Estimates indicate that at least 618,000 men died in the American Civil War – 360,000 from the North and 258,000 from the South – the greatest loss of American lives in a war. (The 3-day Battle of Gettysburg was the bloodiest, approximately 50,000 Americans died.)
In the Islands, over the centuries, the islands weren’t unified under single rule. Leadership sometimes covered portions of an island, sometimes covered a whole island or groups of islands.
Island rulers, Aliʻi or Mōʻī, typically ascended to power through familial succession and warfare. In those wars, Hawaiians were killing Hawaiians; sometimes the rivalries pitted members of the same family against each other.
At the period 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 Kahekili was plotting for the downfall of Kahahana and the seizure of Oahu and Molokai, and the queen of Kauai was disposed to assist him in these enterprises.”
“The occupation of the Hana district of Maui by the kings of Hawaii had been the cause of many stubborn conflicts between the chivalry of the two islands, and when Captain Cook first landed on Hawaii …”
“… he found the king of that island absent on another warlike expedition to Maui, intent upon avenging his defeat of two years before, when his famous brigade of eight hundred nobles was hewn in pieces.” (Kalākaua)
Kamakahelei was the “queen of Kauai and Niihau, and her husband was a younger brother to Kahekili, while she was related to the royal family of Hawaii. Thus, it will be seen, the reigning families of the several islands of the group were all related to each other, as well by marriage as by blood.”
“So had it been for many generations. But their wars with each other were none the less vindictive because of their kinship, or attended with less of barbarity in their hours of triumph.” (Kalākaua)
“By this time nearly a generation of the race had passed away, subsequently to their discovery by Cook. How much of their strength had been exhausted by wars and the support of armies, and how much by new and terrible diseases, it is not easy to estimate. The population was greatly diminished, and the residue unimproved in morals.” (Bingham)
“Whether we contemplate the horrors or the glories of the rude warfare which wasted the nation, we are not to confine our views to the struggles of armed combatants – the wounds, the reproaches, and various evils inflicted on one another…”
“… but the burden of sustaining such armies deserves attention, and the indescribable misery of the unarmed and unresisting of the vanquished party or tribe, pursued and crushed, till all danger of further resistance disappeared, must not be forgotten.” (Bingham)
Fornander states that “It had been the custom since the days of Keawenui-a-Umi on the death of a Moi (King) and the accession of a new one, to redivide and distribute the land of the island between the chiefs and favorites of the new monarch.” This custom was repeatedly the occasion of a civil war. (Thrum)
Human and organic nature were, however, probably the same then as now, and wars and contentions may occasionally have disturbed the peace of the people, as eruptions and earthquakes may have destroyed and altered the face of the country. (Fornander)
“Before the conquest of Kamehameha, the several islands were ruled by independent kings, who were frequently at war with each other, but more often with their own subjects. As one chief acquired sufficient strength, he disputed the title of the reigning prince.”
“If successful, his chance of permanent power was quite as precarious as that of his predecessor. In some instances the title established by force of arms remained in the same family for several generations, disturbed, however, by frequent rebellions … war being a chief occupation …” (Jarves)
“It is supposed that some six thousand of the followers of this chieftain (Kamehameha,) and twice that number of his opposers, fell in battle during his career, and by famine and distress occasioned by his wars and devastations from 1780 to 1796.” (Bingham)
“However the greatest loss of life according to early writers was not from the battles, but from the starvation of the vanquished and consequential sickness due to destruction of food sources and supplies – a recognized part of Hawaiian warfare.” (Bingham)
Following Kalaniʻōpuʻu’s death in 1782, 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. At the Battle of Mokuʻōhai (just south of Kealakekua) Kīwalaʻō was killed and Kamehameha attained control of half the Island of Hawaiʻi.
The result of the battle of Mokuʻōhai was virtually to rend the island of Hawaii into three independent and hostile factions. The district of Kona, Kohala, and portions of Hāmākua acknowledged Kamehameha as their sovereign. (Fornander)
The remaining portion of Hāmākua, the district of Hilo, and a part of Puna, remained true to and acknowledged Keawemauhili as their Moi; while the lower part of Puna and the district of Kaʻū, the patrimonial estate of Kīwalaʻō, ungrudgingly and cheerfully supported Keōua Kuahuula against the mounting ambition of Kamehameha. (Fornander)
A later battle at ʻIao is described as, “They speak of the carnage as frightful, the din and uproar, the shouts of defiance among the fighters, the wailing of the women on the crests of the valley, as something to curdle the blood or madden the brain of the beholder. (Fornander)
The Maui troops were completely annihilated, and it is said that the corpses of the slain were so many as to choke up the waters of the stream of lao, and that hence one of the names of this battle was “Kepaniwai” (the damming of the waters). (Fornander)
Vancouver was appalled by the impoverished circumstances of the people and the barren and uncultivated appearance of their lands.
“The deplorable condition to which they had been reduced by an eleven years war” and the advent of “the half famished trading vessels” convinced him that he should pursue his peace negotiations for “the general happiness, of the inhabitants of all the islands.” (Vancouver, Voyage 2)
Then, a final battle of conquest took place on Oʻahu. Kamehameha landed his fleet and disembarked his army on Oʻahu, extending from Waialae to Waikiki. … he marched up the Nuʻuanu valley, where Kalanikūpule had posted his forces. (Fornander)
At Puiwa the hostile forces met, and for a while the victory was hotly contested; but the superiority of Kamehameha’s artillery, the number of his guns, and the better practice of his soldiers …
… soon turned the day in his favour, and the defeat of the Oahu forces became an accelerated rout and a promiscuous slaughter. (Fornander) Estimates for losses in the battle of Nuʻuanu (1795) ranged up to 10,000. (Schmitt)
In addition to deaths in wars, epidemics of infections added to the decline in Hawaiʻi’s population from approximately 300,000 at the time of Captain Cook’s arrival in 1778 to 135,000 in 1820 and 53,900 in 1876. (Images from Herb Kane.)