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The First King of Hawai`i


This article is an edited version of a talk given at
the CCS UK regional Meeting, Marton, October 2017


Kamehameha statue at Kohala, Big Island, his birthplace, with State flag




It was Captain Cook who first fixed the position of the Hawaiian Islands on the charts of the Pacific Ocean with accuracy.  The Spanish are believed by many to have been there on one or more occasions before Cook, having come across the islands whilst pursuing their trade routes between Acapulco and Manila for the previous 200 years.  They were taking silver from Central America to be exchanged for the silks, spices and precious stones of Asia, but they hadn’t had the scientific equipment necessary to correctly ascertain their latitude and longitude, and they indicated islands in several different places.


Cook had the benefit of that precision instrument, the sextant, improved telescopes for observations, and, importantly, the first accurate marine chrono­meters to fix longitude exactly.


Now that they were on the chart, the Hawaiian Islands would be open to traders, and that would lead to huge social changes, including the emer­gence of a king to unify the tribes of the separate islands in the group.




It was the Pacific fur trade that opened the islands to world attention.  When Cook’s ships, Resolution and Discovery, on their way home after Cook’s death, called at Macao and Canton (now Guang­zhou), China, they found that the sea otter pelts which they had purchased from the natives of the Northwest American coast (present day British Columbia and Alaska) were worth their weight in gold.  On 29 December, 1779, Lieutenant James King wrote in his journal
We sold the remainder of our furs to much greater advantage than at Kamchatka, the Chinese being very eager to purchase them and gave us from 50 to 70 Dollars a skin.1 


One sailor made 800 Spanish dollars—a fortune at that time.  King noted
The rage which our sailors were possessed to return [to where the furs had been bought] and buy another cargo of skins to make their fortunes, was not far short of mutiny.


Two men deserted with Resolution’s cutter, presumably to return to the Northwest American coast, and were never seen again.2 


Neither the Spanish nor the Alaskan Russians had realized the value of this trade, but the British, with their trading post or “factory” at Canton, saw it as a golden opportunity.  And with Hawai`i now on the map in mid Pacific they had an ideal provisioning stop.  With a cargo of hatchets, cloth, trinkets, and other trade goods, a trader could sail into the Pacific, stop at the Sandwich Islands (as Cook had first named the Hawaiian Islands) for provisions and water before continuing to North­west America for furs.  If a full cargo couldn’t be bought in one summer, his ship might return to the Islands for the winter, and then head back for another summer’s trading.  With a full cargo the trader would head for China, sell the furs, invest the monies in tea, silk, and porcelain, and then sail home with his fortune made.


In 1785, two ex-members of Cook’s ships’ company, Nathaniel Portlock and George Dixon, formed a partnership, with others, called the King George’s Sound Company to develop the fur trade.3  In September of that year Portlock and Dixon sailed from England, with Portlock in command of the 320-ton King George, and a company of 59.  Dixon was in command of the 200-ton Queen Charlotte, with a company of 33.  These were both two-masted vessels generally known as “snows”, and they sailed together for most of their three-year voyage.  Crossing the Atlantic Ocean, they reached the Falkland Islands in January, 1786, and rounded Cape Horn to enter the Pacific Ocean.  They reach­ed the Hawaiian Islands on 24 May, and anchored in Kealakekua Bay (where Cook had been killed seven years previously), but did not go ashore.  After taking on fresh food at other Hawaiian Islands, they proceeded on to what is now Alaska.  After two years of plying the waters, with two winter breaks in Hawai`i, Portlock and Dixon departed North America, reaching Macao in November, 1788.


Whilst they were in Alaska, two more ships had arrived under command of John Meares, who tried to overwinter there.  His ships became frozen in the ice.  The nearby natives were hostile, and as a result Meares ran out of food; many sailors died.  The following May, Portlock and Dixon found them still icebound, which gives a perfect example of the value of Hawai`i as a winter base.  Eventually, Meares and his ships returned to Hawai`i.


Kamehameha & Ku


Meares took the Chief of Kaua`i, named Ka`iana, to Canton, where the 6 ft 5 in tall, broad and mus­cular Hawaiian, in his red and yellow feathered cape and helmet looked like a giant to the Chinese.  After visiting the Philippines and Alaska, Ka`iana returned to his home islands, landing on the Big Island of Hawai`i.  There, with a large quantity of Chinese goods and ironware (and possibly with a number of firearms) he was welcomed by the man who would eventually become the first King of the Hawaiian Islands, Kamehameha, who we will hear about in a moment.


By 1787, two years before Ka`iana returned, at least seven merchant ships had visited Hawai`i, and numbers would increase rapidly year on year.  The island chiefs quickly joined the provisioning busi­ness but, while iron nails had been the desired currency in Cook’s day, now the chiefs wanted gunpowder and firearms.


