The People’s King in Hawaii

Lunalilo (PP 98 15 018)
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Photo By Menzies Dickson – Hawaii State Archives. Call Number: PP-98-15-018, Public Domain,

A Hawaiian royal prince stood for election rather than enforce his right of inheritance. His tomb near a busy Honolulu intersection stands as a testament to his faith in his people.

William Charles Lunalilo became “The People’s King” and also enjoyed the backing of the legislature during his brief reign. It began after King Kamehameha V died without naming a successor to the throne. Lunalilo was the highest ranking chief had a claim to the throne by inheritance. According to a historical marker at his tomb, Lunalilo “wanted the people to choose their next ruler in a democratic way.” That account omits the detail that the Kingdom’s 1864 constitution required an election among royals if succession was not clear. However, Lunalilo was very popular among the people and could have launched a challenge.

Either way, Lunalilo did request a special election and ran against David Kalakaua, also a high chief but not of the Kamehameha line. On January 8, 1873, Lunalilo was proclaimed as the choice of both the people and the legislature. His coronation was the next day at Kawaiahao Church. Just over a year later, he was buried there. King Lunalilo died at the age of 39 from tuberculosis.

That church is now across from the Honolulu City Hall, near the Iolani Palace and the King Kamehameha I statue — all in downtown Honolulu. In front of the church is the small stone building that is the tomb of King Lunalilo. He chose this final resting place rather than being interred in the Royal Mausoleum in the Nuuanu Valley. Again, the marker at the church says, “One of the King’s last wishes was to be put at rest at Kawaiahao Church instead of the Royal Mausoleum. Lunalilo was ‘The People’s Choice.’ They had loved him and he had returned their love. By being buried at the cemetery with the common people he loved he felt he would be closer to them.” That much is apparently true, but it is also true that the King was displeased that his mother’s remains were excluded from the Royal Mausoleum and that may have also motivated his decision.

The church and tomb are a pleasant place to visit if you’re traveling to Hawaii. They are easily located, near a major bus stop and welcoming of visitors. They are also a reminder of Hawaii’s recent royal past and its hopes for the future.

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