Lunalilo: Hawaii’s democratic, alcoholic king

William Charles Lunalilo, 1835-1874.

William Charles Lunalilo, 1835-1874.

This is the start of a series centering on King David Kalakaua of Hawaii. The first installment concerns Kalakaua’s predecessor on the throne, Lunalilo.

On December 11, 1872, King Kamahameha V died. He was the last of the House of Kamehameha, the royal dynasty established in 1795 by Kamehameha I, or Kamehameha the Great, who battled the chiefs of neighboring islands and won their allegiance. With the help of newly arrived foreign advisors and weapons made of materials other than stone, he established the Kingdom of Hawaii.

Kamehameha V. Retouched photo by J.J. Williams.

Kamehameha V. Retouched photo by J.J. Williams.

Kamehameha V weighed 375 pounds when he died, according to the estimate of A. Francis Judd, a young American who served as attorney general and chief justice in Hawaiian government. The king had not appeared outside the palace yard for ten months.* He died unmarried and without having appointed a successor. Indeed, the legislature had been so concerned after the only valid successor died (the king’s sister) that one member proposed a resolution to designate a wife for the king. This was defeated, and earnest suggestions to the king that he marry were greeted with genial laughter.** The Hawaiian constitution specified that in such a case of no clear successor, the legislature should elect one from among the native ali’i–the noble families.

The islands buzzed with gossip about possible candidates, but it soon became clear that only two were viable, David Kalakaua and William Lunalilo. Kalakaua was the son of High Chief Caesar Kaluaiku Kapa’akea and High Chiefess Analea Keohokalelo, but he lacked blood ties with the Kamehameha family. Lunalilo was the grandson of the half-brother of Kamehameha I. Some claimed he was the grandson of Kamehameha I himself. This was not the case, but Lunalilo did not refute the claim, and his supporters angrily insisted on it.

The recently deceased king had considered Lunalilo unworthy to be a successor, though admitted he was the most likely to command popular support.*** “Prince Bill,” as he was known, had many virtues—foreigners as well as  natives saw him as intelligent, well-read, and sympathetic to the needs of the people—but he had one fatal problem: alcohol.

He was born in 1835 to High Chief Charles Kana’ina and High Chiefess Miriam Auhea Kekauluohi, sometimes called the “Big Mouthed Queen” by foreigners. His mother had such high hopes for him when he was born that she insisted on the name “Luna lilo”— “so high up as to be lost in sight.” She died when he was 10.

The American Judd, who came to know Lunalilo very well as his attorney general in the single year of his reign, wrote:  “Let us picture to ourselves this handsome boy Lunalilo, with his regular features and comely figure, the darling of his mother…; a swarm of servants to do his bidding, to dress and undress him, to lomi [massage] him when tired, to carry him on their backs, to stand his cuffs without resentment, to help him break the rules of the school, to shield him from punishment when he deserved discipline, in fact his slaves.”#

Lunalilo in his teens.

Lunalilo in his teens.

He was popular with fellow students and did well enough in his studies at the Royal School, where he became proficient in English. But he left school at 15 and retreated to the home where he’d been born, a two-story house made of coral brick located next to the palace of the first Kamehamehas. There he lived an idle life and developed a fondness for liquor.

The sale of liquor to native Hawaiians had long been banned—Kamehameha V even upheld this discriminatory prohibition, denouncing the evils of alcohol for his people—but it remained readily available, either sold illegally or made by the Hawaiians themselves, who distilled their famous okolehao. This was traditionally made from the root of the ti plant, a member of the lily family. Originally a low-alcohol fermented product, it was transformed into a powerful spirit after 1790, when English seamen introduced the method of distillation. It has continued to be produced, either legally or illegally, and was peddled continuously to US military personnel during WWII. Many recipes have been used over the years, varying in the proportion of ti root used and the varieties of other ingredients thrown into the mix. Island Distillers in Honolulu makes a 100-proof “Hawaiian Moonshine” that is supposed to resemble old-time okolehao.

In view of his habits, Lunalilo was put into guardianship at the age of 24. Each time his small allowance was paid, he invested it in drink. He spent his sober hours at home alone reading magazines. He never traveled, even to the other islands. When he got drunk, he liked to wander about until a crowd gathered, “to whom he could quote Shakespeare, recite declamations he had learned at Mr. Cooke’s School, and sing English man-of-war songs, notably the ‘Death of Nelson’.”##

He was employed only a very short time, as a clerk. King Kamehameha V, hoping to provide him with a useful pursuit, gave him a military uniform and had him serve on the palace staff. When he was court-martialed for raucous behavior in church, he appeared without counsel and startled the court by arguing he was outside its jurisdiction, never having been officially commissioned. The court let him go but suggested he give back his uniform, which advice he followed.

Despite all this disreputable behavior, he was well-liked by the people around him, especially his fellow Hawaiians. On the rare occasions when he took his allotted seat in the House of Nobles, he tended to burst out at random moments with jokes and humorous imitations of prominent figures. On one such occasion the sergeant-at-arms was called in to remove him, but the native members rose up to prevent him from being led away.

