ALMOST exactly thirty-four years before Kapiolani defied the worship of the fire-goddess Pele, Keoua, a high chief, lost a large part of his army near the volcano Kilauea. This was in November, 1790.
Ka-lani-opuu had been king over the island Hawaii. When he died in 1782, he left the kingdom to his son Kiwalao, giving the second place to his nephew Kamehameha.
War soon arose between the cousins. Kamehameha defeated and killed the young king. Kiwalao's half-brother Keoua escaped to his district Ka-u, on the southwestern side of the island. His uncle Keawe-mau-hili escaped to his district Hilo on the southeastern side.
For some years the three factions practically let each other alone, although there was desultory fighting. Then the high chief of Hilo accepted Kamehameha as his king and sent his sons to aid Kamehameha in conquering the island Maui.
Keoua was angry with his uncle Keawe-mau-hili. He attacked Hilo, killed his uncle and
ravaged Kamehameha's lands along the northeastern side of the island.
Kamehameha quickly returned from Maui and made an immediate attack on his enemy, who had taken possession of a fertile highland plain called Waimea. From this method of forcing unexpected battle came the Hawaiian saying, "The spear seeks Waimea like the wind."
Keoua was defeated and driven through forests along the eastern side of Mauna Kea (The white mountain) to Hilo. Then Kamehameha sent warriors around the western side of the island to attack Keoua's home district. Meanwhile, after a sea fight in which he defeated the chiefs of the islands Maui and Oahu, he set his people to building a great temple chiefly for his war-god Ka-ili. This was the last noted temple built on all the islands.
Keoua heard of the attack on his home, therefore he gave the fish-ponds and fertile lands of Hilo to some of his chiefs and hastened to cross the island with his army by way of a path near the volcano Kilauea. He divided his warriors into three parties, taking charge of the first in person. They passed the crater at a time of great volcanic activity. A native writer, probably Kamakau, in the native newspaper Kuokoa, 1867, describes the destruction of the central part of this army by an awful explosion from Kilauea.
He said: "Thus was it done. Sand, ashes, and stones grew up from the pit into a very high column of fire, standing straight up. The mountains of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa were below it. The people even from Ka-wai-hae [a seaport on the opposite side of the mountains] saw this wonderful column with fire glowing and blazing to its very top. When this column became great it blew all to pieces into sand and ashes and great stones, which for some days continued to fall around the sides of Kilauea. Men, women, and children were killed. Mona, one of the army, who saw all this but who escaped, said that one of the chiefesses was ill and some hundreds of the army had delayed their journey to guard her and so escaped this death."
Dibble, the first among the missionaries to prepare a history of the islands, gave the following description of the event:
"Keoua's path led by the great volcano of Kilauea. There they encamped. In the night a terrific eruption took place, throwing out flame, cinders, and even heavy stones to a great distance and accompanied from above with intense lightning and heavy thunder. In the morning Keoua and his companions were afraid to proceed and spent the day in trying to appease the goddess of the volcano, whom they supposed they had off ended the day before by rolling stones
into the crater. But on the second night and on the third night also there were similar eruptions. On the third day they ventured to proceed on their way, but had not advanced far before a more terrible and destructive eruption than any before took place; an account of which, taken from the lips of those who were part of the company and present in the scene, may not be an unwelcome digression.
'The army of Keoua set out on their way in three different companies. The company in advance had not proceeded far before the ground began to shake and rock beneath their feet and it became quite impossible to stand. Soon a dense cloud of darkness was seen to rise out of the crater, and almost at the same instant the electrical effect upon the air was so great that the thunder began to roar in the heavens and the lightning to flash. It continued to ascend and spread abroad until the whole region was enveloped and the light of day was entirely excluded. The darkness was the more terrific, being made visible by an awful glare from streams of red and blue light variously combined that issued from the pit below, and being lit up at intervals by the intense flashes of lightning from above. Soon followed an immense volume of sand and cinders which were thrown in high heaven and came down in a destructive shower for many
miles around. Some few persons of the forward company were burned to death by the sand and cinders and others were seriously injured. All experienced a suffocating sensation upon the lungs and hastened on with all possible speed.
'The rear body, which was nearest the volcano at the time of the eruption, seemed to suffer the least injury, and after the earthquake and shower of sand had passed over, hastened forward to escape the dangers which threatened them, and rejoicing in mutual congratulations that they had been preserved in the midst of such imminent peril.
'But what was their surprise and consternation when, on coming up with their comrades of the centre party, they discovered them all to have become corpses. Some were lying down, and others sitting upright clasping with dying grasp their wives and children and joining noses (their form of expressing affection) as in the act of taking a final leave. So much like life they looked that they at first supposed them merely at rest, and it was not until they had come up to them and handled them that they could detect their mistake. Of the whole party, including women and children, not one of them survived to relate the catastrophe that had befallen their comrades. The only living being they found was a solitary hog, in company with
one of the families which had been so suddenly bereft of life. In those perilous circumstances, the surviving party did not even stay to bewail their fate, but, leaving their deceased companions as they found them, hurried on and overtook the company in advance at the place of their encampment.'
"Keoua and his followers, of whom the narrator of this scene were a part, retreated in the direction they had come. On their return, they found their deceased friends as they had left them, entire and exhibiting no other marks of decay than a sunken hollowness in their eyes; the rest of their bodies was in a state of entire preservation. They were never buried, and their bones lay bleaching in the sun and rain for many years."
A blast of sulphurous gas, a shower of heated embers, or a volume of heated steam would sufficiently account for this sudden death. Some of the narrators who saw the corpses affirm that, though in no place deeply burnt, yet they were thoroughly scorched."
Keoua's prophets ascribed this blow from the gods to their high chief's dislike of Hilo and gift to sub-chiefs of the fish-ponds, which were considered the favorite food-producers for offerings to Hiiaka, the youngest member of the Pele family.
Kamehameha's prophets said that this eruption was the favor of the gods on his temple building.
The people said it was proof that Pele had taken Kamehameha under her especial protection and would always watch over his interests and make him the chief ruler.