King Kamehameha I: His Life, His Statues, His Holiday (and A Few Stamps)

Each year on June 11, the U.S. state of Hawaii celebrates the public holiday of King Kamehameha I Dayi. It honors Kamehameha the Great, the monarch who first established the unified Kingdom of Hawaiʻi — comprising the Hawaiian Islands of Niʻihau, Kauaʻi, Oʻahu, Molokaʻi, Lānaʻi, Kahoʻolawe, Maui, and Hawaiʻi. The holiday was first observed in 1872. Today, King Kamehameha I Day is treated with elaborate events harkening back to ancient Hawaiʻi, respecting the cultural traditions that Kamehameha defended as his society was slowly shifting towards European trends. The King Kamehameha Hula Competition attracts hula groups from all over the world to the Neil S. Blaisdell Center for the two-day event. Prizes are awarded on the second night.

Unfortunately, the celebrations have been cancelled for 2020. On April 23, the State of Hawaii Department of Accounting and General Services announced that,

Due to the continuing threat and uncertainties surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, the King Kamehameha Celebration Commission announces the cancellation of all King Kamehameha Celebration events statewide, namely lei draping ceremonies, parades and ho`olaule`a’s, on and around the June 11th holiday.

“The decision to cancel these major, statewide events was made with the health and safety of our island communities and kūpuna in mind. While we are hopeful that the worst of the COVID-19 health crisis will be behind us by June, we feel the prudent response at this time is to cancel our events so that all involved in our respective King Kamehameha Celebration festivities across the state can focus on matters important to health, welfare and economy. We look forward to commemorating and celebrating Kamehameha Pai‘ea in 2021,” said Kainoa Daines, Chair of the King Kamehameha Celebration Commission. He added, “The Commission will prepare for next year’s festivities and the 150th anniversary of the Kamehameha Day Holiday in 2022.”

Portrait of King Kamehameha The Great, one of the few paintings made of Kamehameha while he was alive, and reportedly his favorite. Original title was “Tamaahamaah, King of Sandwich Islands. Scanned from Hawai`i Looking Back: An illustrated History of the Islands by Glenn Grant (2004).

Kalani Paiʻea Wohi o Kaleikini Kealiʻikui Kamehameha o ʻIolani i Kaiwikapu kauʻi Ka Liholiho Kūnuiākea was born to Kekuʻiapoiwa II, the niece of Alapainui, the usurping ruler of Hawaii Island who had killed the two legitimate heirs of Keaweʻīkekahialiʻiokamoku during civil war. By most accounts he was born in Ainakea, Kohala, Hawaii. His father was Keōua Kalanikupuapa’ikalaninui.

However, Native Hawaiian historian Samuel Kamakau states that Maui monarch Kahekili II had hanai adopted (traditional, informal adoption) Kamehameha at birth, as was the custom of the time. Kamakau believes this is why Kahekili II is often referred to as Kamehameha’s father. The author also tells of how Kame’eiamoku, (one of the royal twins and father of Hoapili), told Kamehameha I that he was actually the son of Kahekili II, saying, “I have something to tell you: Ka-hekili was your father, you were not Keoua’s son. Here are the tokens that you are the son of Ka-hekili.”

King Kalakaua wrote that these rumors are scandals and should be very properly dismissed as being the offspring of hatred and jealousies of later years. Regardless of the rumors, Kamehameha was a descendant of Keawe through his mother Kekuʻiapoiwa II; Keōua acknowledged him as his son and he is recognized as such by all the sovereigns and most genealogists.

Statue of King Kamehameha I at the Aliʻiōlani Hale in Honolulu, Hawaii, draped for King Kamehameha I Day. Photo take on June 11, 2006.

Accounts of Kamehameha I’s birth vary but sources place his birth between 1736 and 1761, with historian Ralph Simpson Kuykendall believing it to be between 1748 and 1761. An early source is thought to imply a 1758 dating because that date matched a visit from Halley’s Comet, and would make him close to the age that Francisco de Paula Marín estimated he was. This dating, however, does not accord with the details of many well-known accounts of his life, such as his fighting as a warrior with his uncle, Kalaniʻōpuʻu, or his being of age to produce his first children by that time. The 1758 dating also places his birth after the death of his father.

Kamakau published an account in the Ka Nupepa Kuokoa in 1867 placing the date of Kamehameha’s birth around 1736. He wrote, “It was during the time of the warfare among the chiefs of [the island of] Hawaii which followed the death of Keawe, chief over the whole island (Ke-awe-i-kekahi-aliʻi-o-ka-moku) that Kamehameha I was born”. However, his general dating has been challenged as twenty years too early over issues involving Kamakau’s inaccuracy of dating and the accounts of foreign visitors. Regardless, Abraham Fornander wrote in his book, An Account of the Polynesian Race: Its Origins and Migrations: “when Kamehameha died in 1819 he was past eighty years old. His birth would thus fall between 1736 and 1740, probably nearer the former than the latter”. A Brief History of the Hawaiian People by William De Witt Alexander lists the birth date in the “Chronological Table of Events of Hawaiian History” as 1736. In 1888 the Kamakau account was challenged by Samuel C. Damon in the missionary publication; The Friend, deferring to a 1753 dating that was the first mentioned by James Jackson Jarves. Regardless of this challenge, the Kamakau dating was widely accepted due to support from Abraham Fornander.

