The Olowalu Massacre of 1790

hawaiiToday I found out about the Olowalu Massacre.

In 1789, Captain Simon Metcalfe and his son Thomas set off on a fur trading mission in two ships, the Eleanora and the Fair American. The ships were separated when the Fair American was captured by the Spanish and taken briefly to Mexico, but the two captains had agreed to a rendezvous point in the case of separation: Kealakekua Bay at the Hawaiian Islands.

The Islands had only been “discovered” by James Cook twelve years before. At first, the Hawaiian natives greeted Europeans as gods. In fact, on Cook’s second visit, they were in the middle of a fertility festival on Kealakekua Bay, which was sacred to the fertility goddess Lono. When Cook’s ship sailed in during the festivities, the natives were certain that the Europeans were some sort of gods. However, relations became strained when one of the European men died aboard the ship, revealing that they were, in fact, mere mortals.

Captain Cook and his men were forced to pack up quickly and sail away, but they returned within the week due to a damaged mast. It was a big mistake. The Hawaiians threw rocks, then stole a small boat from the Discovery. The Europeans fired on them, killing a lesser chief, before the Hawaiians mobbed a group of Europeans, killing Captain Cook on February 14, 1779. His men retaliated by killing some 30 Hawaiians before eventually returning to England.

This makes the location of Captain Metcalfe’s rendezvous point somewhat surprising. But what isn’t surprising is the reception that he and his crew received when they pulled up to the bay. That night, a Hawaiian man named Kaopuiki stole a small boat and killed a man in the process, setting the scene for history to repeat itself.

Sure enough, upon hearing of his crewman’s death, Metcalfe was out for blood. He sailed to Olowalu, where Kaopuiki was from, and told the people he was doing some friendly, nonviolent trading. Some 200 canoes sailed out to greet his ship, all of which were crowded to the starboard side due to a prohibition on the other. Once Metcalfe had them where he wanted them, he showed true colonial hospitality by telling his men to open fire on the canoes.

Around 100 natives were killed and 150 more were seriously injured. Among the dead and wounded were children who had been excited to see the big foreign ship up close. This incident alone is termed the “Olowalu Massacre,” but there was much more bloodshed to follow.

Hearing of the uncalled-for slaughter of so many innocent Hawaiians, Chief Kame’eiamoku swore he would kill the next white man he saw. Soon after, the Fair American anchored in the harbor. The chief seized the ship and killed every man on board save for Isaac Davis. On shore, another white man was detained—John Young from the Eleanora, who witnessed the attack and rushed to tell his captain before he was taken captive by the Hawaiians.

Metcalfe set sail unaware of the Fair American’s fate. Meanwhile, Chief Kame’eiamoku used the ship and the two skilled white navigators to his advantage. He handed the ship and the white men over to King Kamehameha I, who was fighting for control of the islands. Young and Davis showed Kamehameha and his men how to use the artillery aboard the ship.

Kamehameha went on to win a key victory against his rival Chief Kahekili using a canon from the ship. So many bodies piled up in the nearby ‘Iao Stream that the Hawaiians called it the Battle of Kepaniwai, which meant “the damming of the waters.” The battle proved to be significant, and it was only a matter of time before Kamehameha successfully united the Hawaiian Islands under his banner, so to speak.

After directly and indirectly causing so much death and destruction, you might be happy to know that Simon Metcalfe’s life didn’t have a happy end. Not much is known about his adventures after he left Hawaii, but the promise of good trade must have taken him to the Queen Charlotte Islands off the coast of British Columbia in 1794. There, he started a friendly trade with the local Haida people. Perhaps feeling overly confident due to his previous successes over native people, Metcalfe allowed a huge number aboard his ship in the name of trade.

The Haida knew that they had the upperhand—the European men were greatly outnumbered. They attacked, and within a few minutes nearly everyone on board—including Captain Metcalfe—was dead. Only one man was smart enough to climb up into the rigging, and when he came down he was taken as a prisoner. The only reason we know the fate of the crew of the Eleanora is that the man was then ransomed off and found his way back to Hawaii, where he told the tale to John Young. Young then passed the story along to every ship that sailed through the islands.

