Kuhio, a celebrity during his lifetime, had spent decades working on behalf of the people of Hawaii but today few people know how great a mark he made.
Editor’s Note: The articles in this series 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.
Two prominent statues in Waikiki look out on Kalakaua Avenue: One is famous swimmer and father of modern surfing Duke Kahanamoku, depicted with his hands outstretched. It is usually swathed with flower leis. Tourists press in for pictures with him.
In contrast, the other, just two blocks away, depicting another person in Hawaiian history, Prince Jonah Kuhio Kalanianaole, seems lonely and forlorn. Usually he doesn’t merit even a single lei.
He seems utterly forgotten.
But during his lifetime and in the decades immediately following his death, Kuhio was recognized as one of the greatest Hawaiians who had ever lived. He and King Kamehameha are the only two Hawaiians who are celebrated with a state holiday and parades every year.
Raised as a prince of the royal family in Hawaii, he shrugged off the deep resentment he felt for the overthrow of the kingdom and ran for election as territorial delegate, so that he could better defend Hawaii in Washington, D.C., where the big decisions were being made after the annexation. He didn’t want to leave Hawaii, but, looking around, he saw that there was no one else to assume the role of protector of his people. He began the regular, arduous two-week commute between Hawaii to the East Coast, sometimes twice in one year.
“It was his kuleana as an alii,” said Ku Kahakalau, a Hawaiian educator and scholar of Kuhio’s life. “It was his duty and his honor and his responsibility”.
In Washington, he pushed through legislation that gave Hawaii elected local government and he got the wording of a law changed so that women in Hawaii got the right to vote when women on the mainland did, in 1920. He supported the sugar industry in Hawaii and he simultaneously fought the planters. He steered funding to Hawaii that improved the state’s harbors and roads, so that transportation flowed more freely. And he championed the Hawaiian Homes Commission, which created the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, which has helped give generations of local residents stable homes on the islands.
First elected in 1902, Kuhio prepared to return home in the summer of 1921. He had been in office in Washington as a territorial delegate for almost 20 years. He had outlasted most of his peers. In fact, according to newspaper reports at that time, only 16 members of the House of Representatives had more tenure in Washington than he did.
He had suffered a major disappointment early in the year. He had hoped to be named governor of Hawaii by the new Republican president, Warren Harding, who had taken office in March 1921, around the time Kuhio turned 50.
As a loyal and lifelong Republican, Kuhio had good reason for hope. But in June, Harding instead nominated Wallace R. Farrington, a white newspaper editor in Honolulu.
It was a painful blow to Kuhio and to his friends, but the prince braced himself and moved on.
“Let’s support him; let’s play the game well,” Kuhio told his supporters, according to a longtime friend, William Henry Beers, a Native Hawaiian attorney living in Hilo.
Farrington, eager to set up the commission and no doubt grateful for Kuhio’s goodwill, cabled Kuhio to ask him to serve as the first appointed commissioner. Kuhio agreed, intending to do this work in addition to his Washington obligations.
In late summer of 1921, Kuhio arrived back in Hawaii and to his home at Pualeilani. He was no longer occupying the larger house on the property but was living in a bungalow directly on the ocean, on the site now known as Kuhio Beach Park, surrounded by memorabilia of his trips abroad and his beloved Hawaiian antiquities.
These sentimental reminders were everywhere. He was the last survivor of the Hawaiian royal family. His brother David Kawananakoa had died in 1908. Queen Liliuokalani had died in 1917. She had been more distantly related to him but their lives had been intertwined because they were the final direct survivors. Now he was the sole living alii: He and his wife had never had children.
Kuhio was not feeling well. In fact, he had been sick off and on for 12 years, but had soldiered on. It was increasingly apparent that he had developed serious heart problems.
In August, he announced that he would step down from office when his term ended in March 1923 so he could focus his attention on getting the Hawaiian homelands program properly launched.
But in October, Farrington set up a Historical Commission, a new agency established by the territorial legislature with the goal of identifying and protecting the territories’ historical places. He asked Kuhio to serve as chairman, and again, Kuhio agreed.
Kuhio was also busy advancing the organizations he had supported all his life. In 1903, he brought back to life an older civic group, the Royal Order of Kamehameha, dedicated to perpetuating the memory of the famous king, beginning with an annual observance of Kamehameha’s life in 1904. In 1914, the Hawaiian Protective Association was formed at his house, with the goal of reenergizing Hawaiians. In 1918, he and some friends established the Association of Hawaiian Civic Clubs to encourage community action and interaction.
He saw these groups as vital “to develop social networks” among Native Hawaiians at a time that cultural ties were fraying, said historian Davianna Pomaikai McGregor, professor of ethnic studies at the University of Hawaii.
Kuhio had expected to return to Washington in December, but as the year ended, he found he was too sick to travel.
Just before Christmas, his health took a turn for the worse. In those years before antibiotics, he developed pneumonia, which caused him terrible chest pains in the night. His teeth became infected and he had to have six of them extracted. He found it increasingly hard to sleep in a bed so he began to sleep sitting upright in a chair.