A float in the King Kamehameha I Day floral parade in Honolulu, Hawaii. Photo taken on June 11, 2016.

At the time of Kamehameha’s birth, Keōua and his half-brother Kalaniʻōpuʻu were serving Alapaʻinui, ruler of Hawaiiʻs island. Alapaʻinui had brought the brothers to his court after defeating both their fathers in the civil war that followed the death of Keaweʻīkekahialiʻiokamoku. Keōua died while Kamehameha was young, so Kamehameha was raised in the court of his uncle, Kalaniʻōpuʻu. The traditional mele chant of Keaka, wife of Alapainui, indicates that Kamehameha was born in the month of ikuwā (winter) or around November. Alapai had given the child, Kamehameha, to his wife, Keaka, and her sister, Hākau, to care for after the ruler discovered the infant had survived.

Kamehameha was raised in the royal court of his uncle Kalaniʻōpuʻu. He achieved prominence in 1782, upon Kalaniʻōpuʻu’s death. While the kingship was inherited by Kalaniʻōpuʻu’s son, Kīwalaʻō, Kamehameha was given a prominent religious position, guardianship of the Hawaiian god of war, Kūkāʻilimoku, as well as control of the district of Waipiʻo valley. The two cousins’ relationship was strained, caused when Kamehameha made a dedication to the gods instead of Kīwalaʻō. Kamehameha accepted the allegiance of a group of chiefs from the Kona district.

The god Kū-ka-ili-moku was left to Kamehameha I by his uncle Kalaniʻōpuʻu. The Kuka’ilimoku or simply Ku, feather sculpture of the Hawaiian god of war from the 18th century, as photographed at the exhibit from the Göttingen Cook/Forster Collection of the Institute of Anthropology at the Georg August University on June 1, 2008.

By lifting the Naha Stone, Kamehameha was singled out as the fulfiller of a Prophecy passed along by the High Priests/Priestesses and High Chiefs/Chiefesses, The five Kona chiefs supporting Kamehameha were: Keʻeaumoku Pāpaʻiahiahi (Kamehameha’s father-in-law/grand Uncle), Keaweaheulu Kaluaʻāpana (Kamehameha’s uncle), Kekūhaupiʻo (Kamehameha’s warrior teacher), Kameʻeiamoku and Kamanawa (twin uncles of Kamehameha). They defended Kamehameha as the Unifier Ka Na`i aupuni. High Chiefs Keawe Mauhili and Keeaumoku were by genealogy the next in line for Ali`i Nui. Both chose the younger nephews Kiwala`o and Kamehameha over themselves. Kīwalaʻō was soon defeated in the first key conflict, the Battle of Mokuʻōhai, and Kamehameha and His Chiefs took over Konohiki responsibilities and sacred obligations of the districts of Kohala, Kona, and Hāmākua on Hawaiʻi island.

The Prophecy included far more than Hawaiʻi island. It went across and beyond the Pacific Islands to the semi-continent of Aotearoa (New Zealand). He was supported by his most political wife Kaʻahumanu and father High Chief Keeaumoku Senior Counselor to Kamehameha, She became one of Hawaii’s most powerful figures. Kamehameha and his Council of Chiefs planned to unite the rest of the Hawaiian Islands. Allies came from British and American traders, who sold guns and ammunition to Kamehameha. Another major factor in Kamehameha’s continued success was the support of Kauai Chief Ka`iana and Captain Brown, who used to be with Kaeo okalani. He guaranteed Kamehameha unlimited gunpowder from China and gave him the formula for gunpowder: sulfur, saltpeter/potassium nitrate, and charcoal, all abundant in the islands. Two Westerners who lived on Hawaiʻi island, Isaac Davis and John Young, married Native Hawaiian women and assisted Kamehameha.

Kekuaokalani and Manono Battle at Kuamo’o Decwmber 1819- Brook/Kapukuniahi/Parker

In 1789, Simon Metcalfe captained the fur trading vessel Eleanora while his son, Thomas Humphrey Metcalfe, captained the ship Fair American along the Northwest Coast. They were to rendezvous in what was then known as the Sandwich Islands. Fair American was held up when it was captured by the Spanish and then quickly released in San Blas. The Eleanora arrived in 1790, where it was greeted by chief Kameʻeiamoku. The chief did something that the captain took offense to, and Metcalfe struck the chief with a rope’s end. Sometime later, while docked in Honuaula, Maui, a small boat tied to the ship was stolen by native townspeople with a crewman inside. When Metcalfe discovered where the boat was taken, he sailed directly to the village called Olowalu. There he confirmed the boat had been broken apart and the man killed. He had already fired muskets into the previous village where he was anchored, killing some residents, Metcalfe took aim at this small town of native Hawaiians. He had all cannons moved to one side of the ship and began his trading call out to the locals. Hundreds of people came out to the beach to trade and canoes were launched. When they were within firing range, the ship fired on the Hawaiians, killing over 100.

Six weeks later, Fair American was stuck near the Kona coast of Hawaii where chief Kameʻeiamoku was living. He had decided to attack the next foreign ship to avenge the strike by the elder Metcalfe. He canoed out to the ship with his men, where he killed Metcalfe’s son and all but one (Isaac Davis) of the five crewmen. Kamehameha took Davis into protection and took possession of the ship. Eleanora was at that time anchored at Kealakekua Bay, where the ship’s boatswain had gone ashore and been captured by Kamehameha’s forces because Kamehameha believed Metcalfe was planning more revenge. Eleanora waited several days before sailing off, apparently without knowledge of what had happened to Fair American or Metcalfe’s son. Davis and Eleanora’s boatswain, John Young, tried to escape, but were treated as chiefs, given wives and settled in Hawaii.

