Ka'ianaa'ahu'ulu: A Leader of Hawai'i

The Story of Ka'iana

Ka‘ianaa‘ahu‘ula’s story appears in more written sources than almost any other eighteenth century Hawaiian. History records him as the first Hawaiian ali‘i [chief] to travel to China and Northwest America and to bring back useful foreign knowledge and goods. On his return to the islands, Ka‘ianaa‘ahu‘ula joined forces with Kamehemaha and settled his family on the island of Hawai‘i. Many foreigners sought his help when they visited the islands, and Ka‘ianaa‘ahu‘ula used these exchanges to learn strategic knowledge and get foreign goods.

Later, the other chiefs turned against him and succeeded in arousing Kamehameha’s suspicions that he was a traitor. Ka‘ianaa‘ahu‘ula responded by joining the forces of Kalaniopu‘u and fighting against Kamehameha at the Battle of Nu‘uanu. He died early in the battle in 1795.  As history records, Kamehameha’s forces were ultimately victorious.

Was Ka‘ianaa‘ahu‘ula a leader? What makes a person a leader? Are all leaders famous people?  Are all famous people leaders?

History records that Ka‘ianaa‘ahu‘ula was an ambitious Kaua‘i chief whose manner, appearance, intelligence, and compassion commanded respect from many of the foreigners he met. His ali‘i training, which began at an early age, prepared him for dealings with foreigners as well as for his position as an ali‘i chief, seer, genealogist, warrior, and military commander.

The earliest written description of Ka‘ianaa‘ahu‘ula dates to his first encounter with Captain Portlock of the ship King George and Captain George Dixon of the ship Queen Charlotte when both arrived at Waimea, Kaua‘i, in December 1786. Ka’ianaa’ahu’ula was ruling Waimea during the temporary absence of King Ka‘eo.

Captain Dixon described the Hawaiian ali’i as a powerful Kaua‘i chief with an impressive entourage of attendants.  He also called him a loving family man. Ka‘ianaa‘ahu‘ula was about 23 years old at the time, and stood nearly six foot five inches with what the British captain called a “herculean” appearance. He was married and had a child.

Captain Dixon believed Ka‘ianaa‘ahu‘ula was more interested in seeking foreign knowledge useful to his community than in establishing trade with the British or acquiring foreign goods. Ka‘ianaa‘ahu‘ula seldom brought gifts or things to trade, devoting far more time to observing and asking questions of the foreigners.

Chief Ka‘ianaa‘ahu‘ula presented himself as a candidate for a journey aboard Captain Meares’ ship Nootka. Although many clamored for the opportunity, only Ka‘ianaa‘ahu‘ula was selected to sail to “Britain.” Already aboard the Nootka was the Native American Chief Comcheka from Prince George’s Sound, located in Nootka Sound, Northwest America (in what is today British Columbia). Ka‘ianaa‘ahu‘ula left on board the ship for China on August 27, 1787.

Captains Portlock, Dixon, Meares, Douglas, and their English contemporaries found Ka‘ianaa‘ahu‘ula to be intelligent, educated, observant, and personable. He carried himself with dignity and commanded respect – so much so, that many became his friends and teachers while abroad. They introduced Ka‘ianaa‘ahu‘ula to many new places and experiences and gave him gifts for use when he returned home.

Ka‘ianaa‘ahu‘ula left Macao in October 1787 aboard Captain Meares’ ship Felice. He transferred to Captain Douglas’s ship Iphigenia while the Felice was being repaired on the Philippine island of Mindanao. He then traveled to Melanesia, Palau, across the Pacific to the Aleutian Islands (in what is today Alaska), and down the coast of Northwest America. He arrived at Port Cox in Nootka Sound in late August 27, 1788. Two months later, Ka‘ianaa‘ahu‘ula sailed for home. The ship anchored off the Maui coast on December 6, 1788 and then continued to the island of Hawai‘i, where Ka‘ianaa‘ahu‘ula disembarked on December 7, 1788.

Although Ka‘ianaa‘ahu‘ula was not the first Hawaiian to travel to Kahiki [foreign lands], his experiences allowed him to establish friendships and trading relationships with foreigners far beyond those possible for his ali‘i contemporaries. Ka‘ianaa‘ahu‘ula spent more than a year abroad learning about the China trade, including the trade in Hawai‘i that provisioned ships for voyages across the South Pacific and to Northwest America.  He observed first-hand the foreign market system in China’s ports. He learned about large-scale manufacturing in factories.  He visited densely populated marketplaces offering goods from around the globe, foreign weapons and shipbuilding.  He witnessed the displacement of indigenous communities by foreign traders and militia.

Ka‘ianaa‘ahu‘ula elevated his ali‘i status upon his return by using his foreign friendships and his knowledge of global trade. Foreigners requested his assistance when provisioning and trading in the islands. Ka‘ianaa‘ahu‘ula leveraged his knowledge to obtain foreign weapons and negotiate trade arrangements favorable to Kamehameha. Ka‘ianaa‘ahu‘ula interacted more frequently with foreigners and exerted greater power in defining the nature of Hawaiian trade than other chiefs of similar rank.

Some remember Ka‘ianaa‘ahu‘ula as the first ali‘i to travel abroad and return with foreign knowledge. Others remember his alliance with Kamehameha and his decision later to join Kalanikupule and fight against Kamehameha at the Battle of Nu‘uanu, where he died. Both are accurate, but neither does him justice.

As a leader, Ka‘ianaa‘ahu‘ula forever changed the nature of China trade in Hawai‘i. He showed that he had the necessary intelligence, ambition, vision, conviction, and compassion to broaden his horizons and to challenge his capabilities. His voyage to Kahiki introduced him to many new sights, sounds, smells, and ideas.  But through it all, he never lost sight of who he was or where he came from. He returned to his family and his responsibilities and duties as a Hawaiian ali‘i.