Thursday, September 28, 2023 | 08:37 WIB

The death of a Hawaiian princess. Part II: A Hawaiian story

King David Kalakaua of Hawaii. Photo credit: Menzies Dickson, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

IO – King David Kalakaua was the first monarch in the history of the world, to circumnavigate the globe. In his travels around the world in 1881, King Kalakaua of Hawaii met with King Chulalongkorn of Siam and King Kalakaua remarked to King Chulalongkorn that the Polynesians had Malay blood, to which King Chulalongkorn replied that the Siamese were partly Malay and that they were related. Later, when Kalakaua visited Sultan Abu Bakar, the Maharaja of Johore on the Malay Peninsula, Kalakaua felt that the Maharaja looked very much like the Hawaiian Prince Leleiohoku. In a letter to his sister, Princess Lili’uokalani about his travels around the world he described the Maharaja as follows:

“…The Maharaja is a splendid man. He is liked and beloved by all nationalities in Singapore especially the ladies. He is a fine looking man and resembles the first Leleiohoku very much. If he could have spoken our language I would take him to be one of our people, the resemblance being so strong…”

King Chulalongkorn or Rama V of Siam. Photo credit: Bain News Service, publisher., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

King Kalakaua and the Maharaja of Johore also found that the Malays and the Hawaiians shared common legends and words. For example, the word for fire was api in Malay and ahi in Hawaiian. The Hawaiians used the word alima for the number five, while the Malays used the word lima for five.

They concluded that Malays and Polynesians were long lost brothers.

An interesting example of similar myths and legends of Hawaiians and Indonesians, are those of the dwarf people. Hawaiians have myths of the Menehune or dwarf people who they describe as short stocky people with lush hair who are friendly and kind but like to sometimes play pranks. They eat fruit, vegetables and fish but do not know fire so they do not eat taro or cassava. The Menehune are said to love dancing, singing and playing. Their favourite game is to jump from cliffs into the sea. In Indonesia, there are also legends of dwarf people and the discovery of the remains of dwarf people in Flores seems to indicate that such people actually, did once exist.

Robert Louis Stevenson with Lloyd Osbourne and King Kalakaua in the King’s Boat House (1889). Photo credit: Hawaii State Archives. Call Number: PP-96-14-011, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

There also appear to be similar traditions between Hawaiians and the many Indonesian ethnic and tribal groups. The Hawaiian tradition of hanai or unofficially adopting a niece or nephew by a childless couple also exists on Java. Also, the tradition of changing a person’s name in order to bring better luck to a person who is continually ill or having misfortune is a tradition known in Indonesia as well as Hawaii. In Indonesia there are special name changing ceremonies and an example of such name changing is Indonesia’s first President Soekarno whose original name was Koesno Sosrodihardjo which was changed to Soekarno, after he survived a difficult childhood disease.

A Hawiian lei made of Arabian jasmine known in Hawaii as pikake flowers. It is very similar to the Javanese bridal headdress also made of Arabian jasmine and referred to as melati in Indonesia. Photo credit: Sanba38, CC BY-SA 3., via Wikimedia Commons

Both Hawaiian and Indonesian, are Austronesian languages and they are also both part of the Malay Polynesian branch of Austronesian languages. There are several zones of the Malay Polynesian language branch. Firstly, there is the Formosan zone around Taiwan, where the Austronesian language is said to have originated. Then there is the Western Malayo-Polynesian zone which ranges from Madagascar to the Philippines and includes the Malay Peninsula, Sumatra, Java, Borneo and Sulawesi. This is followed by the Central Malayo-Polynesian zone which includes the Moluccas and Nusa Tenggar Timur. There is also the Eastern Malayo-Polynesian zone which includes South Halmahera and Western New Guinea, and finally there is Oceania which includes the Polynesian triangle. This is an area with Hawaii as one tip of the triangle and Rapa Nui and New Zealand comprising the remaining two tips of the triangle.

There are many words in these areas that have a common root or derivative but which have during the passage of time changed in different areas. Hawaiian and Indonesian share a large number of cognates. When a language changes, the most usual change is in the pronunciation. An example is the word ‘sky’ which in Saroan (a Taiwanese language) is lanjica whereas in Indonesian it is langit and in Hawaiian lani. However, besides sound change a language can also experience semantic change.  An example, is the word tasik in Indonesian which means ‘lake’. In Tongan it is tahi which means ‘sea’ and in Hawaiian it became kai which also means ‘the sea’. Another word is the word susu in Indonesian (meaning milk) which in Tongan became huhu meaning ‘breast’ and in Hawaiian it became u also meaning ‘breast’.   

Lei hulu manu or a lei made of bird feathers (in Indonesian that would read as bulu manuk). Photo credit: Hiart, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

There are two theories about the origins of early Hawaiians. One theory is that they originated from Taiwan. The other more accepted theory is that they originated from Taiwan but then in their southward migrations they settled first in Southeast Asia for several centuries before migrating eastwards to the island groups of the Pacific. This theory is supported by ethnographic, linguistic and genetic/DNA evidence. The latest high-precision radiocarbon dating indicates that the Polynesians discovered and settled Hawaii between circa 1219 and 1266.  

