King David Kalakaua was a champion of Hawaiian culture, the last King of Hawaii, and is celebrated as the Merrie Monarch – but he also had dreams of a Hawaiian-Japanese empire and was the first monarch to circumnavigate the globe.
He was both a celebrated musician and composer and a dedicated archivist and writer. It was King Kalakaua who first gathered together the Myths and Legends of Hawaii. Friend of Robert Louis Stevenson and Thomas Edison, he was a technology geek, and all around cool guy – King David Kalakaua was an awesome monarch.
He had a passion for music, dancing, parties, and the finest food and drinks during his 54 years and he lived up to the title of Merrie Monarch. The king’s reign, however, was also marked by tragedy, pain and dark clouds hovering over the Hawaiian kingdom.
Born on November 16, 1836 in Honolulu to High Chief Kahana Kapaakea and the High Chiefess Analea Keohokalole. Per Hawaiian custom, the infant was adopted by the chiefess Haaheo Kaniu, who took him to the court of King Kamehameha III on the island of Maui. When Kalakaua was four, he returned to Oahu to begin his education at the Royal School.
He was fluent in English and Hawaiian when he began to study law at the age of 16 and by 1856, he was a major on the staff of King Kamehameha IV. He was also a leader of a political organization known as the Young Hawaiians who used the motto “Hawaii for the Hawaiians.” At the time, American business interests and missionaries had already subverted the Kingdom and begun the process of making Hawaiians 2nd class citizens.
In December 1872, King Kamehameha V died without having designated an heir and pursuant to Hawaiian law, an election was held to determine his successor. Kalakaua made his first bid for Hawaii’s throne in 1873. The Hawaiian legislature, comprised largely of native Hawaiians and haoles qualified by wealth or landownership to be either electors or elected representatives in the legislature, was presented with two choices: Kalakaua, who ran on a campaign slogan of “Hawaii for Hawaiians,” a sentiment that did not endear him to the islands’ white power brokers, and William C. Lunalilo.
Lunalilo won easily, but he died a year later, leaving no successor. Another election was held to determine Hawaii’s monarch. Buoyed by the support of the influential Walter Murray Gibson, Kalakaua was victorious in the 1874 election over Queen Emma, widow of Kamehameha IV – the bad feelings from this election lasted throughout the two candidates lifetimes. Supporters of the queen rioted and Kalakaua requested help from American and British warships in the harbor, and the uprising was quelled.
The triumphant Kalakaua toured the islands, stopping in every district to affirm his primary goals. “To the planters, he affirmed that his primary goal was the advance of commerce and agriculture, and that he was about to go in person to the United States to push for a reciprocity treaty. To his own people, he promised renewal of Hawaiian culture and the restoration of their franchise,” wrote Ruth M. Tabrah in Hawaii: A Bicentennial History.In late 1874, Kalakaua sailed to the United States amid much fanfare. In Washington, he negotiated the Reciprocity Treaty of 1875, which eliminated the tariff on sugar and other Hawaiian products. As a result, Hawaii’s sugar industry boomed and the kingdom enjoyed a period of economic prosperity. Ralph Kuykendall reported in The Hawaiian Kingdom that American minister to Hawaii Henry Pierce successfully argued that a treaty with Kalakaua’s kingdom would hold the islands “with hooks of steel in the interests of the United States, and … result finally in their annexation to the United States.” Kalakaua was the first King to visit the United States.
Upon his return, Kalakaua moved into his palace with his wife, Queen Kapiolani, the granddaughter of King Kaumualii of Kauai. He decided he needed a more luxurious home, however, and had Iolani Palace built at a cost of $350,000—an unheard of sum at the time. It was one of the first buildings in the US to have both electricity and indoor plumbing. Kalakaua’s friend Thomas Edison also came and made the first movies in history of Hawaiians and Oahu.
Many of his ministerial appointments went to native Hawaiians, a reflection of the king’s consistent loyalty to his core constituency. None of this made him popular with the haole community who loathed both him and Walter Murray Gibson, Kalakaua’s American premier, whom they viewed as a traitor. Kalakaua’s white opposition grew increasingly frustrated with their lack of power, and their rhetoric grew increasingly bigoted in tone as their anger grew. “Attempts to build a strong political party of opposition ran into the dismal fact that Kalakaua and Gibson controlled too many votes,” wrote Gavan Daws in Shoal of Time: A History of the Hawaiian Islands. The king though dominated the legislature.
