King Kamehameha I, also known as King Kamehameha the Great, was a great warrior, leader, and diplomat. Still today he is recognized as one of Hawai’i’s greatest historical figures. There is some controversy as to what year King Kamehameha was actually born; some say 1758, others say 1738 or even 1737.
His death was in 1819. King Kamehameha’s full Hawai’ian name is Kalani Paiea Wohi o Kaleikini Keali`ikui Kamehameha o `Iolani i Kaiwikapu kaui Ka Liholiho Kunuiakea.
The king is fondly remembered for Māmala- hoe Kānāwai – the Law of the Splintered Paddle. In ancient Hawai‘i, there were no laws as we know them today. As a tribute to his people, the very first law proclaimed by King Kamehameha was a law that protected them all, from the very old to the very young.
In short, this law decreed by King Kamehameha I protects the weak from the strong, the helpless from the powerful, and demands respect alike for both chief and commoner. The law was later added to Hawai’i’s state constitution in 1978.
There are a number of stories on how this law came about. One tells of a fisherman who taught King Kamehameha that it was wrong for the powerful to mistreat those who may be weaker. The story speaks of King Kamehameha, while on a military expedition in Puna (on the Big Island), encountering a group of commoners on a beach. The king was chasing two fishermen when his leg became caught in the reef. Kaleleiki, one of the fishermen, hit the king on the head so hard with his canoe paddle that it split into pieces. The fisherman could have killed the king, but instead he spared him. Some years later, that same fisherman was brought before the king and, rather than seeking punishment on the fisherman, the king ruled that the fisherman had only been protecting his land and his family – hence the Law of the Splintered Paddle was declared.
King Kamehameha was also the one who conquered the Hawai’ian Islands, unified them, and established the Kingdom of Hawai’i in 1810. You can learn more about this fierce battle when visiting the Nu`uanu Pali Lookout.
Today, four commissioned statues stand to honor Hawai’i’s first king, the most recognized of which stands in front of Ali’Iolani Hale, across from Iolani Palace. This 18-foot bronze statue of King Kamehameha is one of the most photographed landmarks in Oahu. Every June 11th, on Kamehameha Day, this statue is ceremoniously draped with wreaths of flower lei to celebrate Hawai’i’s greatest king.
This statue, dedicated in 1893 as part of King Kalākaua’s coronation ceremony, is actually a replacement. The original King Kamehameha Statue was sculpted by Thomas Gould, an American sculptor living in Italy. He used John Baker, a part Hawai’ian and friend of king Kalākaua, as his model. Once the sculpture was finished, it was sent to Paris for bronzing, but on its voyage to Hawai’i, the ship sank off the Falkland Islands. With the money collected from insurance, a new statue was commissioned.
The original statue had been salvaged and was located in a junkyard on the Falkland Islands. An English captain found it and sold it to King Kalākaua. It arrived in Honolulu within weeks of the replacement. It was erected in the town of Kapaʻau, near Kamehameha’s birthplace on the Big Island, where it continues to stand. This location was chosen by King Kalākaua in remembrance of the prophecy of an old kahuna (priest) who is said to have commented to King Kalākaua at the time of the original commissioning that the statue would only feel at home if it rested in the lands of King Kamehameha’s birth.