A Royal Holiday In The United States


Bronze and gilt statue of Kamehameha I across from the Iolani Palace in Honolulu, 7 April 2010.

Today, 11 June, is celebrated as King Kamehameha Day in the state of Hawaii. It is one of two officially recognized holidays in honor a royal person in all of the United States of America (the other is Hawaii’s Prince Kuhio Day.) Indeed, when one travels in Hawaii, it is striking to see the great number of monuments, memorials, and statues which are dedictated to various kings, queens, princesses, and princes; nowhere else in the United States is there such homage to royalty. The reason for all of this homage to monarchs lies in Hawaii’s history.

When Captain Cook made the first European contact with Hawaii in 1778, the islands were each ruled by a hereditary nobility of chiefs and lords and each island had its own Ali, a high chief or king. There was occasional fierce and bloody warefare among the clans of each island, and even between the islands. There was no central, unifying authority. European contact changed the Hawaiian islands radically and immediately. Before Cook arrived, the Hawaiians had no metals; within ten years trade with Europeans had become essential. In return for European manufactured goods, Hawaiians traded precious sandalwood and sealskins. In addition to iron pots and steel tools, the European traders brought firearms to the islands.

On the big island of Hawaii, a local member of the chiefly class, Paiea (“crab”) who had been among the first Hawaiians to treat with Captain Cook, realized that a fragmented and fractious Hawaii could not endure in the face of European contact. He also knew that European technology would be a decisive advantage to a warrior king who might take advantage of it. By making favorable deals with European traders to secure tools and weapons and training for his troops, and by political alliance and by military conquest, Paiea, better known by the name “The Loner,” Kamehameha, began to consolidate the island of Hawaii under his single rule. By 1791, with the whole of the island of Hawaii under his rule, Kamehameha set his sights on uniting all of the islands.

Kamehameha contracted with European ship captains to transport his men and materials to Maui and Oahu, and in at least one case, hired ship’s cannon to provide artillery support for his troops. Through a series of successful, hard-fought campaigns, by 1795 Kamehameha became Ali’nui, or Great High King over Hawaii, Maui, Molokai, Lanai, Kahoolawe, and Oahu. Only Kauai and tiny Niihau remained independent. In 1810, through successful diplomatic negotiations, the Ali of Kauai formally recognized Kamehameha as sole sovereign over all of the Hawaiian islands. Kamehameha at last ruled a unified Hawaiian nation.

As king, Kamehameha, styled “The Great,” was known as a firm and fair ruler. He promulgated uniform laws for all Hawaiians, and is most famous for his celebrated 1797 proclamation of Kanawai Mamalahoe, the “Law of the Splintered Paddle.” This law declared that non-combatants were to be protected during military action, and by extension that no one should be in fear of being attacked or molested. This law still exists as a part of Hawaii’s state constutution, and it has had a far-reaching impact upon the development of the theory of humanitarian laws of warfare.

As king of a united Hawaii, Kamehameha worked to promote trade with the outside world, but he also regulated and limited the influence that foreigners could have in Hawaii’s affairs. Kamehameha recognized that the traditional life in hawaii needed to be actively preserved in the face of Western culture.

Kamehameha ruled the kingdom of Hawaii until his death in 1819. He had made preparations to ensure that his achievements would be perpetuated, and he was succeeded by his sons Kamehameha II and Kamehameha III. The House of Kamehameha would last until 1872 with the death of Kamehameha V. The Hawaiian monarchy would continue until its overthrow 1893.

It is worth making especial note that Hawaii is one of the very few places which ever experienced the armed overthrow of a monarchy yet which still honors and respects its monarchical past. It would be odd in the extreme for France to have a King Louis XIV Day, or for the U.S. to have a King James I Day. Yet Hawaii enthusiastically embraces King Kamehameha Day and has done so since the day was first decreed by Kamehameha V in 1871. This holiday continued through the end of the monarchy and was revived in 1901 when Hawaii formally became a territory of the United States. When Hawaii was granted statheood in 1959, Kamehameha Day was among the first holidays established by the new state legislature. So why has this royal holiday persisted in Hawaii?

At the time that Sanford B. Dole’s “Committee of Safety” with the aid of United States Marines dispatched by U.S. Consul John L. Stevens, imprisoned Queen Liliuokalani and declared the monarchy abolished in 1893, the majority of Hawaiians had no desire to see the monarchy ended. In fact, majority sentiment favored a re-empowered monarchy, the possibility of which led to Dole’s coup.

In 1887, European-American Hawaiian business interests backed by the paramilitary Honolulu Rifles, had forced King David Kalakua to acceed to the “Bayonet Constitution,” which essentially stripped the king of all power and disenfranchised all but the wealthiest land owners. The rolls of eligible voters were reduced to a fraction of what they had been under the 1864 constitution. In 1893, Queen Liliuokalani determined that it was necessary to restore the 1864 constitution, a proposal which was, not surprisingly, met with approval among the majority of Hawaii’s people. It is also not surprising that the proposal was absolutely repugnant to the business interests who had forced the 1887 constitution to be adopted. The coup which imprisoned Queen Liliuokalani was not only not supported by the population, it was deeply unpopular.

Dole and his oligarchy hoped to have the United States annex Hawaii immediately after the overthrow, confident that expansionist president Benjamin Harrison would favor such a step. However, Harrison lost his bid for reelection and president Grover Cleveland would not even consider such an annexation. The U.S. House of Representatives issued a resolution deploring the use of U.S. troops to overthrow a legitimate government, and Congress would not take any steps toward taking control of Hawaii.

The Committee of Safety therefore declared the Republic of Hawaii on 4 July 1894 with Sanford B. Dole as president. (Hawaii is one of only four states to have been an independent republic.) The republic bided its time until the United States elections of 1896 returned the Republican Party to power, and after the inauguration of William McKinley in March 1897, Dole commenced negotiations for annexation. Hawaii was formally annexed in 1898 and became a U.S. territory in 1901. Dole served as the first territorial governor.

Because the monarchy had never been unpopular with the people of Hawaii, the kings, queens, princesses, and princes remained popular figures. Queen Liliuokalani remained especially popular, long after the overthrow, and her repeated efforts to receive justice from the United States government were widely supported in Hawaii. Prince Kuhio, mentioned above, eventually served in the United States Congress as a territorial representative, making him the only royal ever to have served in that body. In what may well have been intended as a bit of a show of defiance, Hawaii’s territorial legislature reestablished the observation of Kamehahmeha Day in 1901.

Thus it is we have a state in the Union which overthrew its monarchy, but which remains powerfully attached to it to this day.

Happy Kamehameha Day!!!

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

Kanawai Mamalahoe E na kanaka,
E malama ‘oukou i ke akua
A e malama ho’i ke kanaka nui a me kanaka iki;
E hele ka ‘elemakule, ka luahine, a me ke kama
A moe i ke ala ‘A’ohe mea nana e ho’opilikia. Hewa no, make.

— Kamehameha The Great

(The Law Of The Splintered Paddle:
Oh, my people, honor your god;
respect equally men great and humble;
ensure that our elderly, our women, and our children
lie down to sleep by the roadside without fear of harm.
To disobey is to die.)

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