He was an unusual child and he lived a most unusual life.
He is the only person in American history to have had two essentially conflicting titles — royal prince and democratically elected congressman. Even in Washington, D.C., in the halls of the nation’s capital, in a country known for its uneasy relationship with monarchy, he was known as The Prince.
His full name was Jonah Kuhio Kalanianaole Piikoi — each element of which had an association with a proud history that lingers today.
And he did more to shape modern Hawaiian history than any other person.
His Biblical first name, Jonah, came to seem almost prescient. It recalls the scriptural story of a man who survived a terrifying brush with disaster and death, was swallowed by a monster, and emerged with a mission to save his people.
His last name, Piikoi, dropped away over time and he became known as Kuhio, partly because President Teddy Roosevelt struggled to pronounce the word Kalanianaole.
Now his names adorn the streets and highways of Hawaii — from Kalanianaole Highway, which links Kaimuki to Kailua, to Kuhio Avenue, which serves as the spine of Waikiki, to Piikoi Street in central Honolulu, the passage from Ala Moana to Makiki. His beachfront home in Waikiki, Pualeilani, became Kuhio Beach Park.
Many of the things Kuhio championed remain honored today. Some have become controversial over the years and are still much debated.
Kuhio created the Hawaiian homelands program, the Hawaiian Homes Commission, which has been a godsend to some and a whipping boy to others.
He pushed for the expansion and fortification of Pearl Harbor, believing that Hawaii was vulnerable to attack from Asia. But some now wonder if the militarization made the state more of a target.
And in his lifetime and after, there have been differences over who should inherit the estates of land-rich Native Hawaiians who did not have children of their own.
In an ongoing series of articles over the next few weeks, Civil Beat examines Kuhio’s life and legacy, not just as a matter of historical record but as a prism to view links between Kuhio’s substantial legislative accomplishments and how they resonate today.
The articles are the result of months of research in state and national archives, on Kauai, on the Big Island and in Honolulu, and within the Washingtoniana collection at Martin Luther King Jr. Library and the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Key resources include congressional testimony, hearings and historical newspaper collections.
Kuhio’s parents were influential and wealthy people of noble descent who owned properties on other islands but who decided to journey to his mother’s ancestral home on Kauai for her to give birth. His birth was important, not just to her but to the Kingdom of Hawaii.
In a country that had been ruled through its long history on the basis of elite bloodlines and verified descent from great leaders born hundreds of years earlier, this infant and his two older brothers, David Kawananakoa and Edward Abner Kealiiahonui, ranked particularly high.
Through their mother, they were the great-grandchildren of King Kaumualii of Kauai, the only chief who had survived and withstood the fury and ambition of Kamehameha, the warrior from the Big Island who had conquered his way to dominance across the entire island chain. Twice Kamehameha had tried to launch a full frontal attack on Kauai and Kaumualii and twice he had failed.
During his lifetime, the crafty Kaumualii was able to fend him off entirely by offering a superficial obeisance while directing his island’s affairs separately in his own way. After Kaumualii’s death, however, the heirs of Kamehameha forced Kauai to submit to their authority.
The bloody conflict had ended 50 years before Kuhio’s birth. But it still left some touchy family relations and tensions between the descendants of people who had won the war by killing their competitors and the surviving relatives of those who had been conquered or slain.
The Kamehamehas retained control over the islands, starting with Kamehameha’s sons and then shifting to more distant family members. All proved to be infertile or had children who were sickly and died early.
Over the next five decades, as it turned out, Kaumualii’s line had survived while Kamehameha’s had not. Kuhio’s mother was one of three sisters who lived to adulthood, and she produced three sons, including Kuhio, who lived to adulthood. Kuhio’s brother, David Kawananakoa, would extend the family line into modern times. His granddaughter, Abigail, called a princess through her own long life, died only recently, and his line lives on.
Historians later described Kuhio as having been born in a grass hut, and indeed, the oceanside structure is said to have had a thatched roof, but the place where he first saw the light was really so much more.
It was part of a sacred compound by the sea in Koloa, in southeastern Kauai, in a complex developed over centuries that included fish ponds, temples and entertainment venues, all fed by an irrigation aqueduct that brought fresh, clean water down from the mountains and made the area one of the richest agricultural enclaves in all the islands. Now known mainly as the Poipu resort area, it has always been a place where people could eat well in beautiful scenery and enjoy all the water sports Hawaiians loved as well.
