The Battle of Nu‘uanu

A familiar battle takes on new life
The Battle of Nuuanu / The Battle of Nuuanu
An illustrated Pocket Guide to the Oahu Battlefield.
Neil Bernard Dukas

Mutual, 2010, 104 pages, $9.95

The Battle of Nuuanu. A bunch of cowards stand in his way, so Kamehameha pushes them all over the cliff. There’s the one guy with the musket going off in his face, and the other one–the guy with the yellow ikaika helmet–getting ready to take his tumble. You’ve seen the Herb Kane painting. What else is there to talk about?

For readers with an interest in Oahu history and anything less than a deep knowledge of Kamehameha’s conquest, a new chapbook by Neil Bernard Dukas offers an accessible, thorough education of one of the great battles in the history of the Hawaiian Islands.

How can a chapbook with what must be fewer than 5,000 words of narrative text be thorough? In the answer lies both the challenge Dukas faced and the motivation for the project.

Documentation of the Battle of Nuuanu, a watershed event in the history of these Islands, exists largely in the surviving mele and moolelo that carry its tales. Very few independent or other accounts of the developments have endured into our era, making corroboration difficult. That’s not to indict the Hawaiian methods of recording history, Dukas is quick to point out, so much as to acknowledge the obvious–history is written by the victors.

On balance, the received wisdom from the mele generally involves cowardly defenders of Oahu oscillating between abject incompetence and full retreat. And yet, Dukas points out, Oahu’s ruler, Kalanikupule, and his allies and lieutenants were able and experienced commanders. They had significant forces and arms at their disposal. Dukas suspects the events of the spring of 1795 were probably much more nuanced than the histories suggest, and the defenders of Oahu more valiant than we have been led to believe. Dukas’ premise, then “allow[s]…the possibility that although outnumbered and outgunned, they were crafty, determined, intelligent foes–experienced warriors in possession of a plan–whose voices have, unfortunately, not survived to share with us their side of the story.”

That this project succeeds is a testament to Dukas’ military imagination, and to his ability to soften what is clearly a deep knowledge of strategy and tactics into bite-sized pieces easily digestible for the general reader. The text, which proceeds apace, is smart and to-the-point without being dry–we get a sense of the context of the battle as well as its content–and the connection to familiar local geography is very helpful.

This last point is a major focus of the book itself–Dukas mentions that readers might want to visit the battlefield itself, and provides maps, charts and photos to aid that effort. Unfortunately, there is a bit too much of this, and the book’s flow is bit choppy due to too many visual cut-ins. A suggestion to park at Leahi to view one of Kamehameha’s main disembarkment points is helpful, for example, but a photograph of Waialae/Kahala from the Diamond Head parking lot is an unnecessary distraction.

Still, the connections to present-day Honolulu are undeniably interesting and help draw us in. Driving past Thomas Square, or over the back of Punchbowl, becomes a different experience when we know that battles fought there helped forever shape the history of Oahu and the Islands.

In the end, this is Dukas’ accomplishment–a clear, engaging guide that balances our one-sided understanding of Nuuanu and also takes us deeper still, into the possibilities of a world in which Kamehameha had been defeated that day, leaving sovereignty over the Islands divided and contested.