Hawaiian tradition the leader of the Ewa chiefs named Keaunui cut a navigable channel near the present day saltworks at Pu’uloa sometime around 1650 AD. It is said this channel made the estuary more accessible to large canoes by widening and deepening the “pearl river”.
When Captain Cook arrived in 1778 on his third voyage to Hawaii in less than two years, he was met off the coast of Maui by the islands king Kahekili who had been battling the Big Island chiefs for decades. A few days later Cook sailed along the Hana coast were he was met by the Big Island’s king Kalaniopu’u and his warrior nephew Kamehameha. The two had been battling Maui’s King Kahekili for control of Maui for years and had managed to conquer and occupy Hana. They came out to Cook’s ship in a large double hulled canoe and Kamehameha spent the night aboard the ship anchored off of east Maui observing the armaments – no doubt plotting his rise to power. A few weeks later Cook came ashore on the Big Island of Hawai’i where he was eventually killed while trying to kidnap King Kalaniopu’u to hold as ransom for the return of a stolen longboat. He was stabbed to death by one of the King’s attendants.
As other western ships arrived Kamehameha skillfully negotiated for armaments and began his conquest of the entire island chain. After his uncle Kalaniopu’u’s death his cousin Kiwala’o became king of the Big Island and Kamehameha was given responsibility of the relic Kuka’ilimoku, a diety of the god Ku – a god of war. This angered Kiwala’o and soon war broke out between the two. Kiwala’o was eventually killed by Kamehameha’s chiefs and he laid claim to the throne. He subsequently spent several years consolidating the Big Island chefs, often through battles, to gain control of the warriors needed to conquer the archipelago.
After western discovery traders and whalers began arriving and several scuffles broke out between western captains and native Hawaiians. In one such incident on the Big Island, Kona chief Kame’eiamoku, having been whipped by the American Captain Simon Metcalf, vowed to exact revenge on the next ship who entered his territory. That ship, the Fair American, was captained by Metcalf’s 18 year old son and five sailors. They were easily overrun by Kame’eiamoku and all were killed save the first mate Isaac Davis. He fought valiantly and though wounded he was spared and treated well. The ship was run aground and stripped of metal and weapons which were given to Kamehameha. Isaac Davis was put to service training the Hawaiian warriors how to use the weapons as Kamehameha prepared to invade Maui. Around this time another westerner, John Young, became lost and separated from his ship on the Big Island. He was captured by Kamehameha and became a gunner along with Isaac Davis. With western weaponry and thousands of warriors, Kamehameha began his conquest of the archipelago.
Kamehameha, after decades of battles fighting for control of the islands, succeeded in uniting them under his rule. He struggled to accomplished what several Ali’i (royalty) had attempted in the past but with the arrival of Captain Cook in 1778 and the foreign ships that began arriving in Hawai’i, Kamehameha now planned his conquests anew with the help of western armaments. On the Big Island he acquired guns, muskets, ammunition and a canon along with a few sailors needed to train his army in their use. He consolidated his power on Hawai’i Island and by 1791 had begun gathering men and canoes for an invasion of Maui.
Kamehameha organized and built an army of 12,000 men and over 1000 war canoes. It was the largest army the Hawaiian Islands had ever seen. He invaded Maui conquering first Hana in east Maui then moved his army west along the north shore till he had beaten back Maui’s warriors into Iao Valley located behind Maui’s king Kahekili’s royal compound at Wailuku . A ground shaking barrage of cannon fire into the tightly confined valley decimated Kahekili’s army led by his son Kalanikupule (Kahekili was attending to matters on Oahu at the time). The Maui warriors were no match for the firepower of cannon and musket.
It is said the bodies piled up in the valley and blocked the river which ran red with blood all the way down to Wailuku. Kalanikupule escaped out the back of the valley to join his father on Oahu and Kamehameha gained control of Maui. Next Kamehameha set his sights on the island of Oahu.
On the island of Oahu Maui’s King Kahekili had battled for years and finally won control by 1785 of all the islands except the Big Island. He conquered Oahu in 1783 killing the islands Mo’i (King) Kahahana and most of the chiefs. He constructed a house out of their bones, the bones thought to hold the powerful mana of the islands Ali’i. This solidified his rule of seven of the Hawaiian Islands and Kahekili had nearly already accomplished what Kamehameha had set out to do – unite the island chain.
Hearing from his son of Kamehameha’s conquest of Maui with western armaments, Kahekili made an agreement with English merchant Captain William Brown for military assistance against Kamehameha for the use of Honolulu Harbor. However, Kamehameha had also brokered a deal for the use of artillery from English Captain George Vancouver. Kamehameha ceded the Big Island to Great Britain in exchange for the armaments in February of 1794.
Kamehameha and Kahekili would not meet in battle. Kahekili died in July 1794 leaving his son Kalanikupule in charge of Oahu and his other son Ka’eokulani in control of Kauai (through marriage) along with the islands of Maui, Lana’i, and Molokai. After morning the death of their father Ka’eokulani discovered a plot to kill him and take control of their father’s islands. Suspecting his brother Kalanikupule was in on the plot he decided to make war with him. The resulting battle, fought with Captain Brown’s artillery aiding Kalanikupule’s forces, resulted in Ka’eokulani being killed and his forces wiped out.
This left Kalanikupule’s army weakened while a dispute over payment to Captain Brown resulted in Brown and several of his men being killed by Kalanikupule while his two ships were seized. Kalanikupule prepared to invade Hawaii Island to attack Kamehameha with the captured ships but before he could do so the crew recaptured the ships and sailed away to the Big Island to inform Kamehameha of what had happened. They traded muskets and cannons to Kamehameha for supplies before leaving for the Orient.
Kamehameha was now ready for his final push to take Oahu and Kauai. With newly acquired ships and cannons, he readied his fleet of war canoes, ships and warriors at Lahaina Maui to begin his assault on Oahu.
Kalanikupule had received prior warnings of the coming invasion from the chiefs of Maui and Molokaʻi and had built several lines of fortifications on Oʻahu. He had already begun buying muskets and cannons from European traders but had far fewer than Kamehameha. Kalanikupule had defensive positions and cannons set up at their fall back position at Nu’uanu Valley and Kamehameha’s forces fought their way from Waikiki beach past Punchbowl and pushed the Oahu defenders into the Ko’olau mountains. Kamehameha’s forces captured the guns in a flanking maneuver in Nu’uanu Valley as Oahu’s army was driven up the valley and eventually over the cliffs at Nu’uanu. By May 1st 1795 Kamehameha had captured Oahu less than one year after the death of King Kahekili.
In 1897 while road crews were building the Pali Highway excavators discovered some 800 skulls. It is believed these are the warriors of the battle who lost their lives going over the cliffs either in battle, jumping to avoid enslavement and sacrifice or just trying to escape.
This battle would be the last of Kamehameha’s campaign to unite the archipelago. For the first time his kingdom was referred to as the Kingdom of Hawaii, but he still had the island of Kauai to conquer. He attempted an invasion but a gale force storm turned him around. Through negotiations between western traders Kauai’s King Kaumuali’i submitted to Kamehameha in 1810 to avoid bloodshed. Kamehameha now ruled the entire island chain after some 40 years of war and battles and established a royal monarchy that would rule the kingdom for over 100 years.