On the 17th of March, 1814, on the sunny, windswept shores of Keauhou Bay on the west side of Hawaii’s Big Island, a child was delivered stillborn by the Queen Keopuolani, the highest-ranking wife of King Kamehameha the Great. As the second son of the royal couple, this child had been promised to the king’s advisor Kuakini for adoption, but he refused to take guardianship of the stillborn baby. But the Chief Kaikio’ewa believed there was hope for the child, and he summoned the priest Kapihe to the birthsite. Under Kapihe’s guidance, the child was cleansed, laid on a stone by the water’s edge, fanned, sprinkled with water and prayed over until he took his first breath and began to cry. Thus was born Kauikeaouli, later to be known as Kamehameha III, one of the most important leaders in the modern history of the Hawaiian Islands. The stone upon which he was brought into the world still stands today as a protected monument at Keauhou Bay, and it is here that Kamehameha Schools will host the 19th Annual Tribute to Kamehameha III and Birthday Celebration on March 15th and 16th, 2019. The two-day festival is meant to honor the memory and legacy of the King and features a tribute by the Daughters of Hawai’i, the Royal Order of Kamehameha, and Kamehameha Schools, a lecture on the theme of “He aupuni palapala ko‘u – Mine is a Kingdom of Literacy” with speaker Kalehua Krug, an evening of music featuring local artists and a crafts fair on the grounds of the Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa at Keauhou Bay. You can view a full listing of details for this donation-based event here.
So what did Kamehameha III do to deserve such celebration over two hundred years after his birth? Kauikeaouli came to power at a tumultuous time in Hawaiian history, and quite unexpectedly after the untimely death of his elder brother Liholiho, Kamehameha II. Despite the challenges faced by the 11-year-old king and an early period of rebellion against the establishment, he grew to become an adept leader and a skilled politician. He led the Hawaiian people through a period of increased and occasionally hostile contact with international powers, and although some of his actions have become controversial in retrospect, most people today acknowledge that he was acting in what he believed to be the best interest of his Kingdom and citizens at the time. Here are just a few of his notable achievements:
- 1831 – The Hawaiian government under Kamehameha III funded the establishment of 1103 schools throughout the island, one for each district. The literacy rate for the Hawaiian population, which had known no written language prior to the arrival of American missionaries in 1820, rose to an incredible 95% by 1834.
- 1840 – Kamehameha III enacts the first Constitution of the Kingdom of Hawaii. It established basic rights for the Hawaiian people and transformed the government into a constitutional monarchy.
- 1843 – In a celebratory speech after the King had successfully saved his Kingdom from overthrow by a rogue British naval captain, Kamehameha III created the phrase which became the state motto of Hawaii: “Ua Mau ke Ea o ka ʻĀina i ka Pono — The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness.”
- 1845 – Kamehameha III moved the Hawaiian capital from the whaling port of Lahaina on Maui to the modern location in Honolulu on the island of Oahu, reflecting the shift of of power from traditional industries to the modern needs of an international power.
- 1848 – Kamehameha III enacts the Great Mahele, a system of land division and possibly the most controversial piece of legislation in Hawaiian history. The Mahele essentially created a system for private land ownership. Prior to that, kings and chiefs had dominion over Hawaiian lands, but they were considered stewards of the land rather than owners. Kamehameha believed private land ownership would give common Hawaiian people greater control over their land in the face of encroachment from international business interests. However, due to a poorly enacted system for claims to ownership and possible interference from bureaucrats acting in the interests of foreigners, the Great Mahele eventually resulted in almost all of the land in Hawaii being controlled by the Hawaiian elite and wealthy international businessmen. For better or for worse, the Great Mahele created the Hawaii we know today.
- 1852 – Kamehameha III left a lasting legacy by creating the Constitution of 1852, which broadened and more clearly defined the rights of the people and the functions on the democratic system of government that was to prevail in Hawaii until the overthrow of the monarchy in 1893.
Despite the odds stacked against him, Kamehameha III was equal to the challenges he faced in guiding the rapid transformation of the stone-age Hawaiian society into a modern, international player in the global political and economic arena. He did so with compassion and the interests of his people in mind first and foremost. For this he is remembered and honored each year in the Annual Tribute to Kamehameha III, and will be for generations to come.