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 warfare and familial succession.
In the pursuit of power, following the death of a chief, conflict sometimes arose; this even led one seeking more power to kill his own brother or cousin as a means to gain control. Let’s look back a little, to see a few examples.
According to oral tradition, Piʻilani unified the entire island of Maui and ruled in peace and prosperity, bringing together, under one rule, the formerly-competing eastern (Hāna) and western (Wailuku) multi-district kingdoms of the Island.
Piʻilani’s prosperity was exemplified by a boom in agriculture and construction of heiau, fishponds, trails and irrigation systems. Famed for his energy and intelligence, Piʻilani constructed the West Maui phase of the noted Alaloa, or long trail (also known as the King’s Highway.)
Pi‘ilani died at Lāhainā and the kingdom of Maui passed to his son, Lono-a-Piʻilani. Pi‘ilani had directed that the kingdom go to Lono, and that Kiha-a-Piʻilani (Lono’s brother) serve under him. In the early years of Lono-a-Piʻilani’s reign all was well; that changed.
Lono-a-Piʻilani became angry, because he felt Kiha-a-Piʻilani was trying to seize the kingdom for himself. Lono sought to kill Kiha; so Kiha fled in secret to Molokaʻi and later to Lānaʻi. When Kiha, with chiefs, warriors and a fleet of war canoes, made their way to attack Lono; Lono trembled with fear of death, and died. (Kamakau)
Kiha assumed power over Maui. Like his father, the reign of Kiha-a-Piʻilani was, “eminently peaceful and prosperous, and his name has been reverently and affectionately handed down to posterity”. (Fornander) Kiha resumed what his father had started in West Maui and connected the trail with East Maui (the only ancient pathway to encircle any Hawaiian island (not only along the coast, but also up the Kaupō Gap and through the summit area and crater of Haleakalā.)
That was on Maui; here are a couple examples in the successions in the Kamehameha line.
When Keōua, the father of Kamehameha, died, he commended his son to the care of Kalaniʻōpuʻu, who received him, and treated him as his own child. (Dibble) 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 his cousin 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 his cousin Kiwalaʻo, the victory made Kamehameha chief of the districts of Kona, Kohala and Hāmākua, while Keōua, the brother of Kiwalaʻo, held Kaʻū and Puna, and Keawemauhili declared himself independent of both in Hilo. (Kalākaua)
Kamehameha, through the assistance of the Kona “Uncles” (Keʻeaumoku, Keaweaheulu, Kameʻeiamoku & Kamanawa (the latter two ended up on the Islands’ coat of arms;)) succeeded, after a struggle of more than ten years, in securing the supreme authority over that island (and later, the entire Hawaiian Islands chain.)
Prior to his death on May 8, 1819, Kamehameha decreed that that his son, Liholiho, would succeed him in power; he also decreed that his nephew, Kekuaokalani, have control of the war god Kūkaʻilimoku (a similar scenario to Kalaniʻōpuʻu and Kiwalaʻo/Kamehameha.)
Following the death of Kamehameha I in 1819, King Kamehameha II (Liholiho) declared an end to the kapu system. “An extraordinary event marked the period of Liholiho’s rule, in the breaking down of the ancient tabus, the doing away with the power of the kahunas to declare tabus and to offer sacrifices, and the abolition of the tabu which forbade eating with women (ʻAi Noa, or free eating.)” (Kamakau)
Kekuaokalani, Liholiho’s cousin, opposed the abolition of the kapu system and assumed the responsibility of leading those who opposed its abolition. These included priests, members of his court and the traditional territorial chiefs of the middle rank.
Kekuaokalani demanded that Liholiho withdraw his edict on abolition of the kapu system. (If the kapu fell, the war god would lose its potency.) (Daws) Kamehameha II refused.
After attempts to settle peacefully, “Friendly means have failed; it is for you to act now,” and Keōpūolani then ordered Kalanimōku to prepare for war on Kekuaokalani. Arms and ammunition were given out that evening to everyone who was trained in warfare, and feather capes and helmets distributed. (Kamakau)
The two powerful cousins engaged at the final battle of Kuamoʻo. In December 1819, just seven months after the death of Kamehameha I, the allies of his two opposing heirs met in battle on the jagged lava fields south of Keauhou Bay. Liholiho had more men, more weapons and more wealth to ensure his victory. He sent his prime minister, Kalanimōku, to defeat his cousin.
Kekuaokalani marched up the Kona Coast from Kaʻawaloa and met his enemies at Lekeleke, just south of Keauhou. The first encounter went in favor of Kekuaokalani. At Lekeleke, the king’s army suffered a temporary defeat.
Regrouping his warriors, Kalanimōku fought back and trapped the rebels farther south along the shore in the ahupuaʻa of Kuamoʻo. (Kona Historical Society)
Kekuaokalani showed conspicuous courage during the entire battle. He kept on advancing and even when shot in the leg he fought on bravely until afternoon, when he was surrounded and shot in the chest and died facing his enemies. His wife Manono fought and died at his side. (Kamakau) His forces were routed.
In these and other battles and wars, in the pursuit of power, Hawaiians were killing Hawaiians; as you see, sometimes the rivalries pitted members of the same family against each other.
“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)