Kamehameha; Law, Legend and Leadership

June 11th is a very welcome holiday here in Hawai‘i; it is Kamehameha Day, celebrated to honor Kamehameha the Great.

And great he was! Study Alaka‘i, the Hawaiian value of leadership, to any degree, and the name of Kamehameha is sure to be mentioned. Kamehameha I ruled the islands from 1810 to 1819, and nearly 2 centuries later the repeated telling of his reign has made him legendary.

The stories about Kamehameha are colorful and plentiful. Perhaps the best known one is that which explains Māmalahoe Kānāwai, the Law of the Splintered Paddle, which appears in our state constitution even today. The following account is shared by Ramon Arjona:

In more modern times, the story of the Law of the Splintered Paddle gives us another example of the layering of myth on top of historical fact. The Law of the Splintered Paddle, or Kanawai Malamahoe, was one of the strictest laws promulgated by King Kamehameha I, making murder and robbery punishable by death. This law is significant in the development of the Hawaiian Kingdom that Kamehameha I created. It is so significant, in fact, that a version of it is included in the constitution of the state of Hawai'i.

In the state constitution, it appears in section 10 of Article IX:

Section 10. The law of the splintered paddle, mamala-hoe kanawai, decreed by Kamehameha I — Let every elderly person, woman and child lie by the roadside in safety — shall be a unique and living symbol of the State's concern for public safety. The State shall have the power to provide for the safety of the people from crimes against persons and property.

However, the oral histories do not agree on the exact incident that led to the creation of the law. In the version collected by Fornander, a young Kamehameha attacked the subjects of a rival chief on the Big Island while they were peacefully fishing on the reef near Kea'au. In the ensuing fight, Kamehameha's foot got caught in the reef, putting him off balance and allowing one of the fishermen to club him several times on the head with a paddle. As the story goes, Kamehameha's life was spared only because the fisherman did not know the identity of his assailant. The Kanawai Malamahoe was promulgated by the king later in his life in commemoration of this incident, when he nearly died because he foolishly chose to attack harmless noncombatants.

A version of the story collected by Pukui in Folktales of Hawai'i is different. In this version, the young Kamehameha I was building a heiau, or temple, and needed human sacrifices. He attempted to capture a pair of fisherman, but as he was pursuing them his foot got caught in a fissure of lava and he fell. One of the fishermen clubbed him over the head with his paddle so hard that the paddle splintered. As Kamehameha lay there stunned, he heard one of the men ask the other, "Why don't you kill him?" The second man replies, "Because life is sacred to [the god] Kane."

Kamehameha was so impressed by their reverence for life that he later promulgated the Kanawai Mamalahoe, which abolished human sacrifice and established the basic right to life in the Hawaiian culture.

There are still other versions of the story, collected by other historians, and it is not clear which version is the most accurate, if indeed any of them are. We have the law itself, but we can't say for certain what chain of events led Kamehameha I to promulgate it.

I’ve written more about our holiday, and the man that inspired it, on Managing with Aloha today: Kamehameha the Great; King of my Ancestors. As I started to write it, simply to celebrate the man and the day, it turned out to be a bit more sharing of how I grew up in Hawai‘i, very much an American child in the tolerant legacy of a monarchy.


Brief dip into the archives; Manage with aloha, Lead with aloha

In part …

“We can easily rationalize the importance of such qualities as intelligence, decisiveness, technical mastery, reputation, and goal setting, but [Hawaiian] leadership probably was more a response of the heart rather than of the mind. The leader’s enthusiasm, compassion, inspiration, energy, stamina and charisma all came from his heart. The art in leadership is not so much rational as it is emotional, or spiritual in its promptings.”