In 1790 Kamehameha advanced against the district of Puna deposing Chief Keawemaʻuhili. At his home in Kaʻū, where he was exiled, Keōua Kūʻahuʻula took advantage of Kamehameha’s absence and began an uprising. When Kamehameha returned, Keōua escaped to the Kīlauea volcano, which erupted. Many warriors died from the poisonous gas.

When the Puʻukoholā Heiau was completed in 1791, Kamehameha invited Keōua to meet with him. Keōua may have been dispirited by his recent losses. He may have mutilated himself before landing so as to render himself an inappropriate sacrificial victim. As he stepped on shore, one of Kamehameha’s chiefs threw a spear at him. By some accounts, he dodged it but was then cut down by musket fire. Caught by surprise, Keōua’s bodyguards were killed. With Keōua dead, and his supporters captured or slain, Kamehameha became King of Hawaiʻi island.

In 1795, Kamehameha set sail with an armada of 960 war canoes and 10,000 soldiers. He quickly secured the lightly defended islands of Maui and Molokaʻi at the Battle of Kawela. He moved on to the island of Oʻahu, landing his troops at Waiʻalae and Waikīkī. Kamehameha did not know that one of his commanders, a high-ranking aliʻi named Kaʻiana, had defected to Kalanikūpule. Kaʻiana assisted in cutting notches into the Nuʻuanu Pali mountain ridge; these notches, like those on a castle turret, were to serve as gunports for Kalanikūpule’s cannon.

In a series of skirmishes, Kamehameha’s forces pushed Kalanikūpule’s men back until they were cornered on the Pali Lookout. While Kamehameha moved on the Pali, his troops took heavy fire from the cannon. He assigned two divisions of his best warriors to climb to the Pali to attack the cannons from behind; they surprised Kalanikūpule’s gunners and took control. With the loss of their guns, Kalanikūpule’s troops fell into disarray and were cornered by Kamehameha’s still-organized troops. A fierce battle ensued, with Kamehameha’s forces forming an enclosing wall. Using traditional Hawaiian spears, as well as muskets and cannon, they killed most of Kalanikūpule’s forces. Over 400 men were forced over the Pali’s cliff, a drop of 1,000 feet. Kaʻiana was killed during the action; Kalanikūpule was later captured and sacrificed to Kūkāʻilimoku.

In April 1810, King Kaumualiʻi of Kaua’i became a vassal of Kamehameha, who therefore emerged as the sole sovereign of the unified Hawaiian islands. Angry over the settlement, several chiefs plotted to kill Kaumualiʻi with poison at the feast in his honor. Isaac Davis got word of this and warned the King who escaped unharmed quietly before the dinner. The poison meant for the king was said to instead have been given to Davis, who died suddenly.

As ruler, Kamehameha took steps to ensure the islands remained a united realm after his death. He unified the legal system. He used the products collected in taxes to promote trade with Europe and the United States.

The origins of the Law of the Splintered Paddle are derived from before the unification of the Island of Hawaiʻi. In 1782 during a raid, Kamehameha caught his foot in a rock. Two local fishermen, fearful of the great warrior, hit Kamehameha hard on the head with a large paddle, which broke the paddle. Kamehameha was stunned and left for dead, allowing the fisherman and his companion to escape. Twelve years later, the same fishermen were brought before Kamehameha for punishment. The king instead blamed himself for attacking innocent people, gave the fishermen gifts of land and set them free. He declared the new law, “Let every elderly person, woman, and child lie by the roadside in safety.” This influenced many subsequent humanitarian laws of war.

Young and Davis became advisors to Kamehameha and provided him with advanced weapons that helped in combat. Kamehameha was also a religious king and the holder of the war god Kukaʻ ilimoku. Vancouver noted that Kamehameha worshiped his gods and wooden images in a heiau, but originally wanted to bring England’s religion, Christianity, to Hawaiʻi. Missionaries were not sent from Great Britain because Kamehameha told Vancouver that the gods he worshiped were his gods with mana, and that through these gods, Kamehameha had become supreme ruler over all of the islands. Witnessing Kamehameha’s devotion, Vancouver decided against sending missionaries from England.

After about 1812, Kamehameha spent his time at Kamakahonu, a compound he built in Kailua-Kona. As was the custom of the time, he had several wives and many children, though he outlived about half of them. The exact number is debated because documents that recorded the names of his wives were destroyed. Bingham lists 21, but earlier research from Mary Kawena Pukui counted 26. In Kamehameha’s Children Today authors Ahlo and Walker list 30 wives: 18 that bore children, and 12 that did not. They state the total number of children to be 35: 17 sons, and 18 daughters. While he had many wives and children, his children through his highest-ranking wife, Keōpūolani, succeeded him to the throne. In Ho`omana: Understanding the Sacred and Spiritual, Chun stated that Keōpūolani supported Kaʻahumanu’s ending of the Kapu system as the best way to ensure that Kamehameha’s children and grandchildren would rule the kingdom.

