Weapons of War

by Betty Fullard-Leo

By 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 O‘ahu from the Big Island in 1795, his army marched up Nu‘uanu Valley in pursuit of the O‘ahu Chief Kalanikapule’s army. On rough wheeled carts, Kamehameha’s men trundled cannons that he had acquired from his European military advisors up the muddy Pali trails. As the opposing O‘ahu 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 O‘ahu 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. photo credit: Betty Fullard-Leo

In 1780, a Captain Portlock recorded in his journal an account of a one-eyed warrior named Namaateerae, who boarded the European’s 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 Hawai‘i spears appeared to be the weapon most widely used, while in other areas of Polynesia and Micronesia, clubs were more prevalent. Captain Cook’s first mate, Lieutenant James King, described spears he observed, explaining that there were two types in Hawai‘i, 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 Pali. photo credit: Herb Kawainui Kāne

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 both ways.”

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 curved-bladed daggers.

In addition, several examples of clubs have been preserved at Bishop Museum on O‘ahu. The nineteenth-century Hawaiian historian David Malo describes clubs (la‘au 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 opponent’s legs to trip him, and then another weapon, perhaps a stone hand club shaped like today’s 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 Hawai‘i, 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, Hawai‘i 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 O‘ahu, Na Haumauna O Pa Ku‘i-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, “They’ve 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 it’s being revived. We gain not only pride in our heritage, but it teaches us discipline and balance in life. I’ve 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, la‘au palau; the kuia, in the use of the sling (ka-ala); with boxing; and with the practice of temperance.”

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