Updated: Nov 24, 2021
Lā Kūʻokoʻa is a Hawaiian Kingdom holiday that commemorates the independence of the Hawaiian Nation. The events that led to this holiday began in 1839. In June of 1839, King Kauikeaouli granted a declaration of rights that would later be incorporated into the first Kingdom Constitution in 1840. This early declaration of rights ensured that all makaʻāinana and aliʻi had equal protection in the Kingdom. This was the start of our aliʻi seeking formal government structure and law. Just one month after the declaration of rights was proclaimed, Captain Cyrille LaPlace of the French Navy arrived in Hawaiʻi with the threat of war. A treaty would resolve this incident a few days later, however, this unnecessary threat left King Kauikeaouli distressed by the vulnerability of his small nation in the Pacific.
The King set a strategic plan in motion to gain international recognition of Hawaiʻi’s independence from some of the major world powers at the time including Great Britain, France, and the United States. On April 8, 1842, he appointed Timoteo Haʻalilio, Reverend William Richards, and Sir George Simpson as envoys to seek the recognition of Hawaiian independence. Timoteo Haʻalilio was the Kingdom’s first Kānaka Maoli diplomat given authority by the King to handle affairs overseas and negotiate treaties on his behalf. Sir George Simpson, Governor in Chief of the Hudson’s Bay Company, was a British subject who sympathized with the mission, and also sought benefits for his company. He was tasked with traveling to London via Alaska and Siberia to advocate for recognition of Hawaiian independence from his home country.
On July 18, Haʻalilio and Richards departed from Lahaina, Maui for Mazatlan, Mexico where they would then travel 900 miles across Mexico to Vera Cruz. From there they departed for New Orleans and traveled along the Mississippi River to Washington D.C. They arrived in D.C. on December 3 and met with U.S. Secretary of State Daniel Webster on December 7. By December 19 they had received a reply that alluded to the unoffical recognition of Hawaiian independence. In February of 1843, the envoys departed the U.S. for Liverpool, England. Haʻalilio and Richards joined with Simpson and after several meetings the envoys had received assurance from Great Britain, France, and Belgium that their countries would acknowledge Hawaiian independence.
Lā Kūʻokoʻa is connected to another Kingdom holiday known as Lā Hoʻihoʻi Ea, or Sovereignty Restoration Day. In June of 1843, just months after then envoys had worked with Great Britain to acknowledge Hawaiʻi’s independence, British Admiral Lord George Paulet and his army seized control of the Hawaiian government and lands. He burned all of the Hawaiian flags his men could find and replaced them with the Union Jack. News of Paulet’s occupation reached the envoys who were still in Europe, and they quickly sought to address this threat with British diplomats. Queen Victoria heard of this news and sent Admiral Richard Thomas to Hawaiʻi to remove Paulet and correct the unwarranted transgression against the peaceful Nation of Hawaiʻi. Lā Hoʻihoʻi Ea is celebrated on July 31 to commemorate the flag ceremony held in 1843 where the Union Jack was lowered, and the Hawaiian flag was restored at what is now known as Thomas Square. On this day, King Kauikeaouli famously proclaimed, “Ua mau ke ea o ka ʻāina i ka pono.”
On November 28, 1843, Great Britain and France signed a declaration formally recognizing the independence of the Hawaiian Nation. In 1844, the envoys returned to Belgium and the United States and gained formal recognition from both countries of Hawaiʻi’s independence. The Kingdom celebrated their sovereignty and independence on a day known as Lā Kūʻokoʻa (Independence Day) for the first time in 1843 on November 28 and continued to celebrate the success of this mission annually. The envoys stayed in America through 1844 and returned to Hawaiʻi on March 23, 1845. William Richards went directly to the King to inform him that Timoteo had fallen ill and died at sea on December 3, 1844, at the start of their journey home. Timoteo Haʻalilio is responsible for securing Hawaiʻi’s nationally recognized sovereignty on behalf of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi and for this he is honored and commemorated in the hearts of Kānaka Maoli to this day.
In the years that followed, Kānaka Maoli and Hawaiian nationals celebrated Lā Kūʻokoʻa with feasts, gatherings, and commemorative speeches. In 1869, J.W.H. Kauwahi from Hana, Maui addressed a large crowd with a speech discussing the important of this holiday:
“This is an advisable lesson for all of us to have faith in without any doubt, for this is the day our Nation was made Independent. And it is necessary for the native children of my birth land... to maintain this day and commemorate it with aloha and justice. Those who commemorate and celebrate this day with goodness and true aloha, this act will bring you true fortune. Let the commemoration of this day go on forever, from this time until the last generation of our lāhui lives.” 1869, Kauwahi. (Translated by J. Uʻilani Au).
Following the overthrow of the Hawaiian Nation and the United States’ illegal occupation, which went against the agreements their country signed in 1844 recognizing Hawaiʻi as a sovereign nation, the celebration of Lā Kūʻokoʻa fell out of public consciousness. One would think that the celebration of our Nation’s sovereignty and independence would be difficult to uphold following the theft and war crimes that took place in our homeland. However, in recent years with a wave of our cultural renaissance, Kānaka Maoli have returned to the celebration of Lā Kūʻokoʻa. Across the pae ʻāina Kānaka Maoli celebrate Lā Kūʻokoʻa with festivities, music, food, and education. In 2019, Lā Kūʻokoʻa fell on Thanksgiving Day and the Molokaʻi community decided that to them, Lā Kūʻokoʻa was more important to recognize. They planned a huge festival with music, vendors, and food and celebrated Hawaiʻi’s sovereignty together as a community. The concept of ea, sovereignty, for Kānaka Maoli, has evolved over time. We may have lost the formal recognition of the independence of our Nation, but ea is not something you can take away from us. Ea lives on in the hearts of Kānaka Maoli on Lā Kūʻokoʻa and every day we live and breathe. E mau loa ke ea o ka ʻāina!
Kauwahi, J.W.H. “No Ka La Kuokoa Ma Hawaii Nei.” Ke Au Okoa, Volume V, Number 34. December 9, 1869. Page 2.