Cook and his men had met Kamehameha in 1779, when he was a young and formidable warrior, age about 20.  James King wrote that Kamehameha had
as savage a looking face as I ever saw but that his wild appearance contrasted with his disposition which was good natured and humorous


Captain Clerke referred to him as “an old friend of mine” before leaving the bay.  In the days immediately after Cook’s death in Kealakekua Bay, Kamehameha had been injured by splinters from the impact of a cannonball.  But, he was much more than just a warrior.  The Europeans were unsure of his status at that time, not realizing that he was the nephew of High Chief Kalani`opo`u, and when his uncle died in 1782, Kamehameha “inherited” custody of the island’s war god, Ku.  Kalani`opo`u gave his own son, Kiwala`o, his chieftainship over the Big Island.  After defeating Kiwala`o in a sea battle, Kamehameha now had control of the best anchorages on the island, at Kealakekua Bay and Kailua, on the leeward side of the Big Island, and he had the intelligence to exploit this.  Incidentally, Pearl Harbor, on O`ahu, couldn’t be seen from offshore and wasn’t known to foreigners till 1794. 


Whilst some Hawaiian chiefs would use force to obtain what they couldn’t get by trade, Kame­hameha’s friendly and business-like manner towards foreigners gained him a good reputation amongst ship captains.  So Kamehameha held all the aces.  He could control the trade into the island, and stockpile arms, whilst stopping rival chiefs from doing the same.  He would now look to control the other islands of the Hawaiian chain.


The Schooner Fair American


One of the first Americans to join in the fur trade was one Simon Metcalfe.  He had actually been born in Yorkshire, England, but fought on the side of the US in the revolutionary war, and now lived in Albany, New York.


Metcalfe sailed as captain of the brig Eleanora, which was armed with 10 cannon and had a company of 55.  Metcalfe’s son Thomas, age 19, accompanied him in command of a small topsail schooner, Fair American, with a mere four cannon and a company of four.  In 1789, they got separated by bad weather on their way to the Northwest American coast.  Fair American, damaged in a storm, was apprehended by the Spanish in Nootka Sound, where they were still trying to lay claim to all the North Pacific coast of the Americas, and to stop British incursions.  Simon Metcalfe’s Eleanora arrived just in time to see what had happened, and bore away directly for Hawai`i, in the hope that Fair American would be released, and be able to rendezvous there in due course.


Fair American was indeed released, as soon as the Spanish realized Thomas was not English.  The US had survived a war with Great Britain, Spain’s enemy.  So, on the basis of the adage that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”, the Spanish were friendly towards US citizens, helping Thomas with repairs and supplies.  Fair American found a fair wind for Hawai`i.


In the meantime, Simon Metcalfe and Eleanora arrived in Maui, and began trading for supplies.  Arguments with the Hawaiians began, and in the night, one of the sailors was killed.  Metcalfe, with his 10 cannon, waited for a large number of canoes to come alongside, and then fired grapeshot amongst them.  More than 100 were killed.


Eleanora then sailed to the Big Island, where Simon Metcalfe fell out with one of Kamehameha`s senior officials, Kame`eiamoku, striking him—an intolerable insult to the Hawaiian.  Kame`eia­moku’s vengeance would be to capture the next foreign ship that came by, which happened to be Fair American.


Not knowing that its captain was the son of the man who’d hit him, Kame`eiamoku attacked, kill­ing Thomas Metcalfe.  The only survivor was the mate, Isaac Davis, wounded and temporarily blinded, but spared because of his courage in battle.  The Hawaiians then spirited Fair American away.  Later when Simon Metcalfe sent his boatswain, John Young, ashore to try to learn what had become of Fair American, Young was also taken prisoner.


The capture of Fair American, Isaac Davis and John Young changed Hawaiian history.  The ship, with its guns, gun power, and muskets was eventu­ally turned over to Kamehameha.  Just as import­ant, Davis and Young, on the promise of good treatment, trained Kamehameha’s men to use the muskets, swivel guns and four pounder cannon, and to sail Fair American.  They both learned to speak the language, and they became translators and military advisors to Kamehameha.  In due course, Davis and Young became high chiefs, and lived the rest of their lives in Hawai`i.  Young was nicknamed “Olohana” because of his habit of shouting “All Hands” during training, and this later became a battle cry.


Kamehameha now invaded Maui, cannon fire cutting down hundreds of his opponents, and resistance crumbled.  Moving on to Molokai though, things started to turn against him.  A rival, Keoua, proclaimed himself king in the south of the Big Island, and Kamehameha was forced to return and confront him.


