February 27, 2005

Posted on: Sunday, February 27, 2005

A society of warriors; an ancient tale

Advertiser Staff

"A MILITARY HISTORY OF SOVEREIGN HAWAI'I," by Neil Bernard Dukas; UH Press, paper, $17.95


A Military History of Sovereign Hawai'i
Writer and military historian Neil B. Dukas (formerly of Honolulu, but now living in Marin County, Calif.) begins with an interesting question: How did a highly developed warrior society become the land of aloha?

To explain the transition, he begins with a thorough examination of the world of na koa the fighting men before contact, and particularly during what is called the Classical Era (the mid-17th to mid-18th centuries). He then moves on to examine the place of the military during the Hawaiian monarchy period.

A researcher faithful to provable fact, Dukas is careful to differentiate between what is known and what is less well-understood about early military history. Most enlightening is his clear delineation of Hawaiians' belief in mana (spiritual power bestowed by the gods) and kapu (prohibitions that worked to control and channel that power), and the role these played in warrior customs and motivation. To be a successful warrior was to garner and exhibit mana. To scrupulously obey the complex code of kapu was similarly to display mana.

Ali'i recruited professional warriors, such as the elite 'olohe lua, sort of the kung fu fighters of Hawaiian times, specially trained in hand-to-hand combat. But there was also a highly mobile militia system that could be called on.

Throughout, Dukas refutes widespread misunderstandings (for example, an exaggerated view, probably promulgated by later non-Hawaiian writers, of the importance of Western weaponry in Kamehameha I's campaign to unite the Islands). (One amusing aside: Dukas notes that the "arm band" tattoos so popular today in various Hawaiian motifs were not worn in Hawai'i until after Western contact; tattoos ranged over the shoulder, along the leg or arm or across the chest.)

By contrast, the story of monarchy-era armies is a sadder one, much concerned with pageantry and froufrou, colors and uniforms, a far, far cry from the days when a warrior was "an eel with pointed teeth," according to a traditional aphorism.

Wanda A. Adams


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