When Kamehameha died on May 8 or 14, 1819, his body was hidden by his trusted friends, Hoapili and Hoʻolulu, in the ancient custom called hūnākele (literally, “to hide in secret”). The mana, or power of a person, was considered to be sacred. As per the ancient custom, his body was buried in a hidden location because of his mana. His final resting place remains unknown. At one point in his reign, Kamehameha III asked that Hoapili show him where his father’s bones were buried, but on the way there Hoapili knew that they were being followed, so he turned around.

King Kamehameha Day, June 11, was first proclaimed by Kamehameha V on December 22, 1871, as a day to honor his grandfather. It was almost meant as a replacement for Hawaiian Sovereignty Restoration Day (on July 31) which the king and ministers disliked due to its association with the Paulet Affair. The first observance of the holiday happened the following year. Late 19th century celebrations of King Kamehameha I Day featured carnivals and fairs, foot races, horse races and velocipede races. King Kamehameha I Day was one of the first holidays proclaimed by the Governor of Hawaiʻi and the Hawaiʻi State Legislature when Hawaiʻi achieved statehood in 1959.

Aliʻiōlani Hale is today the home of the Hawaiʻi State Supreme Court and the statue of Kamehameha the Great. Photo taken on May 25, 2019.

As the first King Kamehameha Day was being celebrated, the Aliʻiōlani Hale in what is now downtown Honolulu was under construction. This building is currently used as the home of the Hawaiʻi State Supreme Court and is the former seat of government of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi and the Republic of Hawaiʻi. The Aliʻiōlani Hale was designed by Australian Thomas Rowe in an Italian Renaissance Revival as the royal palace for King Kamehameha V. In the Hawaiian language, Aliʻiōlani Hale means “House of Heavenly Kings”. The name “Aliʻiōlani” was also one of the given names of Kamehameha V.

Although the building was designed to be a palace, Kamehameha V realized that the Hawaiian government desperately needed a government building. At that time, the several buildings in Honolulu used by the government were very small and cramped, clearly inadequate for the growing Hawaiian government. Thus, when Kamehameha V ordered construction of Aliʻiōlani Hale, he commissioned it as a government office building instead of a palace. He laid the cornerstone for the building on February 19, 1872, but died before the it was completed. The Aliʻiōlani Hale was dedicated in 1874 by one of King Kamehameha V’s successors, King David Kalākaua. At the time, Hawaiian media criticized the building’s extravagant design, suggesting that the building be converted into a palace as originally designed.

Until 1893, the building held most of the executive departments of the Hawaiian government as well as the Hawaiian legislature and courts. After the establishment of the Hawaiian provisional government in 1893 and the Republic of Hawaiʻi in 1894, some of the offices in Aliʻiōlani Hale were moved to ʻIolani Palace, including the Hawaiian legislature. As a result, Aliʻiolani Hale became primarily a judicial building.

Today, the building houses the Hawaiʻi State Supreme Court and is the administrative center of the Hawaiʻi State Judiciary. It also houses the Judiciary History Center, a museum featuring a multimedia presentation of Hawaiʻi’s judiciary, a restored historic courtroom, and other exhibits dealing with Hawaiʻi’s judicial history. The building also houses Hawaiʻi’s largest law library. In 2010, John Andreoni’s firm of King’s Custom Koa won the contract to replace the koa wood doors.

In December 2005, a capsule buried by Kamehameha V when he laid the cornerstone was located, at the direction of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, by Professor Larry Connors of the University of Denver using ground penetrating radar. The capsule contained photos of royal families and the constitution of the Hawaiian Kingdom, Hawaiian postage stamps, Hawaiian and foreign coinage, newspapers, a calendar and books. The capsule was located to protect it during future renovations, and not retrieved due to concerns of damaging the structure of the building itself.

The famous statue of King Kamehameha standing prominently in front of Aliʻiolani Hale (and portrayed upon stamps illustrating the monarch) is actually a duplicate as the original statue was temporarily lost at sea. The statue had its origins in 1878 when Walter M. Gibson, a member of the Hawaiian government at the time, wanted to commemorate the 100-year arrival of Captain Cook to the Hawaiian Islands. The legislature appropriated $10,000 for the project and made Gibson chairman of the Commemorative Monument Committee formed to oversee the process. While the committee did include Native Hawaiians, it was strongly directed by Gibson and by King David Kalākaua. After searching several prominent U.S. cities for an appropriate artist, Gibson contracted Thomas Ridgeway Gould, a Boston sculptor living abroad in Florence, Italy, to create the statue.

Even though photographs of Polynesians had been sent to him so that Gould could make an appropriate likeness, he seemed to ignore them. During the initial stages of the statue’s design, Gould and Gibson made efforts to create an accurate likeness of King Kamehameha’s face, body, and clothing. This proved to be a challenging task, as there was no consensus on what exactly Kamehameha I looked like. When in Boston, Gibson provided Gould with an engraving of King Kamehameha, a French copy of a Chinese copy of the king’s official watercolor portrait by Russian artist Louis Choris in 1816. Gibson directed Gould to use this copy of a copy of a copy, but to portray Kamehameha at approximately age forty-five, much younger than he appeared in the original watercolor. Attention was also focused on the proper way to depict Kamehameha’s body; it was eventually determined that to convey his heroic and larger-than-life status, Kamehameha should be depicted with typical Herculean features, including a broad back and shoulders, strong, powerful arms, and a commanding chin.

