I’m standing at the edge of the Lekeleke burial grounds in South Kona. It’s an early afternoon in June, and the stark black lava field before me intensifies the heat of the midday sun. This is the fateful site where the first shots of the Battle at Kuamo‘o were fired in December of 1819, not long after King Kamehameha’s death.
With my gaze fixed on the jagged a‘ā where some three hundred warriors are buried, I try to picture how the scene unfolded. Two Hawaiian armies surging toward each other. The ali‘i (chiefs) leading the way in their feathered capes and helmets. The piercing cracks of gunfire and the smell of gunpowder. The fear in the eyes of men who have never experienced war. The unforgiving land underfoot. The blood on the black rock.
This battle between church and state was a turning point in Hawaiian history, marking the end of the kapu system, which had underpinned social order in the Islands for centuries. It pitted traditionalists fighting to maintain the established ways against progressives, who had grown disenchanted with the old order. Both sides carried Western firearms, but the progressives had the advantage and won the battle.
After an initial skirmish at Lekeleke, the king’s army moved southward. It fought on behalf of Liholiho, Kamehameha’s son and the new monarch. Meanwhile, the main body of rebel troops was marching north from Ka‘awaloa, about four miles away. The rebel forces were led by Kekuaokalani, Kamehameha’s nephew. The opposing sides, numbering between two thousand and three thousand men altogether, met midday at Kuamo‘o.
I’m visiting Kuamo‘o with a few members of Aloha Kuamo‘o ‘Āina, which led a successful effort to purchase the battlefield for conservation in 2015 with the idea of making it a center for peace and reconciliation. The legacy of the battle includes many tales of intrigue. There are stories of a mother protecting her child, a wife defending her husband, women asserting their freedom and men clinging to their religion. The conflict pitted change against tradition and cousin against cousin, with each character adding his or her own emotional tension to the drama. “If Shakespeare were alive and Hawaiian,” says Aloha Kuamo‘o ‘Āina member Richard Stevens, “he’d be writing this thing.”
Retracing the royal army’s footsteps on that bloody December morning, the Aloha Kuamo‘o ‘Āina crew and I make our way from Lekeleke along part of the 175-mile-long Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail that runs through Kuamo‘o. Before we set foot upon the sacred battle site, the organization’s program director, Monika Frazier, offers an oli (chant), “Ua Lū Kinikini,” written by Kekuhi Keali‘ikanaka‘oleohaililani, who teaches local conservationists to integrate Hawaiian culture into their work. The chant tracks the dispersal of tiny ‘ōhi‘a seeds carried on the wind. The seeds take root in the soil and grow into trees with different-colored blossoms, reflecting the community’s diversity. Ultimately they create a full forest. Frazier hopes that sharing this oli inspires guests to be seeds of positivity and spread the knowledge they gain from their visit to Kuamo‘o.
As we hike in, stones on either side of the trail that otherwise blend into the rocky terrain reveal themselves as remnants of the past: cairns that mark burials, segments of walls from old homesites, platforms used for ceremonial rites. In spite of its dry, harsh landscape, Kuamo‘o is a place of stunning natural beauty that encourages quiet reflection. We pass the site of a heiau, an ancient Hawaiian temple. Did Kekuao-kalani stop here, we wonder, to pray on his way to war? The area is rife with dryland agricultural sites. Did farmers and their families help provision—or perhaps even join—the armies as they marched by? In several places the path wends over partially filled caves formed by lava blisters. Did women and children seek shelter here during the fighting? Did refugees hide here afterward?
It started with a meal. At a grand feast in Kailua-Kona attended by all the high chiefs of the kingdom, 21-year-old Liholiho—recently named Kamehameha II—did the unthinkable. He sat down at a table where the women were seated, and he ate with them. This act was a blatant violation of ‘ai kapu, the sacrosanct code of conduct that specified men and women could not share meals together.
