Hawaii’s Greatest Monarch

Kirk Aeder

One of the most iconic figures in Hawaiian history is Hawai‘i’s first official monarch, King Kamehameha the Great, also known as Kamehameha I. In a time of great cultural change and uncertainty, Kamehameha irrevocably altered and preserved the future of the Hawaiian Islands.

There are many beliefs as to how the great king came into power. One theory stems from an ancient Hawaiian legend claiming there would someday be a “great light in the sky with feathers” that would signify the birth of a prodigious chief. It is believed that Kamehameha, birth name Pai‘ea, was born in the district of North Kohala on the Big Island the same year that Halley’s Comet streaked across the sky. In 1758, warring clans and prognostications threatened the life of the unborn child, and so immediately after birth, Pai‘ea was taken by a kahuna (priest) and hidden for his protection in Waipi‘o Valley. After the tension subsided, he moved to Kona at the age of five and was renamed Kamehameha (The Lonely One).

Kamehameha grew to be a courageous warrior and leader. In order to improve and unite all of the Hawaiian Islands, he battled high rulers, neighbor island chiefs, and even family members. He adopted Western weaponry and was a battle strategist.  In 1790, after attaining control of the entire Hawai‘i Island, he successfully invaded Maui, Lana‘i, and Moloka‘i. In 1810, he officially unified all of the Islands under one kingdom—not only a Herculean accomplishment, but also a fortuitous occasion for the Hawaiian people. Kamehameha placed capable leaders in charge of large districts; he implemented laws, trade and peaceful activities. Had he not achieved this feat, it is believed the islands would have been piecemealed to international warmongers, and one can only guess what might have become of the Hawaiian culture.

King Kamehameha the Great died in 1819 and his bones were hidden by his kahuna. Their location remains a secret to this day.

In 1871, his great-grandson Kamehameha V passed a royal decree for a day in honor of the great king. On June 11, 1872, the first King Kamehameha Day was observed; and today, June 11th is known as an official holiday in the United States, one of the first proclaimed by the State of Hawai‘i. 

In 1880, the Boston sculptor Thomas Gould, living abroad in Italy, was commissioned to create a statue of Kamehameha the Great.  En route to Hawai‘i, the ship carrying the sculpture sank off the Falkland Islands, sending the original bronze to the bottom of the South Atlantic Sea. Thought to be lost forever, a replica was commissioned in 1883—the famous statue now stands in front of Ali‘iolani Hale (the judiciary building) on O‘ahu.

Astonishingly, in 1912, the original Kamehameha statue was found and recovered. After being restored, the King Kamehameha bronze was placed in Kapa‘au in North Kohala on the Big Island, honoring the monarch’s birthplace. When Hawai‘i attained statehood in 1959, a third replica of Gould’s statue was commissioned. Unveiled in 1969 at the National Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C., King Kamehameha I stands amongst the statues of historical figures from all 50 states.

More recently in 1997, a 14-foot statue by Italian sculptor, R. Sandrin was erected at the Wailoa State Park in Hilo on the Big Island. The piece was originally commissioned in 1963 by the Princeville Corporation for their luxurious Kaua‘i resort; however, the statue met great controversy amongst Kaua‘i residents, who didn’t approve of its installment. Kamehameha had never physically conquered Kauai, but instead, the island’s chief ceded to the union and recognized Kamehameha as sovereign. Hilo was one of the king’s political centers, so the Princeville Corporation donated the statue to the eastern town of the Big Island, where it is now stands and is celebrated.

Kamehameha the Great lives on in the hearts of the Island’s people today. His holiday is celebrated with elaborate cultural festivities and events that not only commemorate his accomplishments, but also instills a sense of pride amongst the Hawaiian people. Parades, hula performances, and ho‘olaulea (festivals) happen every June 11th. The breathtaking draping ceremonies, in which the statues are cloaked in long strands of lei (garlands of flower), occur each year. On this day, all four statues become a focal point of reverence, respect and aloha, honoring the legacy of Hawai‘i’s greatest king.  

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