Waimanu valley from the air, taken on a trip in 2009




It is now 1791, and Kamehameha is building a huge new Heiau, or temple, to the war god Ku.  But, it is more than just a temple – it is a citadel, a fortress, and this is psychological warfare.  It shows to all rivals that Kamehameha is invoking Ku—Ku will be on Kamehameha’s side.  The chiefs of O`ahu, Molokai, and Kaua`i are not only worried, but they put aside their own differences to oppose Kamehameha.  But another of the Hawaiian pantheon also seems to be helping him—Pele, the goddess of the Volcano.  An eruption has destroyed a third of his rival’s army.


It is now time for the other islands to act, before the Heiau is completed.  They launch a fleet of war canoes, and strike at the green valley of Waimanu.  But Kamehameha had Fair American and its cannon.  The sea battle was known as Kepuwaha­ulaula, The Battle of the Red-Mouthed Gun, and that title tells you all you need to know of the fighting.  Without that little schooner, and the help of Young and Davis, Kamehameha might well have lost the day, and his life, in the shark filled waters off the valley.  And without a chief powerful enough to bring the islands under one rule, the subsequent history of Hawai`i would have been very different. 


The remains of Kamehameha’s Heiau at Pu


Kamehameha’s personal Heiau (restored),
in the grounds of the King Kamehameha Hotel, Kailua


Kamehameha now completed the Heiau at Pu`ukohola.  Now partially restored, it remains a major historical site in Hawai`i.  


Four years later, in 1795, Kamehameha invaded O`ahu, and finally defeated the forces of the other islands.  His huge invasion fleet landed where Honolulu now stands, and his enemies were driven back into the mountains behind.  There, at a place called Nu`uanu Pali, or the cliffs of Nu`uanu, the last major battle was fought.  The enemy were driven back until they were killed, thrown over the mighty cliff, or jumped off the cliff to their death to avoid capture and slavery.


O`ahu was now added to Kamehameha’s domain, with John Young left in place as governor on Kamehameha’s behalf.  Within a few years the other islands in the chain had also ceded to Kame­hameha.


George Vancouver


I now need to mention another of Cook’s men—a man who had been one of his young midshipmen.  This boy had been attacked by Hawaiians at Kealakekua Bay the day before Cook’s death, and later played a part in trying to recover Cook’s body.  He was promoted to lieutenant on return to England.  In 1792, aged 33, he was made captain, and given two ships to make a voyage to present day British Columbia.  His name will be known to all of you from the city and island named after him—George Vancouver.4 


Vancouver’s order was to negotiate with the Spanish the rival claims that the two nations had over Nootka Sound, and then to continue the exploration of the coastline begun by Cook over 13 years before.  The exploration would take three years, and each winter was spent in the Hawaiian Islands, which Vancouver also charted.


It is clear from Vancouver’s journal, and other accounts of events in Hawai`i in 1792, that neither Vancouver nor the Hawaiians were completely confident of the good will of each other.  This was not surprising, given that the last time Vancouver was there, his commander had been killed.  On Hawai`i, he found that the people refused to trade, except for arms and ammunition, to which Vancou­ver would not agree.  But, from a meeting he had with Kamehameha, he noted in his journal, that he was agreeably surprised in finding that his riper years had softened that stern ferocity, which his younger days had exhibited, and had changed his general deportment to an address characteristic of an open, cheerful, and sensible mind; combined with great generosity, and goodness of disposition.


When Kamehameha came aboard the ship, he took Vancouver’s hand, and “demanded, if we were sincerely his friends”, to which Vancouver answer­ed in the affirmative.  Kamehameha then said
He understood we belonged to King George, and asked if he was likewise his friend.  On receiving a satisfactory answer to this question, he declared the he was our firm good friend; and according to the custom of the country, in testimony of the sincerity of our declarations we saluted by touching noses.


Vancouver also met Isaac Young and John Davis, and gave them a letter testifying that
Tamaah Maah [Kamehameha], with the generality of the Chiefs, and the whole of the lower order of People, have conducted themselves toward us with the strictest honest, civility and friendly attention.


When Vancouver returned to Hawai`i for the last time, Kamehameha assembled the principal chiefs from all over the island for a meeting at Kealake­kua.  There they discussed a treaty to give British protection to Hawaiians from unscrupulous traders, and predatory foreign powers.  It would be achiev­ed through the cession of the Island of Hawai`i to Great Britain.


Tamaahmaah opened the business in a speech, which he delivered with great moderation and equal firmness.  He explained the reasons that had induced him to offer the island to the protection of Great Britain; and recounted the numerous advantages that himself, the chiefs, and the people, were likely to derive by the surrender they were about to make.


