LIHU’E — An epic account of King Kamehameha I, previously unpublished in
English, breathes new life into the history of Hawai’i’s first monarch and the
times in which he lived.
Much of what is known about Kamehameha has been
taken from journals and manuscripts written by foreign eyewitnesses.
the biography by Rev. Stephen Desha, which was largely culled from oral
histories of kapuna at the turn of the 20th century and from writings of
earlier Native Hawaiian historians, is one of the only histories of pre-contact
Hawai’i told from the Native Hawaiian viewpoint.
It is also the first
truly chronological and continuous account of what went on during the time of
Kamehameha, says Desha’s translator, Frances Frazier.
In 1922, Desha, a
Hawaiian minister and publisher in Hilo, began the serialized account in the
Hawaiian language newspaper he published.
Through the retelling of
Kamehameha, Desha was attempting to remind his readers of their great
“He wanted to instill a sense of pride in Hawaiians,” says Frazier,
who is part Hawaiian. “You see, they’d been overtaken and culture was going
fast. It was disappearing overnight and he didn’t want them to forget that they
had a history.”
Desha’s unique history of Kamehameha remained yellowing in
its original form at the Bishop Museum archives until members of the Pacific
Translating Committee of the Hawaiian Historical Society approached Frazier
about doing a translation in 1989.
The result, 11 years later, is a
500-plus page tome entitled “Kamehameha and his Warrior Kekuhaupi’o,” now
available through Kamehameha Schools Press.
“You have to be a reader —
obviously,” Frazier says of the hefty tome. But for those who enjoy their
history fleshed out with dialogue, authentic chants and interesting cultural
digressions, the rewards are well worth all the ocular exercise.
the history reads much like a lyrical epic on the level of the Iliad or Aeneid.
Kaua’i, for example, is described at one point as the “sun-snatching
island to the leeward.”
Frazier says that in doing the translation, she
tried to preserve as much of Desha’s rich descriptive language as possible, but
had to cut out some of the laudatory —and quite lengthy—terms of esteem for
the ali’i mentioned in the biography for the modern reader.
The book starts
out with the birth and rise to fame of Kekuhaupi’o, Kamehameha’s martial arts
trainer and general.
Desha goes on to describe in detail other
significant events in Kamehameha life. For instance, the building of
Pu’ukohola, the massive heiau at Kawaihae on Hawai’i, for Kamehameha’s god, the
war god, Kuka’ilimoku, gave him the power to go on with his conquests.
lot of people would say he was a bully and a brute and he murdered people but
he also ran a very tight ship,” Frazier says.
Another interesting segment
is the possibly spurious account of King Kamehameha’s meeting with Kaumuali’i,
the ruler of Kaua’i, mid-channel, halfway between Kaua’i and O’ahu. Both rulers
do not want to fight, but are pressured by their respective ali’i, who are
clamoring for war.
After Kaumuali’i offers a boat full of powder and
cannons to Kamehameha as a peace offering, the two drink ‘awa and eat sugar
cane from Ni’ihau together. Bonded like brothers, they depart back to their
separate islands peacefully.
Desha is careful to include other not-as-rosy
versions of how Kaua’i was conferred to Kamehameha as well.
Desha peppers his narrative with exhortations to his readers, who were steadily
dwindling in the ’20s, to take interest in their heritage.
“The old people
of our land have passed on, but some of them, however, were just gray-heads who
did not understand their land and the famous chiefs of this archipelago.
Therefore, the writer has taken the history of this famous warrior and his
fearless chiefs, he who was afterwards called the Napoleon of the Pacific and
was so called because, at this same period of time when he lived, Napoleon was
in Europe and Washington was in America fighting for independence,” Desha
According to the introduction, Desha may have been influenced by the
prevailing sense of nationalism that rose out of World War I. His descriptions
of Kamehameha’s battles are almost Victorian, writes Don Hibbard of the state
Historic Preservation Division.
When Desha’s newspaper, Ka Hoku O Hawai’i,
folded in 1948, it was the last of the struggling early 20th century Hawaiian
language periodicals to do so.
Frazier says that when she was learning
Hawaiian 40 years ago, there were only a handful of people in her Hawaiian
“Now there are hundreds of students of Hawaiian,” she
Many of Desha’s sources for his “Kamehameha,” are Native Hawaiian
historians who, unlike Desha, still are out of print, Frazier
Although she says that she doesn’t know how many more Hawaiian
manuscripts are languishing out-of-print or untranslated in archives, Frazier
does say that with the resurgence of Hawaiian scholarship, those manuscripts
have a good chance of being revisited.
Desha’s “Kamehameha” is available at
Borders Books & Music.