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,) Molokaʻi, Lānaʻi and Kahoʻolawe, ruled by Kahekili; (3) Oʻahu, under the rule of Kahahana; and (4) Kauaʻi and Niʻihau, Kamakahelei was ruler.
Kalaniʻōpuʻu died shortly thereafter (1782.) Before his death, Kalaniʻōpuʻu gave an command 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, Kaʻū̄, 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 in 1782, 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.)
A number of chiefs (both under Kiwalaʻo and Kamehameha were dissatisfied with subsequent redistricting of the lands; 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.
Then, in 1783, following an unsuccessful battle against Keawemauhili and Keōua; Kamehameha sailed to Puna for a surprise attack on some of the warriors against whom the recent battle had been fought.
He went to Papaʻi Bay (Lit. Crab fishermen’s shed; an old village site coastal point of Keaʻau – now called Kings Landing.) Nearby is a māwae (crack, fissure, crevice,) the boundary between Waiakea, Hilo and Keaʻau, Puna.
People there saw that the newcomers were strangers. When asked who they were, someone called out, “It is Kamehameha!” Then the people were filled with fear, for the prowess of the chief was well known and greatly feared.
Kamehameha, commanding the others not to follow, leaped from the canoe to attack two stalwart natives who had been aiding the weak to escape.
A fisherman turned and threw his fishnet over the pursuing chief, causing him to fall down upon the sharp lava. Then he tore the nets which entangled him and again rushed heedlessly on. While straining himself to see where the men were running, his foot broke through a thin shell of lava into a crevice (some suggest it was in the māwae.) To pull it up was impossible.
The men turned back and struck at him with their paddles, but after a few blows the paddles were destroyed. The men ran away. (Westervelt)
Years passed; the memory of that trip made in 1783 to Puna for the sake of robbery and possible murder. The king wondered what had become of the men who had attacked him. He had gone to Hilo (sometime between 1796 and 1802,) determined to find the men of the splintered paddle.
They were captured and when they saw Kamehameha they bowed their heads, hoping to escape recognition. But this revealed them at once to Kamehameha, and he approached them with the command to raise their heads. It was an interesting scene when these common men were brought before the chiefs for final judgment. It is said the chief asked them if they were not at the sea of Papaʻi.
They assented. Then came the question to two of them: “You two perhaps are the men who broke the paddle on my head?” They acknowledged the deed.
Then Kamehameha he said: “Listen! I attacked the innocent and the defenseless. This was not right.
In the future no man in my kingdom shall have the right to make excursions for robbery without punishment, he be chief or priest. I make the law, the new law, for the safety of all men under my government.
If any man plunders or murders the defenseless or the innocent he shall be punished. This law is given in memory of my steersman and shall be known as ‘Ke Kana-wai Ma-mala-hoa,’ or the law of the friend and the broken oars. The old man or the old woman or the child may lie down to sleep by the roadside and none shall injure them.”
The original 1797 law:
Kānāwai Māmalahoe (in Hawaiian:):
E nā kānaka,
E mālama ʻoukou i ke akua
A e mālama hoʻi ke kanaka nui a me kanaka iki;
E hele ka ‘elemakule, ka luahine, a me ke kama
A moe i ke ala
‘A‘ohe mea nāna e ho‘opilikia.
Hewa nō, make.
Law of the Splintered Paddle (English translation:)
Honor thy gods;
Respect alike [the rights of]
People both great and humble;
See to it that our aged,
Our women and our children
Lie down to sleep by the roadside
Without fear of harm.
Disobey, and die.
Kamehameha’s Law of the Splintered Paddle of 1797 is enshrined in the State constitution, Article 9, Section 10: The law of the splintered paddle, Māmalahoe Kānāwai, decreed by Kamehameha I – Let every elderly person, woman and child lie by the roadside in safety – shall be a unique and living symbol of the State’s concern for public safety. The State shall have the power to provide for the safety of the people from crimes against persons and property.
Kānāwai Māmalahoe appears as a symbol of crossed paddles in the center of the badge of the Honolulu Police Department. A plaque, facing mauka on the Kamehameha Statue outside Aliʻiōlani Hale in Honolulu, notes the Law of the Splintered Paddle.