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A King's Statue Multiplies
by Betty Fullard-Leo     

Hilo’s new King Kamehameha I statue erected in Wailua Park.

Four massive bronze statues honor the great warrior King Kamehameha—the original at Kapa‘au on the Big island, a replica at Ali‘iolani Hale (the judiciary building) in Honolulu, another in the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. and the most recent, erected in 1997 in Hilo, on the Big Island.

Curiously, the first statue of the king was conceived to mark the centennial of the “discovery” of Hawai‘i by Captain James Cook. In 1878 when Walter Murray Gibson, a legislator for Lahaina, Maui, proposed construction of the statue as a monument, his rationalization was that Kamehameha was at Kealakekua Bay to greet Captain Cook, and that “this Hawaiian chief’s great mind, though (he was) a mere youth then, well appreciated the mighty changes that must follow after the arrival of the white strangers.” In reality, it was Chief Kalaniopu‘u who was in command at Kealakekua, while Kamehameha is thought to have been about 20 years old at the time.

Gibson and four other community leaders were allotted $10,000 to have the monument completed, but Gibson quickly assumed responsibility for the task, sailing to the Mainland where he met with Boston sculptor Thomas R. Gould. From September 30, 1878 to January 24, 1880 when the statue was shipped from Florence, Italy, Gould kept Gibson informed of his progress through regular correspondence. Photographs of the work were exchanged and suggestions offered for changes.

On December 4, 1878 Gould wrote to Gibson: “In modeling the statue it will be very easy for me to lengthen the feather cape as you suggest, and to extend the waist cloth so as to cover the privates not as a clout but as a falling drapery.” In another instance, Gould requested that the face be altered to conform to an engraved portrait of the early king. Shortly after that, a contract was confirmed with the other members of the committee and with the cabinet council of the current King Kalakaua, detailing that Gould would complete a bronze statue of “heroic size,” about eight-and-a-half feet tall, in twelve to fifteen months.

Gould rendered the statue in plaster in Boston and shipped it to Europe to be cast in bronze. More questions were sent from Florence, Italy, regarding the length and shape of the spear. Gibson returned a sketch by King Kalakaua illustrating needed changes in the point of the spear and other adjustments.

Payments in $2,500 amounts were slow in coming, and several times Gould mentioned the problem in his letters, but finally he sent photographs of the completed statue, which were framed and released to the newspapers. Reporters from the Pacific Commercial Advertiser were quick to complain about the statue’s footwear, which they said resembled Grecian sandals, more than Hawaiian.
An additional $2,000 was allotted for construction of a base for the statue, and Robert Lishman, a Honolulu architect, hurried to complete the job in time for the statue to be erected near the Judicial Building in Honolulu in December, 1880.

The statue was shipped from Bremen on August 21, 1880 on the G.F. Handel, but by December no statue had arrived. Finally, the third week in February, word came that the Handel and all its cargo had sunk off the Falkland Islands. King Kalakaua, touring his kingdom at the time, told Big Island residents in Kohala the disappointing news. The Pacific Commercial Advertiser reported that at least one Hawaiian didn’t seem to mind. D.S. Ho‘okano was quoted, “We receive your words with joy... May it please your Majesty...Let us remember the Conqueror, Kamehameha I...It is good that we should here raise a monument (on the Big Island) for him, as this is his birthplace...I therefore subscribe towards a monument in Kohala $100.”

None-the-less, a replica was ordered for Honolulu using $7,000 of the $12,000 insurance payment, and for an additional $4,500 Gould also was contracted to design four bronze plaques to cover the base of the pedestal, which would show legendary incidents in the life of King Kamehameha—the king greeting Captain Cook, reviewing a fleet of war canoes, warding off five spears at one time, and with a family in a peaceful scene representing his “Law of the Splintered Paddle.” When Gould died unexpectedly before completing the tablets, his son Marshall assumed the task.