Under ‘ai kapu (literally translated as“sacred eating”), women were also prohibited from eating pork, bananas, coconuts and certain fish. These protocols were part of an overarching kapu system that permeated every aspect of life in Hawai‘i. Consecrated by religion, the system controlled interactions between the classes (commoners could not come into contact with the fingernails or hair of an ali‘i, for example), between people and gods (how priests performed religious rites), and between people and nature (when fishing and harvesting could occur). It was all in the name of keeping mana (spiritual force) in balance. Infractions were often punishable by death.
Upon witnessing their king shatter the‘ai kapu—and seeing that his act did not elicit immediate retribution from the gods—guests at the feast cried out, “‘Ai noa!” declaring, in a sense, that they were noa, or free. Within days messengers were dispatched to all the islands, alerting everyone that the kapu system was no longer in force. “The tabu foods of palace and temple were voraciously eaten by the masses, and thousands of women for the first time learned the taste of flesh and fruits which had tempted their mothers for centuries,” wrote King David Kalākaua decades later. Heiau were demolished and idols were destroyed or hidden. Four months before the first Christian missionaries were to arrive, the people of Hawai‘i were left with no religion at all.
Liholiho’s decision to upend the kapu system wasn’t made lightly—indeed it wasn’t entirely his own. He was influenced by his birth mother, Kēopūolani, and by Queen Ka‘ahumanu, who had been Kamehameha’s favorite wife. Ka‘ahumanu served alongside Liholiho as co-ruler. She and Kēopūolani are thought to have forced the young king’s hand. Shortly after Liholiho was coronated, Kēopūolani shared a meal with Liholiho’s younger brother, Kauikeaouli—a transgression Liholiho couldn’t undo. Some observers reported that the hapless king spent several days at sea drinking rum to summon the courage to go through with breaking ‘ai kapu.
Once he did the traditionalists mounted a resistance. Priests and commoners alike rallied around Kekuaokalani, the nephew to whom Kamehameha had bestowed the image of his war god, Kūkā‘ilimoku, before the old king died in 1819. With the divine idol in his possession, Kekuaokalani became the kingdom’s de facto defender of the Hawaiian religion. He could not abide his cousin Liholiho’s sacrilege.
In an effort to avoid war, Liholiho’s administration sent two of Kekuaokalani’s uncles, chief orator Naihe and trusted adviser Hoapili, to bring him back to Kailua-Kona to negotiate. Joining them, Kēopūolani threw the weight of her birthright—she was Hawai‘i’s highest-ranking ali‘i—into the undertaking, and the party sailed to Ka‘awaloa, along Kealakekua bay.
When they arrived, Kekuaokalani met with the emissaries peaceably, but before making a decision, he said, he would confer with his wife, the beautiful and affectionate Manono, with whom he had four children. The next morning Kekuaokalani greeted Naihe and Hoapili with a cohort of men wielding torches and wearing sandals, signaling that he was unwilling to com-promise. Naihe and Hoapili twice insisted that Kekuaokalani return to Kailua-Kona with them in their canoe; twice he declined, saying he would go by land with his men. The king’s party then returned to Kailua, where Kēopūolani ordered Kalanimoku, Liholiho’s high priest, to prepare for war.
Adjacent to Mā‘ihi bay, Frazier points to boulders with dug-out salt pans, as well as flat stones chiseled into papa kōnane, game boards for the Hawaiian version of checkers. At the foot of a sea cliff is the hallowed cave of the shark god Ukanipo. Farther down the coast, two canoe landings lend support to archaeologists’ speculation that this area was once a community hub.
We come to a clearing where there is a rock wall. Several old trails there lead to a lopsided pyramid of stones about five hundred yards from the ocean. From historical descriptions, it’s likely that this is where the Battle of Kuamo‘o culminated. Kalanimoku’s troops had driven Kekuaokalani and his men to the coast, where they were hemmed in by a fleet of double-hulled canoes. One of them was mounted with a swivel gun, a small cannon.
