In The Footprints of Keoua

by Betty Fullard-Leo

An easy 3.6 mile hike off Route 11 in the barren Ka‘u Desert leads to sets of footprints imbedded in lava along the trail to Mauna Iki dome. A Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park pamphlet mentions that the footprints were left by Hawaiian warriors after a violent eruption of ash and cinder in 1790. But the pamphlet doesn’t say that those indentations of bare feet from two centuries ago hold a tale of terror, of war and of an extended power struggle between ambitious warriors.

Kalaniopu‘u, king of the island of Hawai‘i, died in 1782, leaving his domaine to his son Kiwalao with his nephew Kamehameha next in line to inherit the throne. The scorned Kamehameha gathered his forces and had soon dispatched with his rival Kiwalao, but Kiwalao’s half brother Keoua Ku‘ah‘ula escaped to the vast Ka‘u district in southwest Hawai‘i. The two young rivals’ uncle, Keawemauhili, retreated to Hilo to continue ruling southeast Hawai‘i. Kamehameha waged warfare to gain control of Hilo, eventually convincing his uncle to accept him as the rightful ruler.

Kamehameha had been warned by Kapoukahi, a prophet, in regards to Keoua, “Do not go to war lest the skin be hurt; here is the house of the god—it will gain the control for your government.” So Kamehameha set about building a “house of the god,” a great stone temple to the war god Kuka‘ilimoku overlooking Kawaihae Bay in the Kohala District to fulfill the prophecy that said he would become ruler of all the islands. But when Kamehameha took command of Hilo, the equally angry Keoua attacked Hilo, killed his own uncle and ransacked the lands along the northeastern side of the island which belonged to Kamehameha. The two warriors met in battle on the Waimea plain. Kamehameha proved victorious.

Kamehameha went on to ravage the districts that remained loyal to his cousin, which caused Keoua to leave the Hilo area and hurry across the island through Ka‘u. His army marched not far from Kilauea Crater in three divisions. In those days, wives and children often accompanied the warriors to provide comfort and care, particularly to those wounded in battle. During the march, earthquakes shook the land. The marchers offered prayers to Pele for safe passage.

Nearly 80 years later, a native writer reported this version of the disaster that descimated Keoua’s army: “Sand, ashes and stones grew up from the pit into a very high column of fire, standing straight up....When this column became great, it blew all to pieces into sand and ashes and great stones, which for some days continued to fall around the sides of Kilauea. Men, women and children were killed. Mona, one of the army who saw all this but who escaped, said that one of the chiefesses was ill and some hundreds of the army had delayed their journey to guard her and so escaped this death.”

An earlier account by Reverend Sheldon Dibble, a missionary living in Hilo in the 1830s, gave this version: “The army of Keoua set out on their way in three different companies. The company in advance had not proceeded far before the ground began to shake and rock beneath their feet, and it became quite impossible to stand. Soon a dense cloud of darkness was seen to rise out of the crater, and almost at the same instant the electrical effect upon the air was so great that the thunder began to roar in the heavens and lightening to flash...Soon followed an immense volume of sand and cinders which were thrown in high heaven and came down in a destructive shower for many miles around. Some persons of the forward party were burned to death by the sand and cinders and others were seriously injured. All experienced a suffocating sensation upon the lungs and hastened on with all possible speed.

“The rear body, which was nearest to the volcano at the time of the eruption, seemed to suffer the least injury, and after the earthquake had passed over, hastened forward to escape the dangers which threatened them, and rejoicing in the mutual congratulations that they had been preserved in the midst of such immminent peril.

“But what was their surprise and consternation when, on coming up with their comrades of the centre party, they discovered all of them to have become corpses. Some were lying down, and others sitting upright clasping with dying grasp their wives and children and joining noses (their form of expressing affection) as in the act of taking a final leave. So much like life they looked that they at first supposed them merely at rest, and it was not until they had come up to them and handled them that they could detect their mistake. Of the whole party, including women and children, no one of them survived to relate the catastrophe that had befallen their comrades.”

Since then it has been surmised that sulphurous gases or the scorching heat might have caused the sudden loss of life.

Kamehameha’s people saw the disaster as a sign that the gods, particularly Pele, favored him over Keoua. In the meantime, Pu‘ukohola Heiau at Kawaihae was nearing completion. After seven years of warfare, Keoua was disheartened, and when emmissaries came from Kamehameha to invite him to a meeting at the new temple, Keoua accepted.

Along the northwest coast of Hawai‘i, he stopped to perform purification rites, and he instructed those in his canoe to leave behind their weapons and to be prepared to die. No one knows what Kamehameha intended to do as he waded out into the water and invited Keoua ashore. But a chief from Kona, Ke‘eaumoku, rushed ahead and threw his spear. Fighting erupted and all but one in Keoua’s canoe were killed. The rest of the canoe fleet departed safely.

Keoua’s body became the first sacrifice for the completed heiau, Pu‘ukohola. Over the next several years, Kamehameha achieved control of Maui with the death of Kahekili in 1994 and of O‘ahu after his army invaded in 1795. In none of the ensuing battles, did the gods manifast such a clear sign that they were on his side as in the sudden death of a third of Keoua’s army during the march through Ka‘u.

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Story appeared originally in Coffee Times print magazine and appears online for archival purposes only. Any use or reprinting of these stories without the expressed written consent of the author is prohibited.