The Battle of Mokuʻōhai – Part 1

#147 in the Moʻolelo series

The name Mokuōhai means, roughly, the grove of ohai trees. Today, ohai is used to describe the monkeypod tree, but the Hawaiian ʻōhai is a different (perhaps related) tree. The site is near Hōnaunau and Kealakekua Bay. Desha (2000, 123) writes that Kekūhaupiʻo chose the “wretched place” because it was one ” in which small groups would be better able to fight the large army of Kīwala‘ō and the many men under him.” Stephen Desha’s chapter on the battle of Mokuohai is quite a long one, and it may take a few parts or many edits to tell the entire story here.

The importance of the battle is that it ended in the death of Kīwalaʻō, one-time King of Hawaiʻi Island and son of Kalaniopuʻu. This caused the island to be divided in three, with Kamehameha, Keoua and Keawemaʻuhili controlling independent chiefdoms.

Ahuʻula o Kīwalaʻō – Kīwlalaʻō’s cape was famously nearly all yellow – a sign of his high rank. The cape was displayed in the basement of ʻIolani Palace for many years in poor condition until a recent renovation. Painting by Brook Parker.

The 1782 battle was in two parts, with an initial skirmish in the morning and heavy fighting in the afternoon. As Desha relates the story, he inserts commentary on the use of kahuna or “seers” in Hawaiian warfare:

 Kamehameha did not enter into the battle in the morning, following the advice of his kahuna nui, Holo‘ae, who had been his uncle Kalani‘ōpu‘u’s kahuna, together with that of Pine, the daughter of Holo‘ae who was also a kahuna. Kekūhaupi‘o was in agreement with this advice by these two seers.

     On the side of Kīwala‘ō, there were also some kāhuna who were knowledgeable in the omens and who were forecasting the signs of victory in battle. The leader of the kāhuna was Kālaiku‘i‘aha, one of the leaders of those days, and under him were the papa kāhuna kilokilo who arranged the order of battle.

     In the minds of our era, those seer activities of the kāhuna of Hawai‘i Nei were of no value, thought to be pagan. However, within the knowledge of the old kāhuna of this land, there was no lack of wisdom, and their guidance brought victory to the chiefs who listened to them. Not only were they seers, but some of them used the papa kōnane ho‘one‘e ‘ili‘ili [checkerboard stones] to guide them in understanding the movements on the battlefield.

Stephen Desha, Kamehameha and his Warrior Kekūhaupiʻo, Honolulu: Kamehameha Publishing.
Kīwalaʻō’s cape

In his historical fiction work for young readers, Kāwika Eyre wrote a graphic account of the scene of the death of Kīwalaʻō. I donʻt have the book on hand, but having read the passage many times to my students, I paraphrase Eyre from memory:

Kīwalaʻō moved toward Keʻeaumoku, who was injured and bleeding. As he saw the blood dripping toward Keʻeaumoku’s Niho Palaoa (whale tooth necklace) he called out to his warriors: “let no blood smear the prize!” Keʻeaumoku thought to himself (“half dead” in the words of Kamakau) “it is my niho palapa that he prizes..” As Kīwalaʻō stood there on the field of battle transfixed, a warrior with a sling slung a stone that hit Kīwalaʻō in the head. He fell and his men thought him dead. Keʻeaumoku crawled toward Kīwalaʻō and slit his throat with his lei o Mano (shark tooth club). Kīwalaʻō lay there, in Eyre’s words, “his moans slurring in his mouth.”

Painting by Brook Parker.

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