The History of the Nuuanu Pali Lookout

The Nu’uanu Pali Lookout has a rich and storied history dating back to ancient Hawaiian times. This must see location for Oahu tourists was for centuries home to ancient Hawaiian villages. Hawaiian natives settled in this area because it is one of the lowest natural points connecting the windward and leeward coasts of Oahu. However, that certainly doesn’t mean that traversing this pass was easy.
The Pali Lookout is at a junction between the edge of the Ko’olau Mountain ridge and a one thousand foot cliff overlooking Kaneohe Bay and Kailua. It makes a great place to view the windward side of Oahu, but passing through still seems like it was a daunting and dangerous endeavor. In 1831 a visitor to the islands named Reverend Reuben Tinker attempted to make his way through this pass. Being the most direct rout, he was encouraged by the natives to proceed to the windward side via the Pali Lookout, but his actual passing was a bit less than convenient:

“The pass was almost too fearful to be enjoyed. I suffered from apprehension lest I should fall from the rocky steep. I took off my shoes and by setting my feet in the crevices of the rock, I worked myself along, assisted by a native, who saw nothing to wonder at but my awkwardness and fear on passing this grand highway.”

The Pali Lookout’s sheer face is thankfully not currently being used as a means of traversing the island’s soaring mountain ridges. There are tunnels drilled through the cliffs that serve that function currently. If you ever find yourself overlooking this area you might be able to understand Mr. Tinker’s hesitance at proceeding through at this point when you peek over the edge and feel the roaring winds accompanying the sheer rocky cliff-face.

Battle of Nuuanu

Aside from being a noteworthy pass and impressive view, the Pali Lookout is famous as the location of the last stand of Kalanikupule and the warriors of the Kingdom of Maui. In 1795 King Kamehameha of Hawaii’s Big Island set his sights on the island of Oahu in his bid to unite the Hawaiian Islands under one rule. Fresh off of victories over the forces of the islands of Molokai, Lanai, and Maui, Kamehameha had momentum on his side. He also had the advantage of being trained and outfitted with modern military techniques and equipment, a new resource that the forces of Kalanikupule were only just starting to teach themselves to use. Having earlier recruited two Englishmen — John Young and Isaac Davies — to help him understand this new way of waging war, Kamehameha was certainly at a tactical advantage over his foe. This allowed him and his ten thousand soldiers to paddle directly into the heart of the Oahu Hawaiians’ territory at Waikiki beach, and immediately push the forces back. A chief named Kaiana, who was once an ally of Kamehameha, joined the forces of Oahu at the last second, but their combined efforts did little to withstand Kamehameha’s push. Kalanikupule’s warriors fought back as best as they could, but they were eventually pushed into the valley, where they made their last stand at the Pali Lookout. The ensuing clash is now known as the Battle of Nuuanu, and marks a pivotal transition for Hawaiian society. Facing total defeat, over four hundred of the defenders of Oahu were pushed to their death over the thousand foot cliff-side here. Kalanikupule himself escaped the fray, seeking refuge in the surrounding cliffs, but he was eventually captured and sacrificed to Kamehameha’s war god, Kū-ka-ili-moku, marking the ultimate end of the Kingdom of Maui that had previously controlled much of Hawaii. Kamehameha the first had achieved his goal of uniting the Islands of Hawaii after this historic victory that is considered to be the bloodiest in Hawaiian history. For an individual who while growing up in the Waipio valley was referred to as the “lonely one,” uniting the islands under his rule was certainly a great way to surround himself with followers and friends. This historic event in Hawaiian history marked the a major switch in the transition from traditional Hawaiian life to more modern living practices across the Islands. Kamehameha’s efforts may have expedited the decline of certain Hawaiian customs and practices, but it also helped to ensure that the Hawaiian people were viewed not simply as savages but as an organized and capable society in the eyes of an ever increasing western presence. Without this unification, the Hawaiian monarchy may never have been officially established, and the hundred or so years worth of sovereign rule that followed this merger would have likely instead have been replaced by colonial attempts to divide the unorganized islands up among various western powers (a situation that would have proved devastating for any preservation of Hawaiian culture). With such significance surrounding it, the Nuuanu Pali Lookout should be a must see for anyone visiting the Hawaiian Islands. The howling winds and astounding view found at this rain-forest surrounded location can easily transport you and yours back to a time when life on Hawaii was much simpler. Simply imagine making your way down to the shimmering coastal waters of the Windward Oahu coast laid out before you (without the aid of any cars and tunnels), and you will surely understand why the native Hawaiians had such a close tie to their island home.

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