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Mo`olelo O Na Ali`i

Roy Alameida

January 2008


In the following issues of NWHT, we look at the causes for conflicts between the ruling families of the Hawai‘i Island kingdom beginning in the late 1700s.

After his death, the body of Kalani‘ōpu‘u was prepared for burial according to traditions. The body was placed in a plaited coconut leaf shelter where it could be viewed and mourned by the ali‘i (chiefs) and maka‘āinana (common people). Later, it would be placed at its final resting place in Hale o Keawe (house of Keawe, a well-known ruler of Hawai`i Island) located at Hōnaunau in Kona.

At this point, let us digress for just a moment. According to Hawaiian traditions, whenever a new ruling chief took control, the lands in control of the former chief were redistributed among the supporters and relatives of the new chief. From the mo‘olelo, before he died Kalani‘ōpu‘u passed on control of the government to his son Kīwala‘ō, who was the eldest. Then he followed a precedent set by earlier rulers and that is the passing of the war god, Kūka‘ilimoku, not to his son but to his nephew Kamehameha. The god Kū was one of the four major deities in Hawaiian culture. According to traditions, the chief who was given the responsibility of caring for the war god would one day control the government as well.

Thus, after consultation with his uncle Keawemauhili, Kīwala‘ō redistributed the lands of Hawai‘i Island among his strong supporters, chiefs, and warriors. His uncle Keawemauhili reserved the largest portions for himself and was opposed to giving any lands to Kamehameha stating that he, Kamehameha, had the war god and already had lands that was given to him by his uncle Kalani‘ōpu‘u.

Meanwhile, Keōuakūahu‘ula, a twin and brother of Kiwala‘ō, inquired as to the portion of lands reserved for him. When he was informed that none were reserved for him, he gathered his warriors and began to destroy all the coconut trees in sight in Ke‘ei. Traditionally, only a chief of high rank would have the privilege of cutting down such trees. According to Hawaiian culture, the coconut tree represented a man with his head in the ground and private parts exposed. In Hawaiian thinking, by cutting down these trees, the man wilted. It was a sign of war. Essentially, Keōuakūahu‘ula declared war against his brother for leaving him out of the land redistribution. For several days, skirmishes took place including the capture of warriors at Ke‘ei who were supporters of Kamehameha, who, at the time, happened to be away meeting with some important Kona chiefs.

Meanwhile, Keōuakūahu‘ula had taken several of Kamehameha’s warriors captive and decided to send them and several of the dead to Kīwala‘ō to see what action would be taken. If Kīwala‘ō did not offer the bodies to the gods, then Keōuakūahu‘ula would formally declare war against his brother. On the other hand, if the bodies were sacrificed at the heiau (temple), then he would know that his brother approved of his actions.

The bodies were offered to the gods by Kīwala‘ō. Thus, the needless cutting down of the trees, the slaughter of innocent men by Keōuakuahu‘ula, and the offering of Kamehameha’s warriors to the gods at the heiau by Kīwala‘ō were actions that initiated the battle between Kamehameha and his cousins Kīwala‘ō and Keōuakuahu‘ula.

The small skirmishes eventually led to the battle of Moku‘ōhai near the village of Ke‘ei. This battle between cousins was a test of Kamehameha’s skill as a warrior. In the next issue, we look at the battle that ensued.


Desha, S. (2000). Kamehameha and his warrior Kekūhaupi‘o. Honolulu: Kamehameha Schools.
Kamakau, S. (1992). Ruling Chiefs. Honolulu: Kamehameha Schools Press.

Ua ‘Ike Anei ‘Oe… (Did you know that…)

  • the name Moku‘ōhai literally means ‘ohai tree grove. ‘Ōhai is a monkeypod tree grown for shade. It is also a native legume; a low prostrate shrub with hairy, pale leaves, and red or orange flowers.
  • the battle at Moku‘ōhai was the stepping off point for Kamehameha to validate the prophecy that he, one day, would conquer all the islands.
  • today, the battleground remains a historic place. Although overgrown, it remains relatively intact.


Ki`i guard Hale o Keawe at Pu`uhonua o Hōnaunau on the island of Hawai`i.
`Iwi (bones) of chiefs were kept at Hale o Keawe to preserve their mana.

Photo by Roy Alameida

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