The death of a Hawaiian princess. Part I: The funeral of Abigail Kawananakoa

King Kamehameha Lei Draping Day in 2017. Photo credit: Anthony Quintano from Honolulu, HI, United States,via Wikimedia Commons

IO – Both Indonesian as well as Hawaiian are part of the Austronesian language group, as well as a part of the Malay-Polynesian branch of Austronesian languages. In Hawaiian, the word moolelo means story, history, myth or legend. It translates literally as, ‘succession of speech’ for as in most traditional communities, stories and histories were passed down from generation to generation, orally. So, let us begin with a moolelo of Hawaii:

Abigail Kawananakoa in 2012. Photo credit: Thomas Tunsch, via Wikimedia Commons

This moolelo begins with the death of a princess, a Hawaiian princess and not an ordinary princess but what many say was the last of the Hawaiian princesses…

Her name was Abigail Kinoiki Kekaulike Kawananakoa and she was born on the 23rd of April 1926 in Honolulu, the capital of Hawaii. Last December, she passed away at the age of ninety-six. Her funeral was an important event in Hawaii with her casket on display for 8 hours on the 22nd of January 2023 at Iolani Palace in Honolulu. The Palace was once the residence of Hawaiian royalty, including Hawaii’s last queen, Queen Lili’uokalani.

The Princesses casket was made from the wood of a one hundred and sixty-five-year–old, giant koa tree (Acacia koa) which fell during a storm on the Big Island (also known as the Island of Hawaii) in 2021. Koa is one of the most valuable hardwoods in the world and is only used for a special or important object or event. The koa which can reach up to 35 meters in height, is the largest species of native tree in Hawaii and the early Hawaiians used it to build boats, spear handles, surfboards and ukuleles.

When Abigail Kawananakoa’s handmade casket arrived at the gates of Iolani Palace in a hearse, a wailing chant broke out as part of the mourning rituals for the Princess, “Ua ha’alele ‘oe iā mākou.” or ‘You have left us,’ the mourners cried in sorrow.

The driveway was lined with Hawaiian royal societies and civic clubs. Amongst them stood the Royal Order of Kamehameha I, dressed in black suits and their distinctive red and orange capes. On their left breasts were pinned insignias of a Maltese cross with rays of gold or silver emanating between the arms of the cross. This is surmounted by the Hawaiian crown. In the centre of the cross is a round blue and white shield inscribed with the letter ‘K’ for Kamehameha I. On the other side of the insignia, are the words E Hookanaka which mean ‘To be a man’ and indeed the order is only open to men. Traditionally, when the Order is in full regalia at a ceremony, people should not speak to the members or touch them as they are said to be channeling the alii or the old chiefs and chiefesses of Hawaii. The alii are the Hawaiian nobility who once ruled the different islands of Hawaii until Hawaii was united by King Kamehameha I.

The Royal Order of Kamehameha I was originally a knights’ order established by King Kamehameha V in 1867 in honour of King Kamehameha I, to promote and defend the sovereignty of the Kingdom of Hawaii.

In 1893, when Queen Lili’uokalani was deposed from her throne, the Order was forced to turn into a secret order. It was only in 1903 that Prince Kuhio Kalanianaole (1871–1922) who became a member of the United States Congress, was able to revive the Order and make it public again.  Prince Kuhio was the only member of the United States Congress to have ever been born into royalty. One of the traditions that the Royal Order of Kamehameha I began is the ceremony of annually placing leis on the statue of King Kamehameha I and later, they began the annual Kamehameha Day parade to honour Hawaii’s most famous king. Leis are, as the Star Bulletin of 1913 put it, “wreaths of flowers known all over the world as Hawaii’s regalia of the warmest human hospitality”.

The Royal Order of Kamehmeha I. Photo credit: Daniel Ramirez from Honolulu, USA, via Wikimedia Commons

Today, the purpose of the Order is to preserve and perpetuate the ancient culture, customs and traditions of Hawaii and to unite Hawaiians. In this, its members try to reaffirm the existence of the Kingdom of Hawaii and advocate for its full entitlements of self-governance over its people, land, ocean, and other resources. They are sworn to regard all forms of life both seen or unseen, as sacred, and therefore respect their spiritual life energy or mana. In this they are required to have an attitude of respect and humility. Finally, they also have a duty to bringing healing and make things right.

