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Hawaiian King Kamehameha Acquired Western Ships




by Peter T. Young


Before European open ocean exploration began, Eastern Polynesia had been explored and settled.  (Herb Kane) Voyaging vessels were double-hull; hulls were deep enough to track well while sailing across the wind or on a close reach into the wind. The round-sided V hulls provided lateral resistance to the water while under sail.  (Herb Kane)


The most widely distributed and presumably most ancient sail was a triangle made up of strips of fine matting sewn together and mounted to two spars, one serving as a mast; the other, as a boom, usually more slender and either straight or slightly curved.

Throughout Eastern Polynesia, the same basic design probably persisted throughout the era of long distance two-way voyaging. (Herb Kane)


The double-hulled voyaging canoes were seaworthy enough to make voyages of over 2,000 miles along the longest sea roads of Polynesia, like the one between Hawai‘i and Tahiti.

Fast forward to post-‘contact’ and the time of the Islands’ unification; a new style of boat was in the islands and Kamehameha started to buy and build them.


Following the arrival of Captain James Cook in 1778, more “ships were coming into the harbor at Honolulu – merchant vessels, war ships and ships out to discover new lands.”

“Of these the chiefs and people bought arms and gunpowder. Kamehameha had several storehouses well stocked with foreign arms, but nobody wanted money or clothing.”


“On the part of the foreigners potatoes and yams were in great demand. The chief accordingly went into the cultivation of these foods, and grew potatoes on the hill of ‘Ualaka‘a between Manoa and Makiki, and yams at Ka‘akopua, and sold them to the foreigners.”


“Canoeloads of provisions from Hawaii and the other islands were distributed among the chiefs, counselors, lesser chiefs, warrior chiefs, soldiers, followers, cultivators, paddlers, runners, canoe makers, and craftsmen; no one was left out. And in the same way distribution was made to the households of the chiefs.” (Kamakau)





Then, in 1790, Kamehameha acquired his first Western boat, the Fair American. It was not bought or built by Kamehameha: one of Kamehameha’s ‘Kona Uncles,’ Kame‘eiamoku, overpowered the ship and turned it (and its weapons) and its only survivor, Isaac Davis, over to Kamehameha.


In 1795, Kamehameha had a fleet of 20 vessels, tonnage of from 20 to 40 tons. Each vessel was well armed and manned. (US Naval Institute)  “In the late 1700s and early 1800s, Kamehameha I methodically acquired all the materials and crafts needed to construct ships locally, and he purchased larger foreign brigs and schooners when good opportunities arose.” (Mills)


“Kamehameha and successive high chiefs purchased most foreign vessels with sandalwood harvests by maka‘āinana from Hawai‘i’s forests, which Chinese coveted for incense and medicine.” (Mills)


By 1805, Kamehameha had a sizable navy, consisting of more than 40 large ships and several hundred peleleu, all equipped with guns of various caliber. (The peleleu was a long and deep double canoe with a covered platform and foreign sail, and was built for Kamehameha by his foreign friends.)  (US Naval Institute)


The first Western-style vessel built in the Islands was the Beretane (1793.)  Through the aid of Captain George Vancouver’s mechanics, after launching, it was used in the naval combat with Kahekili’s war canoes off the Kohala coast.  (Thrum)


Encouraged by the success of this new type of vessel, others were built.  The second ship built in the Islands, a schooner called Tamana (named after Kamehameha’s favorite wife, Kaʻahumanu,) was used to carry of his cargo of trade to the missions along the coast of California.  (Couper & Thrum, 1886)


From 1796 until 1802 the kingdom flourished. Several small decked vessels were built.  (Case) According to Cleveland’s account, Kamehameha possessed at that time twenty small vessels of from twenty to forty tons burden, some even copper-bottomed.  (Alexander)

Kamehameha eventually built at least three shipyards, at Kealakekua Bay and Kawaihae on Hawai‘i Island and another on O‘ahu at Waikiki.  (Mills)


“What holds the king’s attention more than any other subject, though, is shipbuilding. Already, it is said, he can accurately and with true discernment spot the strengths and weaknesses in any ship’s construction.  All equipment and tools relating to shipbuilding, he regards as particularly valuable.”


“One cannot do better, therefore, than to use such tools as articles of trade when going to Owaihi. Any sailor wo is at the same time, a ship’s carpenter is particularly welcome there, and is straightaway presented with a piece of land and almost anything else that he may want.” (Georg Langsdorff in Mills)


“As to his navy, Kamehameha had the largest naval force in the entire Pacific during his time. Japan had gone into seclusion from 1638 to 1852, during which time she forbade anyone from leaving the country or from building ships, under penalty of death. America acquired the Louisiana Territory during this time, and had not yet reached her Pacific boundaries.”

“Lisiansky, a Russian naval officer, was much impressed by Kamehameha’s might and in comparing his army and navy with those of other South Sea Islands, styled them ‘invincible.’ He noted that they included some 7,000 warriors and about 60 Europeans, a large arsenal of modern weapons, and a fleet of many war canoes and ships.”  (US Naval Institute)


Kamehameha was the greatest Polynesian Commander in Chief that ever lived. He placed the art of warfare on a scientific basis, and to insure peace to his people, he built the largest navy in the entire Pacific region, in spite of the fact that he did not have occasion to test its strength.


He believed in security, and he achieved his grand and favorite object, so that before he died, he was able to issue the following challenge to his friends and advisors: ‘Strive as ye may to undo that which I have established in righteousness, ye will never reach the end.’ (US Naval Institute)


Interest and acquisition of Western ships must have run in the family …

Not to be left out, Liholiho (Kamehameha’s son who reigned as Kamehameha II) bought the Thaddeus on January 21, 1821.  (The Thaddeus brought the Pioneer Company of American


Protestant missionaries to the Islands and arrived at Kailua-Kona on April 4, 1820.)

Shortly thereafter, she sailed to the Northwest Coast for seal and otter skins; she arrived back to the Islands on October13, 1820 and shortly thereafter Liholiho purchased the Thaddeus for 4,000 piculs of sandalwood.  (Mills)


Another of Kamehameha’s sons, Kauikeaouli (who later reigned as Kamehameha III), was, as a child, “chiefly occupied with his toy boats rigged like warships and with little brass cannon loaded with real powder mounted on (their] decks. The firing off of these cannon amused him immensely.  …”


“As he grew older, perhaps eight or nine years old, he used to go out with a boatload of boys, generally in the sail boats … and he would haul the sails and do any of the work without trying to assume command, for even up to the time when he became king he was simple in his ways.” (Kamakau)  Liholiho and Kauikeaouli each acquired several Western ships.

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