At the time of Kuhio’s birth it also happened to be located near a landing spot that made it a center for maritime trade in the islands, third behind Honolulu and Lahaina, after the island’s former capital, Waimea, fell on hard times. Koloa was the home of a small pioneering sugar plantation, part of a promising but still novice industry struggling to establish itself.
This history is still alive in Koloa today.
On a recent rainy, windy day, resident archaeologist Scotty Sagum, guardian of the Kuhio birthsite and a leader of the Royal Order of Kamehameha, Kaumualii Chapter, conducted a tour of the scattered remnants of what was once a bustling enclave populated by chiefs, priests, warriors, farmers and fishermen.
The place is called Prince Kuhio Park. In the front of the site, a neatly manicured lawn faces the ocean, crowned by a stone monument to the prince, the lot separated from the shore by a two-lane road threatened by beach erosion.
From there, Sagum set out on a bumpy and sometimes harrowing trip in a beat-up pickup truck, lurching across a sodden landscape strewn with the remains of crumbling heiaus, edging around the fishpond and up a set of slippery roads to survey the rest of the area.
Housing subdivisions encircle the site.
Sagum pointed out the foundation of the house where local people believe Kuhio was born. It has no remaining walls or roof. Only a line of stones, outlining a square, defines the spot.
Sagum believes the complex originally sprawled over about 1,000 acres and was constructed between 1000 and 1300 AD. The original site pioneered by the Polynesians was sandy and poor for agriculture. The aqueduct, lined with ti leaves and extending 10 linear miles, brought not just water but was also used to wash rich soil from the uplands down to the coast, creating a fertile area for food to grow, he said.
Here, to the guardians of the site, the men and women who serve as volunteers in tending the place and fighting back the overgrowth, it is almost as though Kaumualii and his descendant Kuhio are still alive.
“We’re fans of Kaumualii but not Kamehameha,” said Sagum, a graduate of Kamehameha Schools who has been a longtime resident of Kauai. “He was the enemy. When Kamehameha came over, he figured out that the only families that could throw him over had more mana than him, so he set out to assassinate them all.”
Kuhio, he said, represented the line of Hawaiian alii who had survived and served their people well, he said.
“He never forgot us,” Sagum said.
Each year Kuhio’s birthdate — March 26, 1871 — is celebrated at the park with a special ceremony. Native Hawaiians, including members of the Royal Order and of the Kaauhumanu Society, come in procession, many wearing traditional regalia and flower or feather lei, to commemorate the day.
“We go to the park and honor him every year,” said Liberta Hussey Albao, a member of the Kaahumanu Society in Kauai. “We love him. He should have been the king. He was such a visionary.”
In his lifetime, Kuhio had an exalted status on Kauai. A news reporter from the New York Post who traveled with him on the island in 1907 remarked that at many stops along the way, elderly people knelt as they approached Kuhio, stroking his legs and kissing his hands, gestures that the newsman noted Kuhio received warmly and graciously, albeit with a certain embarrassment at times.
Kuhio’s birthdate is known for sure because his mother’s sister, his aunt Queen Kapiolani, carefully recorded it in her personal bible.
Kapiolani was queen through marriage to King David Kalakaua, a descendant of a minor line from Hawaii island with ties to the Kamehameha family, who had managed to get himself elected king. His elevation came partly due to his marriage to Kapiolani, whose elite bloodline had helped him burnish his credentials.
The monarchs Kapiolani and Kalakaua were childless. The king’s sister and likely heir, Liliuokalani, who had married the son of an American sea captain, was also childless. That made the birth of new close relatives, such as Kuhio and his brothers, not just a personal and familial source of joy but a new opportunity for extending a dynasty.
That was an issue of serious concern because the Hawaiian people were having a fertility crisis that meant few babies were born and that even fewer survived to adulthood.
When British Captain James Cook and his crew of sailors first arrived in Hawaii in 1778, they estimated the population of the islands at perhaps 800,000. As a result of the diseases introduced by those sailors, there were only about 51,000 Hawaiians left at the time Kuhio was born.