Kainoa Daines, a member of the Royal Order of Kamehameha compared Kawananakoa’s funeral to that of a Mo’i or sovereign and commented, “We’re never going to see this again in our history, see an alii of her stature laid in state, laid to rest.”

Twelve honour guards carried Abigail Kawananakoa’s casket up the steps of Iolani Palace to the throne room where people were allowed to honour the Princess by paying their final respects to her. More than 1600 people came to do so. Many brought gifts of leis and song to the departed princess and her family. Geneology chants were recited.

The funeral service of the Princess was held on the 23rd of January 2023 and Hawaiian governor, Josh Green instructed all flags to be flown at half-mast till sundown at the state Capitol and state offices. The private funeral service for Kawānanakoa, was held at the Royal Mausoleum at Mauna ʻAla, the burial place of Hawaiian royalty and was attended by 200 family and friends of Abigail Kawananakoa.

Who was Abigail Kawananakoa and why was she given such a special funeral?

Abigail Kawananakoa was the great grand-niece of the last Hawaiian king, King David Kalākaua. David Kalakau was Hawaii’s last king, although not its last monarch. That was his sister, who after his death became Queen Lili’uokalani. King Kalakawa was childless, and Queen Lili’uokalani proved also to be childless.

Princess Abigail Campbell Kawananakoa, the grandmother of Abigail Kawananakoa. Photo credit: Hawaii State Archives. Call Number: PP-97-16-012, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Abigail Kawananakoa’s mother was Lydia Lili’uokalani Kawānanakoa and her father was an Irish-American named William Jeremiah Ellerbrock. The marriage only lasted two years and Kawananakoa was brought up by her mother. When she was six years old, she was adopted by her grandmother, Princess Abigail Campbell Kawānanakoa, in the Hawaiian tradition of hanai. Hanai means to informally adopt someone perhaps, rather like what is referred to in Indonesian as anak angkat. In Indonesia, it is also customary especially in the past, for a childless couple to adopt a child from one of the couple’s siblings. Usually, it was from a sibling with many children. Her grandmother also changed Abigail’s last name to Kawananakoa.

The last two monarchs of Hawaii were firstly, King Kalakaua who when he died was replaced by his sister Queen Lili’uokalani, who was the last monarch before Hawaii was annexed by the United States. As both monarchs were childless, King Kalakaua adopted (hanai) his wife’s younger sister’s two eldest sons and made them princes of the realm. They were Prince David Kawananakoa and Prince Kuhio Kalanianaole.

In King Kalākaua’s 1888 will Prince Kawānanakoa and Prince Kūhiō were placed 5th and 6th in the line of succession to the throne of Hawaii after the King’s sister who later became Queen Liliʻuokalani, the King’s niece, Princess Kaʻiulani, his wife Queen Kapiʻolani, and Princess Poʻomaikelani who was a younger sister of Queen Kapiolani.

Abigail Kawananakoa’s grandfather, Prince David Kawānanakoa (1868–1908), was the patriarch of the House of Kawānanakoa and was in line to the throne. Photo credit: Hawaii State Archives. Call Number: PP-97-17-003, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In the 1893 Constitution of the Kingdom of Hawaii proposed by Queen Lili’uokalani, the succession to the throne included Princess Kaʻiulani followed by Prince David Kawānanakoa and then Prince Kūhiō and their heirs.

As Abigail Kawananakoa’s mother, Princess Lydia Lili’uokalani Kawananakoa was a daughter of Prince David Kawananakoa, much of Hawaiian society regarded her as an heir to the throne. She was also hanai or adopted by her grandmother, Princess Abigail Campbell Kawānanakoa who was Prince David Kawananakoa’s wife. This adoption was carried out so that should there ever be a restoration of the Hawaiian Kingdom, Abigail Kawananakoa would be a direct heir to the throne.

Abigail Kawananakoa was clearly a member of the Hawaiian royal family. After she was adopted by her grandmother, she became a daughter of Prince David Kawananakoa. She was nevertheless, not the first in line to the throne. That would have been her cousin, Edward Kawananakoa who was the eldest of the oldest siblings.

