Some time ago we saw how Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew, Charles Joseph, grew up in the U.S. with his mother (who was separated from his father, Jerome, the emperor’s brother) and turned down several offers of noble titles because a proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution required not having royal blood in order to retain citizenship.

Several decades later, already at the end of that 19th century, things had changed and Jonah Kūhiō Kalanianaʻole, prince of Hawaii, did not need to make any resignations to become a delegate to Congress for the Republican Party.

He was young. He had been born in 1871 in Kukui’ula, on the island of Kaua’i, the third child of the marriage between David Kahalepouli Piikoi and his wife Victoria Kinoiki Kekaulike. The father was descended from an ali’i (aristocratic) family of chiefs and the mother was a sister of Queen Kapiolani, whose husband, King Kalākaua, was a cousin of the progenitor.

Kūhiō’s parents/Image 1: public domain on Wikimedia Commons – Image 2: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

When the latter died in 1878, his widow received the dignity of princess and his three offspring that of princes. Co-blood relations were common in Hawaii, so that all members of the royalty, whether close or distant, were related.

That’s why our protagonist was given the names Kūhiō (meaning chief who leaned forward) and Kalaniana’ole (ambitious chief or unsatisfied chief). He had an elite education in exclusive entities such as the Royal School (founded in 1839 by King Kamehameha III for the primary education of Hawaiian royal children) or, later, the Oahu College (renamed Punahou School in 1934, a high school founded by Congregationalist missionaries in 1841), both located in Honolulu.

It was during that childhood that a French professor named Pierre Jones remarked on his beauty and called him Little Cupid, a nickname that stuck with him forever. Of course, he was not always going to be small and, as he grew up, he left the archipelago to study abroad.

A childhood photograph of Kūhiō/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Given the political context -which we will see later-, the place chosen was the Saint Matthew School, which was usually attended by young men of the Pacific nobility. It was an Episcopalian academy with a military teaching style located in California, USA.

He was also a student at the Royal Agricultural College in Cirencester, England, a university specializing in business, land management and agricultural development, revealing himself as a perfect sportsman of the kind that characterized his era: he excelled in shooting, cycling and football.

However, that decade of the eighties had its bitter point because, having lost his father -he had died in 1878-, he also lost his mother in 1884 and was adopted by his aunt, Queen Kapiolani herself.

Queen Kapiolani in 1883/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

This adoption obeyed an ancestral Hawaiian custom called hānai, which is also widespread in other Polynesian cultures such as Tahitian or Maori and which, by the way, complicates things a lot for historians because of the confusion it generates when it comes to tracing the past of the characters and their family affiliations. The fact is that the hānai not only made Kūhiō and his brothers princes, but also made him an administrator of the Royal Cabinet in the Department of Home Affairs.

On January 2, 1891 King Kalākaua died, leaving his sister Liliuokalani as regent, who already had experience in the post because she had held it for most of 1881 while he made what was the first state trip of a Hawaiian monarch. She was a woman of fifty-three years old and determined character, widow of the American governor of the islands of Oahu and Maui. It is appropriate to pause here to explain the political situation of the archipelago because it would be decisive for the future of Kūhiō.

Hawaiians had managed to remain isolated from all contact with foreigners until the last quarter of the eighteenth century, although the Spanish sailor Ruy Lopez de Villalobos placed on his maps some islands he called La Desgraciada and La Mesa, which today are believed to be Maui and Hawaii, plus a set of three others, generically called Los Monjes but identified as the current Kahoolawe, Lanai and Molokai; a 10º error in the notation caused that discovery to be set aside.

King Kalākaua and Regent Liliuokalani/Image 1: public domain on Wikimedia Commons – Image 2: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

However, these maps fell into British hands when they briefly conquered Manila and were used by James Cook to rediscover the archipelago in 1778, during his voyage to Tahiti, naming the islands Sandwich in honor of the expedition’s promoter.

By then, King Kamehameha I the Great had initiated a process of unification of the various existing tribal chiefdoms, counting on British support to bring it to a successful conclusion. He culminated it in 1795 and ten years later proclaimed the Kingdom of Hawaii, where the dynasty that bore his name ruled until 1872.

It was a constitutional monarchy that progressively lost power in the successive legislative texts that were enacted throughout the century: although the sovereign was head of state and prime minister, he had a council of ministers and an administration that came out of an election.