Augusto di Prima Porta is a full-length portrait statue of Augustus Caesar, the first emperor of the Roman Empire. The marble statue stands 2.08 meters tall and weighs 1,000 kg. The statue was discovered on April 20, 1863 at the Villa of Livia owned by Augustus’ third wife, Livia Drusilla in Prima Porta. Livia had retired to the villa after Augustus’s death in AD 14. Carved by expert Greek sculptors, the statue is assumed to be a copy of a lost bronze original displayed in Rome. The Augustus of Prima Porta is now displayed in the Braccio Nuovo (New Arm) of the Vatican Museums.

A Roman nose and more European features were adopted. This is most likely due to the fact that Gould was in Italy studying Roman sculpture. Some evidence exists to support the claim that Gould used the Roman sculpture of Augustus Caesar from Prima Porta as a model for the King Kamehameha I statue. The Augustus sculpture was well known throughout the United States and Europe at the time, and would most certainly have been known by Gould, whose neoclassical work was often inspired by Classical pieces. In addition, there are striking similarities between the Augustus of Prima Porta and Kamehameha the Great, including the raised right arm and the fact that Kamehameha holds his spear in his left hand like Augustus, even though Kamehameha was thought to have been right-handed. It has been argued that this fusion of Hawaiian cultural attributes with Roman heroic imagery was a deliberate attempt to portray Kamehameha I as a “Pacific Hero” and bolster the Hawaiian monarchy at a time of political and economic instability.

Portrait of John Baker Modeling as Kamehameha in Royal Feather Robe, Helmet, and Breechcloth and Holding Lance, unknown date. He and his brother Robert Hoapili served as models for the Kamehameha Statue by Thomas Ridgeway Gould. This is believed by Jacob Adler to be a composite image with the legs belonging to a Hawaiian fisherman, although Jean Charlot claimed the legs belong to Robert Hoapili Baker. According to the contemporary writings of Walter M. Gibson, “[t]he artist has copied closely the fine physique of [Robert] Hoapili [Baker]…and it presents a noble illustration and a correct type of superior Hawaiian manhood”. Photograph from Hawaii State Archives. Call Number: PP-67-8-013.

For use as reference for Gould, King Kalākaua commissioned a series of photographs of Hawaiians modeling King Kamehameha I. Of the photographs that were sent to Gould, certain features of the statues were influenced by Hawaiian brothers John Tamatoa Baker and Robert Hoapili Baker. Two photographs of the former survive, one in its original form and another in the form of a composite photograph with the bare legs of a Hawaiian fisherman. These photographs featured the original feathered garments, which had been passed down over the generations. The garments, now on display at the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, included a kāʻei (sash), tied around the figure’s waist and draped over his left shoulder, his mahiole (helmet), and his ʻahu ʻula (cloak). The sash consists of a central band of tiny red feathers, likely from the ʻiʻiwi, the Hawaiian honeycreeper (Vestiaria coccinea), surrounded on either side by bands of yellow feathers from the ʻōʻō (Moho nobilis). The ʻahu ʻula is composed of nearly 450,000 golden feathers from the now-extinct mamo.

In order to avoid criticism from both American and Native Hawaiian critics, Gould and Kalākaua made an effort to observe the many complex customs and ritualistic insignia needed to produce an accurate representation of a high-ranking Native Hawaiian chief. Still, some aspects of Kamehameha’s depiction draw heavy criticism to this day. The main point of contention is the pair of sandals adorning Kamehameha’s feet. While at the time, Hawaiians did wear sandals, it was only for traveling long distances or over heavy terrain, and the obviously Western Classical style of the shoes only compounds their inaccuracy. Additional problems include the fact that Kamehameha’s sash drags on the ground behind him like a royal European train (an arrangement that would be considered degrading by Native Hawaiians and that would also damage the delicate feathers composing the sash), and Gould’s decision to adorn the cloak with a European-style tassel. Although no early criticisms on the subject have been found, contemporary critics also take issue with Kamehameha’s open-hand gesture, since traditional Hawaiian beckons are made with the palm down, not the palm up.

By 1880, Gould finished the full-size plaster model for the work and sent it to the Barbedienne Foundry in Paris, France to be cast in brass. The finished brass sculpture was shipped from Bremen, Germany in August 1880 en route to Hawaiʻi, but after encountering a storm in the south Atlantic, a fire broke out on deck and the ship sank near the Falkland Islands. Its entire cargo, including the sculpture, was presumed lost. When news of the shipwreck reached Honolulu, officials decided to commission a second cast using the $12.000 in insurance funds collected after the loss of the original. Ironically, and unbeknownst to Honolulu officials, fishermen managed to recover the sunken statue, which was recognized and bought by a British ship captain for $500, who then sold it in 1882 to the Hawaiian government for $875.

The Kamehameha I statue (original cast) stands in front of the old country courthouse in the town of Kapaʻau, located in North Kohala on the Island of Hawaiʻi. Made of cast brass and painted with lifelike colors, it depicts Kamehameha I, and represents an important cultural and spiritual object for the local community.

Now in possession of two identical statues, government officials decided to place the second cast, in considerably better condition than the original that had been damaged in the shipwreck, in the location originally intended to receive the statue, the Aliʻiōlani Hale government building in Honolulu. After some debate, the original was installed near the legendary king’s birthplace in Kapaʻau in Kohala, on the island of Hawaiʻi. Due to the shipwreck, neither statue was on-hand in Hawaiʻi to fulfill Gibson’s original plan of celebrating the 100th anniversary of Cook’s arrival to the islands. However, Gibson was able to convince King Kalākaua to incorporate the unveiling of the Honolulu cast into his coronation ceremonies in February, 1883.