Then, in March 1882, Gibson heard a rumor that the Kamehameha statue was aboard a British ship, Earl of Dalhousie, in Honolulu Harbor. He hurried aboard and discovered the original statue, minus the right hand, with the spear broken and a hole in the feather cape, in the possession of the ship’s Captain Jervis. It seems Jervis had stopped in the Falklands with a boat full of Portuguese immigrants en route to Hawai‘i, where he saw the statue in front of a store. The story was that it had been recovered by fishermen and taken to Port Stanley. In Honolulu, Gibson paid $875 to Captain Jervis for the damaged statue and ordered the necessary repair work.

At last, in January 1883, the British ship Aberaman delivered the replacement statue and the bronze plates, but it was now four years after the centennial celebration of Cook’s discovery of Hawai‘i. Gibson had been appointed King Kalakaua’s prime minister. It seemed a good idea to unveil the replica at Ali‘iolani Hale in honor of the belated coronation of King Kalakaua. On February 14, 1883, the king pulled a wire to lift the Royal Standard and a Hawaiian flag from the impressive statue, while the Royal Hawaiian Band played Hawai‘i Ponoi.

In May, 1883 the now repaired original statue was shipped to Mahukona, accompanied by an honor guard of 118 men on the Likelike. Workmen poured the cement base for the new statue on a rise called Ainakea in the Kohala District, but the cement hadn’t hardened enough by the time King Kalakaua arrived for the unveiling, so the statue was suspended over the pedestal from a sling under its arms attached to a crane. The band played, Reverend E. Bond said a prayer, and at the king’s request Princess Kekaulike pulled the cord to unveil this second statue on the afternoon of May 8.

The third Kamehameha I statue was commissioned after statehood in 1959, when the new state was entitled to install two statues in the U.S. Statuary Hall in Washington DC. Senator Daniel K. Inouye, then a representative, proposed a likeness of the warrior king, and 1965 a Hawai‘i Legislative committee approved the choice of it and a statue of Father Damien. The King Kamehameha statue, reproduced by Ortho R. Fairbanks and Clarence P. Curtis, became the first statue of a king, as well as the largest statue to be displayed at the capitol. The unveiling on April 15, 1969, was accompanied by the blowing of a conch shell, a chanter, kahili bearers and the presentation of leis.

Most recently, a fourth Kamehameha I statue, which has a few odd quirks in its own history, was erected at Wailoa State Park in June 1997. The Mamalahoe chapter of the Kamehameha Alumni Association in Hilo had learned years earlier that Princeville Corporation had an impressive statue in storage on Kaua‘i since 1963 that had never been displayed. It seems the corporation had planned to erect the statue, sculpted by R. Sandrin at the Fracaro Foundry in Vicenza, Italy, at the entry to the resort where all the streets are named after ali‘i, Hawaiian royalty. When the people of Kaua‘i learned of the plans, however, they protested because Kaua‘i was the one island Kamehameha the great had never conquered. Princeville attempted to give the statue to the county, but the proud Islanders did not want it in front of their county buildings either.

The Kamehameha Alumni Association of Hilo had no such prejudices. A spokesperson for the group, Jacquelyn (Skylark) Rosetti, pointed out that Hilo’s history is closely entertwined with Kamehameha I. Hilo was the great king’s first seat of government, 800 of his war canoes were built in Hilo Bay, and the legendary Naha stone, which he hefted as a teenager to fulfill the prophecy that he would become king, is displayed in Hilo. The community contributed $106,000 to crate the king to Hilo, prepare the site and set up the statue. Perhaps most impressive of all Kamehameha’s likenesses, this statue is 14 feet tall (18 feet if you count the spear), weighs nearly five tons and is cast in red bronze with a gold leaf cloak. The sandals were changed to look more Hawaiian, and somewhere in the casting, the great king’s nose became a bit more Roman in shape. In any case, it seems only fitting that the Big Island is home to both the original King Kamehameha statue and the grandest of all his statues.


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Story appeared originally in Coffee Times print magazine and appears online for archival purposes only. Any use or reprinting of these stories without the expressed written consent of the author is prohibited.

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