Though Kekuaokalani had been shot in the leg earlier in the day, he persevered through the afternoon. The journal of missionary William Ellis gives an account of his end: “Though unable to stand, [Kekuaokalani] sat on a fragment of lava, and twice loaded and fired his musket on the advancing party. He now received a ball in his left breast, and immediately covering his face with his feather cloak, expired in the midst of his friends. His wife Manono during the whole of the day fought by his side with steady and dauntless courage.”
After her husband fell, Manono called out to Kalanimoku, her half brother, for mercy. “It would disgrace me in men’s minds for you to live,” he is said to have replied. A shot to her left temple ended her life. Her dying words were reportedly, “Mālama kō aloha,” a plea to both sides of the battle to “keep your love.” Today that idea has become part of the philosophical foundation of Aloha Kuamo‘o ‘Āina.
After Kekuaokalani and Manono fell, the battle quickly ended, and Liholiho went on to pardon all the rebels. Though unsuccessful in their uprising, the couple’s martyrdom is still widely acknowledged. As Kalākaua wrote, “No characters in Hawaiian history stand forth with a sudden prominence, or add a richer tint to the vanishing chivalry of the race, than Kekuaokalani and his courageous and devoted wife, Manono, the last defenders in arms of the Hawaiian gods.”
Hawaiian cultural practitioner and beloved kumu hula (hula teacher) Winona “Nona” Beamer, a lineal descendant of Manono, introduced her children to the cultural significance of Kuamo‘o at an early age. “My mom always had a beautiful chanting voice, but it was especially powerful when she did the Manono oli,” says the celebrated slack key guitarist Keola Beamer, referring to the chant that his mother delivered whenever they visited the battle site. “We felt instinctually that this was a very, very special place just by the tone of her voice.”
After Nona passed, Keola felt a deep urge to protect the place. He and his nephew Kamana Beamer, a Hawaiian studies professor at the University of Hawai‘i, established the nonprofit Aloha Kuamo‘o ‘Āina in order to “turn Kuamo‘o from a site of war to a place of peace.” At the end of 2015, through a deal arranged by the Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit that helps protect natural areas, Aloha Kuamo‘o ‘Āina purchased the forty-seven-acre property from Margaret Schattauer for $4.25 million. Three million dollars of that came from the State Legacy Lands Fund, a half-million came from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and the balance came from community and private donors. Schattauer, who had helped fund the creation of Aloha Kuamo‘o‘Āina, sold the land for less than its appraised value.
Besides protecting Kuamo‘o’s cultural resources and burial mounds, Aloha Kuamo‘o ‘Āina hopes to commemorate the battle by helping new generations interpret lessons from the past and by creating opportunities to teach peace and reconciliation there. Reforestation on the grazed parts of the property is also part of the land-healing process, and volunteers from a variety of schools and community groups have planted more than three hundred native plants and trees at the site.
Elaborating on the meaning of Manono’s dying words, “Mālama kō aloha,” Keola says that they came from the idea of ka ‘umeke mālamalama, the bowl of light. “Within each human being there exists an ‘umeke [bowl] of light,” he says. “If you take the stones of anger, aggression and hate, and fill that bowl with those stones, the light will dim. But if you practice a life of passion, of forgiveness, of kindness, then the light will once again begin to brighten this world.
“That light is the presence of aloha. For us, aloha is not a word, it’s a way of being in the world. Aloha gives us resilience. We’re all human beings, we all make mistakes, and every once in a while we take a step backwards from aloha. But if we can use Manono’s words as a moral compass —‘mālama kō aloha,’ cherish the love in your heart—the way forward is a little more clear,” Keola says.
“In a unique way, Kuamo‘o was ground zero for cultural trauma. You can feel this gravitas when you’re there. These were big groups of Hawaiians so strongly believing in their ideals and struggling to find a way forward that they finally took to open warfare. That’s hard to contemplate and important for us to remember.” HH