Since its unveiling in 1883, Kamehameha the Great has come to be regarded by Hawaiians as an important cultural, economic, and spiritual object. Despite its Western origins, influences and artist, and despite the fact that the statue was not considered a spiritual object at the time of its creation, some Hawaiians consider the statue a receptacle of mana, a term that translates to “supernatural or divine power,” and associations have been drawn between it and kiʻi, figurative sculptures created by Native Hawaiians prior to Cook’s arrival to the Islands. While scholars debate the exact functions of these sculptures, Hawaiian oral traditions describe that kiʻi could represent various entities, including akua (spirits, divinities) and manifestations of natural phenomena, and could serve as āumaka sculptures (family or personal gods, deified ancestors). It was believed that through various prayers and ho‘okupu (offerings), the mana held within these figures increased.

For some Hawaiians, any image of Kamehameha is considered a very strong kiʻi, even a Western facsimile such as Kamehameha the Great, and it is common to find offerings of food, ribbons, and pōhaku left as tribute upon the sculpture’s pedestal. Even Hawaiians who do not believe the statue contains mana often still respect the statue as a representation of the spirit of Kamehameha I, and regard it as a connection to their ancestral history.

Kamehameha I is a bronze sculpture depicting the founder and first ruler of the Kingdom of Hawaii of the same name by Thomas Ridgeway Gould, installed at the United States Capitol Visitor Center’s Emancipation Hall, in Washington, D.C., as part of the National Statuary Hall Collection. The statue was gifted by the U.S. state of Hawaii in 1969.[

A third replica of the Thomas Ridgeway Gould statue was commissioned when Hawai’i attained statehood and was unveiled in 1969 as one of two statues it is entitled to give. It stood in the United States Capitol alongside the Father Damien Statue and was the heaviest statue in Statuary Hall, weighing 15,000 pounds. In 2008, shortly after Hawai’i-born Barack Obama was nominated as the Democratic Party’s candidate for the presidency, the statue was moved from a dark, back row of Statuary Hall to a prominent position in Emancipation Hall in the Capitol’s new visitor center.

Another Kamahameha I statue resides on the island of Hawaiʻi. It stands near downtown Hilo at the north end of the Wailoa River State Recreation Area, where it enjoys a king’s view of Hilo Bay. The 14-foot (4.3 m) statue was sculpted by R. Sandrin at the Fracaro Foundry in Vicenza, Italy in 1963 but was not erected on this site and dedicated until June 1997. The statue was originally commissioned for $125,000 by the Princeville Corporation for their resort in Kauai. However, the people of Kauai did not want the statue erected there, as Kaua’i was never conquered by King Kamehameha I. Hilo, however, was one of the political centers of King Kamehameha I. Consequently, the Princeville Corporation donated the statue to the Big Island of Hawai’i via the Kamehameha Schools Alumni Association, East Hawai’i Chapter.

Coat of arms of the Kingdom of Hawai’i as designed by the College of Arms.
Version of the coat of arms later adopted by the Kingdom around 1850

The statue also is featured in the state’s official coat of arms which derived from the Kingdom of Hawai’i coat of arms used during the reign of King Kamehameha III, King Kalākaua and Queen Liliʻuokalani, which had been designed by the College of Arms in London in 1842 and officially adopted in 1845. In 1842 Timothy Haalilio, Private Secretary to the King, and Royal Advisor the Rev. William Richards commissioned the College of Arms in London to prepare a design. The quartered shield has in its 1st and 4th quarters, the red, white and blue stripes representing the eight inhabited Hawaiian islands. The 2nd and 3rd quarters have two emblems of taboo (pulo’ulo’u) on yellow. The inescutcheon has crossed spears and the triangular flag on green. The shield in surmounted by the Crown of Hawaii. Neither figure portrays King Kamehameha I: the dexter supporter represents Kamanawa holding a spear, the sinister Kameʻeiamoku holding a feather standard or kāhili, twin brothers who were both high chiefs and the Counselors of State to King Kamehameha I. The motto reads: “Ua mau ke ea o ka ʻāina i ka pono” or “The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness”.

Viggo Jacobsen, a Honolulu resident, used this design for the seal of the Republic of Hawai’i which had the words “Republic of Hawaii” at the top and “MDCCCXCIV” within the circle. The year 1894 signified the date that the republic was established. The heraldic shield in the center is quartered. The first and fourth quarters display the white, red, and blue stripes of Ka Hae Hawaiʻi or the flag of Hawaiʻi. The second and third quarters are on a yellow field with a white Pūloʻuloʻu, or kapu sticks with tapa-covered balls on the end. In the center of the heraldic shield is a green escutcheon with a five-pointed yellow star in the center.

On the left side of the shield is Kamehameha I, standing in the attitude as represented by the Gould statue. His cloak and helmet (a mahiole) are in yellow. Kamehameha I’s figure is in proper. Kamehameha I unified the Hawaiian Islands into a single united kingdom. On the right side is goddess Liberty also wearing a Phrygian cap and laurel wreath. She is holding Ka Hae Hawaiʻi in her right hand that is partly unfurled. A rising sun irradiated in gold is above the heraldic shield while below, the bird phoenix has it wings outstretched arising from flames. The phoenix’s body is black and wings half yellow and half dark red. Below the heraldic shield are eight taro leaves having on either side banana foliage and sprays of maidenhair fern trailed upwardly.