Hawaiians descended from the original native population of Hawaii now make up only about 6 percent of the population. If you include people who are partially Hawaiian, then, the figures rise to 21 percent of the population.

Captain James Cook. (c.1900 – c.1947) Photo credit: Archives New Zealand, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

It is estimated that when Captain Cook first visited the islands of Hawaii in 1778, there were about 683,000 Hawaiians living in Hawaii. However, the arrival of the Europeans was a disaster to the ancient Hawaiians who were not used to diseases such as measles, mumps, chicken pox, polio and tuberculosis which the Western nations brought to the islands and the Hawaiians died by the thousands. Two years after the arrival of Cook, one in 17 Hawaiians died of the diseases brought by the Europeans to the islands. By 1800 the Hawaiian population had decreased by 48%. By 1820, 71 percent of the population had died of disease and by 1840, 84% of the population had died. By 1920 there were only about 24,000 native Hawaiians left in Hawaii. The devastation was swift and terrible. The suffering of the Hawaiian population must have been horrendous. They nearly ceased to exist as a race. There are now estimated to be only about 5000 native, full blooded Hawaiians left.

In the past the Hawaiian Islands were ruled by different chieftains until 1810, when King Kamehameha I united the islands of Hawaii into the Royal Kingdom of Hawaii. The first missionary arrived in Hawaii in 1820 and the first Hawaiian language newspaper was published in 1834. This was followed by the establishment of the first sugarcane plantation which was open in 1835. The islands became recognized for their prime agricultural land. This of course, required agricultural labourers and in the 1850s the first labourers were brought in from China. Then, from Japan, Korea, the Philippines and Portugal.

Meanwhile in 1882, Iolani Palace was built. It became the royal residence of Hawaiian monarchs and was one of the most modern palaces of its time with more up-to date amenities than even the White House in Washington or Buckingham Palace in London. Iolani Palace was the first place in Hawaii to have electric lighting, plumbing and a telephone.

Queen Lili’uokalani in a painting by Walery in London in 1887. Photo credit: Digital work by Mark James Miller from a photograph taken by Walery, London, Eng. (1887), CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

After the last Hawaiian king, David Kalakaua died in 1891 his sister, Queen Lili’uokalani ascended the throne but two years later she was placed under house arrest at Iolani Palace by wealthy American businessmen in Hawaii who deposed her, and in 1898 Hawaii was formerly annexed by the United States of America. Three years later, only English was allowed to be taught in schools on Hawaii and   it replaced Hawaiian as the language of government, business and education. This continued for four generations and the Hawaiian language was almost lost.

In 1900, Hawaii became a territory of the United States and in 1959 the people of Hawaii were offered the opportunity for Hawaii to become a state of America. After a popular vote, Hawaii became the 50th state of the United States of America. In 1978, the Hawaiian State Constitutional Convention made Hawaiian the official language of the state. Hawaii is the only state in America whose official language is not English. Nevertheless, it was only actually taught in schools as of 1987 when a Hawaiian language immersion program was begun in schools by the government. UNESCO classifies Hawaiian as critically endangered although 18,000 people now claim to speak it.

President Bill Clinton meeting with Governor John Waihee, the first Native Hawaiian governor of Hawaii, in the Oval Office in 1993. Photo credit: Photographs Relating to the Clinton Administration, 1/20/1993 – 1/20/2001Collection: Photographs of the White House Photograph Office (Clinton Administration), 1/20/1993 – 1/20/2001, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

On the 17th of January 1993, exactly a 100 years after the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii, U.S. President Bill Clinton signed an official apology to Native Hawaiians for the illegal overthrow of their nation. A law was passed apologizing for the U.S. role in the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy. It was meant as a means of reconciliation with Native Hawaiians. However, it did not provide Federal recognition of Native Hawaiians as other federal laws do for American Indian tribes.

Although Hawaiians now make up only 20% of their population, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs says that native Hawaiians continue to find their rightful place in modern-day Hawaii and in regaining the right of self-governance in some form. This includes the right to compensation for the illegal over throw of the Hawaiian monarchy and for a nation lost.

Hawaii had its first Hawaiian governor, John Waihee III in 1986. There has also been a renaissance of Hawaiian culture including language, dance, the arts and the use of traditional customs since the 1970s. An example of this is the week long Merrie Monarch Festival on the Big Island, every year. There have been efforts by the government to make Hawaiian cultural practioners more visible in the tourist industry by supporting programs that spotlight the integrity and uniqueness of Hawaiian culture in order to honour cultural authenticity.

Although, Native Hawaiians may still have many things to fight for, there is good news. Since the 1980s, the population of native Hawaiians has surged and it is predicted to continue to do so. Their total population is now 1.4 million Hawaiians. It is rare to see such a small population make such a come-back. (Tamalia Alisjahbana)

‘Ilima Lei and Calabash’ by Helen Whitney Kelley, c 1890. Photo credit: 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 I:


Latest article

Related Articles

The Museum on Fire…

The Coral Triangle Centre

The Transformative Power of Art

A Ukrainian Art Exhibition in Jakarta



The Museum on Fire…

The Coral Triangle Centre

The Transformative Power of Art

A Ukrainian Art Exhibition in Jakarta