King Kalaniʻōpuʻu receives James Cook in 1784. (John Webber)/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

In 1840 a bicameral parliament and a judiciary were added, all inspired by the U.S. model. Why that country? Because since 1838 American missionaries began to settle in the islands and their descendants remained as colonists.

Logically, they sought to promote the reproduction of their political system, because, among other things, they gradually monopolized three quarters of the arable land and gave entry to American companies which, in turn, also monopolized trade, especially in sugar, whose cultivation was introduced by ensuring that no taxes were imposed on its importation from the United States. All of which resulted, as in Latin America, in a progressive interference in Hawaiian politics.

In 1887 they went a step further and, with the excuse of the succession crisis caused by the death of King Lunalilo, the USA sent troops together with Great Britain and imposed -in elections plagued with accusations of fraud- a new dynasty in the person of the aforementioned Kalākaua, who agreed to promulgate another constitution openly favorable to their interests.

The flag is raised at the Iolani Palace, making the annexation effective./Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

That was the situation when Kalākaua passed away and was succeeded by Liliuokalani. The regent showed much greater independence and promoted a constituent process to assume full powers, abolish the vote (to which only whites were entitled) and establish sugar taxes.

But a coup d’état supported by the Marines overthrew the sovereign and placed local politician Sanford B. Dole in the presidency with the task of managing the annexation of Hawaii to the United States, which was first classified as a protectorate and then as a republic, in 1894.

Given the reluctance of the US Congress and Senate to accept the annexation, Liliuokalani continued to demand the return of her throne. The following year a rebellion broke out in which Kūhiō, who felt indebted to her for adopting and favoring him since the death of his mother, took part.

Kūhiō in prison/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

The insurrection failed, unleashing a relentless repression in which many participants were sentenced to capital punishment, although they were eventually commuted. Kūhiō, who was not one of the prominent ones, received only one year in prison, which he served in full; during his imprisonment, in October 1896, he married Elizabeth Kahanu Kalanianaʻole.

He was released coinciding with the formal annexation of Hawaii by the USA, which finally took place because an imminent war with Spain was in sight and the Pearl Harbor base was seen as fundamental from a strategic point of view in the Pacific, which was already considered a territory of expansion.

The newlyweds went into self-exile in Europe, making a tour in which they were received in accordance with their rank, before moving on to Africa in 1899, the year in which Kūhiō made the surprising decision to join the British army in the Second Boer War. He remained in South Africa until 1902 and then returned with the idea of going into politics. He began in Hawaii, joining the so-called Home Rule Party, a pro-independence party that embraced the discomfort of the indigenous people in the face of their marginalization by the Anglo-Saxon population.

Portrait of Kūhiō taken between 1918 and 1921, during his time as a congressman./Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

However, internal dissensions led him to abandon it with a good part of his sympathizers to create another one called Hui Kuokoa. It was short-lived because that same autumn he joined the ranks of the Republican Party, for which he was nominated candidate for Congress and elected in March 1903, so that he became the only US congressman with royal blood in his veins. He would run another ten times and in all of them he was reelected. He was responsible for the reform of the Hawaiian administrative division, which is still in force.

It was also Kūhiō who promoted the vindication of the figure of Kamehameha I, the founder of the Kingdom of Hawaii, with a dedicated holiday and prominent events for the centennial of his death in 1919. He also promoted the granting of land to the natives through the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act, a law he introduced in 1921, which served as inspiration for the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act of 2009, popularly known as the Akaka Bill, which aims to grant the aboriginal Hawaiians a federal status similar to that of Native Americans.

Kūhiō remained in politics until his death in January 1922. Buried at the Royal Mausoleum of Mauna ʻAla, on the island of Oahu, his name today christens a multitude of streets, various places and institutions; he even has a day dedicated to his memory, Prince Kūhiō Day, celebrated on March 26.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on January 23, 2019. Puedes leer la versión en español en Cómo un príncipe hawaiano se convirtió en el único congresista de sangre real en Estados Unidos


From a Native Daughter. Colonialism and Sovereignty in Hawaiʻi (Haunani-Kay Trask)/Jonah Kūhiō Kalanianaʻole (Kawika K. Burguess)/Hawaiian Kingdom 1874–1893, the Kalakaua Dynasty (Ralph Simpson Kuykendall)/Lost Kingdom. Hawaii’s Last Queen, the Sugar Kings and America’s First Imperial Adventure (Julia Flynn Siler)/Islands of Destiny. A History of Hawaii (Olive Wyndette)/Modern History of Hawai’i (Ann Rayson)/Wikipedia

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