June 11 is King Kamehameha Day in Hawai’i. This official holiday was established by royal decree on December 22, 1871 by King Kamehameha V to honor his great grandfather, Kamehameha I who united the Hawaiian Islands in 1810 and became Hawai’i’s first king.
Legend surrounds the birth of Hawai’i’s greatest warrior-king Kamehameha I, also known as Kamehameha the Great. Kamehameha, was born in North Kohala on the island of Hawai’i, sometime between 1748 and 1761. It is said that he was born on a stormy night, during which a bright star, Kokoiki, appeared in the heavens. Some historians believe that Kokoiki refers to Halley’s Comet, which was visible in the night skies in November or December of 1758.
Kahuna, or Hawaiian priests, witnessing the celestial event prophesied the birth of a child who would grow up to be a mighty chief, destined to unite all of the Hawaiian Islands. Kamehameha grew up to be the great leader as the priests had foretold. By 1810, the islands of Hawai’i, Maui, O’ahu and Kaua’i were under his rule, and the Hawaiian Kingdom was established. With unification came peace and prosperity. Kamehameha the great warrior became known as a great statesman. Among his accomplishments were a unified legal system, the establishment of trade with foreign countries and the development of the sandalwood industry. He was also known as a just ruler, introducing the Law of the Splintered Paddle, which protected the weak from the strong and insured that every man, woman and child had the right to “lie down to sleep by the roadside without fear of harm.” This law, which provided for the safety and human rights of noncombatants in wartime, is estimated to have saved thousands of lives during Kamehameha’s campaigns. It became the first written law of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi, was included in the state constitution, and has influenced many subsequent humanitarian laws of war.
The complete original 1797 law in Hawaiian:
Kānāwai Māmalahoe :
E nā kānaka,
E mālama ‘oukou i ke akua
A e mālama ho‘i ke kanaka nui a me kanaka iki;
E hele ka ‘elemakule, ka luahine, a me ke kama
A moe i ke ala
‘A‘ohe mea nāna e ho‘opilikia.Hewa nō, make.
Law of the Splintered Paddle:
Honor thy god;
respect alike [the rights of] people both great and humble;
May everyone, from the old men and women to the children
Be free to go forth and lay in the road (i.e. by the roadside or pathway)
Without fear of harm. Break this law, and die.
A floral parade is held annually at various locations throughout the state of Hawaii on King Kamehameha Day. A ritual that dates back to 1901 after the Territory of Hawaiʻi was established (by military occupation of the United States) is a draping ceremony in which the Kamehameha Statue in front of ʻIolani Palace in Honolulu 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.
There are 4 very similar statues of Kamehameha the Great
The first statue was commissioned by King Kalakaua and created by an American sculptor named Thomas Gould. It was cast Paris in 1880 and shipped from Germany to Honolulu. As fate would have it, the ship carrying it caught afire and sank off the Falkland Islands. Luckily, the original mold used to cast the statue had not been destroyed, and a second statue was made and successfully shipped to Honolulu, where it was installed in front of Ali’iolani Hale, across from the ‘Iolani Palace in 1883 (and where it still stands today).
The original statue was later recovered from the shipwreck in 1912 and erected near Kamehameha’s birthplace, in the town of Kapa’au in the Kohala district on the island of Hawai’i.
The third statue was cast using a mold made from the Honolulu statue, and it was erected in the National Gallery in Washington D.C. in 1969.
The fourth statue was commissioned by a resort and cast in Italy in 1993. After much controversy, during which it was kept in a crate, it was finally installed in the town of Hilo on the island of Hawaii.
The celebration brings many traditional Native Hawaiians together who see Kamehameha Day as a reminder to the world that Hawaii is their traditional home and resting place of their Kupuna (ancestors). It is an honor for all Hawaiians to remember the royalty they once had.
Honolulu celebration commission member Skylark Rossetti said, “Kamehameha had the vision to see what he wanted for his people and that was to be one people under one King, so we honor this visionary, not just so statues can be decked with leis but as symbolism that in our hearts we as Hawaiians can be one together.”
The annual King Kamehameha Day Celebration and Lei Draping Ceremony is the honoring of this great leader, respecting the cultural traditions that Kamehameha defended as his society was slowly shifting towards European trends. One thing is clear the legacy of Hawaii’s greatest leader will never be forgotten.