Kuhio spent his entire life dealing with death because it came to so many Hawaiians so early. His father, David Kahalepouli Piikoi, died in his early 30s, when Kuhio was only 7 years old. Six years later, his mother, Victoria Kinoiki Kekaulike, who governed the island of Hawaii, died at age 40 from heart disease. (Kuhio’s brother Edward and a niece of Kalakaua’s named Kaiulani, both heirs to the throne, also sickened and died young.)
With his parents’ deaths, Kuhio’s aunt, Queen Kapiolani, became his guardian. A dignified, stately and kind woman who was described as having “great sweetness of disposition,” embraced her new role as mother, and she and Kuhio grew particularly close.
A few surviving letters between Kuhio and Kapiolani, written in Hawaiian and stored at Bishop Museum, indicate the queen was a caring mother to the boy and that the prince clearly viewed himself as being groomed by Kapiolani for a future as a ruler.
Life with his aunt also brought Kuhio into close association with her husband, King David Kalakaua, gregarious and joyful, who was early dubbed The Merry Monarch. An arts lover, he enjoyed music and dance, and reintroduced to the Hawaiian court many of the ancient chants and hulas that an earlier, more religious, generation had spurned.
But all that free-spending fun carried a price tag, and unfortunately, Hawaii was in an economic trough. The sandalwood trade had come and gone, and so had whaling. Some businesspeople hoped to create new prosperity by developing and expanding the sugarcane industry, as it was a crop that grew well in Hawaii and had generated big profits elsewhere.
Kuhio grew up on Oahu. In his early boyhood, his chubby cheerfulness caused one teacher to say he looked like a cherub. He became stuck with a nickname, Cupid or Prince Cupid. Some people thought the name Cupid suited him in other respects as well.
But he was also competitive and athletic, as newspaper reports and school records make clear. He ran, swam, surfed, paddled, played baseball and football and rode in marathon bicycle races, a sport still new to the islands. A master of the Hawaiian style of wrestling, he was an avid horseman who played polo. He was also at home on the golf course.
He was charming. Courtly and genial, open-handed and open-hearted, he was also occasionally hot-headed, especially if he believed he was being mistreated and wronged in some way.
Kuhio’s education was managed strategically and politically, with an eye to giving him a valuable network of contacts. His upbringing was neatly divided among two combative power blocs in Hawaiian society — the British-leaning Anglicans, where he first attended a forerunner of what became Iolani School, and the American-leaning Congregationalists, the founders of Punahou School, at that time called Oahu College. Punahou records show he enrolled in 1880, when he was 9 years old.
Outside of school, much of his life was conducted in regal splendor. Iolani Palace, an architectural confection with a Victorian gazebo that became a stage for the Hawaiian monarchs, was completed in 1882.
When he was not quite 12 years old, Kuhio was officially declared to be in line for the throne, styled His Royal Highness Jonah Kuhio Kalanianaole, right behind his two older brothers, David Kawananakoa and Edward, albeit lower in ranking than members of Kalakaua’s own family. As Kalakaua subsumed the boys into his clan, the surname they had gotten from their now-dead father, Piikoi, was dropped. The royal proclamation was published in the Pacific Commercial Advertiser on Feb. 17, 1883, along with other edicts by the monarch.
This elevation in status prepared the boys for participation in the grandest event of the decade — the coronation of Kalakaua and Kapiolani. A sumptuous and costly affair featuring bejeweled crowns, with Kalakaua donning a feathered cloak once owned by Kamehameha I, it was intended to bolster civic pride and enhance the reputation of Hawaii abroad, wrote historian Stacy Kamehiro, author of 2009 book, “The Art of Kingship.” Kuhio and his brothers were full participants in the procession and ceremonial events.
In the mid-1880s, Kuhio and his brothers were sent to St. Matthews Hall, a prestigious, restrictive and demanding military-style school in San Mateo, California, where boys wore uniforms and marched from class to class. Students who exhibited too much independence faced whippings. The school no longer exists but historic accounts describe it as a cluster of Victorian buildings populated by the offspring of gold-rush millionaires and the newly-emerging plantation elite of the Hawaiian Islands.
