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Site offers glimpse into Kamehameha I’s world

Kamakahonu and Ahuena Heiau

Kamehameha I rose to power in the late 1780s as an unbeatable warrior chief and successfully fought to unite the Hawaiian Islands into a single kingdom under his rule. After a lifetime of battles waged across the island chain, the aging ruler returned to the island of his birth with his court in 1812. He chose to live at Kamakahonu (the eye of the turtle), an area named for a distinctive lava formation, which has now been covered by Kailua Pier. From this small white sand beach, Kamehameha ruled all Hawaii.

Kamakahonu was once enclosed by a massive crescent-shaped wall that extended from the site of the modern pier northward to the shoreline beyond the replica of Ahuena Heiau. Within this 4-acre enclosure, Kamehameha lived with members of his family, royal attendants, priests and advisers. He built several thatched dwelling houses and a stone storehouse to hold, among other things, kegs of gunpowder and rum, and rebuilt Ahuena Heiau.

Kamehameha lived at Kamakahonu for seven years and died there in 1819. He left as principal heir, his 22-year-old son, Liholiho, called Kamehameha II after his father’s death. In a break with previous Hawaiian tradition, Kamehameha I’s favorite wife, Kaahumanu, claimed her husband’s dying wish was that she would rule as kuhina nui, or regent.

Within months of his father’s death, Liholiho defied tradition. The custom in old Hawaii was for men and women to eat apart, in separate buildings. The punishment for breaking this kapu was death. However, Liholiho chose to eat in public with his mother, Keopuolani, and Kaahumanu at a feast held at Kamakahonu.

This single event, called ai noa, or “free eating,” essentially destroyed the basis of Hawaii’s structured society. The ensuing social upheaval tore Hawaii’s culture apart, toppling ancient gods and customs almost overnight. It finally took a battle to secure Kamehameha II’s survival as king.

In 1820, Liholiho moved his court from Kailua to Honolulu to keep an eye on the activities of whalers, traders and newly arriving missionaries. He left John Adams Kuakini in charge of the island of Hawaii as governor. Kuakini lived at Kamakahonu until he moved into Hulihee Palace in 1838. A large fort erected at Kamakahonu became a prominent feature. Visiting Europeans remarked at the size of its massive walls, 20 feet high and 14 feet thick, topped with a battery of 18 32-pound guns.

In 1855, Princess Ruth (Luka) Keelikolani became governess of Hawaii and moved the seat of office from Kailua to Hilo. Kamakahonu crumbled into ruin. King Kalakaua later converted Kamehameha’s old stone warehouse into a storage shed for whaleboats. In 1898, Kamakahonu became the headquarters of H. Hackfeld & Co., a German commercial trading company. (The company changed its name to American Factors during World War I after it was purchased by Americans.) In 1959, Amfac transformed its real estate holdings at Kamakahonu, probably the most historic site in all Kona, into the original King Kamehameha Hotel, Kailua’s first high-rise hotel.

A lack of appreciation for many of Kona’s historic sites has resulted in their loss and destruction. Fortunately, a scaled-down replica of Ahuena Heiau has been built on the site, offering a glimpse of Kamehameha I’s world.

Copyright 1998 Kona Historical Society. Reprinted by permission.