The motto Ua Mau ke Ea o ka ʻĀina i ka Pono is on the scroll on the seal’s bottom in gold lettering. The motto was adopted by the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi in 1843 and was used in an address by King Kamehameha III at ceremonies following the return of his kingdom from the British. British captain Lord George Paulet of HMS Carysfort demanded that Hawaiʻi was ceded to Great Britain in response to claims of political abuses against British residents made by British Consul Richard Charlton. After Kamehameha III notified London of the captain’s actions, Admiral Richard Darton Thomas returned sovereignty back to the King.

The seal of the Territory of Hawai’i was the same as the seal of the republic, except that it had “Territory of Hawaii” placed at the top and “1900” (signifying the year that the territorial government officially was organized) within the circle. The 1901 Territorial Legislature authorized the modified republic seal as the Seal of the Territory of Hawai’i.

The Great Seal of the State of Hawai’i was designated officially by Act 272 of the 1959 Territorial Legislature and is based on the territorial seal. Modifications to the territorial seal included the use of the words “State of Hawaii” at the top and “1959” within the circle. Provisions for a seal for the state of Hawai’i were enacted by the Territorial Legislature and approved by Governor William F. Quinn on June 8, 1959. The passage of the Admission Act in 1959, admitted Hawai’i as the 50th State of the United States of America on August 21, 1959.

The draping of leis on the King Kamehameha I Statue at the Aliʻiōlani Hale in Honolulu on June 11, 2016.

The celebration of King Kamehameha Day is organized by the King Kamehameha Celebration Commission and other community organizations. Activities include hula, chanting, singing, and telling stories about Kamehameha and the significance of the holiday. Various cultural groups, including representatives of each island, travel to the sculpture to present and drape it with long lei. This most important ritual of the celebration dates back to 1901 after the Territory of Hawaiʻi was established. The afternoon draping ceremony in which the Kamehameha Statue in front of Aliʻiolani Hale is draped in long strands of lei. The same is done at the Kamehameha Statue on the former monarch’s home island, the Big Island of Hawaiʻi. Outside of the state, a similar draping ceremony is held at the United States Capitol where the Kamehameha Statue there is also draped in lei in the company of federal officials.

In addition, aa traditional Pa‘u Parade takes place during the two-day festival, which runs from ʻIolani Palace in downtown Honolulu past Honolulu Harbor and the Prince Kūhiō Federal Building through Kakaʻako, Ala Moana and Waikīkī, ending at Kapiʻolani Park. June 11 is also the anniversary of the dedication of Kapiʻolani Park. The floral parade features local marching bands — including the Royal Hawaiian Band (the oldest municipal band in the United States) — and artistically designed floats using native flowers and plants. Many local companies enter floats for their employees.

A favorite floral parade feature is the traditional royal paʻu riders. They represent a royal court led by a queen on horseback, followed by princesses representing the eight major islands of Hawaiʻi and Molokini. Each princess is attended by paʻu ladies in waiting. Paʻu women are dressed in colorful and elegant 19th century riding gowns accented with lei and other floral arrangements.

After the parade, the state celebrates a Hoʻolauleʻa, or block party with food and music. Cultural exhibitions are scattered throughout Kapiʻolani Park — arts and crafts, games, sports, and other events planned by the Bishop Museum, the premier Hawaiian cultural institution.

On the Island of Hawai’i, there are three floral parades held for King Kamehameha Day, one between the towns of Hawi and Kapaʻau and one in the town of Hilo. There is a King Kamehameha Day Celebration Parade and Hoʻolauleʻa in Kailua Kona on Aliʻi Drive each year. There is also a lei draping ceremony in Kapaau at the statue of King Kamehameha there. Those participating in the parade often stop at the sculpture to bestow offerings before moving on.

Kingdom of Hawaii: King Kamehameha I Statue (Scott #47), issued December 9, 1883.

The Gould statue has been used as the design for every stamp depicting King Kamehameha I.  The first of these were printed by the American Bank Note Company in New York City, one of six new stamps issued on December 9, 1883. Three of these were new designs for new values: 25¢, 50¢ and $1. The statue appears on the 25-cent denomination (Scott #47), recess printed in dull violet and line perforated 12 x 12.  This stamp’s earliest documented use, according to Post Office In Paradise, was off-cover with a Paia postmark dated February 10, 1885.

The royal monarch, Queen Liliuokalani, was deposed in a bloodless revolution on January 17, 1893, and a Provisional Government was established. Joseph Oat replaced the ailing Walter Hill as Postmaster General shortly after this new government seized power. The Bank Note stamps then is circulation with portraits of the royals were embarrassing to the revolutionaries but ordering new stamps would take time. It was also thought that having new stamps printed might be a total waste of money if the mood in Washington, D.C. came around to favor annexation. Oat recommended overprinting the stamps as a quick and cheap option. Hawaii’s provisional cabinet approved the idea.

