This month’s column is adapted from my remarks at the Kamehameha Day lei draping ceremony in Washington, D.C., on June 11, 2023.
June 11 serves as a special reminder of the enduring legacy and profound impact that Kamehameha ‘Ekahi had on his people, his homeland, and the world. As the founding monarch of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi, the life and accomplishments of King Kamehameha I continue to inspire us more than 200 years after his death.
Kamehameha rose to power in the late 18th century when the islands were divided into multiple warring factions. Through a combination of intelligent leadership, strategic alliance, adherence to wise counsel, and military prowess, he succeeded in unifying Hawaiʻi into one cohesive kingdom, an unequaled achievement in Hawaiian history.
But Kamehameha was more than just a warrior king. He was a wise and akamai statesman whose greatness lay not only in his ability to forge a unified kingdom, but also in his unwavering commitment to ensuring the wellbeing of his people.
Kamehameha’s dedication to the principles of justice, fairness and compassion can be seen in his establishment of a code of laws that protected the rights of his people and promoted peace and order.
The first written law of the unified kingdom, the “Law of the Splintered Paddle,” also known as “Kānāwai Māmalahoe,” emphasized the concept of equal treatment under the law and became a fundamental principle of Hawaiian governance that is preserved to this day in the Hawaiʻi State Constitution.
The Law of the Splintered Paddle speaks to limits on the exercise of power and serves as a reminder to those in positions of authority that power can be misused and that leaders must be held accountable for their actions. The law upholds the principles of fairness and equality and recognizes the inherent worth and rights of every person.
The code ensured the protection of human rights, emphasizing the sanctity of life and the importance of compassion. We can still find insight from this visionary approach, as it remains a beacon of justice and humanity.
Ancient legal traditions still hold relevance in modern times. As Hawaiians, we are armed with the wisdom of our ancestors and the lessons from our aliʻi. As the ʻōlelo noʻeau says, “I ka wā ma mua, ka wā ma hope – We look to the past as a guide to the future.”
Kamehameha’s commitment to justice highlights the importance of creating a fair and just society that upholds the rule of law. Let us hope that all of today’s leaders who hold influence over our beloved Hawaiian community remind themselves of Kamehameha’s governing principles.
As we reflect on Kamehameha’s life and accomplishments, let us also acknowledge the enduring values he embraced. The spirit of aloha, characterized by love, respect, and compassion, remains the heart and soul of the Hawaiian people. It reminds us to treat one another with kindness and respect – to “aloha kekahi i kekahi.”
His legacy teaches that true strength lies not only in physical prowess but also in the power to unite and uplift others. As we celebrate Kamehameha’s life, let us remember the importance of fostering harmony and lōkahi and standing in solidarity in service to the Hawaiian community.
As Kamehameha lay dying in Kailua-Kona in 1819, it is said that his last words were ““E ʻoni wale nō ʻoukou i kuʻu pono – Carry on my good work.” By cherishing our shared heritage, and working together toward a better future where we all can help to raise a beloved lāhui, we can honor the essence of Kamehameha’s vision.