Built in 1867, Lanakila Church was the site of violent uprising in 1880s


Lanakila Church

Completed in 1867, Lanakila was the last church built in Kona under the direction of the Rev. John D. Paris. To this day it remains an active congregational church that proudly maintains its Hawaiian heritage.

Life in 19th-century Kona for Hawaiians was a time of rapid and unrelenting change. The death of Kamehameha I, the collapse of the kapu system, the easy availability of firearms and alcohol, the complicated new laws governing land ownership: all these changes created confusion and uncertainty among Kona’s rural people. Some Hawaiian residents may have longed for “the good old days.” Against this backdrop of subdued frustration, it is not surprising that confrontations between newcomers and Native Hawaiians sometimes led to violence.

One of Kona’s most notorious 19th-century incidents was the Kaona Uprising. History records that Kaona’s discontent may have started at Lanakila Church. In Rev. Paris’s own words: “In the year 1867, Mr. Kaona introduced himself to me, saying that he was from Kainaliu, North Kona, and that he had now come back to reside and make Kona his home. He added, ‘I have brought with me a lot of Hawaiian Bibles for gratuitous distribution, and I want a place to store them until after the Sabbath.’ This was on Saturday afternoon. He begged permission to store them in the new Lanakila Church, which was not yet completed. The church lunas voted him permission, and he accordingly stored the Bibles in the unfinished structure.”

Not content with storing the Bibles in the church, Kaona and his large family soon took over Lanakila as their residence. Understandably upset, Paris forced Kaona’s eviction from the church by order of Governess Keelikolani. Determined to remain nearby, Kaona’s followers moved a few hundred yards away from the church, pitched their tents, built thatched shanties, and lived for several months on a neighbor’s private property.

Hunger and cold rains eventually forced the religious commune to move to the warmer makai elevation at Kainaliu Beach. However, Kaona was still trespassing. When Kona’s chief local law officer, Sheriff Neville, served Kaona with a notice of eviction, the religious leader refused to budge. According to Paris, “The rebel spat on the paper, tore it into pieces, and stamped upon it.”

During 1868, a series of terrific earthquakes shook the entire island for months. Kaona concinced his followers, now numbering in the hundreds, that the end of the world was at hand. He announced that he, Kaona, was the only prophet of Jehovah, and that everyone would be destroyed except his faithful band. Sheriff Neville decided during these excitable times to ride into Kaona’s camp and serve his final eviction notice, declaring to Paris that this time he was determined to use force, if necessary. A violent encounter ensued, resulting in the bloody death of Sheriff Neville and one native policeman.

As Paris wrote: “Kaona harangued his followers to fire the houses and kill all the haoles, heretics and enemies of Jehovah. In the evening, the foreigners organized and armed themselves to protect the community, the magistrate of South Kona calling for volunteers to protect life and property.” One can imagine the tense night that followed as isolated families wondered if they would be attacked next. Troops arrived shortly from Honolulu aboard the steamer Kilauea to put down the rebellion and capture the rebels. Kaona was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment for murder in the second degree, but he was later pardoned by King Kalakaua and set free. He died in Kona in 1883.

History reveals that cultures in turmoil will seek inspirational leaders, and such a man was Kaona. How the historian wishes that Kaona had written his own account of the uprising so modern judgment could be based on hearing both sides of the story.

Copyright 1988 Kona Historical Society. Reprinted by permission.