Pa’u riders of Ni’ihau | © Daniel Ramirez / Flickr

Hawaiians continue to celebrate the legends and power of the late Great King Kamehameha every year on June 11.

Hailing from the Big Island, Kamehameha the Great—later to become King Kamehameha I—unified the eight main Hawaiian Islands as the Kingdom of Hawaii and established the first monarchy. For over a century, Hawaiians have celebrated the late Great King throughout the Aloha State in a publicly observed holiday in June, honoring the first Hawaiian king and his legacy.

The story behind a legendary leader

King Kamehameha I was shrouded in mystery and superstition since his birth in the early 18th century, until his death in 1819. Ancient legends link his birth with meteor showers and comets that signified to the public when a great chief had arrived. He reportedly fulfilled the prophecy set by a kahuna, indicating that whoever lifts the 5,000 pound Naha stone—which still lives in Hilo—would break the bonds and possess the power to unite the islands. He completed this daunting task in 1795 with the islands of Niʻihau and Kauaʻi voluntarily joining in 1810.

The beloved king was known as a calculating diplomat, exemplary leader, and master of military tactics.

Kamehameha Day Parade float | © LeslieThompson / Flickr


Parades are held throughout the islands, but none draws more crowds than in Honolulu—Hawaii’s bustling state capital. Sweet-smelling floral floats, marching bands, and hula hālau (hula groups) make their way through Downtown to Waikīkī. But the main highlight is always the paʻu riders, a queen followed by her princesses on horseback dressed in one of the island colors and covered in lei and flowers—their horses to match.

King Kamehameha Day Parade | © Daniel Ramirez / Flickr

The parade finishes at Kapiʻolani Park, where a hoʻolauleʻa (celebration/party) is organized. The air is filled with the smell of fresh flowers and local food cooking nearby, while an entire day of entertainment including local musicians, singers, and hula performances is scheduled at the bandstand.

King Kamehameha statue lei draping | © Anthony Quintano / Flickr

Lei draping ceremony

Six statues of King Kamehameha I were sculpted, but none is visited as much as the one standing on King Street between Aliʻiōlani Hale (home to the Hawaii Supreme Court) and ʻIolani Palace (the former royal residence).

Each year, a 40,000-feet lei crafted with thousands of flowers is carefully lifted by firetruck and draped over the statue’s outstretched arm and along its base. Members of the community donate their backyard flowers or volunteer to help string the lei, which takes hours to complete. The ceremony consists of traditional blessings, oli (chants), and hula dancing.

Fireman with strands of plumeria lei | © Anthony Quintano / Flickr

A Brief History of King Kamehameha I

King Kamehameha I, also known as Kamehameha the Great, is the king who in 1795 united the Hawaiian islands, minus Kauai and Niihau, under one rule. By 1810, Kauai and Niihau peacefully agreed to join the kingdom and Kamehameha became the first king of Hawaii.

It’s believed Kamehameha was born in 1758 because it was said he was birthed after a bright star lit up the sky. Historians believe that the “bright star” was actually Halley’s comet, which passed through the earth’s skies in 1758. Born to the daughter of a Kona chief, the royal baby was hidden from the time of birth as warring clans saw him as a potential threat.

Once able to fend for himself, Kamehameha returned to his family, where he trained with his uncle, King Kalani’opu’u, the ruler of the island of Hawaii to become a warrior. And a great warrior he became. Upon on his uncle’s death in 1782, the island of Hawaii was split between Kamehameha and his cousin, the king’s son, Kiwalao. They co-existed peacefully for a short time, but eventually, the two sides went to war and Kamehameha came out on top. It wasn’t long after Kamehameha took control of the island of Hawaii that he united, through war and negotiation, the rest of the islands.

In taking the island of Maui, Kamehameha fought what many believe to be the bloodiest war of his reign. The “Battle of Kepaniwai”, or the “Battle of the Dammed Waters”, was fought in 1790 in the Iao Valley. It’s been said the waters of the river turned red with blood and dead bodies dammed the river.

King Kamehameha at Kailua | Herb Kawainui Kāne

Once Kamehameha established rule over the entire of kingdom of Hawaii, he established a local leader for each island. Though he ruled following the traditionally harsh laws and punishments of his ancestors, he also established mamalahoe kanawai, “the law of the splintered paddle”. Mamalahoe kanawai, came about from a personal experience. While engaged with a warring faction, Kamehameha got his foot stuck in rocks on the coastline. While trapped, a fisherman smacked Kamehemeha so hard with his paddle that it split in half. As the fisherman was going in for another blow, a fellow fisherman convinced him to show mercy. Kamehameha was so taken by this action, that he enacted a law that gave protection to the defenseless and travelers. The spirit of this law, “aloha spirit”, was formally added to the state constitution in 1978.

King Kamehameha I died in 1819, leaving the Kingdom of Hawaii to his first born son, Kamehameha II.

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