At the time of Captain Cook’s arrival (1778-1779), the Hawaiian Islands were divided into four kingdoms: (1) the island of Hawaiʻi under the rule of Kalaniʻōpuʻu, who also had possession of the Hāna district of east Maui; (2) Maui (except the Hāna district,) Molokai, Lānaʻi and Kahoʻolawe, ruled by Kahekili; (3) Oʻahu, under the rule of Kahahana; and (4) Kauai and Niʻihau, Kamakahelei was ruler.
At that time, Kalaniʻōpuʻu was on the island of Maui. Kalaniʻōpuʻu returned to Hawaiʻi and met with Cook on January 26, 1779, exchanging gifts, including an ʻahuʻula (feathered cloak) and mahiole (ceremonial feather helmet.) Cook also received pieces of kapa, feathers, hogs and vegetables.
In about 1781, through a well-planned campaign, Kahekili was able to regain possession of the Hāna district and this marked the beginning of the disintegration of Kalaniʻōpuʻu’s kingdom. (Kuykendall)
Kalaniʻōpuʻu died shortly thereafter (1782.) Before his death, Kalaniʻōpuʻu gave an injunction to Kiwalaʻo and Kamehameha, and to all the chiefs, thus: “Boys, listen, both of you. The heir to the kingdom of Hawaii nei, comprising the three divisions of land, Kaʻū, Kona and Kohala, shall be the chief Kiwalaʻo. He is the heir to the lands.” (Fornander)
“As regarding you, Kamehameha, there is no land or property for you; but your land and your endowment shall be the god Kaili (Kūkaʻilimoku.) If, during life, your lord should molest you, take possession of the kingdom; but if the molestation be on your part, you will be deprived of the god.” These words of Kalaniʻōpuʻu were fulfilled in the days of their youth, and his injunction was realized. (Fornander)
Following Kalaniʻōpuʻu’s death, and following his wishes, the kingship was inherited by his son Kīwalaʻō; Kamehameha (Kīwalaʻō’s cousin) was given guardianship of the Hawaiian god of war, Kūkaʻilimoku.
Dissatisfied with subsequent redistricting of the lands by district chiefs, civil war ensued between Kīwalaʻō’s forces and the various chiefs under the leadership of Kamehameha.
In the first major skirmish, in the battle of Mokuʻōhai (a fight between Kamehameha and Kiwalaʻo in July, 1782 at Keʻei, south of Kealakekua Bay on the Island of Hawaiʻi,) Kiwalaʻo was killed.
With the death of Kiwalaʻo, the victory made Kamehameha chief of the districts of Kona, Kohala and Hāmākua, while Keōua, the brother of Kiwalaʻo, controlled Kaʻū and Puna, and Keawemauhili declared himself independent of both in Hilo. (Kalākaua)
Supporters of Kiwalaʻo, including his half-brother Keōua and his uncle Keawemauhili (grandson of Keawe,) escaped the battle of Mokuʻōhai with their lives and laid claim to the Hilo, Puna and Kaʻū Districts.
Later, a dispute had grown between Kahekili and Kahahana, the aliʻi of O‘ahu, and Kahekili wished to make war on Kahahana. However, he did not have enough war canoes and through Keʻeaumoku, who had married his sister, he asked for Kamehameha’s support for canoes. He refused.
Because of this refusal, Kahekili asked Keawemauhili; he consented, Kahekili should send some canoe-making experts and some warriors to guard them at their work. He sent Kahahawai and about 1,200-men.
In the meantime, Kamehameha’s counselors were encouraging him to attack Keawemauhili and expand his domain into Hilo. He sent a declaration of war message – two stones, one white and one black. If Keawemauhili chose war, he would send the black stone back – if he chose peace, the white would be returned. (Keawemauhili returned the white and also satisfied Kamehameha’s request for fresh fish from Hilo’s ponds.)
However, following the advice of his counselors, Kamehameha decided to make war against Keawemauhili. He planned the attack from land and sea. (They understood Keōua may come to the aid of Keawemauhili, so they timed their attack before Keōua could do so.)
(When Keōua learned that Kamehameha had moved to fight Keawemauhili, he quickly organized his army to fight Kamehameha; Keōua did not go with his warriors.)
On land, under the leadership of Kamehameha himself, were twelve thousand warriors. The size of Kamehameha’s canoe fleet amounted to eight hundred canoes with eight thousand warriors, making a total army or twenty thousand men.
The Hilo warriors outnumbered Kamehameha’s forces by more than twice. Because Kahekili’s army entered the battle on Keawemauhili’s side, Kamehameha’s warriors fell back as those Maui warriors had not been wearied by recent combat.
Kamehameha sought guidance from Keawemauhili’s kahu, Kauanoano, who told him, “This is not the war which will gain you the island. There will be a future battle which will show your bravery.” (Desha)
The blows to Keawemauhili’s forces began to show, and victory began to lean toward Kamehameha’s forces. Keawemauhili’s warriors began to leap over the sea cliffs; some ran on the mountain paths seeking to escape (fulfilling that ancient saying: “Teach the warrior and also teach him to run.”) Rain shielded the retreating Keōua forces.
Kamehameha boarded a canoe and the fleet sailed to Laupāhoehoe. While Kamehameha was staying at Laupāhoehoe, Kahekili sent some warriors from Maui to get Kahahawai – he wanted Kahahawai to return and assist him in making war with Kahahana on Oʻahu.
When Kahahawai was ready to return, Keawemauhili presented some war canoes to Kahekili. Keōua also gave some large war canoes, as some of his people had sailed in the great canoes from Kaʻū.
As Kahahawai was leaving, he stopped at Laupāhoehoe to meet with Kamehameha. Kamehameha said to Kahahawai: “I have no death for this aliʻi. Return to Maui, and perhaps there we shall meet again and see each other, and sharpen each other’s spears with our strength.” (Desha)
Kamehameha stayed in Laupāhoehoe, farming, preparing his warriors to be ready for battle. They were joined by some new warriors from the people of that place, who trusted in Kamehameha. Kamehameha later left Laupāhoehoe and headed north up the coast.
Later, suspicion grew in Keōua because he felt that the time was coming when Keawemauhili would turn and oppose him and give his assistance to Kamehameha. Because of this suspicion, he raised a large army to make war on Keawemauhili. Keōua understood that Keawemauhili lacked support for his side for his strong warriors had left with Kamehameha.
The two sides met in battle between Paukaʻa and Wainaku. A terrible battle was begun between Keawemauhili’s and Keōua’s people. Two versions of the remainder of that battle suggest one of Keawemauhili’s warriors, Moʻo, killed Keawemauhili; others suggest Keōua killed Keawemauhili (1790.)
Keawemauhili had a daughter, Kapiʻolani. In 1822, she was among the first chiefs to welcome instruction and accept Christianity. In 1823, Kapiʻolani stood up to Pele, stating “Jehovah is my God … I fear not Pele.”
“She told the missionaries she had come to strengthen their hearts and help them in their work. They rejoiced in the salutary influence which she exerted in favor of education and reform, an influence felt at once and happily continued when she had returned home.” (Bingham)
The image shows Keōua over the defeated Keawemauhili by Brook Kapukuniahi Parker. (Lots of information here from Fornander and Desha.)