King David Laʻamea Kalākaua was born on November 16, 1836, to Aliʻi Caesar Kapaʻakea and Aliʻiwahine Analea Keohokālole. He was born in Honolulu at the base of Pūowaina in a house belonging to his maternal grandfather, ʻAikanaka. Known as Hawaiʻi’s Merrie Monarch, Kalākaua reigned as King from February 12, 1874, to January 20, 1891. His predecessor was King Lunalilo, who he ran against in the 1873 election and lost. Kamehameha V was the first Mōʻī who did not name a successor to the throne. The 1864 Constitution of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi dictated that if the Mōʻī did not name an heir, a new Mōʻī would be appointed by the Kingdom legislature. The 1873 election was a contest between Lunalilo and Kalākaua, with Lunalilo winning by a landslide. Following Lunalilo’s death barely a year after he took the throne, the second election for Mōʻī was held in the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi. King Kalākaua ran against the Queen dowager, Queen Emma. Kalākaua won this election by a huge majority.
Kalākaua was not a part of the Kamehameha lineage, however, his chiefly lineage and right to rule the throne was recognized by Kamehameha III as both his mother and father were the great grandchildren of Kameʻeiamoku. Kalākaua was also related to Keaweaheulu on his mother’s side. Kameʻeiamoku and Keaweaheulu were two of the five royal counselors that served and guided Kamehameha Nui to success in his conquest of the islands. Kameʻeiamoku and his twin brother, Kamanawa, are the twins depicted on the Hawaiian coat of arms. For this reason, Kamehameha III proclaimed that the siblings Kalākaua, Liliʻuokalani, and James Kaliokalani, were eligible to the throne and had them groomed for leadership at the Chiefs’ Children’s School, later renamed the Royal School.
Following his education, Kalākaua served in various military and political positions in the Kingdom under the reign of Kamehameha IV. He also served 15 years in the House of Nobles, setting him up for a life in politics. In 1863 Kalākaua married Kapiʻolani. The couple did not have children of their own, so upon being elected King in 1874 he named his younger brother William Pitt Leleiohoku II as his heir to the throne. After William Leleiohoku’s untimely death in 1874, Kalākaua named his sister Lydia Kamakaʻeha as heir and regent in his absence. He also gave his sister the royal name in which she ruled under, Liliʻuokalani.
One of Kalākaua’s first missions as Mōʻī was to take a tour of all of the islands. King Kalākaua was also the first reigning monarch to visit the United States. Kalākaua loved travel and in 1881 he took a world tour, circumnavigating the globe and visiting over 15 countries including the U.S. This tour is part of the legacy of Hawaiian voyaging and seafaring traditions. The purpose of this 281-day journey was in part to study foreign governance, bolster diplomatic relations, and promote immigrant workers in Hawaiʻi. Kalākaua departed on his world tour on January 20, 1881, and returned to Honolulu on October 31, 1881.
King Kalākaua’s reign was marked with much political turmoil and many events led to history writing him off as one of the most ridiculed monarchs of Hawaiʻi. Kalākaua was elected and almost instantly caught in the crossfire of economic development and well-being and the fight to retain the sovereignty of Kānaka Maoli. He gave in to the requests of haole cabinet members for a reciprocity treaty which bound Hawaiʻi to the United States and led to a significant loss of sovereignty over land in the Kingdom. During Kalākaua’s reign, the sons of the first missionaries came to age and began to dabble in politics. Unlike their God-fearing parents, the missionary sons had nothing to deter them from acting on behalf of the United States to strip Hawaiʻi of its sovereignty. They held political positions as cabinet members and betrayed the trust of the Kingdom by forming an oligarchy with haole businessmen like Sanford Dole. In 1887 this oligarchy coalesced and forced Kalākaua to sign what is known as the “Bayonet Constitution.” Under the threat of violence, with a small militia backed by the U.S. military pointing Bayonet rifles at him, Kalākaua was forced to sign a constitution that stripped him of his most important powers as Mōʻī. Every decision the Mōʻī made now had to be approved by the cabinet, namely the haole oligarchy attempting to overthrow the Nation. This war crime was never rectified and Kalākaua’s successor, Queen Liliʻuokalani, was left to rule around an unjust constitution.
Despite this political chaos, Kalākaua employed several strategies of resistance to the loss of sovereignty and the decline of Kānaka traditions. Since the arrival of Puritan missionaries Kānaka Maoli traditions had eroded. Hula was banned by church edict, lāʻau lapaʻau and other healing practices were also banned and denounced, and anything touching the ancient religion was highly condemned. Kalākaua was wise enough to know that Hawaiian sovereignty could not prevail without our traditional customs and practices. He worked with the native Hawaiian newspress, Ka Hoku o ka Pakipika, which upheld certain traditions in literary form, to bring our traditions to the forefront once more. Without our traditional forms of dance, moʻolelo, worship, mele, and moʻokūʻauhau, Kalākaua predicted that Hawaiʻi would not be able to stand up to the onslaught of American colonialism. The revitalization of these traditional ways led by the King prepared Kānaka Maoli for the rise of colonization and left our people feeling proud of our history and legacy. Kalākaua defied church and political edicts and arranged for public performances of hula during his reign. The largest hula competition in the world, The Merrie Monarch Festival, is named for King Kalākaua for this reason. During his reign he also published the genealogical prayer, the Kumulipo, which honors the ancient religion.
During Kalākaua’s life, Western hegemony pushed for government structure, making Hawaiʻi a nation-state. Native Hawaiian scholar and Dean of Hawaiʻinuiākea School of Hawaiian Knowledge, Dr. Jon Osorio, explains that as Kānaka Maoli came to believe in their nation and their inherent sovereignty as a reality, haole settlers and their descendants did not. Osorio explains, “The haole, even those born in the Islands, had their own ‘native’ countries whose existence and viability was more real to them than was the Kingdom.” For this reason, Kalākaua used the slogan, “Hawaiʻi for Hawaiians” during his reign to resist haole rule and demands. Many people claimed this idea was racist, but in reality this was the King’s resistance to Kānaka Maoli being reduced to second-class citizens in their own home. Kalākaua used the revitalization of Kānaka Maoli traditions like hula and traditional chant to strengthen the identity of his people and to instill national pride. The cultural and spiritual revitalization that came out of his reign marks Kalākaua’s legacy to his people.
On November 25, 1890, King Kalākaua set sail for California with his trusted friends and advisors. The purpose of this trip was said to be in relation to the King’s health, although there was much speculation that the King would continue to Washington DC to discuss the reciprocity treaty and Pearl Harbor. Queen Liliʻuokalani was left to serve as regent during his absence. The party landed in San Francisco on December 5. While travelling throughout Southern California he suffered a minor stroke and was rushed back to San Francisco to receive care. Two days before his death, Kalākaua fell into a coma. Mōʻī Kalākaua died on January 20, 1891, far from home. On January 29 his body was returned to Honolulu and his designated heir, Queen Liliʻuokalani, ascended to the throne immediately. King Kalākaua had a funeral in both California and Honolulu and his remains were buried at the Royal Mausoleum. Kalākaua’s reign is regarded as the first Hawaiian Renaissance and his legacy of cultural and spiritual revitalization is lived by Kānaka Maoli to this very day.
Silva, Noenoe K. Aloha Betrayed: Native Hawaiian Resistance To American Colonialism. Durham: Duke Univeristy Press, 2004.