The chiefs stated clearly that this cession was not to alter their religion, economy, or government, and that Kamehameha, the chiefs and priests
[The] king repeated his former proposition, which was now unanimously approved of, and the whole party declared their consent by saying, that they were no longer “Tanata no Owhyhee”, the people of Owhyhee; but “Tananta no Britannee”, the people of Britain. were to continue as usual to officiate with the same authority…


To commemorate the event, an inscription on copper was made stating
  in Karakakooa bay, in the presence of George Vancouver, commander of the said sloop and the other officers of the ships; after due consideration, unanimously ceded the said island of Owhyhee to His Britannic Majesty, and acknowledged themselves to be subjects of Great Britain.DiscoveryOn the 25th of February, 1794, Tamaahmaah, king of Owhyhee, in council with the principal chiefs of the island, assembled on board His Britannic Majesty’s sloop


Vancouver then noted in his Journal
Thus concluded the ceremonies of ceding the island of Owhyhee to the British crown; but whether this addition to the empire will ever be of any importance of Great Britain, or whether the surrender of the island will ever be attended with any additional happiness to its people, time alone must determine.


The British government did not receive a copy of the “cession” until after Vancouver’s return to England a year later, and then the British parlia­ment never acted on it.  They had a good excuse, however, as Britain was now at war with Revolutionary France.  But oh, what might have been!




Kamehameha reigned as King of Hawai`i until his death in 1819.  He had turned from being a local warlord into a good and just ruler.  As per the ancient custom, his body was buried in a hidden location, because his mana, or spiritual power, was considered to be sacred.  His final resting place remains unknown.


But he had started a dynasty.  His eldest son, Liholiho, became Kamehameha II.  He and his queen travelled to Great Britain in 1823.  Before meeting King George IV in London, he died of measles in 1824.  The Kamehameha line ran through to 1872, before the Kingship passed outside the immediate family.  The crown then ran through to Queen Lili`uokalani, who was not a descendant of Kamehameha I.  She reigned from 1891 until she was ousted by a pro-American contingent of her government two years later. 


Iolani Palace, Honolulu, photographed in 2017


What was then renamed as “The Government of the Republic of Hawai`i” placed the former Queen under house arrest at the Iolani Palace.  Attempts were made to restore the monarchy, and oppose annexation to United States, but with the outbreak of the Spanish–American War in 1898, the United States succeeded in annexing the Republic of Hawai`i.  Lili`uokalani died in Honolulu in Novem­ber, 1917.  She is fondly remembered by many Hawaiians as the writer of that most famous of Hawaiian songs: Aloha `Oe.


It is said that amongst all the presents exchanged between Captain Vancouver and King Kame­hameha was a flag given by Vancouver to Kame­hameha—a red ensign.  It is said that Kamehameha prized this flag, and in 1816 added stripes to it to represent all the islands over which he was King.  That is why the state flag of Hawai`i still carries the Union Jack in the corner.  I am told that it must be flown alongside the Stars and Stripes in all but two places in Hawai`i.  The first is atop the old Royal Palace in O`ahu, and the other is in Kohala, Kame­hameha’s birthplace on the Big Island of Hawai`i.


It is quite amazing to contemplate just what influence Cook, Vancouver and British sailors had on the wonderful Hawaiian Islands, and how they helped create The First King of Hawai`i.


Steve Ragnall


  1. See Cook’s Log, page 40, vol. 27, no. 4 (2004).
  2. See Cook’s Log, page 48, vol. 28, no. 1 (2005).
  3. See Cook’s Log, page 43, vol. 41, no. 1 (2018).
  4. See Cook’s Log, page 28, vol. 37, no. 1 (2014).

Other sources

Beaglehole, JC (ed).  The Journals of Captain James Cook on his Voyages of Discovery.  Vol. III: The Voyage of the Resolution and Discovery, 1776–1780.  Hakluyt Society.  1967.

Barrow, Terence.  Captain Cook in Hawaii. Island Heritage.  1978. 

Dixon, George.  A voyage round the world but more particularly to the north-west coast of America: performed in 1785, 1786, 1787, and 1788, in the King George and Queen Charlotte, Captains Portlock and Dixon.  London.  G. Goulding.  1780. 

Gibson, James R.  Otter Skins, Boston Ships and China Goods.  McGill-Queen’s University Press.  1992. 

Hackler, Rhoda E. A. and Speakman, Cummins E.  “Vancouver in Hawai`i” in Hawaiian Journal of History.  1989.  Vol. 23.  Pages 31-65. 

Lamb, W. Kaye (ed).  The Voyage of George Vancouver 1791-1795.  Hakluyt Society.  1784. 

Meares, John.  Voyages Made in the Years 1788 and 1789, from China to the North West Coast of America.  1790. 

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 44, volume 41, number 2 (2018).

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