In December 1819, three months before the missionaries arrived in Hawaii, a bloody battle was fought on Hawaii Island at the south end of what is now Kailua town at a place called Kuamo’o.

The battle of Kuamo’o, surprisingly, is not as renowned as others such as the battle of Nuuanu Pali, which was a strategic victory for Kamehameha the Great leading to the conquest and unification of the Hawaiian Islands into the Hawaiian Kingdom.

Yet, the battle of Kuamo’o was the singular most pivotal clash in Native Hawaiian history. It was a foreboding indicator of change to the entire construct of a Hawaiian society that had reached a level of sophistication that took centuries to build. Whether the changes that have occurred are for better or worse remains an unanswered question.

The Battle’s Origins

Kamehameha the Great, who forged the Kingdom of Hawaii, and his wife Ka’ahumanu had gained some familiarity with Christianity from British sea Captain George Vancouver in 1794. And in the 25 years between this encounter and the Battle of Kuamo’o, many seafarers shared their Christianity with other Hawaiians.

Nonetheless, Kamehameha remained true to the old religion and the plurality of gods of his ancestors. The religion was referred to as the kapu system.

burial grounds
One of the monuments at the battleground site includes portraits of the leaders involved. Wikimedia/Yoshi Canopus

Kamehameha passed away and was succeeded by his eldest son, Liholiho, who became King Kamehameha II. Liholiho shared ruling authority with his father’s wife, Ka’ahumanu, who had become a powerful persona in the royal court and given the title of Kuhina Nui (regent).

Together, and with the support of other high-ranking chiefs, Ka’ahumanu and Lihiliho abolished the kapu system and ordered the destruction of all temples and god figures.

The decision to overthrow the ancient state religion was obviously monumental, but at the same time, not totally foreign to Hawaiian thinking. Hawaiian scholar-historian George Kanahele states in his classic book “Kū Kanaka”:

“To Hawaiians of old the gods were mortal. Hawaiians believed that if they could make gods, they could also get rid of them. … People made their own household gods, and destroyed them when they failed to contribute to their success. … War gods were particularly susceptible to being done away with. Historian-Scholar Martha Beckwith wrote: ‘Impotent gods who remained obstinately passive were rejected by war leaders or the battle was called off.’ … The practice of disposing of gods was not peculiar to Hawaiians, being shared by other Polynesians.”

Enter Kekuaokalani, nephew of Kamehameha the Great and a high-ranking chief upon whom Kamehameha, before his death, had bestowed the honor and responsibility of being the caretaker of Kū, the god of war.

Kekuaokalani was outraged by the idea of abolishing the religion he had vowed to protect. He felt it was a betrayal of Kamehameha and the legacy of rule he left. Kekuaokalani was joined in his outrage by many Hawaiians who opposed abandoning the old customs, laws, and gods. They threatened war against the new King Liholiho and Ka’ahumanu.

Wanting to avoid a battle, Liholiho and Ka’ahumanu made diplomatic efforts to engage Kekuaokalani right up until the day of the battle, but Kekuaokalani could not be persuaded. And so, one of the bloodiest and most defining battles of the kingdom commenced on the lava fields of Kuamoo.

Kekuaokalani, a proud and fierce warrior chief, was joined on the battlefield by his wife, Manono. With a smaller, less-well-armed force, Kekuaokalani and Manono knew this would be a fight to their death.

Though both sides were armed with muskets, the superior forces of Liholiho and Ka’ahumanu fielded a cannon which proved a decisive factor and wreaked havoc on the forces of Chief Kekuaokalani.

Kekuaokalani fell wounded with his wife beside him. He lay dying as Manono fought beside him until she too was killed, falling onto the body of her husband. It is the stuff of legend. Indeed, a popular chant still sung today, “E Manono,” celebrates her heroism.

Surviving warriors who fought with Kekuaokalani who laid down their arms were pardoned. A band of warriors from the Hamakua area of Hawaii Island kept up the resistance and most were killed in a battle in Waimea. This was the last of the armed opposition to the abolition of the religion. The kapu system was broken forever.