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Bonus Facts:

  • The Hawaiians called the Olowalu Massacre “Kalolopahu,” which meant “spilled brains.”
  • Along with superior weaponry, Europeans brought another danger: diseases. Contact between Europeans and Hawaiians, such as when Cook landed on the islands and during the Olowalu Massacre, spread diseases that Hawaiians’ immune systems had a tough time battling against. Their population was decimated in the first fifty years after contact with Europeans from this—a massacre in itself. Around half the population of Maui died within 45 years, and the population continued to decline for nearly 100 years.
  • Also in 1794, the Resolution sailed through the Queen Charlotte Islands and met a similar fate to the Eleanora. All but one man was killed.
  • John Young and Isaac Davis ended remaining on the islands, as they were given valuable land by King Kamehameha I. Young married into the royal family and had many children between two wives. Davis also married a chiefess and later a relative of Kamehameha’s, bearing three children. Unfortunately for Davis, he was poisoned and died in 1810. Young took in Davis’ children and looked after them as if they were his own.
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  • Is it only white people that you target in your articles showing man’s inhumanity to man? Seems to be only white people from England or the United States that commit atrocities here.

    I, for one, am just damned glad that the rest of the world gets along so cheerily. If we could just kill off all of the white people, everything would be OK, right?

    • Daven Hiskey

      @Robert: Quite the contrary. Stick around and read a bit more here. You’ll find we’re pretty good at making everyone upset. 😉 I personally have been accused of being a racist against minorities, a tool of the republican party, a tool of the democratic party, been thanked for spreading information about certain disabled people and in the same articles often accused of discriminating against said groups, and on and on. As for Emily, I think this is the first time anyone’s accused her of bashing white people in some way, but I could be wrong. 🙂
      But in all seriousness, stick around a bit. We tend to be mostly neutral and just present the facts as they come for a given topic. Selecting which topics to write on is amazing random with little rhyme or reason other than to have a great variety so you “never know what you’re going to get” on any given day. There’s no real agenda on any of it.
      There are rare exceptions, which I can count on one hand out of about 2400 articles to date, where we do try to make a point, but we’re not subtle about it, I can assure you. (Like the article on book burning where we’re pretty explicit about our view on that one, and are quite passionate about it.) Even then, we don’t skew the facts, but there is nothing subtle about our stance there.
      But otherwise, we just present the facts as they come for a given topic and the choice of topics is amazingly random.

  • Lucienne de Naie

    the article has some pretty large inaccuracies. Lono is a god, not a goddess and he is associated with agriculture. the “fertility” festival the article refers to was actually the traditional Makahiki (new years) festival which honors the coming of the rainy season with a season ( 3 months) of peace and celebrations.
    The boat that was stolen (and crewman guarding it slain) from metcalf was at Keoneoio Bay in the district of Honua’ula in Maui, where Kaopuiki and his wife the high chiefesss Kalola were staying at the time.

    Metcalf learned that Kaopuiki usually lived in Olowalu, a traditional village some 25 miles further NW from Keoneoio. He sailed there in the Eleanora and perpetuated the massacre as described, after Chiefess Kalola forbid anyone to have contact with the ship for several days through declaring a special kapu ( a kapu denotes a forbidden act).
    Meanwhile, metcalfes son had earlier sailed into Kealakekua bay in the Fair American and was attacked because, according to the traditional story, his father had abused an important chief there in Kealakekua on an earlier visit and the chief vowed revenge on the first foreign ship he encountered, which happened to be the Fair American. Supposedly, only crewman Issac Davis escaped death on the Fair American. John Young, a crewman on the Eleanora was left behind and both he and Davis became important advisors to King Kamehameha I and helped him use western weapons to connquer the Hawaiian islands.Kamehameha also captured Metcalfes ship the Fair American and used it as his own.

  • So much white version history in the article. Someone pointed out a bunch above. Also Kamehameaha never cough Kahekili. In fact he attacked kahikili son after kahekili spilt his land (Oahu, Maui, Moloka’i, Lana’i) between his son and brother. Who then fought each other for complete rule. Weakened forces including Kamehameha two white advisors and the amount of trade of weapons he was able to obtain. Lead to a fast but bloody victory.

  • Full of inaccuracies. Fair American was not captured at Kealakekua. Lono is a god, not a goddess and John Young never witnesses the attack on the Fair American. Geez, get the facts first.