Tribute to a King
King Kamehameha the Great (1756-1819) is perhaps Hawaii’s greatest historical figure. Born in the Kohala district of the Big Island, Kamehameha unified the Hawaiian islands under one rule and set the stage for the kingdom’s proud-but-turbulent monarchy period.
The King Kamehameha Statue pays tribute to Hawaii’s warrior king. In fact, there are four statues: one in downtown Honolulu, fronting the old Judiciary Building; another in Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C. and the original statue at the king’s birthplace in Kapaau on the Big Island, and a 14-foot, five-ton statue in Hilo.
American sculptor Thomas R. Gould was commissioned by the kingdom of Hawaii to create the statue. Gould modeled the figure in his studio in Rome in 1879. A year later, it was cast in bronze in Paris and shipped from Germany. During its voyage to the Islands, however, the ship caught afire and sank off the Falkland Islands. A second statue was cast from the original mold and sent to Honolulu, where King Kalakaua dedicated it in 1883.
Standing eight and a half feet tall, the statue depicts Kamehameha in his royal garb, including a helmet of rare feathers and a gilded cloak. The spear in his left hand serves to symbolize the kingdom’s willingness and ability to defend itself from hostile nations. His right hand, however, is extended in a welcoming gesture of aloha.
The original statue was eventually recovered and brought to the Big Island. The statue in Washington D.C. was made from a mold taken of the Honolulu statue. It was dedicated as a gift to the National Statuary Hall collection in 1969. More recently, a fourth Kamehameha statue was erected in Hilo.
Every June 11 is Kamehameha Day, a state holiday. Among the festivities is a late-afternoon lei-draping ceremony, where the Kamehameha statue is splendidly adorned with fresh flower leis of all types. Fragrant strands of yellow and pink plumeria are placed on the statue’s outstretched right arm. Garlands of royal ilima are hung around its neck. Signifying power and strength, a special lei made from braided ti leaves adorns the king’s spear.
Each of the statues serves as a fitting tribute to Hawaii’s greatest king, the “Napoleon of the Pacific” who unified the Hawaiian kingdom and ruled it for nearly a decade.