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Hawaii: Captain William Brown is Killed

By Peter T. Young


A Post Script in a March 3, 1810 letter from Kamehameha to England’s King George III only starts to tell a story …


“PS. My removal from Owyhee to this Island was in consequence of their having put to death Mr. Brown & Mr. Gordon, Masters, (of the Jackall & Prince Le Boo, two of you [sic] merchant vessels.) I have sent by Mr. Jno. Gl Spence Commander of the Ship Duke of Portland, a feather’d cloak & beg your acceptance.”

Kamehameha had been on the Island of Hawai‘i and came to O‘ahu – what happened … ?

These were interesting and turbulent times.

At the time of 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 at (4) Kauai and Niʻihau, Kamakahelei was ruler.

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.

Civil war broke out 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 gained control of half the Island of Hawaiʻi

On Maui, Kamehameha also battled Kahekili and Kalanikūpule’s forces at a battle at ʻIao (1790).  It was described, “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 ʻlao, and that hence one of the names of this battle was “Kepaniwai” (the damming of the waters).  (Fornander)

Kamakahelei was the Queen of Kauai and Niʻihau, and her husband (Kāʻeokūlani (Kā‘eo) was a younger brother to Kahekili.  (With Kāʻeo, Kamakahelei had a son Kaumualiʻi.) Kahekili was plotting for the downfall of Kahahana and the seizure of Oʻahu and Molokai, and the queen of Kauai assisted him.

By 1791, Kahekili, King of Oahu, Molokai and Maui, was on Maui with his brother Kā‘eo, King of Kauai, preparing to resist the threatened invasion of Maui by Kamehameha of Hawai‘i.

Kahekili agreed with Kā‘eo that after his death Kā‘eo was to be regent of Maui and Molokai while Kalanikūpule, the son and heir of Kahekili, was to be King of Maui, Molokai, and Oahu, but was to reside on O‘ahu and allow Kā’eo to govern Maui and Molokai for him.

In 1793, Captain Brown was a British trader, “one of that numerous group of commercial adventurers who flocked into the north Pacific Ocean in the wake of Cook, drawn thither by the chance discovery, as one result of the last expedition led by that great navigator, of the possibilities of wealth in the fur trade between China and the coast of America.”  (Kuykendall)

Brown’s three-vessel trading squadron included the ‘Butterworth’ (under Captain Brown,) ‘Prince Lee Boo’ (under Captain Gordon) and the ‘Jackal’ (under the command of Captain Alexander Stewart.)

At Maui Captain Brown seems to have entered into some sort of a politico-commercial agreement with Kahekili. Brown “had left the Isld, only a fortnight before we arrived had given them a number of Muskets, a very large quantity of Powder, and two pieces of Cannon (4 pounders)”.  (Boit)

However, for these weapons, Boit says that Kahekili had “given to him the whole right & property of the Islands Woahoo (O‘ahu) & Atooi (Kauai)”.  Later, Kamakau notes Kalanikūpule bargained for Brown’s assistance for “four hundred hogs”.

In July 1794, Kahekili died and, according to the prior arrangement, Kalanikūpule took control of O‘ahu and Kā‘eo ruled over Maui and Kauai.

Kā‘eo, who was residing on Maui, decided to return to Kauai. On the way he stopped with a considerable force on the northeast coast of O‘ahu, across the mountains from Waikiki, the capitol of the island.

Some fighting took place between his followers and those of Kalanikūpule, but this trouble was settled by a personal conference between the two chiefs, and Kā‘eo continued on around the island to Waianae, the usual point of departure for Kauai.

While resting here Kā‘eo learned of a plot among his warriors directed against himself. In this emergency he resorted to a measure not infrequently used by more civilized generals. He proposed an immediate attack on Kalanikūpule and the conquest of O‘ahu.

