King Kamehameha I (1758 - 1819) conquered the Hawaiian Islands and united them to formally establish the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi in 1810, thus founding the Kamehameha Dynasty. By developing alliances with the major Pacific colonial powers, Kamehameha preserved Hawaiʻi's independence under his rule. A shrewd businessman, Kamehameha amassed a fortune for his kingdom through a government monopoly on the sandalwood trade and through the imposition of port duties on visiting ships. He was a great warrior, diplomat, and leader who rightfully deserves his title, Kamehameha the Great.
Acclaimed as the strongest Hawaiian ruler, he not only maintained his kingdom’s independence throughout the difficult period of European discovery and exploration of the islands (a task that proved too great for his successors), but Kamehameha is also remembered for the Kānāwai Māmalahoe, the "Law of the Splintered Paddle", which protects human rights of non-combatants in times of battle. This law has become a model for modern human rights laws regarding the treatment of civilians and other non-combatants.
King Kamehameha I was born in the small town of Kapaau in the Kohala district of Hawaii Island (aka the Big Island of Hawaii), so it is fitting that this striking statue of the king stands in front of the North Kohala Civic Center, not far from where Hawaii’s greatest king was born.
The statue above had its origins in 1878 when Walter M. Gibson, a member of the Hawaiian government at the time, wanted to commemorate the 100-year arrival of Captain Cook to the Hawaiian Islands. The legislature appropriated $10,000 for the project and made Gibson the director of the project which he ran by himself. Gibson contacted Thomas R. Gould, a Boston sculptor living abroad in Florence, Italy to create the statue. Even though photographs of Polynesians had been sent to him so that Gould could make an appropriate likeness, he seemed to ignore them. A Roman nose and more European features were adopted. This is most likely due to that fact that Gould was in Italy studying Roman sculpture. The stance of a Roman general with gesturing hand, spear, and cape are also Roman appropriations. In 1880, the initial sculpture was sent to Paris, France to be cast in bronze. During this time, David Kalākaua became king and was completing the Iolani Palace in Honolulu which was his tribute to King Kamehameha I and the destination for the statue. The statue was too late for the 100th anniversary, but in 1883, the statue was placed aboard a ship and headed for Hawaii. Unfortunately, near the Falkland Islands the ship wrecked and the statue was thought lost. However, the Hawaiians had insured the statue for $12,000 and a second casting was quickly made and that statue was placed in front of the Iolani Palace; However, the original statue was miraculously found and recovered in 1912. The original statue was restored and then erected near Kamehameha’s birthplace at Kapaau.
So, if you're visiting Hawaii Island and are on your way from Hawi to the Pololu Valley Lookout, make sure to stop in the small town of Kapaau to see this majestic tribute to the Kingdom of Hawaii’s first monarch.
Of note, in 1997, a new Kamehameha Statue was dedicated in Wailoa State Park in Downtown Hilo on the eastern side of Hawaii Island. Hilo was Kamehameha’s first seat of government and is still Hawaii Island’s capital city today. Every June 11th, on Kamehameha Day, each of these statues is ceremoniously draped with flower lei to celebrate Hawaii’s greatest king.