Lunalilo’s election

Within five days of  Kamehameha V’s death, Lunalilo put forth a manifesto. It stated that even though he was the rightful heir to the throne as the direct descendant of Kamehameha I (not true, as we have seen), “in order to preserve peace, harmony and good order, I desire to submit the decision of my claim to the voice of the people to be freely and fairly expressed by a plebescitum.”### The constitution called only for a legislative vote, not a popular vote, but Lunalilo expected—correctly, as it turned out—that once the people expressed their will, the legislature would not dare select another candidate.

David Kalakaua, in the meantime, issued a competing manifesto, working into it the information that his grandfather Keaweaheulu had advised Kamehameha I on how to  rule his kingdom—thereby giving his grandad an exceedingly lofty status. He called for minor amendments to the conservative, monarchical Constitution of 1864 and repudiation of the liberal Constitution of 1852. Hinting strongly that Lunalilo could be taken advantage of, he referred to “the false teachings of foreigners who are now grasping to obtain control of the government if W.C. Lunalilo ascends the throne.”+ The references to constitutional changes amounted to a swipe at his rival’s proposal for radical changes to the 1864 constitution. Lunalilo aimed to give less absolute authority to the monarch and endow the populace with more power.


Lunalilo is seated second to left and Kalakaua at far right.

Lunalilo is seated second to left and Kalakaua at far right.

The plebiscite was held January 1, 1873. Male citizens across the islands swarmed to the polls and voted nearly unanimously for Lunalilo. On January 8, the legislature convened to make its vote. Throngs of Lunalilo’s supporters filled every conceivable space in the building and mobbed the neighboring streets. A motion was made and carried that each legislator must sign his name on the back of his ballot. It was therefore no surprise when every vote was discovered to be for Lunalilo. Only one member abstained—the brother-in-law of Kalakaua.

The “People’s King” who wasn’t there

The new king was inaugurated January 9 at Kawaiaho Church, a large church with a native congregation. He walked there from his palace, surrounded by cheering crowds, and was received by the Household Troops—Hawaii’s standing army of 60 men—and by Coast Guard troops from the USS “Benecia.” He gave an eloquent speech in which he said, among other things, “This nation presents the most interesting example in history of the cordial cooperation of the native and foreign races in the administration of its government.”++  The choir sang “God Save the King” with a Hawaiian text that the king himself had composed. The next day the state funeral for Kamehameha V was held. Perhaps the long delay after his death was caused by the need for building a massive coffin, said to be a magnificent construction weighing nearly a ton. The procession included mourners bearing “kahilis,” enormous fly brushes made of feathers of all colors. Lunalilo rode in the royal carriage just behind the catafalque, and when the crowds saw him, they cheered loudly, drowning out the funeral band and the dolorous wails of professional mourners.

The king promptly sent his recommendations for constitutional amendments to the special session of the legislature. They were passed, awaiting  final action by the regular legislative session of 1874. There were 30 amendments altogether. The most important ones removed the property qualifications for voters and changed the form of the legislative assembly into two bodies, nobles and representatives, voting separately.

Because Lunalilo died just a year later, before the meeting of the regular session, none of his amendments were actually adopted. The legislature of 1874, under the much more conservative Kalakaua, rejected them.

At the time of Lunalilo’s reign, Hawaii’s economy had plunged into a state of depression due to a slump in sugar exports and the decline of the whaling industry. The king’s newly appointed ministerial cabinet, together with prominent business figures, felt that a reciprocity treaty with the US would give the sugar industry a much-needed boost. The situation was complicated, however, by arguments for annexation made in both the US and Hawaii. Some wanted reciprocity only and some saw annexation as the goal.

Among those  favoring reciprocity only, it was recognized that Washington would not  accept a treaty without getting something in return. The particular item under discussion was Pearl River Lagoon, as it was known then. With blasting of the coral reef that blocked its entrance, it would become an ideal harbor—the only such locale in the Hawaiian islands. Should this strategically important area be leased to the US, or should the harbor territory actually be ceded?

Lunalilo favored a lease, but the king was not a party to the intensive discussions and negotiations that took place over the next months. This was not because he was barred from participation but because he had reverted to his regular lifestyle. The Honolulu Chamber of Commerce and the cabinet, as well as US diplomatic personnel in Hawaii, were the main parties hashing out the details and communicating with Washington officials.

Over time two things became clear: US Congress, not liking reciprocity, wouldn’t even consider it unless the territory were ceded; and the Hawaiian people strongly opposed cession.  In June a long-time English resident named Godfrey Rhodes, vehemently opposed to US influence in Hawaii, whipped up public emotion by making a speech that said any cession would mean the end of Hawaiian independence. From that point onward, Hawaiian-language newspapers published anti-cession editorials, meetings were held, and petitions were sent to the king. In the end, under questioning from his ministers, Lunalilo said he could not support cession. The matter was dropped for the time being, although many still supported reciprocity.

At the same time, Lunalilo’s ministers faced a loss of public confidence. Not only had they been willing to consider cession, but they had vigorously enforced unpopular laws aimed at preventing the  spread of leprosy, as well as laws prohibiting the sale of liquor to natives.

