Hawaii’s monarchy had same flaws as all the others

Monarchy is an inherently capricious form of government. Most monarchies descended from a single strong personality who almost always arose to power via ruthless action against his opponents. There are a few exceptions.

King Saul was selected by the prophet Samuel because he was the least powerful son of the smallest Hebrew tribe with hope that he would remain humble. His successor David was anything but. David Kalakaua was elected. History repeats in many ways: A powerful often popular king (or president-for-life) unites a nation, but his successors become progressively weaker or more despotic. The longer one serves the more likely he is to become despotic.


Henry V created a powerful England but his successor Henry VIII left it a mess with his half-sister daughters fighting over succession. Elizabeth I led in building England into a world power, with some religious freedom, but left no successor. Birthright succession does not always lead to competency.

Hawaii had a similar history. Kamehameha I united Hawaii with military victories and held it together with diplomacy and wise decisions backed up with power, the red mouth trumpet (canon). He even negotiated putting Hawaii under the protection of England’s powerful navy because there were serious threats to independence.

Queen Kaahumanu and Liholiho (Kamehameha II) abolished the ancient religion, thus all power was consolidated in the monarchy. Kauikeaouli (Kamehameha III) along with Kaahumanu maintained an efficient government for 30 years. Kauikeaouli and his advisors tried at one time to have the Kingdom of Hawaii admitted as a US state. They may not have researched the Constitution, but they understood the benefit of being part of larger entity rather that the orphan on the block.

Gradually haole advisors became more influential, and successors to Kamehameha relied heavily on them. The kings were not always well served. The kings and alii also had become infatuated with manufactured luxuries. They squandered much of Hawaii’s natural wealth in pursuit of imported goods that often were little use on a tropical island.

Finally Lot (Kamehameha V), like Elizabeth I, died without an heir, and chaos ensued. The Legislature created a new constitution incorporating an election for king. The first elected King William Lunalilo died in office without naming a successor. The second, David Kalakaua, showed reasonable leadership and political skill. His advisors had become very powerful. They induced (coerced) him to sign the “Bayonet Constitution,” a seriously flawed document that at least recognized him as king. It also named his sister Liliuokalani as heir, but had the same weakness as all monarchies: succession by birthright not competence. Kalakaua made the unfortunate decision of travelling to England where he, like several of his predecessors, died of white man’s diseases.

Liliuokalani tried desperately to hang on to power but lacked the political skill to wrest control from her cabinet. She negotiated with presidential candidate Grover Cleveland, but McKinley won the election. She made the catastrophic mistake of challenging the Bayonet Constitution that made her queen! She may have not had the support of the kanaka maoli that many want to believe.

Monarchs like to pretend that they are loved, or respected, but more often they are simply feared. Conspicuous but insignificant displays of charity can create moments of enthusiasm that pass for support. Somewhat like a high school pep rally — Trump rally. The trappings of wealth like the impressive vestments of a priest class create an image of divine permanence, but they really represent a theft from the powerless (menehune). Democracy has not always done much better.

There are some in Hawaii who claim to be descendants of Kamehameha, but even if relevant, hard to prove. More important, it is not likely they would be capable to govern in the current complicated century with Chinese and Russian ambitions. History is filled with injustices but unfortunately they can’t be undone.


So, Ms. Ruggles, what part of the 19th century do you propose we go back to?

Ken Obenski is a forensic engineer, now safety and freedom advocate in South Kona. He writes a biweekly column for West Hawaii Today. Email obenskik@gmail.com.