Weapons Of War
by Betty Fullard-Leo
the time King Kamehameha the Great waged war to unite
the Hawaiian Islands under his rule, Europeans had introduced
guns and cannons to a population which previously had
fought with handmade clubs and spears. Kamehameha was
clever enough to enlist the use of these new mechanical
devises. When he invaded Oahu from the Big Island
in 1795, his army marched up Nuuanu Valley in
pursuit of the Oahu Chief Kalanikapules
army. On rough wheeled carts, Kamehamehas men
trundled cannons that he had acquired from his European
military advisors up the muddy Pali trails. As the opposing
Oahu army made a stand at the cliff edge armed
mostly with hand-held native weapons, volleys of rifle
fire and cannon balls rained down. Kamehameha halted
the firing while the two armies engaged in hand-to-hand
combat at the precipice. Demoralized Oahu warriors
went tumbling off the cliff and the bloody, mismatched
battle came to an abrupt end.
Even prior to the arrival of Westerners such as Cook,
Vancouver, whalers and other adventurers, Hawaiians
were not a peace loving people. It is thought that the
earliest Polynesian settlers were relatively peaceful,
agricultural tribes, but a second wave of immigration
a few hundred years later brought the more warlike Tahitians
and Micronesians. In time, high chiefs of any large
island district maintained well trained armies and often
practiced sham battles using blunted spears. Occasionally,
when sharpened weapons were used in mock battles called
kaua pahukala, warriors and even chiefs might be killed.
A display of weapons
once used in ancient Hawaiian battles.
In 1780, a Captain Portlock recorded in his journal
an account of a one-eyed warrior named Namaateerae,
who boarded the Europeans ship to give a demonstration
of his skill at handling the spear. Another chief stood
10 yards from Namaateerae and hurled five spears at
him. Namaateerae caught the first spear by its shaft
as it passed his body, then parried the other four spears.
In a repeat demonstration, Namaateerae successfully
parried the spears with a much shorter dagger.
Western sailors had often seen spears, clubs and slings
throughout the South Seas, but daggers were previously
unknown among other Pacific Islanders. In Hawaii
spears appeared to be the weapon most widely used, while
in other areas of Polynesia and Micronesia, clubs were
more prevalent. Captain Cooks first mate, Lieutenant
James King, described spears he observed, explaining
that there were two types in Hawaii, either six
to eight feet in length or 12 to 15 feet long, though
both types were made of a single piece of hard, dark
wood, usually kauila, which looks like mahogany when
polished. Long spears, pololu, were thickened at the
butt end, while shorter spears were not.
The Battle at Nu`uanu
Cook himself penned a description of the Hawaiian dagger:
They have a sort of weapon which we had never
seen before, and not mentioned by any navigator, as
used by the natives of the South Sea. It was somewhat
like a dagger; in general, about a foot and a half long,
sharpened at one or both ends, and secured to the hand
by a string. Its use is to stab in close fight; and
it seems well adapted to the purpose. Some of these
may be called double daggers, having a handle in the
middle with which they are better enabled to strike
At least five types of daggers were documented by Westerners
shortly after their arrival. A heavy truncheon dagger
was fashioned with a hole in the handle so a loop made
of olona fiber could be attached. Others were bludgeon
daggers, long-bladed daggers, shark-tooth daggers, and
In addition, several examples of clubs have been preserved
at Bishop Museum on Oahu. The nineteenth-century
Hawaiian historian David Malo describes clubs (laau
palau) as from three to six feet, though shorter clubs
are also displayed at the museum. Clubs were smooth
headed, rough headed and stone headed. Rough-headed
clubs were made of a natural root or limb enlargement
that formed the head. Some elliptical clubs were set
with sharks teeth, usually with from five to 30
teeth attached with lashings, wooden wedges, or pegged
along the sides.
Other common weapons included wooden tripping devices
called pikoi, which had long cords attached to variously
shaped club-like heads with or without handles. The
weighted part of the rope was thrown at an opponents
legs to trip him, and then another weapon, perhaps a
stone hand club shaped like todays hand-held weights
with bulbous ends and a slimmer connecting section to
grasp, would be used to finish off the tripped enemy.
This hand club was unique to Hawaii, but slings
were found throughout the Pacific, according to King.
A pouch woven of strips of hau situated in the center
of longer plaited ropes formed a sling that was used
to fling spindle-shaped stones at an enemy.
Another weapon generally made of woven olona fiber
was used as a strangling cord. Bishop Museum displays
several of these cords with ivory or wooden handles
attached. Unlike the rest of Polynesia, Hawaii
had a designated public executioner, who meted out punishment
to those who broke the kapu (established taboos, or
laws). The executioner, called mu, prepared
victims for sacrifice and used the strangling cord to
dispense of them.
Weapons of War engraving
by Bernard printed in 1785 in the French edition
of Cook’s Voyages.
Today some of these weapons are being duplicated by
practitioners of lua, the ancient method of self defense.
A group on Oahu, Na Haumauna O Pa Kui-a-lua
meets regularly to keep the old ways alive and sometimes
displays their crafts at cultural fairs and celebrations.
Rodney Kahakauila Toledo is skilled in crafting the
clubs rimmed with sharks teeth or topped with
a smooth stone lashed to the head. Toledo explains,
Theyve been described as clubs, but in reality
they were used for slashing.
He continues, We make the weapons from a practitioners
view point rather than as pieces of art. We make them
to fit our own hands and strong enough to be used in
lua. Lua is an ancient art like tae kwando or karate,
but it went underground when the missionaries came.
With the renaissance of Hawaiian culture its being
revived. We gain not only pride in our heritage, but
it teaches us discipline and balance in life. Ive
taught others to make the implements with the goal of
perpetuating the art. Like their ancestors, members
of this Hawaiian club strive to live as historian David
Malo described ideal warriors of old: Men should
be constantly practiced in the arts of war; with the
short spear, ihe; the long spear, pololu; the club,
laau palau; the kuia, in the use of the sling
(ka-ala); with boxing; and with the practice of temperance.
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