The latter may seem odd in view of the king’s drinking habits, but it appears that in the absence of his real participation in governing, his ministers—all foreigners—simply went ahead and did what they thought necessary for the kingdom’s well-being. After August the king withdrew even more from government affairs. At that time he caught a severe cold, which soon developed into pulmonary tuberculosis. One of his doctors said, “He cannot live much longer, unless he totally abstains from the use of intoxicating drinks.” +++

While he was convalescing at his seaside getaway at Waikiki, yet another problem developed: the Household Troops mutinied September 7 over hatred for their drillmaster, a Hungarian officer perceived as a martinet. The government’s attempts to restore order were largely disregarded. Delegations of mutineers went to see the king at Waikiki; he promised them clemency if they would return to their homes. The king then issued a decree that—there is no other way to say it—disbanded them except for the band. That is, the marching music band. That left Hawaii without even a token standing army. The mutiny, if suppressed by foreign troops, could have led to violence and riots, and it left the impression that the government was ineffectual. Certain parties opposed to Lunalilo were suspected of having encouraged the mutiny—especially David Kalakaua.

Between September and the following February, Lunalilo  shifted residence several times in the hope of improving his health, but he never recovered. In his last weeks he was so devastated by disease that people found his appearance shocking. He lasted just past his 39th birthday. The end came on the evening of February 3, 1874, after a reign of a year and  25 days.

Despite the conflicts that occurred during that time, he was deeply mourned. In his will, he specified that a trust be created for the purpose of establishing a home  for elderly, destitute, and infirm native Hawaiians. The home continues to thrive.  It was built in 1879, moved to a new location in 1923, and was renovated and modernized in 2001. It has 42 beds and offers additional services to elderly persons in the area.

Lunalilo's tomb.

Lunalilo’s tomb.

* A. Francis Judd, Contemporary Letters and a Sketch of Lunalilo’s Life. 44th Annual Report of the Hawaiian Historical Society for the Year 1935, p. 27.

**  Ralph S. Kuykendall, The Hawaiian Kingdom. Vol. II. 1854-1874: Twenty Critical Years. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1953, p. 240.

*** Kuykendall, p. 241.

# Judd, p. 37.

##  Judd, p. 38.

### Kuykendall, p. 243.

+ Kuykendall, p. 244.

++Kuykendall, p. 245.

+++ Kuykendall, p. 259.



About Jenny

I am an off-trail hiker, a student of history, and author of "Transvaal Citizen," "Murder at the Jumpoff," and "The Twelve Streams of LeConte."
This entry was posted in Hawaiian History, History and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Lunalilo: Hawaii’s democratic, alcoholic king

  1. patholscher says:

    Another very interesting entry.

    About a year ago (a little longer that that, actually) our family took one of its very rare vacations. On one end of Maui we noted quite a few signs and some bumper stickers advocating Hawaiian independence. I can’t help but recall those, as we read here about the last days of the Hawaiian monarchy, about which I don’t know much. Fascinating topic about a fascinating set of people.

    • Jenny says:

      The issue of independence hasn’t ever gone away. White men descend on Hawaii, starting with Captain Cook, and bring with them diseases, distilled liquor, and missionaries who ban much of native culture (such as hula). Then they annex the place. On the face of it, looks pretty grim. But Hawaii has changed so much as to be unrecognizable. You can’t ever go back to the way things were before. Similar things happened in many places around the world, but Hawaii seems like one of the more extreme examples.

      • patholscher says:

        That’s undoubtedly right (i.e., the extent of the change). Even since World War Two, there’s been so much change there.

        People like to talk about, and tend to admire the world growing smaller, but there’s some huge downsides to that too. In my family, I had an aunt on my mother’s side that was born and raised in Hawaii, and whom I visited when I was a child, with my mother, when I was a boy. She lived in Honolulu. Last year, while I very much enjoyed my visit with my family to another one of the islands, I was shocked by the extent of the change on Oahu in 40 years. I recall, however, that they were quite upset by the change of the prior 30 at that time.

  2. Gary Howell says:

    There’s something by Mark Twain about a trip to Hawaii. Must have been a few years before this time. Your blog certainly moves around the world. Manchuria, Africa, now Hawaii, the empires were expanding to fill the world I guess.

    • Jenny says:

      Yes, I’ve read a few of Twain’s Hawaii pieces. They are pretty good but not as good as “The Innocents Abroad.” Regarding my geographical shifting, I plan to keep going from one locale to another from time to time. The overall purpose is not to delve deeply into one place but in the end to give an overall picture of the age of Empire. Partly because I want to get a better idea of that period myself.

  3. Kauakipuupuu says:

    I would suggest you broaden your references. Kuykendal and Judd hardly begin to tell the true story. Start with I hope you can appreciate the idea that history is a whole and not just written by two people.

    • Jenny says:

      Thank you very much for your response. Obviously I am limited in my resources, but I try to take a balanced approach. Is there any particular angle you think I am missing? I would truly like to know. I will look at the link you mention. I have no premeditated approach here, only an honest effort to understand.

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