Mokuohai is where Kamehameha began unification of the islands.

Mokuohai marks start
of unification

IT'S a scrubby, dry area on the west coast of the Big Island, fringing Kealakekua Bay. Even a couple of centuries ago, it was described by traveler William Ellis as "a large tract of rugged lava, the whole superficies of which had been broken up by an earthquake."


Near Kealakekua Bay, HI
(Big Island)

Quicktime Panoramas
None for this site

Ellis also noticed piles of stones everywhere, cairns and memorials to fallen warriors. And so it was -- the battlefield where Kamehameha began unification of the islands.

At the time, Kamehameha was fairly minor for a royal. His face likely still marked from a shrapnel accident during the scuffle in which Capt. James Cook was killed, Kamehameha was allied by 1782 with Kalaniopuu, his uncle and ruler of the Kona area. When Kalaniopuu died, kingship passed to son Kiwalao, and Kamehameha was given guardianship of the war god Kukailimoku and responsibility of the Waipio district.

A hui of local chiefs was not happy with Kiwalao and approached Kamehameha with the idea of a royal coup. Kamehameha accepted, and led his troops into an eight-day battle in Mokuohai in July 1782.

The opposing armies skirmished for seven days, with neither gaining an advantage. On the morning of the eighth day, Kiwalao's men flanked and surrounded the forces of Keeaumoku, one of Kamehameha's generals. All of his men were killed, and Keeaumoku, wounded, fell to the earth. Kiwalao bent over the bleeding general to relieve him of his whale's tooth ornament when Keeaumoku regained consciousness and seized Kiwalao by his hair, pulling him also to the ground.

At this moment, Kamehameha's forces arrived and, seeing Kiwalao held fast by Keeaumoku, stabbed the king, who collapsed bleeding atop Keeaumoku.

"As soon as the death of (Kiwalao) was known, a panic spread through his men, and they quickly fled," recounted Ellis. "Many jumped into the sea and swam to some canoes lying off the place, and the rest fled to the mountains or the adjoining puuhonua (place of refuge) at Honaunau, about four miles distant."

And his later visit to the area showed that "numerous piles of stones which we saw in every direction convinced us that the number of those who fell on both sides must have been considerable."

Victorious, Kamehameha consolidated Kohala, Kona and Hamakua. By 1790 he had moved on the districts of Hilo and Puna, but that's another story.

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