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The Battle of Nuuanu Pali and Modern Day Waikiki

Updated on October 1, 2011

Nuuanu Pali

As I looked over the windswept precipice of the Nuuanu Pali, I could envision in my mind's eye the armies of Oahu being pushed over the cliff by Kamehameha's forces. Their ghostly cries can still be heard in the strong winds that spiral up from the valley below. It's a sacred place. It's a tragic place.

In the early 1960s when they built the freeway at the bottom of the cliff, construction workers found 800 skeletons of the Hawaiian warriors who made their last stand on the Pali. None survived the plunge. Only a very few survived by climbing over into the next valley. Many of them were eventually captured and sacrificed to Kamehameha's war god, Kukailimoku. This was the fate of all prisoners during this time. No quarter was given or received.

Kamehameha landed his 10,000 man army, complete with cannon and muskets, on the shores of Oahu. His canoes covered the coastline from Kahala to Waikiki, an expanse of about eight miles. He then drove the armies of Oahu, led by Kalanikupule, all the way up into Nuuanu Valley.

Skirmishes were fought on the beach of Waikiki, below the Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl, and Dowsett street next to Oahu cemetery. The final stand at the Nuuanu Pali was just the last gasp of a tired and bedraggled, Oahu army.

Kalanikupule escaped, eluded capture for some time, but was later caught and sacrificed to the fearsome war god of Kamehameha. Kaina, a defector from Kamehameha's leadership, a brilliant strategist, died in the arms of his wife, who pleaded for his life as they plunged pikes into his body. It was a sad day for the armies of Oahu.

Kamehameha ultimately won the day by outflanking the Oahu forces at Punchbowl, a small crater overlooking Honolulu. He was outnumbered but instead used bold tactical moves to gain the advantage. The rest of the battle going up into Nuuanu valley was just the last gasp of a retreating army trying to keep a few paces ahead of Kamehameha's forces. It was all rear guard action or a measured retreat.

They finally succumbed at the edge of the Pali and Kamehameha became the undisputed ruler over all the Hawaiian islands.

Many have written about the battle, including Mark Twain.

This is an eyewitness account from his book, Roughing It, of bones he found while exploring the beaches of Waikiki:

By and by, after a rugged climb, we halted on the summit of a hill which commanded a far reaching view. The moon rose and flooded mountain and valley and ocean with a mellow radiance, and out of the shadows of the foliage the distant lights of Honolulu glinted like an encampment of fireflies. The air was heavy with the fragrance of flowers. The halt was brief. gaily laughing and talking, the party galloped on, and I clung to the pommel and I cantered after. Presently we came to a place where no grass grew - a wide expanse of deep sand. They said it was an old battleground. All around everywhere, not three feet apart, the bleached bones of men gleamed white in the moonlight....

Twain shares how the armies of Oahu fought their first engagement against Kamehameha's forces seventy years earlier on that spot. The head priest, leading his men, exhorted all to fight to the death against the invading armies. Many of them fell right on the defensive line they held. The bones gave testament to their resolve.

Today, beach mats and tourists lie on the same battleground, oblivious to the blood that flowed, bodies that fell. The punchbowl battlefield is now home to the biggest hospital in Hawaii. The Dowsett street engagement is now a quiet neighborhood. The Pali lookout is just another scenic spot on the island. Time and asphalt tends to cover up our turbulent and war ridden past.

Oahu, known as the gathering place, is now a bustling city, complete with Walmarts and Costcos. Waikiki has become a glitzy beach front with designer stores and sunbaked tourists from all over the world, walking over ancient Hawaiian battlegrounds, sipping lattes, eating pineapple, laughing in the surf.

Why am I getting nostalgic? I don't know. Maybe it's the weight of history that causes me to stop and remember what went on before things got paved over. It's like Joni Mitchell's lyrics from her famous song, "We paved Paradise and put up a parking lot...."

I wouldn't call that warring time paradise but you know what I mean. It's almost sacrilegious to see what we have done to our sacred places of history. Actually, it's very sacrilegious. It doesn't feel right.

Would I go back to the days of Kamehameha I? I don't think so. The kapu (ancient law) system was pretty brutal to commoners like myself.

I'll stick to reading about old battles from the comforts of my beach chair, cold drink in hand, Waikiki surf lapping at my feet, Wi-fi connecting me to the world. Aloha!


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    • The Minstrel profile image

      The Minstrel 5 years ago from Hawaii

      Thank you Hawaiian Scribe. Bless you.

    • Hawaiian Scribe profile image

      Stephanie Launiu 5 years ago from Hawai'i

      I just found this hub while researching "Dowsett" on the web. You write with authenticity and aloha. Voted up, awesome, interesting. And I'm following you so that I can read more of what you write. Aloha no...

    • The Minstrel profile image

      The Minstrel 7 years ago from Hawaii

      I never liked johnny Naakea. That name was done on the whim. I know I had to start all over, but that's okay. Good to hear that you are keeping warm.

    • Kristeen profile image

      Christine 7 years ago from Michigan

      It is zero and in some places below zero today. I can't seem to get my computer room any warmer than 64 degrees. I really don't enjoy winter ): Today I don't have a choice. I have to go out in it. yuck! but that will make my 64 degrees feel warm when I get home. Blessings Johnny. By the way why did you change your name on the hub pages?

    • The Minstrel profile image

      The Minstrel 7 years ago from Hawaii

      Hi Kristeen

      I think you already know this, but I am JohnnyNaakea. I have been resurrected as the minstrel. Ha! Wow! I know how that feels like. I lived in Massachusetts for four years while going to school. I loved snow for a couple of days, but cried for my Pacific Island home for the rest of the winter. Stay warm sister!

    • Kristeen profile image

      Christine 7 years ago from Michigan

      Interesting hub. You make me want to be where you are. It is 6 degrees here in Michigan today. I have not even stuck my nose out the door.

    • The Minstrel profile image

      The Minstrel 7 years ago from Hawaii

      Bless you Dave

      Yes, they are little affected by the veil of asphalt. That's a good way to put it.

    • DavePrice profile image

      DavePrice 7 years ago from Sugar Grove, Ill

      I love the journeys into history that you take us on. There is much to be learned from history, and the spiritual places are little affected by the veil of asphalt and concrete.