Once a design was approved reading “PROVISIONAL / GOVT. / 1883”, sheets of the Bank Note stamps were sent to the Gazette Company to be overprinted. Red ink or black ink was used in the process of overprinting depending upon which gave the better contrast on the original stamp’s color. Oat used newspapers and other publications to announce the public on-sale date of May 20, 1893. Dealers, collectors and speculators from the United States and Europe flocked to Hawai’i to attend the event and secure stocks. Stamp dealers and collectors crowded the Honolulu Post Office on the date of issue and flowed out into the street. For several days, other work of the Post Office virtually ceased as regular patrons were unable to get through the swarm.

Provisional Government of Hawaii: King Kamehameha I Statue (Scott #64), issued May 20, 1893.

The dull violet 25-cent stamp featuring the King Kamehameha I statue was overprinted in red and is catalogued as Scott #64. It’s earliest documented use is a postmark on the date of issue, May 20, 1893. There were three distinct overprintings of this stamp between April 1893 and early 1894, each unique in the sense that minor changes in the moveable type make it possible to match stamps with a specific printing. As the overprinting progressed, country post offices on the other islands returned unoverprinted stamps to Honolulu after they received their supply of overprinted stamps. In this process, some older stamp varieties no longer available at the Honolulu Post Office were returned and received overprints in the later printings.

After Hawaii’s political situation stabilized in 1894, new stamps, the Pictorial Issue, were put on sale. All nine were printed by the American Bank Note Company in New York. E.W. Holdsworth designed the five stamps put on sale February 28, 1894, having won a design competition. These were issued by the Provisional Government. The one-cent denomination features an adaptation of the original Kingdom of Hawai’i coat of arms with the twin figures of Kamanawa and Kameʻeiamoku looking AWAY from the central heraldic shield rather than towards it.

Provisional Government of Hawaii: King Kamehameha I Statue (Scott #76), issued February 28, 1894.

The statue of King Kamehameha I appears once again with differing border elements, this time denominated at 5 cents and recess printed in carmine, perforated 12 (Scott #76). When this stamp was released, the philatelic press widely regarded it as an error because the word “Cents” was omitted from the design and no “c” followed the “5”. Speculation drove up the price as collectors and dealers awaited news of an immediate replacement. When that failed to materialize, prices fell.

The Republic of Hawai’i was established July 4, 1894, and a twelve cents stamp was issued by the Republic of Hawai’i on October 27, 1894. This is the only one of the nine Pictorial stamps to bear the name “Republic of Hawaii”.

During the Spanish American War of 1898, Hawai’i opened Honolulu as a recoaling station for United States troopships bound from San Francisco to capture and occupy the Philippine Islands. On August 12, 1898, Hawai’i was annexed to the United States, ending a decades old debate about whether to annex. After annexation, the formerly independent Republic of Hawai’i continued to exist as a United States possession for purposes of conducting all internal affairs, including the operation of its independent postal service, remaining a member of the Universal Postal Union and issuing its own stamps.

Republic of Hawaii: King Kamehameha I Statue (Scott #82), issued July 21, 1889.

The final stamps were issued by the Republic of Hawai’i in 1899. These were color changes for three of the five 1894 Pictorial Issue stamps. The five-cent stamp bearing the statue of King Kamehameha I was released on July 21, 1899, this time recess printed in blue, perforated 12 (Scott #82).  However, the word “Cents” was now added to the design.

The Republic of Hawai’i as a possession of the United States ceased when formal territorial status was established on June 14, 1900.  Prior to that date, stamps of the United States were distributed to all the Hawaiian post offices. A minor run on Hawaiian stamps occurred before the change to territorial status and at midnight on June 13, all Hawaiian stamps became invalid for postage. Remaining stocks of Hawaiian stamps were sent to Honolulu on June 15 where they were boxed and sent to Washington, D. C. and burned on February 9, 1901. Interim accounts were made of the remainders but a final accounting has not been located so the total number of stamps destroyed is somewhat uncertain.

In the latter part of 1937, the United States Post Office Department paid tribute to the outlying possessions, or territories, of the United States. Four 3-cent stamps were issued to honor Hawai’i, Alaska, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. Alaska and Hawaii achieved statehood in 1959. Repeated statehood votes in Puerto Rico have failed.

United States: King Kamehameha I Statue (Scott #799), issued October 18, 1937.

The 3-cent violet stamp commemorating the Territory of Hawai’i was issued on October 18, 1937 (Scott #799), printed by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Washington, D.C., in a quantity of 78,454,450. The vertically oriented design once again shows the statue of King Kamehameha I that stands in front of the Aliʻiōlani Hale in Honolulu.

Further philatelic tributes to what became our 50th (and, to date, last) state to enter the Union have not depicted either Kamehameha I or his statue.  A 7-cent Air Mail stamp (Scott #C55) released on August 21, 1959, to mark Hawaii’s Statehood simply portrays an unnamed Alii, or chief.

However, the Gould statue was utilized by the United States Mint during its 50 State Quarters Program in Don Everhart’s design for the Hawai’i quarter.  This was the last state released in the program, appearing on November 3, 2008, with some 517,600,000 minted.  The 25-cent coin also features a map of the main Hawaiian islands as well as the state motto, state outline and motto, “Ua Mau ke Ea o ka ʻĀina i ka Pono“.

If you would like to know more about the stamps of Hawai’i prior to its status as a territory of the United States, please have a look at the excellent website Post Office in Paradise. I have written about Hawai’i and her stamps twice previously on A Stamp A Day, once in February 2017 and again in April 2018.

2 thoughts on “King Kamehameha I: His Life, His Statues, His Holiday (and A Few Stamps)

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