Kalakaua was the first sovereign to circumnavigate the globe and he did it not just once (the first trip in 1881) but twice. On January 20, 1881 His Majesty David La‘amea Kalakaua departed Honolulu Harbor aboard the steamship City of Sydney on a nine-month diplomatic mission around the world. The voyage was one part of a strategic plan to achieve greater recognition throughout the world for the Kingdom of Hawai‘i as a legitimate and sovereign nation-state. Many of the American business interests who had backed Kalakaua in his election victory over Queen Emma were now quickly moving towards greater control of the government. The King also witnessed the loss of sovereignty by Native peoples in New Zealand, the Marquesas and elsewhere, highlighting growing imperialism in the Pacific. Kalakaua saw a formal procession of state visits from the King himself, along with the signing of treaties and conventions, as powerful steps in protecting his nation’s sovereignty.
As the ship carrying Kalakaua touched the landing, the Emperor of Japan had his military play Hawai‘i Pono , the anthem the King himself penned seven years prior. At a luncheon at the Imperial Palace on March 14, the Japanese Emperor conferred on Kalakaua the Grand Cordon of the Order of the Chrysanthemum, the highest honor in the Japanese Empire. In a later audience with the Emperor Meiji, Kalakaua proposed an Asiatic Federation to link the two countries, along with others, in mutual support that would attempt to balance British and American dominance. The King sought to further tie the two Nations through a proposed future marriage of the Princess Ka‘iulani and the Japanese Prince Komatsu. Neither of these efforts came to fruition though he was successful in his decision to welcome increasing numbers of foreigners (especially Chinese and Japanese people) to the islands. In 1883 a government representative delivered a speech in Tokyo in which he declared that “His Majesty Kalakaua believes that the Japanese and Hawaiian spring from one cognate race and this enhances his love for you,” reported Kuykendall. “Hawaii holds out her loving hand and heart to Japan and desires that your people may come and cast in their lots with ours and repeople our Island Home with a race which may blend with ours and produce a new and vigorous nation.” Thousands of Japanese families accepted Kalakaua’s offer, to the chagrin of white landowners and businessmen who feared further loss of influence.
The white landowners were also not very keen on Kalakaua’s plan to grant universal suffrage to women and the poor. Such a move would have made the wealthy white male votes far less significant.
Although Kalakaua’s visit to Japan was one of the trip’s highlights, it was certainly not seen as the only success. On this first circumnavigation of the globe by any monarch, the King of Hawai’i met with leaders of nations that included China, India, Egypt, Italy, Germany, Wales, Belgium, Portugal, Spain and others.
The second trip was an incredible journey that began in 1887 and took the King to the Unites States of America, Japan, China, Hong Kong, Siam, Singapore, Malaya, India, Egypt, Rome, London, Belgium, Vienna, Spain, Portugal, France, and back to Hawaii through the United States again. A unique and insightful glimpse into these states and elites at the end of the nineteenth century full of fascinating events, encounters, and stories can be found in Around the World with a King.
The Hawaiian culture enjoyed a revival under Kalakaua, including hula and chants, surfing and indigenous handicrafts. In July 1887, however, an organization called the Hawaiian League which was made up of mostly disgruntled American planters and missionaries forcibly took control of the government and presented the king with a new constitution. Called the “Bayonet Constitution” (for obvious reasons), Kalakaua had no choice but to sign it. The new constitution severely restricted his powers and signaled the end of the monarchy. It also destroyed his dreams of a Hawaiian-Japanese empire in the pacific. When you consider all of these events, it causes one to severely rethink the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Hawaii, after all, was offered to the Japanese but stolen from Kalakaua’s sister and successor Queen Liliokalani by the U.S. government.
In November 1890,after sailing to California for medical treatment. He died at a hotel in San Francisco on January 20, 1891. His final words were, “Tell my people I tried.”
He is remembered fondly in Hawaii with festivals such as the Merrie Monarch Hula Festival. The main street in Waikiki – which is Hawaii’s busiest and most expensive street is named for King Kalakaua – a state of hom stands at the western end of the street and greets visitors as they enter Waikiki. In pop culture, Officer Kono Kalakaua on the popular series Hawaii 5-0 carries his name, though there are no direct descendents of the King living today.