Kuhio’s comings and goings were chronicled in newspaper articles in Hawaii and California — his attendance at sporting events, at parties, ceremonies or opera performances. Even his school records were considered newsworthy by the Honolulu Advertiser. In 1886, he scored 100 in geography, 98 in arithmetic and 95 for punctuality and military conduct.
It was while he was living in Northern California that he and his brothers reportedly first introduced the sport of surfing to the West Coast, famously plying the waves at Santa Cruz on 20-foot redwood surfboards.
A major family triumph occurred in 1887. Hawaii scored a diplomatic coup when Queen Kapiolani, wearing her extraordinary peacock gown, mixed and mingled with the crowned heads of Europe during Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. Welcomed as a fellow monarch, Kapiolani, the granddaughter of the last king of Kauai, was greeted with a kiss by Queen Victoria, dined at Buckingham Palace and joined other rulers to pray together at Westminster Abbey.
The event represented an apex for the Hawaiian Kingdom. Hawaii, a small monarchy in the middle of the Pacific, had succeeded in establishing itself as a country of consequence, recognized and received by Great Britain, at that time the most powerful nation in the world.
But the trip ended on a sour note. Kapiolani had expected to embark on a tour of Europe but disquieting news from Hawaii made her decide to return home instead. Amid continued criticism of his spending, King Kalakaua had been forced to accept a new constitution that limited his powers and changed voting rights in the islands, disenfranchising many Hawaiians.
But, fresh from their recent success in California, Kuhio and his brother David were quickly dispatched to England, for additional higher education in agricultural methods and modern business practices. Kuhio, too, met with Queen Victoria and reported that she spoke fondly of Kapiolani.
In letters home, Kuhio mused about what should come next as he trained for his place in the aristocracy.
“The king was right in saying that we should be in a military academy,” he wrote Kapiolani in Hawaiian in August 1890. “I notice that the nobility of this place all attend military schools, and that is why I want to go, too … I want to be sent to an English military school as soon as possible. If not, I can go to Germany. I want to go to school at once.”
Queen Kapiolani responded, as parents do, by asking him to stay focused on the work he had already undertaken.
“I have carefully considered what you told me about military school and have decided it is better to be patient and remain in the school you are in until the years planned on are passed,” she responded in Hawaiian the next month. “Then we will again weigh the matter of the military school.”
The letters also contain a hint of growing financial troubles in the kingdom. Kuhio apologized for spending money on winter-weather clothes and raised questions about school bills that were going, embarrassingly, unpaid. Kapiolani gave vague answers and said she would tend to things and that he shouldn’t worry.
But, unbeknownst to Kuhio, his old life and his old expectations were coming to an end.
In January 1891, when Kuhio was 19 years old, King Kalakaua died. The queen was disconsolate. Liliuokalani, Kalakaua’s sister, became queen. Kapiolani moved to a quiet home near the seaside in Waikiki. Bereft, she asked Kuhio to come home from England.
Kuhio rushed to join her. As he passed through San Francisco in March on his way home, he spoke openly to a news reporter about his expectations for his future life. He said he had been away from Hawaii for several years and needed to reacquaint himself with it, as he wanted to prepare himself for the possibility of ruling someday.
“By the will of our late king, I am seventh in succession to the throne,” Kuhio told the San Francisco Examiner. “Kalakaua in his last testament set out the line of succession, which makes my brother sixth and myself seventh, with the prospective titles of Kalakaua VI and VII.”
In the meantime, he said, he would likely “be placed in some position of state.”
He could not have been more wrong.
For a combination of reasons, Liliuokalani’s reign became unstable soon after she ascended to the throne. She pressed to expand her monarchical powers, to regain rights that had been taken from Kalakaua, but times had changed and she found few supporters. In fact, she soon faced bitter opponents.
In January 1893, a group of American and European businessmen, some of them ostensibly Hawaiian citizens, decided to overturn the monarchy. They called themselves the Committee on Safety.
They seized control of the government, backed by a U.S. naval vessel that was in port. Marines flooded the streets of Honolulu and though they did not shoot at anyone, their presence made it clear that the insurgents had military force on their side. Making matters worse for Liliuokalani, almost all the foreign consuls based in Honolulu quickly recognized the new government.
