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Article: The Olowalu Massacre, Hawaii's "Wounded Knee"

Image by Herb Kane


For a period of five years from the time of Cook’s landing at Hawai‘i, the waters of the islands were busy with ships, some of which were “friendly” and others that were “bent on destroying men and governments”. (Kamakau)

In 1789, Simon Metcalf (captaining the Eleanora) and his son Thomas Metcalf (captaining the Fair American) were traders; their plan was to meet and spend winter in the Hawaiian Islands.

The Eleanora arrived in the islands first at Kohala on the island of Hawaiʻi. After a confrontation with a local chief, Metcalf then sailed to the neighboring island of Maui to trade along the coast. On February 1790, the Eleanora anchored off of Honua‘ula.

Kalola, the widow of Kalani‘ōpu‘u, was staying at Honua‘ula at the time of the arrival of the ship with her new husband Ka‘opuiki.

Captain Simon Metcalf anchored his trading ship the Eleanora off shore, probably at Makena Bay, to barter for necessary provisions.

“Ka‘opuiki was glad to go on board to trade for iron, muskets, and red cloth; but muskets were the objects he most desired. The people brought in exchange hogs, chickens, potatoes, bananas, and taro.”

“Night fell before they had finished their bargaining, and the next day Ka‘opuiki and others went out again to trade further; but the strangers were unfriendly and beat them off with ropes.”

“When Ka‘opuiki heard from the people of Honua‘ula about the small boat which it was customary to keep tied to the back of the ship, he determined to steal the boat at night.”

“At midnight when the guard on the skiff and the men of the ship were sound asleep, Ka‘opuiki and his men cut the rope without being seen from the ship. As they were towing it along, the guard awoke and called out to those on board the ship, but he was too far away to be heard; he was killed and his body thrown into the sea.”

“The boat was taken to Olowalu and broken up, and the iron taken for fishhooks, adzes, drills, daggers, and spear points.” (Kamakau)

Metcalf sailed to Olowalu but found that boat had been broken up for its nails. (Nails were treasured like gems in ancient Hawaiʻi; they were used for fishhooks, adzes, drills, daggers and spear points.)

Chiefess Kalola, knowing the explosive nature of the situation, declared a three-day kapu on all canoes approaching the Eleanora.

When the kapu was lifted and Kalola’s husband Ka‘opuiki returned only the stolen boat’s keel and the watchman’s stripped thighbones, an enraged Metcalfe invited the villagers to meet the ship, indicating he wanted to trade with them.

However, he had all the cannons loaded and ready on the side where he directed the canoes to approach. “(T)he ship opened fire and shot the people down without mercy, just as if they were creatures without souls. Even those who swam away were shot down.”

“John Young was an eyewitness on board the ship and has testified to the great number who were killed at this time. At noon that day the Eleanor sailed, and the people went out and brought the dead ashore, some diving down into the sea with ropes and others using hooks; and the dead were heaped on the sands at Olowalu.”

“Because the brains of many were oozing out where they had been shot in the head, this battle with the ship Eleanor and her captain was called “The spilled brains” (Kalolo-pahu).”

“It was a sickening sight, as Mahulu and others have reported it; the slaughtered dead were heaped upon the sand; wives, children, parents, and friends came to view and mourn over their dead; and the sound of loud wailing arose.” (Kamakau)

After the massacre, Metcalfe weighed anchor and sailed back to the island of Hawai’i.

This tragedy, termed the Olowalu Massacre, set into motion a series of events which left two Western seamen and a ship (the Fair American) in the hands of the ambitious Big Island chief Kamehameha.

John Young (off the Eleanora) and Isaac Davis (off the Fair American) befriended Kamehameha I and became respected translators and his close and trusted advisors. They were instrumental in Kamehameha’s military ventures and his ultimate triumph in the race to unite the Hawaiian Islands.

Several months after the massacre at Olowalu, Kalola watched the Great Battle of Kepaniwai from ʻIao Valley. Kamehameha stormed Maui with over twenty thousand men, and after several battles Maui troops retreated to ʻIao Valley.

Kalola escaped through the Olowalu Pass and down to Olowalu, where she boarded canoes for Molokai. On the island of Molokai Kalola became ill and they could not carry out their original intention of going to Oahu to join Kahekili.

Kamehameha followed Kalola to Molokai and asked Kalola for Keōpūolani (Kalola’s granddaughter) to be his queen. Kalola, who was dying, agreed to give Kamehameha Keōpūolani and her mother Kekuiʻapoiwa Liliha, if he would allow the girls to stay at her death bed until she passed.

Kamehameha camped on Molokai until Kalola died, and then returned to Kona with his high queen Keōpūolani. Later, both Liholiho (Kamehameha II) and Kauikeaouli (Kamehameha III) were sons born to Kamehameha and Keōpūolani.

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