The plot collapsed and his followers rallied about him with enthusiasm, augmented in numbers by several bands of disaffected Oahuans. The advance toward Waikiki was begun at once and within a few days the two armies were in contact west of Honolulu.  (Kuykendall)

Kalanikūpule at once engaged Captain Brown to aid him in this war (in return for four hundred hogs.) A battle was fought on the plains of Puʻunahawele in which some foreigners were killed by Mare Amara. Kalanikūpule was forced to retreat. Six days later, another battle was fought in which Kāʻeo was again victorious.

On December 12, 1794, a great battle was fought; Kalanikūpule himself with the main army held the middle ground between ʻAiea and the taro patches; Captain Brown’s men were in boats guarding the shoreline.

Thus surrounded, Kāʻeo with six of his men escaped into a ravine below ʻAiea and might have disappeared there had not the red of his feather cloak been seen from the boats at sea and their shots drawn the attention of those on land. Hemmed in from above, Kāʻeo was killed.  (Kamakau)

Toward the end of December a plot was formed among the natives for the seizure of the two vessels (Jackal and Prince Lee Boo.) On the first day of January, 1795, the plan was put in place.

The Englishmen being thus scattered and the vessels almost deserted, except for the two captains, who remained on board.

“Capt. Brown was walking the poop, by himself, when one of ye Savages gets up on the poop, & made a pass at the Good old Captain with an Iron dagger, which he fend’d of, & seizd a Swivell worm & drove the fellow of, he was soon followed by a number more which the captain likewise beat of …”

“… but at last he was overpower’d by numbers, & receiv’d a fatal stab in the back of the neck and was pitch’d from the poop on to the main deck where he soon expir’d, & so by there savage artfulness they got possession of both Vessells without the loss of a man on there side, in the mean time they had seiz’d the Boats & People that where on shore”.  (Boit; Kuykendall)

Being in possession of the two ships, with a large quantity of arms and ammunition, Kalanikūpule and his advisers conceived this to be an opportune moment for striking a decisive blow at Kamehameha.

The surviving members of the crews were compelled, under guard, to fit the vessels for sea, and when all was ready the king and his chiefs went on board and the ships were warped out of Fairhaven harbor and anchored in Waikiki bay.

The next day Mr. Bonallack, mate of the Prince Lee Boo, and Mr. Lamport, mate of the Jackal, agreed upon a plan for retaking the vessels that night. It was a desperate venture but the attempt was entirely successful, the natives on board being killed or driven off, with the exception of the king, queen, and three or four of their personal attendants.

The ships immediately put to sea, but at daybreak they again came near the shore and, after placing the king and queen in a canoe with one attendant, made all sail for the island of Hawaii, and from there, after procuring supplies, took their departure for Canton.

In 1795 Kamehameha sailed from his home island of Hawaiʻi with an army of thousands of warriors, including a handful of non-Hawaiian foreigners to battle Kalanikūpule.

The war apparently ends with some of Kalanikūpule’s warriors pushed/jumping off the Pali.  When the Pali Highway was being built, excavators counted approximately 800-skulls, believed to be the remains of the warriors who were defeated by Kamehameha.

Within less than five months after the death of Captain Brown, Kamehameha over-ran Maui and Molokai, defeated Kalanikūpule in the great battle of Nuʻuanu, and became ruler of all the islands except Kauai. (Kuykendall)

Kamehameha launched his first invasion attempt on Kauai in April of 1796, having already conquered the other Hawaiian Islands, and having fought his last major battle at Nuʻuanu on O‘ahu in 1795.

Kauai’s opposing factions (Kaumuali‘i versus Keawe) were extremely vulnerable as they had been weakened by fighting each other (Keawe died and Kaumuali‘i was, ultimately, ruler of Kauai and Ni‘ihau.)  Kamehameha’s two attempts at invading Kauai were foiled (by storm and sickness.)  The island was never conquered.

Then, on March 3, 1810, Kamehameha wrote his letter to King George – this summary explains how/why he moved to O‘ahu.

Then, in April of 1810, at Pākākā, Kamehameha’s compound at Honolulu Harbor, negotiations between King Kaumuali‘i and Kamehameha I took place; facing the threat of a further invasion, Kaumualiʻi yielded to Kamehameha.  The agreement marked the end of war and thoughts of war across the islands.


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