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Cook's journals refer to an ambitious young chief named Kamehameha, from Kohala, Hawai’i Island. A skilled warrior and shrewd opportunist, he managed to quell centuries of near-constant internecine warfare by systematically conquering each of the islands. In 1790 he demoralized the chiefs of Hawai'i Island by constructing Pu'ukohola Heiau and sacrificing his key rival on its altar. In 1795 he stormed the island of Maui, terrifying the enemy with cannon he had plundered from an American ship. O'ahu fell the same year after bloody fighting along Nu'uanu pali. Twice he tried to invade Kaua'i, but both times storms turned back his fleet. Instead, Kamehameha invited the chief of Kaua'i to visit him on O'ahu then forced him to cede through a combination of threats and rewards.

Hawai'i became a united kingdom in 1809. When the old conqueror died ten years later, he left a leadership void that his 22-year-old son Kamehameha II proved unable to fill. The drunken youth was coerced that same year to abandon the strict kapu system, the very basis of his authority. The crucial moment came when the young chief consented to share a meal with two women -- his mother Ke'o pu olani and his father's favorite wife, Ka'ahumanu. Because shared meals were strictly forbidden, this single act of 'ai noa, or free eating, was taken as a broadly symbolic act. The ten-year-old Hawaiian kingdom now had no system of self-governance.