At first many people in Hawaii did not take what had happened quite seriously. Over the decades, several countries had claimed control of Hawaii but all had eventually retreated and reversed their decisions. Many people, including Queen Liliuokalani, expected this to occur again and hoped that if she waited things out patiently, the United States would do the right thing and restore the monarchy.
The Committee on Safety, for its part, had expected the U.S. would quickly annex Hawaii, but it turned out that taking over another country was controversial, even in the United States. For the next five years, officials in the U.S. deliberated over annexing the island nation. During that period, the islands operated in a kind of limbo state, theoretically governed as a republic but barring people from voting if they did not first swear allegiance to the new government.
“Kuhio, being the aggressive type and a loyal and staunch supporter of the Queen, refused to bow to the revolutionary forces and headed into trouble.” — Author William Henry Beers in 1930
At last it became apparent that the overthrow might be lastingly fatal to Hawaii’s monarchy. By the fall of 1894, Kuhio and his brother David had become divided in opinion about what to do about this threat, according to a short biography of Kuhio written by Hilo attorney William Henry Beers in 1930.
“David, being of quiet disposition, adjusted himself to the change and occupied his time with social affairs,” Beers wrote, while “Kuhio, being the aggressive type and a loyal and staunch supporter of the Queen, refused to bow to the revolutionary forces and headed into trouble.”
Kuhio established contact with other royalists. He helped raise pledges for $300,000 to pay for firearms, including 2,000 rifles and two Gatling guns, and to hire 100 mercenaries from the Pacific Coast, according to Beers and records filed in the state archives after Kuhio’s death.
He and his friend and ally, John H. Wise, a Native Hawaiian cleric, proposed to meet up with the schooner bringing the men and munitions to Hawaii, seize command of the ship and sail it to Maui, where 500 loyal supporters of the queen would be waiting to join them in an assault on the people who had overthrown the queen, according to Beers.
“The army was to seize the government, imprison all officers of the provisional government, and bring about, by force if necessary, the restoration of Liliuokalani as Queen of Hawaii,” Beers wrote.
Kuhio and Beers went to the queen, explained their plan, and got her approval for it. The people who had pledged the funds included many prominent businesspeople in Hawaii, including some who were ostensibly supporters of the provisional government, Beers wrote.
Other efforts were also afoot, also with the queen’s knowledge, according to Beers. Kuhio and his counterparts worked together and separately, but their plans kept getting delayed. Finally the provisional government was tipped off and Kuhio and Wise were confronted by armed forces and, eventually, arrested and charged with treason. The counter-coup collapsed.
Kuhio and Wise were both convicted, with Wise sentenced to three years in jail and Kuhio given a one-year sentence for having foreknowledge of treason. It was said that Kuhio answered his accusers “quietly and without faltering and awaited his sentence in calm dignity.”
He then spent much of the rest of the year stoically at hard labor in the old Oahu prison in Iwilei.
It is a strange fact that Kuhio was accused of being a traitor to the country where he had spent his life as a prince. He was convicted by people who had themselves overturned the legitimate government.
Queen Liliuokalani was also implicated and imprisoned in an upstairs room at Iolani Palace. She was forced to formally abdicate the throne. She said she did it because she feared her supporters would be put to death if she did not.
It is hard to know exactly how bad the conditions were in the jail, and it was difficult to learn much about them from Kuhio, who later made light of the experience while maintaining silence about the events that had led to his imprisonment.
The reversal of circumstance was profound. A young man who five years earlier had been dining at Windsor Palace and planning a life among the European nobility found himself instead behind bars. Known for his dapper appearance, he was now clothed in prison stripes.
Kuhio was finally released and pardoned in the fall of 1895. Once entire news articles had been devoted to his school performance. Now he was merely listed as one of about 40 people who would soon be receiving a pardon from the Hawaii’s Council of State.
Although he was free, his life had been dramatically altered, in ways that were both good and very bad.
While he was in jail, he had been visited regularly by a beautiful young woman, Elizabeth Kahunu, descended like Kuhio from a line of chiefs, who brought him treats and sang for him when visiting. Memorably described by the wife of author Jack London, Elizabeth was a “gorgeous creature,” with remarkable poise and “heavy fine dark hair that showed bronze lights in its wavy mass.”
