The State of Aloha

Every year, the famous statue of Kamehameha standing between Ali’iolani Hale, the stately building that houses our Supreme Court and the head of our judicial branch, and ‘Iolani Palace and the state Legislature gets royal treatment. Thousands of plumeria and other flowers are strung together to make long and fragrant flower lei.

This tradition goes back to the 19th century. It all started more than a hundred years ago, when a crafty and energetic legislator representing West Maui wanted to commemorate the centennial of Capt. James Cook’s landing in the islands.

With $10,000 from the kingdom’s legislature, Walter Murray Gibson went to Boston and commissioned Thomas R. Gould to make a great bronze statue depicting Hawaii’s first king.

Gibson and the committee provided Gould with photographs of Native Hawaiians as a model for the work. Gould would later take his project to Florence, Italy. He finished the statue in 1880 — a few years after the Capt. Cook centennial.

One contemporary wrote that the king’s outstretched right arm with the upward facing palm and holding the spear in the left hand exhibited a “successful warrior inviting the people . . . to accept the peace and order he had secured.”

After a local architect built a pedestal for the king in front of Ali’iolani Hale, folks waited for the statue to arrive in December 1880. The deadline passed with no ship and no statue. Months later, it was reported that the ship and all her cargo sank right off the Falkland Islands (or Las Islas Malvinas) — a faraway and frigid archipelago held by the British off the Argentine coast in the Southern Atlantic.

The statue was fortunately insured. Gould built a replica and this time agreed to bronze images depicting major events in the king’s life that would adorn the pedestal. Things hit a snag when Gould died unexpectedly and suddenly, and his son stepped in to finish the bronze plates. When it was all said and done, the people of Hawaii were looking forward to receiving the statue and bronze plates by July or August 1882.

You could probably imagine the confusion among the docks in Honolulu when a British ship arrived with a badly damaged statue of Kamehameha four months early. Gibson met with the sea captain.

The ship was on its way to the islands with Portuguese workers and stopped in at Port Stanley in the Falklands. There he saw a statue in a storefront and mistook it at first for a “cigar-store Scotchman.” He bought the 8-and-half-foot-tall statue. Many of the Portuguese passengers were frightened by it and believed to be a strange god or a demon.

Gibson acted quickly. He bought the statue from the captain and made arrangements to keep it covered in a small shack in Honolulu, where it was repaired. In the meantime, the replica and the bronze plates arrived safely. The original statute was dedicated on Feb. 14, 1883. The replica was shipped to Kohala on the Big Island in May. Kohala is Kamehameha’s hometown, so to speak. Its residents were proud to have their own statue in front of the post office. King Kalakaua attended its dedication on May 7.

The two statues were the only two of its kind for many years and it attracted several admirers. Perhaps the most noteworthy was Jose de Medeiros. He was a young child who immigrated from Portugal and sailed with the original statue from the Falklands. Every day for nearly 35 years he visited the statue. He was nicknamed “Joe the Statue Worshipper.” Locals would often see him shuffling about town and stopped to give him food, clothing and cigars. Medeiros died in 1932.

The story of the statues doesn’t end there. With statehood, Hawaii was given the right to present two statues in the U.S. Capitol. After considerable debate, it was decided that a replica of Gould’s work be made and presented in the Capitol rotunda. In 1969 — 50 years ago — the third Kamehameha statue took its place in Washington, D.C. To say it stood out is an understatement.

The statue dwarfed every other sculpture. There were concerns that the statute and granite base were too heavy for the rotunda (it weighed in over 6 tons). It was moved to the National Statuary Hall and again moved to the Capitol Visitor Center.

Then there’s the one in Hilo. That statue — the tallest one out there standing at 14 feet — was originally built for a hotel corporation on Kauai, but it did not receive a warm welcome. Garden Islanders pointed out that Kamehameha never conquered Kauai. Many objected to a large, imposing statue of the king who never took Kauai. East Hawaii’s Kamehameha Schools Alumni Association stepped in and had the statute dedicated in downtown Hilo in 1997.

This year the floral lei in Washington, the Big Island and Honolulu were spectacular. The tradition continues.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer, currently with the Office of the Public Defender, who grew up on Maui. His email is 808stateofaloha@gmail.com. “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”