But he was still thinking about work, his papers show. On Dec. 27, 1921, he scrawled a note of instructions in pencil to his secretary, Charles Dwight.
“I am of course much worried, not only by my illness, but by work there in Washington,” he wrote. “There are a great many things to be attended to which should have the consideration of Congress at this session.”
He told Dwight that Hawaii needed to be included in upcoming bills to fund vocational education and road construction “and make a fight for the same,” pointing out two particular friends — Rep. Charles F. Curry of California and Rep. Albert Johnson of Washington — who could be relied upon to introduce any legislation Hawaii needed.
“This is the session that we ought to get our legislation through and if you knuckle down and go right at them I am pretty sure we will make a fine record and get everything that Hawaii is entitled to,” Kuhio wrote.
The Hawaiian homelands program was high on his mind, and he wanted to make sure the initial settlements on Molokai were successful.
“We have ten or fifteen thousand acres of the finest land in the territory on Molokai, but it must have water, and it will cost $3 million or so to develop the same,” he told Dwight. “The federal government is the only one that can help us … Work up this scheme as early as possible.”
By New Year’s Day, Kuhio’s doctors told him he needed to go to California for specialized medical care and he announced his plans to travel there. But things went downhill quickly. On Jan. 7, 1922, he slipped into unconsciousness. It was said that he died with his devoted wife Elizabeth Kahanu sitting next to him, holding his hand.
The entire territory went into shocked mourning at the news. People in Washington grieved as well, both for his commitment to his work and people, and also for his grace, kindness and loyalty as a friend.
His body lay in state for nine days, at his home at Pualeilani and then at Iolani Palace. When at last his remains were delivered to the Royal Mausoleum on Nuuanu Avenue, the funeral procession stretched five miles, news reports said.
Thousands of people participated. The crowd sang hymns as his body was placed in the crypt. The final song was “Aloha Oe,” the farewell written by Queen Liliuokalani.
Farrington quickly appointed Kuhio’s widow as his replacement on the homelands commission. She took the lead in a number of other organizations as well, including at Kapiolani Maternity Home.
But she had been left in financially marginal circumstances. It was expensive hosting so many social and political events in Washington, far beyond the means of an ordinary congressman, and Kuhio had always been generous to the many civic and charitable groups in Hawaii that asked him for aid.
Even his childhood home, the house and property owned by his mother, had been given to the Kapiolani Maternity Home for a price of $1. By the time Kuhio died he owned only his house and a few scattered properties — worth $146,331 — but producing an annual income for his wife of only $2,800, or about $49,600 today, according to news accounts.
Financial problems had caused disputes over the wills of both Queen Kapiolani and Queen Liliuokalani. Monarchs who had expected to be supported from public revenues found themselves cut off from funds after the overthrow, and there were unpleasant family fights about who should collect from their private estates. In the end, Kuhio had not been left with much.
Princess Kalanianaole, as she was known, got a pension from the territorial government, but they stripped it from her when she remarried a few years later to a landowner on the Big Island. She took his name as was the custom then and became Mrs. James Frank Woods.
She had inherited many of the historic items that had come down through the family to Kuhio, including relics from the ancient chiefs. Newspaper accounts of her death indicate she had given many of these items to Bishop Museum, but when she died in 1932, she had accumulated significant debt.
Her belongings were auctioned off. The princess’s creditors even clawed back items from Bishop Museum and put them on the block as well. News accounts described gleeful tourists fighting over objects and then carting them off by ship to far-away destinations around the world.
The first Hawaiian homelands settlement on Molokai was named after Kalanianaole. The initial group of 24 families were given 20 acres each. The lack of water crippled their efforts, however, something that Kuhio had feared and had intended to rectify.
“The sad part was just that he died,” said Kahakalau. “If he had lived even three or four years after the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act passed, it would have been set up so much better … With his power and charisma gone, it just became a huge failure. And it could have been so successful, if he had just been able to see it through and move it forward,” she said.
Kuhio’s mourners wanted a memorial built in his honor. Henry Baldwin, a friend of Kuhio’s who replaced him as territorial delegate, told Congress that people in Hawaii were planning to build an impressive sports stadium as a memorial to Kuhio, a great sportsman, saying it would be called “Kuhio Stadium.”
That never happened.
But many organizations began holding spontaneous remembrance events each March 26, Kuhio’s birthday. The legislature made it a holiday in 1949. A highway and a federal building were named for him, as were many streets and notable sites, particularly those in the original homelands, where older people continue to honor his legacy.
Prince Kuhio Day is celebrated annually on March 26.
More people should know who he was, Kahakalau said.
“When we talk about Hawaiian heroes, nobody mentions him as a hero,” she said. “I have so much respect and aloha for Kuhio.”
We know not everyone can afford to pay for news right now, which is why we keep our journalism free for everyone to read, listen, watch and share.
But that promise wouldn’t be possible without support from loyal readers like you.
Make a gift to Civil Beat today and help keep our journalism free for all readers. And if you’re able, consider a sustaining monthly gift to support our work all year-round.
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 email@example.com.