She dressed elegantly, as Kuhio did, and possessed his same regal air. When Kuhio was released, they were married, in October 1896, in the Anglican church.
They were well-suited to each other. It was a happy marriage that would last a lifetime.
He returned to public life, in both surprising and painful ways. Hoping for the best, Kuhio sought to maintain good relations with America.
In June 1898, Kuhio and his brother hosted a lavish luau for U. S. Army and Navy officers at a friend’s home. At the end of the evening, Kuhio’s friend rose and gave a toast in Kuhio’s name for the good health of the “Army and Navy of the United States.”
At last the political gridlock in Washington over annexation lifted, in the summer of 1898, soon after the luau. In February the U.S. battleship Maine had been destroyed in Cuba, sparking the beginning of the Spanish-American War. With the United States suddenly engaged in a global war that led to conflicts with Spain’s overseas possessions, including in the Philippines, Hawaii assumed new importance as a staging ground and fueling station for U.S. military activity in the Pacific.
On July 7, 1898, President McKinley signed a resolution to annex Hawaii. The Hawaiian flag was lowered at Iolani Palace and replaced by the American flag on August 12, 1898.
A change of some kind may have seemed inevitable in Hawaii, at least to some people. Monarchies were falling from fashion, and many rulers would be swept from their thrones in the next two decades. Most other Pacific nations had also come under the control of other colonizing powers in the previous century.
But the takeover by another country and its loss of autonomy was a particularly bitter pill for Hawaii, a nation with a long tradition of independence. Hawaii residents had sent petitions to Washington to register their disapproval of what had happened, but America had entered an imperialist era and the U. S. victory in the Spanish-American War meant there was no turning back.
For the royal family, this turn of events was dreadful and tragic.
Kuhio’s life grew unstable in many ways. Raised to be a member of a court, he had not found regular employment and he had money trouble. It seems likely that some people would have taunted him for his loss of status and he must have suffered a number of other indignities. For whatever reason, Kuhio engaged in a series of physical confrontations, according to small news articles that began appearing in Honolulu newspapers with some regularity.
In December 1896, for example, he was fined $5 and ordered to pay court costs in December for “assault and battery” on a debt collector from the Hawaiian Electric Co. In April 1898, he was arrested and charged with assault and battery for another incident. That case seems to have been settled in August 1898, when he was instead charged with participating in an “affray,” or fighting in a public place. The case was dismissed.
Kuhio’s life was in limbo. He remained active in sports of all kinds, which kept him out and about in public life, but part of the job description of a prince is waiting in attendance upon a ruler, and that was what he had been trained to do. He and his wife became close companions to the aging dowager queen, traveling with her when she chose to visit other islands. Kapiolani was otherwise living quietly in Waikiki, engaged in charity work
But Kapiolani had a series of strokes, and in June 1899, at age 63, she died at home. Kuhio was at her bedside as she passed away. At age 28, he had lost the last of his parents.
The ending had not been entirely harmonious, however. Kapiolani had recently sued Kuhio and his brother David in a dispute over a piece of real estate. But now, Kapiolani’s death left Kuhio a wealthy man. With nothing more to tie him down in Hawaii, at last Kuhio was able to say what he really thought.
Many things in his life had gone desperately wrong and he wanted to change his life. In early 1900, he and his wife set out on a world tour. Their first stop was San Francisco. He told a news reporter that he was never going back to Hawaii.
“It took us a long time to make up our minds to leave Hawaii forever,” he said in the pages of the San Francisco Call. “But the last three years have really changed the Hawaii that we natives love … Ever since annexation, Hawaii has gone money-making mad. Things are getting as tense as other places where King Croesus rules. I can’t stand it, so I’ve left it, and I doubt whether I shall ever go back again.”
The story was reprinted in newspapers across America, and the news soon rocketed back home to Honolulu as well.
Next: Kuhio considers his future and makes a surprising decision.
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A Kailua girl, Kirstin Downey is a reporter for Civil Beat. A long-time reporter for The Washington Post, she is the author of “The Woman Behind the New Deal,” “Isabella the Warrior Queen” and an upcoming biography of King Kaumualii of Kauai. You can reach her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.