The Aftermath

The battle of Kuamo’o brought a somewhat desperate condition of change to an entire system of life as Hawaiians had known it for centuries.

Many Hawaiians were confused. All their gods and religious practices, which dictated their day-to-day lives, were gone. Their religion was being deconstructed, leaving a huge vacuum. The missionaries were still a few months away from arriving so Christianity was only starting to bubble under the surface.

No doubt, the abolishment of the old religion was a remarkably fortuitous circumstance for Christianity, and it was a bizarre twist of fate that the missionaries should arrive at a time when there was such a huge vacuum in the religious belief system of Hawaiians.

I have a notion that the Battle of Kuamo’o still rages absent the muskets and cannon. But, the battlefield is not a physical place. It’s a place where old and new Hawaiian cultural and political ideologies swirl about, looking for a place to land.

The psychological wrenching that occurred with the Battle of Kuamo’o as a political act was not so complete as to wipe out every vestige of the old religion and the gods.

In fact, what seems to have actually happened is that many Hawaiians, even after converting to Christianity, couldn’t quite bring themselves to totally abandon the old religion, the pantheon of gods and the ceremonies and protocols that had been a vital part of their ancestral existence. The Battle of Kuamo’o succeeded in changing the law, but fared less well in changing hearts and minds.

So fast-forward and today we find many Hawaiians, including some Hawaiian Christian ministers, who practice a merging of the two belief systems – Christianity and the old Hawaiian religion. And it’s amazing to me how some practice both so seamlessly. As I witness the duality being exercised it seems a matter of being sensitive to the appropriate time and circumstance as to which spiritual practice might be called for and sometimes both are merged into the same ceremony, such as in the blessing of a house or place to chase away unwanted spirits.

Still, down through the years, other Hawaiians have chosen to reject Christianity and continue to practice the old religion.

In the end though, whether Christianity or old religious practices, it appears to this writer that the pragmatism of whether or not it’s working is still a paramount consideration.

Kuamo’o Battlefield Preserved

Aloha Kuamo’o ‘Aina, a private non-profit organization, and the Trust for Public Land have joined to protect and preserve the historic battlefield so rich in history, cultural treasures and burial sites.

Aloha Kuamo’o ‘Aina, led by its president Keola Beamer, who is a direct descendent of Manono, joined the Trust for Public Land in a massive fundraising campaign and purchased the 47-acre property from Margaret “Possum” Schatteur for a little over $5 million dollars.

Aloha Kuamo’o ‘Aina intends to establish a cultural campus on the battlefield offering site visits and education programs that honor this very special place in Hawaiian history.

Memorial to the warriors killed in an 1819 battle at Kuamo'o Bay in the Lekeleke area, on the Big Island of Hawai'i
A memorial to the warriors killed in an 1819 battle at Kuamo’o Bay in the Lekeleke area on the Big Island. Wikimedia Commons/W. Nowicki

I have a notion that the Battle of Kuamo’o still rages absent the muskets and cannon. But, the battlefield is not a physical place. It’s a place where old and new Hawaiian cultural and political ideologies swirl about, looking for a place to land.

It’s a battle of minds attempting to sort out and forge agreement as to where we Hawaiians want to go based on where we’ve been. What do we want our Hawaiian future to look like?

In the absence of the leadership structure of the kingdom and a fading of the alii (royal) class from assuming leadership roles in contemporary Hawaii, there is no traditional center of gravity to which Hawaiians can turn to navigate political and cultural disagreements. So a unified Hawaiian people is a challenge we have yet to meet.

My hope is that as battles go, we will not end up with winners and losers as we did with Kuamoo. That in the end we should take the heart-wrenching lesson that springs from the dying words of Kekuaokalani’s wife, Manono, as she lay across his body on the battlefield and implored of the surrounding warriors: “Mālama ko aloha – keep your love.”

About the Author

  • Peter Apo
    Peter Apo is a former trustee of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and legislator. He is the president of the Peter Apo Company, a cultural tourism consulting company to the visitor industry. He has also been the arts and culture director for Honolulu, the city's director of Waikiki Development and served as special assistant on Hawaiian affairs to Gov. Ben Cayetano.