Happy King Kamehameha Day!

Celebrated in Hawaii and in D.C., June 11 honors the unification of the Hawaiian islands

This statue of King Kamehameha
This statue of King Kamehameha in Honolulu is paired with another that resides in the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall. Photo by Flickr user Wally Gobetz

To commemorate the unification of the Hawaiian islands under a single ruler, floats, trolleys, marching bands and dancers parade through the streets of Hawaiian towns every year for King Kamehameha Day, June 11. In downtown Honolulu, thousands of residents celebrated the day a little early Saturday, June 8, with the annual King Kamehameha Floral Parade. The event included a float with a giant red aloha shirt, princesses on horseback representing each island and riders from the Sons of Hawaii motorcycle club.

The first European to set foot on the islands, Captain James Cook, was killed in 1779 as he tried to take a local leader hostage. The islands would remain free awhile longer, though not united. King Kamehameha fought for nearly 20 years to bring the islands under his rule, succeeding in 1810. He created a single legal system and protected the territory’s newfound status by prohibiting land ownership from non-Hawaiians while still opening trade to Europeans and Americans. But just one year after his death in 1819 Christian missionaries and European traders arrived in force, bringing with them disease that devastated the native population, as well as a new economic order.

King Kamehameha
King Kamehameha in a portrait that reveals his complicated role addressing both Hawaiian and European and American audiences. Albumen silver print by Henry Chase, circa 1880. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

American colonists quickly took control of the sugar-based economy and in 1898 the country annexed Hawaii. The territory’s final ruler, Queen Lili’uokalani, relinquished the throne and Hawaii’s sovereignty only after an American invasion. She believed eventually the injustice would be corrected. Writing in 1893 she said, “I do, under this protest, and impelled by said forces, yield my authority until such time as the Government of the United States shall, upon the facts being presented to it, undo the action of its representative and reinstate me in the authority which I claim as the constitutional sovereign of the Hawaiian Islands.”

Set against this history, King Kamehameha remains a figure of pride for the islands, a reminder of a unique past. In a ceremony in D.C. celebrating the sovereign Sunday, June 9, Senator Mazie Hirono told the gathered crowd, “He laid the foundations for modern Hawaii by protecting the traditions and culture of his ancestors even as the kingdom grew and interacted with Western nations. His strong leadership during this period of great change inspires us all to work together to ensure our shared traditions and history can be celebrated for generations to come.”

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