December 11th marked the birthday of Lota Kapuāiwa, Kamehameha V, who was born on December 11, 1830. While details of his reign remain scrutinized by modern historians, a second look at the Hawaii monarch’s influences and actions point to a figure intent on relinquishing power back to his people.
For Kapuāiwa, the path toward governing the Kingdom of Hawaii was one met with questions. Jon Osorio, of the University of Hawaii’s Kamakakuokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies, describes the nature of Kamehameha V’s rank:
“[Kapuāiwa] ascent to mōʻī, as well as his brother’s, is clear evidence that the ancient structure of lineage and status was still trusted despite the ravages of disease and untimely deaths of Aliʻi Nui. On the other hand, it was not a structure intact, having been altered by depopulation and conversion. … His mother was certainly a Kamehameha, daughter of the Conqueror, [and] her first mating had been with [Kamehameha’s] son Liholiho, Kamehameha II, with whom she bore no children. … Three years later, she took as a church-sanctioned husband [Liholiho would not have been approved by the church as he was her half-brother] the Kaukaualiʻi [lower-ranking chief] Mataio Kekuanaoʻa, a match that is said to have sent the regent Kaʻahumanu into a rage.”
Kapuāiwa’s father’s rank was thus an issue, but one that did not prevent his rise to monarch. For his part, Kapuāiwa emphasized descendance from Kamehameha I as the requirement for the throne. As Osorio states that Kapuāiwa “in 1864, entertained no doubt that he would be named Mōʻī and that there would be no one to challenge his succession.” He felt this way despite the fact that “there were several legitimate heirs to the crown … including [his sister] Victoria Kamāmalu, [who] had lineages comparable with [his].”
Kapuāiwa was consistent with his view of succession even at the end of his own reign, asking Bernice Pauahi Bishop to succeed him, as she was in his view the only high-ranking member of the Kamehameha line remaining in 1872.
Kapuāiwa has been portrayed negatively in standard histories such as renowned American historian Ralph Kuykendall’s The Hawaiian Kingdom. Kuykendall and other historians portray Kapuāiwa as a despot, or dictator, and his rule as “autocratic,” or undemocratic.
In her Master’s thesis, Momi Kamahele questioned this portrayal. She doesn’t ask why his methods were seen as “subversive,” but “to which people … native Hawaiians or foreigners?” Kamahele concludes that “this negative portrayal [is] … a Western version of the history of Hawaiʻi and therefore a fundamental rejection of native Hawaiian culture.” Kamahele calls him “a pono mōʻī”—a righteous, fair king.
Prince Lota, as Kapuāiwa was called, was hānai to Ulumaheihei Hoapili, a political leader on Lahaina. From Hoapili, Kapuāiwa “learned the expertise of a warrior, lawmaker, kahuna, and administrator,” Kamahele wrote.
Hawaiian historian Samuel Manaiākalani Kamakau described Hoapili as “a man direct and just in his dealings” and “straightforward and truthful.” Kamakau also said Hoapili was “a learned man skilled in debate and in the history of the old chiefs and the way in which they had governed. He belonged to the priesthood of Nahulu and was an expert in priestly knowledge.” The influence of Hoapili may account for Kapuāiwa’s reputation as the “last of the old-style chiefs.”
Kapuāiwa was sent to the Chief’s Children’s School in 1839 at age nine to study under Amos and Juliette Cooke. There he learned to cope with western and American ways of thinking, including ideas of democracy and capitalism. This influence is seen in a letter he was encouraged to write to Juliette Montague Cooke’s sister when he was 10 years old:
I suppose my teachers have told you about their school and scholars. We are happy that we have a school to attend. It gives us great pleasure to have Mr. Cooke say to Mrs. Cooke that we have studied hard today, and it makes her very happy too. I do not think lazy boys are happy.
Kapuāiwa and his brother Alexander Liholiho left the Royal School in 1849 at the order of Kauikeaouli (Kamehameha III). Prince Lota had been betrothed to Princess Bernice Pauahi Pakī (later Bishop). The Cookes wrote in their journal of Pauahi’s opposition to this match:
“She would as soon have [her parents] bury her as to promise to marry Lot. … Lot … exonerated [released] her from all her promises in her youth, that he would not be the means of rendering her unhappy, that he knew he was unworthy of her, but that there was one who was worthy, even the one she loved, and he hoped she would be happy with him … since this B. [Bernice Pauahi] feels more light-hearted.”
Kamahele holds that Pauahi “was the only chiefess equal to his rank, [and] such a union would have connected the progeny of Kamehameha I. … However, the Cookes discouraged the marriage sanctioned by the Aliʻi Nui … [and] encouraged the suit of Charles Reed Bishop.”
Kapuāiwa held several government positions including governor of Maui, Honorary Colonel of Regiments, Honorary member of the Privy Council, Kuhina Nui, or Prime Minister, and a post as Commissioner of Customs. This experience amounted to training for the highest offices, which he was expected to hold, including possibly monarch.
When Kapuāiwa asceneded to the throne after the death of his brother, he made the following remarks, which may have set the stage for his reputation among non-Hawaiians as a despot, but also show his determination to maintain Hawaiʻi’s independence:
“I number the Americans among my friends, … but there is a great difference between that fact and delivering the kingdom into their hands. … I consider the present constitution to be in advance by many years of the traditions and needs of our population. … The Americans are hurrying us into a republican form of government. They are rushing things too much. Liberal though I may be, I have not definitely decided to swear an oath to uphold the present constitution (Kamahele, 1988, 46).
Kapuāiwa never married and was consequently known as “the bachelor King.”
Kapuāiwa was clearly the highest ranking ali’i at the time of his brotherʻs death, and there was little doubt that he would be the next King, according to Osorio. Kapuaiwa affirmed this when, in his first speech to the Legislature in 1864, he said “the right to the throne of this country, originally acquired by conquest and birth, belongs hereditarily to the family of Kamehameha I.”
Kapuāiwa had begun going by the title Lot Kamehameha early in life. He served in the cabinet under his brother Alexander Liholiho. He was known for his strongly pro-Hawaiian position and bringing back public hula performances. Kapuāiwa was less known for his knowledge of law, but this was considerable. He exercised this skill when he significantly changed the constitution in 1864.
The new constitution required literacy and property ownership as voting qualifications. This constitution also removed the position of kuhina nui, an appointed political advisor position extending back to Kamehameha I. Kapuāiwa promulgated this constitution by dissolving the Legislature and, together with the Kuhina Nui, rewriting the constitution.
Kapuāiwa was criticized as a despot in his time and later by historians for doing this. This is a debatable point, as the new constitution eliminated the very power that Kapuāiwa used. This suggests that Kapuāiwa was, in fact, reducing his own powers, rather than increasing them.