Last week Tuesday was Prince Kuhio Day. These days it's hard to find folks who know about him, let alone why we have a holiday for him.
Here are the basics. Jonah Kuhio was born into a high-ranking alii family in Koloa on Kauai in 1871 but was not considered a prince until he was adopted by King David Kalakaua. Like many in his socioeconomic class, Prince Kuhio was educated at the Royal School and Punahou on Oahu. Afterward, he went to more schools in California and in England.
King Kalakaua later made the prince part of his Cabinet. He also served Queen Lili'oukalani. During the time of the overthrow, the prince was loyal to his queen. He fought against the small group of white businessmen who had organized the overthrow and set up an oligarchic government.
Prince Kuhio joined the armed insurrection against the newly established Republic of Hawaii. He was detained, tried for treason against the republic and sentenced to death, but that was commuted to a year in prison. After serving his year, Kuhio left the islands.
The oligarchy that engineered the overthrow and had set up a republic enjoyed tight political control of the islands by limiting the voting populace to mainly the white minority (the oligarchs had a property-ownership requirement for voters). They also lobbied the Republican Party to annex the islands to the United States.
When Prince Kuhio returned, the islands had become a territory and the oligarchs enjoyed tariff-free exports of sugar to the Mainland. They had also officially become staunch Republicans. But they had a new problem.
The property-based voting franchise was gone. The election of a delegate to the United States Congress was now wide open to not only the white minority but to any and all adult men born in the islands - including the Native Hawaiians who objected to the overthrow and annexation. In fact, the Hawaiians formed their own party - the Home Rule Party - and elected the flamboyant revolutionary Robert Wilcox as their candidate for Congress.
Wilcox enjoyed a strong populist appeal among the Hawaiians. He was also the worst nightmare for the oligarchs. Like Prince Kuhio, Wilcox fought against them and led an armed insurrection against the Republic in the 1890s. He too had been sentenced to imprisonment. He openly called the government in the islands the "Dole Oligarchy." Wilcox was a rabble-rouser. He rejected even the restoration of the monarchy and advocated a truly independent republic - a position considered too radical for many Hawaiians.
The Republicans needed a viable candidate that could at the very least split the Hawaiian vote. Fortunately for them, Prince Kuhio left the Home Rule Party and joined their ranks. In 1902, Prince Kuhio ran against Wilcox. During his campaign, the prince used his royal status and ran as a man who would have been the rightful heir to the overthrown throne. Wilcox didn't have this royal pedigree and was crushed in the election.
Prince Kuhio was a consistent delegate to the United States Congress. Although he joined the oppressors, he made it clear in speeches that he was his own man and he wanted above all to help his people. He was re-elected nine more times and served until his death in the 1920s. He urged Congress to pass the Hawaiian Homes Act, one of the first governmental programs designed to help Native Hawaiians.
On the other hand, Prince Kuhio's switch from the Home Rule Party to the Republicans helped the Republicans gain total control of territorial politics. Eventually the Home Rule Party fizzled out and the Democratic Party was moribund for nearly 50 years.
These days, those who know about Prince Kuhio see him in two very different lights. Some think of him as a turncoat who left the rebellious Home Rulers and threw in his lot with the ruling class. And very recently, Native Hawaiian scholars have argued that Prince Kuhio became a Republican because he felt he could serve his people better with the majority party. These scholars write that he was a conscientious leader of Native Hawaiians, seeking practical change and legislation.
Despite the divergent opinions about the man, one thing is certain: He is considered the first modern Native Hawaiian politician. He was born in the days of the kingdom, fought against the oligarchic republic, and served his people as he saw fit in the territory. And that's enough of an achievement to honor him with a holiday.
* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer, who grew up on Maui. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org. "The State of Aloha" alternates Fridays with Ilima Loomis' "Neighbors."