Royal Coat of Arms of the Kingdom of Hawaii. Photo credit: Sodacan, via Wikimedia Commons

However, there are some Hawaiians who are of the opinion that Abigail Kawananakoa was not a royaly decreed princess as required under the laws of the Hawaiian Kingdom, and therefore they question whether she has the right to be called princess and whether she really has the right to have a tomb built for her in the grounds of the royal mausoleum at Mauna Ala.

 It seems that there are some who argue that Abigail Kawananakoa’s title of princess is honorific, not royally designated. They say that under the old Royal Hawaiian law, royal titles such as princess, had to be decreed as such by the monarch. They cannot be passed on to descendants or to a spouse and as the Hawaiian Kingdom  was dissolved 30 years before Abigail Kawananakoa was born, it was not possible for her to obtain the title of princess. As for becoming a monarch, under Hawaiian royal law when a monarch has died without previously having named his or her successor then the next monarch must be elected from amongst the alii.

Painting of Abigail Kawananakoa’s great-grandfather, James Campbell, Esq. (1826-1900) whose fortune made it possible for her to support Hawaiian cultural causes. Photo credit: credited there to “Poomaikelani Kawānanakoa”, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The father of Abigail Kawananakoa’s grandmother, Princess Abigail Campbell Kawānanakoa (so, her maternal great-grandfather) was reputed to be the second largest landowner in Hawaii. His name was James Campbell and he was an industrialist who originally came from Ireland. Abigail Kawananakoa inherited a large part of his fortune. In 2007, her share of his estate was calculated to be worth about US$250 million.

With her wealth, Abigail Kawananakoa helped many projects and causes that supported the preservation of Hawaiian culture. One of her projects was the preservation and maintenance of Iolani Palace, the former residence of Hawaiian monarchs. Her mother, Princess Lydia Lili’uokalani Kawananakoa was the founder of ‘Friends of Iolani Palace’ and she later replaced her mother as its president from 1971 till 1998. She also donated the annual funds for the costs of the Merrie Monarch Festival which is the largest hula festival in the world. These are just two of the many causes that she supported

Abigail Kawananakoa at the Merrie Monarch Festival in 2013 with a portrait of Queen Lili’uokalani in the background. Photo credit: © CC BY-SA Thomas Tunsch / Abigail Kinoiki Kekaulike Kawānanakoa, CC, via Wikimedia Commons

Mauna Ala are the burial grounds for Hawaiian royalty. In 2013 Abigail Kawananakoa received permission from the United States Department of Land and Resources which looks after Mauna Ala, to build a mausoleum for herself in the Mauna Ala grounds. She will be its only occupant. In 2013, there was some public protest and criticism at the permission she was granted, for there were concerns that with this precedent, other members of the Hawaiian nobility would also seek to obtain permission to have tombs at Mauna Ala. There were also fears that the taxpayers would have to bear the costs for the maintenance of such the tombs.

However in coming to a decision, the government also took into consideration the fact that both Abigail Kawananakoa’s mother and grandmother are buried at Mauna Ala but that there is no further space for another body in the mausoleum that houses them. Also, the trust that Abigail Kawananakoa set up has guaranteed to look after the mausoleum that is to be built for her in the coming month. At her death however, all the criticisms about the legitimacy of calling Abigail Kawananakoa a princess and about being allowed to have her own tomb at Mauna Ala, were ultimately disregarded in the face of such a public outpouring of affection and appreciation for her love of Hawaii, as well as her generous contributions to the preservation of Native Hawaiian values, culture and traditions.

Her death was announced in the Hawaiian language at ʻIolani Palace. (Tamalia Alisjahbana)

Coconut Calabash with Ilima and Maile Leis, unknown artist after Helen Whitney Kelley, 1916. Photo credit: unknown artist after Helen Whitney Kelley, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

If you enjoyed this article you may like to read more about The death of a Hawaiian princess by the same writer in:

Part II: https://observerid.com/the-death-of-a-hawaiian-princess-part-ii-a-hawaiian-story/