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Posted on: Sunday, July 2, 2006

King David Kalakaua

By Will Hoover 
Advertiser Staff Writer


Advertiser library photo

Apart from Kamehameha I, David Kalakaua, the Merrie Monarch, remains the best known and flamboyant of Hawaiian kings.

One reason is that in Kalakaua, Hawai'i had a ruler with a global understanding and a keen sense of public relations. Before Kalakaua, for instance, no Hawaiian monarch's coronation had been public.

Early on, Kalakaua became the first Hawaiian king to visit the United States, and he saw to it that he was received in an appropriately royal way. In time, he injected himself onto the world stage by embarking on an international tour to confer with other heads of state.

Kalakaua had prepared himself to rule. Educated, savvy and comfortable with Hawaiian and Western cultures, he had become well acquainted with royal procedure as a member of the House of Nobles under two previous kings.


Undeterred by a humiliating plebiscite defeat during the 1872 election for king in which William Lunalilo was elected after Kamehameha V died without naming an heir, Kalakaua staged a comeback after Lunalilo died barely a year later — soundly defeating his opponent, dowager Queen Emma, in a tempestuous election.

Contentious pro-British sentiment turned violent after Kalakaua won the crown on Feb. 12, 1874, and anti-American forces stormed the courthouse. Calm was restored only after Kalakaua called in Marines from U.S. and British ships.

Traveling around the Islands with Queen Kapi'olani, Kalakaua moved quickly to gain the confidence of his subjects and to reassure them with popular proposals that led to an increase in patriotism. He negotiated a reciprocity treaty allowing Hawaiian sugar into the United States duty-free — something previous Hawaiian kings had been unable to achieve.

Personally, the king was as proper and regal in high social settings as he was welcome among Honolulu's bawdy elements.

He gained a well-deserved reputation as man who enjoyed bouts of all-night drinking and gambling, horseracing, lavish parties and entertaining friends in the Royal Boat House at Honolulu Harbor. He remained contemptuous of the missionaries who frowned on his earthier pursuits.

Historically, Kalakaua's reign will be especially remembered for the king's commitment to restoring Hawai'i's rapidly fading cultural legacy, including the revival of chant, music and particularly the hula, which for decades had been banned by missionaries.

However, the latter stages of the king's 17-year reign also were marked by inept measures, such as licensing the sale of opium, a lottery and the minting of Kalakaua coins.

At the same time, the king suffered a severe weakening of his powers due to reformists who worked to undermine the monarchy and who eventually took control of the legislature.

With Kalakaua's dream of an independent Hawaiian nation unfulfilled, the Native Hawaiian population dwindling and his own health in decline, the king barely managed to hang on to power.

In early 1891, during a trip to San Francisco to improve his health, the king succumbed to a mild stroke, kidney failure and cirrhosis.

In keeping with the Kalakaua's wishes, his sister, Lili'uokalani, ascended the throne.