On Dec. 22, 1871, King Kamehameha V, Lot Kapuāiwa, proclaimed by royal decree that the eleventh day of June would henceforth be celebrated to honor his illustrious grandfather Kamehameha I, founder of the Hawaiian Kingdom.
Kamehameha Day Celebrations
The first Kamehameha Day was celebrated with enthusiasm and aloha, and multiple programs were held throughout the islands.
On Maui, memorial-themed speeches were given during a holiday program and feast in Wailuku. In Lahaina, speeches, songs, and prayers were delivered at a gathering.
Following the formal program, the crowd made its way to Keawaiki for a day of festivities that included boat, mule, and swimming races; as well a pig chase! There was even an event in which tins were filled with molasses, and competitors had to use their tongues to find a dollar buried inside.
On Hawai‘i Island, Hulihe‘e Palace was the nucleus of the day’s events in Kona. The palace was home to Princess Ruth Ke‘elikōlani, great-granddaughter of Kamehameha I and then governor of the island.
Over the years, Kamehameha Day has been celebrated with commemorative ceremonies, carnivals, fairs and races of every kind, almost always ending with some sort of ho‘olaule‘a (large communal gathering).
Kamehameha Day Parades
The first official Kamehameha Day Parade was held in 1914. There were, however, other floral and pā‘ū parades held in previous years honoring Kamehameha on this holiday, like that of pā‘ū riding society Hui Holopā‘ū Maile Ali‘i in 1906.
In that parade, about 30 riders gathered at the residence of Kainana Puahi in Waikīkī. Their costumes consisted of yellow skirts, white waists and straw hats encircled with ‘ilima lei.
Each rider wore a black sash, bearing the word “Ka‘ōnohiokalā,” (“the eye of the sun”) stitched in gold. The procession arrived at Washington Place at 10:30 a.m. where Puahi saluted Queen Lili‘uokalani, who was seated on the lānai, surrounded by friends and retainers, with a few appropriate words.
The next point visited was the statue of Kamehameha I in front of the judiciary building —Ali‘iōlani Hale. The statue was decorated with lei and after a short address by Puahi, the riders sang “Hawai‘i Pono‘ī,” their old national anthem, with Hawaiians in the vicinity chiming in.
The well-known tradition of draping the Kamehameha statues with lei is said to have started in 1901. Today, there are four main statues that are adorned annually in commemoration of the life of King Kamehameha I.
The first Kamehameha I statue was commissioned by Walter Murray Gibson in 1878. Ironically, he wanted the statue to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of Captain Cook’s arrival in the Hawaiian Islands. The legislature appropriated $10,000 for the project, and Gibson hired Thomas Gould of Boston as his artist.
Gould, who was living abroad in Florence, Italy studying Roman sculpture, took creative liberties and fashioned his statue of Kamehameha the Great in the likeness of a Roman god. The sculpture was then sent to Paris to be cast in bronze.
The statue was boarded on a ship bound for Hawai‘i in 1883 but soon thought lost when the ship wrecked near the Falkland Islands. Because it was insured, a second casting was quickly made. Before the second statue could be sent, however, the original was recovered by some Falkland islanders and eventually resold to Gibson for $875.
Now Hawai‘i had two statues. The original stands in front of the North Kohala Civic Center near Kamehameha‘s birthplace in Kapa‘au, Kohala, on the island of Hawai‘i. The re-ordered statue stands in front of Ali‘iōlani Hale in Honolulu.
A third statue was commissioned when Hawai‘i attained statehood and was unveiled on April 15, 1969 in Washington D.C. Shortly after Hawai‘i-born Barack Obama was nominated as the Democratic Party’s candidate for the presidency in 2008, this replica was moved from a dark, back row of Statuary Hall to a prominent position in Emancipation Hall at the capitol’s visitor center.
A fourth Kamehameha statue stands in Hilo, Hawai‘i at the north end of the Wailoa River State Park. The 14-foot sculpture was created by R. Sandrin in Vicenza, Italy in 1963 and erected at this site in June of 1997.
146 years after Kapuāiwa’s proclamation designating Kamehameha Day as a kingdom holiday, Hawai‘i continues to honor and memorialize the ali‘i who established the Hawaiian Kingdom with aloha for its people and lands and who helped usher Hawai‘i into a new era as it made its way onto the global stage. I mua kākou!